Art: “Abraham’s Sacrifice” by Rembrandt Van Rijn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Written by Stephanie Parker, Pastor, The Gathering at Scott Memorial United Methodist Church, Virginia Beach, VA
This is a hard scripture to read. It is hard to imagine God asking this of Abraham. If you ever hear voices telling you to sacrifice your child in this way, call a professional immediately. God does not ask this of us, this was a one-time request from God. This story should never be used to justify abusing a child or sacrificing a child. After this story we find God forbidding human sacrifice, in Leviticus we see you shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them.
As we find in our story today, God has finally blessed Abraham and Sarah with a son, Isaac, even in their old age after decades of trying to have a child. We’re told at the beginning of our text that after these things God tested Abraham. Abraham has likely already felt tested by God. He was tested in his belief if Sarah would ever conceive, by going to a land he has never seen but this test would be the hardest test ever asked of Abraham, ever asked to any parent. Abraham was told by God to take “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will show you.”
We imagine the questions asked on this journey. Isaac is not an infant, as we see in the painting. Isaac asked questions of his father, like, where is the lamb for the burnt offering? Isaac had seen enough of these sacrifices during their worship to know what was missing. He was confused, everything else was there and they always brought the animal for sacrifice. And then the story gets even stranger, as Abraham built an altar and then placed Isaac on top of the altar, on top of the wood. Isaac was observant enough to know that he was in the position where the lamb was placed. As Abraham was reaching out his hand and taking the knife closer to his son, an angel of the Lord called out to him, calling his name. This is the image we see here, this moment when Abraham is stopped in Rembrandt’s depiction of this story.
We see Abraham has covered his son’s eyes, he’s trying to spare him at this very moment any more pain than necessary. While we can’t see Abraham’s eyes, I imagine relief in them as he looks to the angel. We hear the angel of the Lord’s words, “do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.”
As we’re told in scripture, this was a test. Katheryn Schifferdecker writes in her commentary on this that this is a genuine test and Abraham is free to do as he will.
When God asks Abraham to take his son, your only son Isaac whom you love to the land of Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering, there is a small participle that in Hebrew means “please.” God isn’t commanding Abraham to take his son, God is asking, and even says please. This implies Abraham had a choice. If he decides to do this, it was his choice and done willingly.
We can interpret this almost sacrifice as the question of whether Abraham fully trusted God. Is God really big enough to carry out God’s plan? God asked Abraham to destroy his son, yet God said Abraham would be the father of multitudes, how can he be the father if he has no heir? Does Abraham trust God more than logic?
Abraham trusted God even though the logic didn’t make sense: how could Abraham be the father of multitudes when he’d sent his one son Ishmael away and God is asking him to sacrifice his other son Isaac? Our reason would say it’s impossible, but yet it’s what God asked of Abraham and Abraham was asked to trust God, even with this seemingly cruel request.
Linda Pepe writes on her blog about this text that Abraham showed that he trusted God to carry out the plan, without having the physical signs right in front of him, and he passed the test. Abraham was now ready to go on to the next step, he could be the father of the multitudes because he understood that everything he had, everything he would ever have or would ever be promised to have, was ultimately a gift from God, it didn’t belong to him- Isaac didn’t belong to him, the covenant didn’t belong to him, the promise didn’t belong to him, the future didn’t belong to him, it all belonged to God.
Do we see everything as a gift from God? Do we believe God is big enough even when the logic suggests otherwise?
Find previous “Picturing God” entries here:
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