By Jonathan Mitchican
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is one that many people find disturbing. So disturbing, in fact, that in 2009 people who post on the discussion boards of the website Ship of Fools voted Genesis 22 as one of the “ten worst passages in the Bible.” As one person put it, “If you ever hear a mysterious disembodied voice claiming to be God and urging you to kill an innocent person, the only rational response (aside from perhaps checking yourself into a psychiatric hospital) is: ‘You are not God, you are Satan. You are a liar and I will not obey you.’ Any other response is madness.”
I understand why people find this story disturbing. Losing a child is horrific enough. The idea of killing your own child is so completely horrifying that we don’t know what to do with it. It’s the reason we’re completely captivated as a society by news stories about parents who kill their children. As frustrated as we get with our kids sometimes, we can’t imagine truly harming them. But what makes this passage even more challenging is Abraham’s motivation for sacrificing his son. He doesn’t do it in a fit of madness or rage. According to the text, Abraham attempts to kill his beloved son because God tells him to do it.
Now, the way that this was explained to me in Sunday school as a kid was that God was testing Abraham’s faith. God wanted to know whether Abraham truly loved him above all things, whether he would be willing to do anything for God, even give up his own son for him. God was never really going to let Abraham kill Isaac. He just wanted to know for certain that Abraham would be willing to go that far to prove his faith. But I’ve got to say, that explanation has never made me feel better. The idea that God would test Abraham’s loyalty by encouraging him to harm his own child makes God seem brutal and insecure. Doesn’t God already know Abraham’s heart? Why would he need to test Abraham to know for sure what kind of man he is? And doesn’t God love Isaac? Why would he traumatize him like this?
Looking at the text in this way, we can’t help but wonder about God’s nature and his intentions. But that’s the problem. We’re not looking at the text in the right way. We’re reading it as an isolated story, instead of reading it within the context of the whole story of salvation. What is everything in the Bible about? I’ll give you a hint. It’s a one-word answer that starts with a “J” and ends with an “ee-zus.”
Jesus! The whole Bible is about Jesus. Everything in the Bible points toward Jesus, who he is and what he does for us. The New Testament is obviously about Jesus, but the Old Testament is about Jesus as well. And this is one of the key things we have to get into our brains if we’re going to read the Old Testament and understand it. When we look at a story or an event in the Old Testament, we have to be able to see it through the lens of the gospel or else it won’t make any sense.
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is a perfect example of this principle. Everything in this story is a foreshadowing of what Jesus will do on the cross. Abraham approaches Isaac, his “only son whom he loves,” and takes him to the mountain — which, by the way, is the same mountain upon which the Temple will eventually be built — and Isaac climbs the mountain carrying the wood upon which he will be sacrificed, just as Jesus will carry the cross, the wood upon which he is sacrificed.
And why is Isaac to be offered? For the same reason that all the other sacrifices of the Old Testament are offered: in order to put away sins. The people would cast their sins onto the various animals — doves, rams, sheep — and the priest would offer the blood of these animals in the hopes that this would eliminate the sin that plagued the people. Isaac is being offered as a pure offering to take away sin, but of course God doesn’t let that happen in the end, because the purpose of this exercise isn’t for Isaac to die but for the people of God to see the great lengths to which God will eventually go to rescue them from their sin.
When Isaac asks his father where the sacrifice will come from, Abraham says, “God will provide the lamb for our offering.” And, of course, at the last second, God does provide a ram that Abraham is allowed to sacrifice in place of his son. But what Abraham says here holds deeper, prophetic meaning. “God will provide the lamb for our offering.”
That is exactly what God does in Jesus. That’s what the whole story of salvation is about. Jesus is the sacrifice that God provides, the sacrifice that truly is able to take away our sins, sins that are too great to be erased by the blood of animals. This is why we call Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Jesus is God’s only Son, whom he allows to be sacrificed for the sake of the world, for the sake of us. God provides us with nothing less than his own Son, with nothing less than himself, to take away the sin that is killing us from the inside out, enslaving us.
So God’s test for Abraham isn’t that of an insecure god looking to see whether his servant loves him enough to do something totally despicable for him. Rather, it’s a test of his strength and his stamina, because Abraham is being called upon to walk through these steps that prefigure what God himself will later do, so that we who read this even today might see that right from the very beginning, right from the Book of Genesis, God was already planning his rescue of us from our enslavement.
This is a story about God’s love. It’s a sign for us of God’s incredible mercy and love for us that will come to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It’s God’s commitment to us that he’ll never abandon us, that he will come for us despite our constant rejection of him, that even when we’re at our worst, God will love us enough to send his Son to die that we may live.
In about the year 180, St. Irenaeus wrote, “Righteously … do we, possessing the same faith as Abraham, and taking up the cross as Isaac did the wood, follow [Jesus].” May the sign that God has given us here this morning point us toward the love of God that has been poured out for us on the cross, and may that same love transform our hearts.
The Rev. Jonathan Mitchican is chaplain at St. John XXIII College Preparatory School in Katy, Texas.