Over the Top and Under the Knife

Chagall, Abraham ready to sacrifice his Son dv 1960-6

If you are interested at all in wrestling with Scripture, I invite you to spend some time with me in the struggle. It will take some time. Struggles normally do.

I have been reflecting recently on this weekend’s lectionary reading from the Old Testament—the harrowing story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14).

While God’s saving intervention at the end of the story comes as an enormous relief, the fact that God calls for such a sacrifice at the beginning of the story remains a deeply troubling reality. Who would ever want to worship a God like this—a deity who demands the ritualistic killing of a beloved child?

We moderns, who are inclined to rebel bitterly against even the simplest of resented inconveniences (such as wearing a mask to preserve the common good) blanch at the story. A God who demands extreme sacrifice to the point of suffering and grief?! Preposterous! Absurd! Unacceptable! A violation of our rights!

But perhaps therein lies the revelation. Perhaps the entire point of the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is to provide a confrontation with a scandalous and outlandish God who dares to demand a trust that accommodates the obliteration of our preferred courses of action and a faith that abides even when what we love most is taken away from us.

Yes, God intervenes. Yes, God ultimately prevents the sacrifice (thereby revealing that our God, unlike many of the deities worshiped in that time, will never require the ritualistic destruction of our families—a truth that contemporary church leaders would do well to remember in regard to their own families). But Isaac’s father, Abraham, does not know the end of the story at the story’s beginning. He only knows that he is being called by God to do the unthinkable and to trust God enough to believe that even the grief of losing a child will not take him beyond what God can heal, redeem, and restore.

If this Abraham/Isaac moment were the only moment of Scripture that we had, we would be in serious theological trouble. Thankfully, the rest of the Bible provides for us the full truth about God’s heart. God is neither a cruel and ruthless fiend who devises our distress nor a sadistic tyrant who orchestrates our misery. Rather, God is the Provider of deliverance and redemption; the Author of good and salvific stories; the One who, in the fullness of time, stepped out of eternity and into our history in Jesus; the Savior who walks and weeps with us, who breaks and bleeds with us, and who crawled onto a Roman tree in order to make the very sacrifice that he would not allow Abraham to make.

This is our God.

And, when we interpret the Abraham/Isaac chapter through the lens of the entire God-Story, we can live with the chapter’s pain and preposterousness. Why? Because we know God’s trustworthy heart. So did Abraham. So did our Jewish siblings who maintained their faith during the barbaric and dehumanizing horrors of the Holocaust. So did our African-American siblings who sang their faith through decades of slavery. So do we, even when it seems like God has forgotten about us or taken away what we love the most.

We know God’s heart.

It is a heart that holds us in our most traumatic anguish.

It is a heart that loves us relentlessly, weeping over our suffering, even as we are called upon to endure it.

It is a heart that demands nothing less than the holistic surrender of everything we have, not because God is a tyrannical megalomaniac, but because God knows that surrender is the only avenue to the saving intimacy that God longs to experience with us.

It is a heart that asks us to remember that, even in our most debilitating and heartbreaking moments of loss or sacrifice, we live in the tender embrace of a devoted Parent who will not allow the knife to be the end of the story.

Truth be told, it is easy to dismiss or demonize God in the story, just as it is easy to dismiss or demonize God in the midst of our most unfair hardships and sacrifices. Then again, perhaps God understands what we do not—that, in a world of radically disordered priorities, only a willingness to sacrifice and surrender will reorient our scattered minds and hearts to the things of God.

(Artwork: “The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Marc Chagall)

One thought on “Over the Top and Under the Knife

  1. My take on this story is to ask the question “Was God putting Abraham to the test or was Abraham putting God to the test?” After all, Isaac was the fulfillment of God’s promise and God would HAVE to do something to redeem that promise as Abraham raised his knife. I like the rabbinic take that Abraham’s faith was such that even if Isaac was sacrificed and his body burned to ashes, Abraham believed God would raise him up and restore him!


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