Abraham’s Sacrifices

Deborah Beach Giordano
© July 3, 2017

Genesis 22:1-14 ~ as told by Deborah

Then God tested Abraham. He called, “Abraham!” And he replied, “Here I am.”

He said, “Take your son, the only son whom you love, Isaac, and go away to Moriah, and offer him there as a sacrifice on one of the mountains — I’ll show you where once you get there.”

So Abraham got up early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young servants with him, along with his son Isaac.

He cut the wood to use to immolate the offering, and set out for the place that God had shown him. It was three days later when Abraham got there, and saw a mountaintop some distance away.

He told the servants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back.”

Abraham made Isaac carry the wood for the sacrifice, while he carried the fire and the knife.

So the two of them walked on together.

Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!”

And he said, “Here I am, my son.”

He said, “We’ve got the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a the sacrifice?”

Abraham said, “God will provide the lamb to be offered, my son.”

So the two of them walked on together.

When they got to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar and stacked the wood for the fire. Then he tied up his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

Then Abraham raised the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the Lord called out from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

“Don’t touch that child or do anything to hurt him; because now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Then Abraham’s eyes were opened and he saw a ram, snared in some briars. Abraham went over and took the animal and offered it as a sacrifice in place of his son.

So Abraham called that place “God will provide”; as the saying goes: “On God’s mountain it will be provided.”

Inexplicable and Wrong

As the saying goes: “On God’s mountain it will be provided.”

It would be great if we would be provided with an explanation for what happened on that mountaintop. But I don’t think anyone is ever going to be able to adequately explain it. What follows is my interpretation — and inquiry. 

There is no nice way to say it: Abraham’s intention to murder his child — “in the name of God” — is inexcusable, irrational, outrageous, wrong. Wicked.

And he nearly succeeds: Abraham has bound Isaac with rope and thrown him onto the pyre-to-be. Grasping the child’s hair he pulls Isaac’s head back, exposing his throat… the knife glints in the sunlight, poised to slash and destroy, to pour innocent blood upon the earth. 

Then came the divine intervention. And we all breathe a sigh of relief.

Angelic Inspiration

After the whirlwind of violence and the icy, calculating madness of the attack… is it a sudden awakening? Does Abraham pause, blinking, and come to his senses, do his “better angels” call him back from the siren song of death?

Is it an experience akin to Isaiah’s mountaintop realization? Does Abraham discover that God is not to be found in terror or destruction, but in peace and gentleness?

There is so much that we do not know, so much that remains unheard, untold, throughout.

Did Isaac scream? Did he plead for his life? Did he beg his father — or God — for release? Or was he too frightened to speak, shocked and stunned into silence?

A short while earlier a holy angel told Hagar that God “heard the cries of the boy” Ishmael as he was perishing from thirst in the desert (Gen 21:17). Perhaps the angel said those same words to Abraham — in response to Isaac’s tearful (perhaps silent) pleas as he faced death on that barren mountaintop. 

Whatever the reason, however it happened, one thing we know: each time Abraham sought to destroy his children God intervened; giving water and strength to Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, and holding back the hand that held the knife to Isaac’s throat.

God is God of the living, not of the dead.

“Choose life!” Moses later counsels the Israelites; do what is right and good (Deut 30:15). “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13).

Suspicious Circumstances

There is something suspect about Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son from its very beginning. The whole event is shrouded in secrecy: he tells no one where he is going or what he plans to do; he gets up early in the morning while the rest of the household is sleeping, and before Sarah can stop him, then travels such a long distance — with several hours’ head start — that no one could rescue the child. Finally, Abraham contrives to avoid the watchful eyes of the accompanying servants, saying it is an act of private worship, and taking Isaac away, far up on the top of a mountain.

Was it madness, or vengeance, or torment, or testing? Was Abraham punishing Sarah for forcing him to sacrifice his eldest son, Ishmael, on the altar of her selfishness? Did he want her to suffer the same sorrow and despair that Hagar had endured? Had he himself gone mad: was the trauma of sending his eldest child off to die in the wilderness too much for him to bear? Was it a type of self-punishment: destroying his own future, preventing his name from being carried forth into the next generation?

Or was Abraham testing God?

If God was really who God claimed — able to save, restore, redeem, and create — then the time to prove it was now. Here, up on this mountain, as close to heaven as it was possible to get, God would have to show God’s stuff.

If Isaac was truly God’s chosen child, if God was capable of making his descendants a vast multitude, it was up to God to act. 

Or else.

And so Abraham stands on the mountaintop, issuing his deadly challenge to God.

Don’t Do It

Moses warned the newborn Hebrew people, “Don’t test the Lord your God” (Deut 6:16). It isn’t that God will avenge Godself against you; it is simply good advice. If you do otherwise, things just won’t turn out well.

In the case of Abraham (and Isaac), the Divine voice intercedes; a substitute sacrifice is provided, Isaac’s life is redeemed, and Abraham is saved from committing a most heinous crime. But they do not “live happily ever after.”

Every action has a consequence.

It is impossible to know what happened in the days and years that ensued; there is, as has been said, so much of the story that remains unheard, untold, unsaid. 

Sarah never speaks again. Perhaps her pain, her confusion, her anger are too great. Perhaps the stress was beyond enduring. The next time we hear her name is at the announcement of her death — and of Abraham’s extravagant efforts to arrange for a burial site. 

Isaac, too, is silent throughout much of what follows. Like a PTSD sufferer, he apparently spends his days sheltering in his mother’s tent and wandering through the desert where his brother was sent to die (Gen 24:62).

He never again speaks to his father.

Hope, Despite it All

For the rest of his life Abraham remains estranged from both of the children he chose to sacrifice, and apart from the women who gave them life. But he does, in time, gain another wife and father other children. In time, just as God had promised, Abraham’s descendants become as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen 15:5). 

Yet it is worth remembering that it is through the two survivors, through Ishmael and Isaac, that the family tree grows great and strong. Perhaps it is God’s compassion and healing grace upon them rather than upon their poor disordered father that brings about this glorious multitude. 

And perhaps, in the years that followed, they made peace with one another, perhaps they renewed the friendship they had enjoyed as children. We do not know for certain, but we can hope. We do know that these two sons of Abraham came together to bury their father when his earthly life was ended (Gen 25:9). Perhaps it was then that both saw the light; realizing, in their shared sorrow, their common humanity. 

We do not know for certain, but we can hope.

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,

Deborah  ♰

Suggested Spiritual Exercise:  Choose life!

About inklingscommunity

I am a struggling Christian, committed pacifist, near-obsessive recycler, incurable animal lover, inveterate tree-hugger; a nature mystic, a socialized introvert, an advocate for the vulnerable, an opponent of exploiters.
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