Providing a Lamb – Rev. Boone Clayton
I used to love this story. In the weird way that we can love stories that unsettle, unnerve, worry, and scare us, I used to love this story of a man almost wordlessly killing his son before an angel intervenes. As a teenager and young adult, I found it fascinating. It is among the most odd and most compelling stories in the entire Bible, in part because of its location within the Abraham-Sarah narrative. At the beginning of that (bigger) story, God promises Abraham and Sarah descendants for their family. They get impatient and Abraham has a child with their servant, Hagar. But then after waiting a total of 25 years for the fulfillment of the original promise, Abraham and Sarah have a child together, a son. And then comes this “test.”
I used to love this story because of its many fascinating details and the questions it raises:
- the “Here I am” language repeated throughout that will be echoed by the likes of Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, and beyond;
- that they travel for three days in a strange silence; that human sacrifice for the sake of a god was a typical thing in Abraham’s world, and that this story explains the Hebrew transition away from it;
- that Isaac might be 5 years old or 37 years old, or somewhere in between, we don’t know;
- that this is the last conversation in Genesis between God and Abraham and the first and last conversation we see between Abraham and Isaac;
- and finally is Sarah in the know about this three day trip or does Abraham forget the tiny, little detail about sacrificing the son they waited for a century of their lives to have?
- Those details and questions have made this story a popular topic of study and discussion by all sorts of religious thinkers across the millennia – from ancient Jewish rabbis to modern Christian philosophers, and everyone in between.
I used to love this story, but now…I don’t know. I asked Julie, my wife, what she would do if it were her, if she believed God asked her to sacrifice one of our children. Ever the mental health professional, she said she hoped she would be able to check herself into an in-patient facility before she acted on it. When I ask myself the same question, my answer is that this awful test is not something I believe God would ask – certainly not the God I know and believe in through Jesus the Christ – so if I really thought God was asking this of me, I’d like to think I would conclude I was being tricked by a fake god, or, worst case scenario, this god is not to be followed anymore. In short, I wouldn’t do it and there is no conceivable world in which I would.
And so today, I come to a question that seems unavoidable: Who is this for? Who is this test for? This is God’s test. It does not have the cover of Job – which, for what it’s worth, was probably written around the same time as Genesis – wherein God is not really doing the testing, but rather the advocate, Sah-tahn (Satan). But surely this test is not for God; God does not need this test to know that Abraham is faithful. God knows our hearts, knows us inside and out. Plus, hasn’t Abraham already shown his trust by waiting over 25 years for God’s promise to be fulfilled?
Who is this for? It can’t be for Abraham, because surely he already knows what he is willing to do for God. What sort of benefit would there be in the angst and guilt that he must experience in this whole process? And finally, one could make a case that this is for Isaac, that this experience shows him that…God is great? that God provides? that God will take you to the brink but ultimately keep you from going over the edge? I don’t know. There’s a case there, but it’s a dubious one.
Today, at least, I see the story as being for us. We have the benefit of knowing the bigger story – of knowing that Isaac goes on to live a full and rich life. We have the benefit of being witnesses to the Hagar and Ishmael story from the previous chapter, a connection I admit I didn’t quite appreciate before. But today’s story is nearly identical with the calling out to Hagar in 21:17. Robert Alter points out that “a whole configuration of parallels between the two stories is invoked. Each of Abraham’s sons is threatened with death in the wilderness, one in the presence of his mother, the other in the presence (and by the hand) of his father. In each case the angel intervenes at the critical moment, referring to the son fondly as ma’ar ‘lad.’ At the center of the story, Abraham’s hand holds the knife, Hagar is enjoined to “hold her hand” (the literal meaning of the Hebrew) on the lad. In the end, each of the sons is promised to become progenitor of a great people, the threat to Abraham’s continuity having been averted.”
But the most important reason that the story is for us today is the plethora of Christ connections that we find. If there is a configuration of parallels between Hagar and Abraham, then there is a constellation of them between Isaac and Jesus.
- In Genesis and the gospels, the big event happens on the “third day”
- The wood for the offering in Genesis is laid on the back of the person who is almost sacrificed; in the gospels, a cross of wood is laid on the back of God’s Son
- Both Isaac and Jesus have to climb – Isaac up Mount Moriah, Jesus up Golgotha or Calvary
- Both Isaac and Jesus are only sons, the only ones to inherit the blessings of their fathers; this is incredibly rare in scripture
- Isaac is bound in preparation for his sacrifice; Jesus is arrested in preparation for his death
- Through Abraham as father of Israel, all nations shall be blessed; through Jesus, all people are blessed and saved
- And then the connection I find most compelling is this: note that Isaac asks Abraham, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answers, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” God will provide the lamb… And yet God does not provide a lamb that day, but rather a ram. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed this discrepancy before – one’s a baby sheep and one’s a grown male. But they aren’t the same. And of course we know that one day, a lamb is given. Christ Jesus, the Messiah, the lamb of God, laid down his own life so many years later. And that life was laid down not as part of a test, but as a gift for all. We do not know much of anything about Isaac’s childhood, except that early on he played with his half-brother Ishmael. But we know a great deal about the life lived by God’s only begotten Son. Through an immense, boundless love for God and all creation, that life would be laid down not by others forcing it, but laid down willingly for the salvation of all. May we remember that sacrifice and give thanks for all of our blessings that have come through it. Amen.