Our Old Testament story is a very strange one, isn't it? The editors of Genesis explain it away as “God testing Abraham”, but although they might think God is Like That, I'm not at all sure I do!
Still, it is very much a part of the story of Abraham, so we must look at it. Scholars seem to think that these stories of Abraham, which had been an integral part of the Jewish tradition, were collected together and written down during the 5th and 6th centuries BC – this, you remember, was when the Israelites were in exile, the Temple had been destroyed, and they had no king of their own. Only a very few Israelites were left in Jerusalem, and they had rather lapsed from their traditions and practice. So the various stories were collected and written down, possibly somewhat haphazardly, in case it should all be lost.
Abraham himself is thought to have lived in the early part of the 2nd millennium BC, somewhere between 1976 BC and 1637 BC. This was in the Bronze age – he would have had bronze tools, not iron, and possibly still a flint knife.
Robert and I went to Italy over Easter this year, and on Easter Monday we went to the town of Bolzano, where they have the museum where the body of Oetzi, the ice-man, is stored. You may remember that he was found in the Alps about 20 years ago, having been preserved in a glacier for over 5,000 years. The point is, this was even longer ago than Abraham – he only had a copper axe, as they hadn't discovered about bronze yet. But the things that were found with him – his axe, his coat, his trousers, his bow and arrows, his knife and so on, you could see just how they were used, and he was really a person just like you or me! That makes Abraham feel less remote, as he, too, would have worn clothes we recognise, and carried tools we'd know and so on.
Abraham had felt called by God to leave his home-town of Ur in the Chaldees, which in his day was allegedly highly civilised. They had, apparently, nineteen different kinds of beer and a great many fried-fish shops, if you call that being civilized!
However, they did enjoy other kinds of food, such as onions, leeks, cucumbers, beans, garlic, lentils, milk, butter, cheese, dates, and the occasional meal of beef or lamb. Foods that you and I enjoy to this day! There was wine available, to make a change from beer, but it was expensive, and drunk only by the rich. They played board-games, enjoyed poetry and music, which they played on the lyre, harp and drum, and were generally rather well-found, from all one gathers.
The only thing was that without many trees in their part of the world, they had to do without much furniture, and tended to sleep on mats on the floor, for instance, instead of beds. But definitely a sensible and civilised place in which to live. When you hear it described, it doesn't sound all that remote, does it? They were people like us, and had similar tastes to us.
But Abraham had felt called to leave there, and to take his family and household and to live in the desert. And there, eventually, long after Sarah had given up all hope of having a child, Isaac was born.
And now this. Now the demand to give up Isaac, to sacrifice him to God. What should Abraham do? What could Abraham do, being the kind of person he was? He wasn't perfect – he had been known to tell lies when things got awkward; he had tried to bring God's plan for him into being himself by conceiving a child on his servant Hagar. No, he wasn't perfect, but what he was, was someone who really wanted to follow God, and to do what God wanted. And now, it seemed, God wanted him to sacrifice his only child. What of the promise to make his descendants a great nation? But if God said to do it, Abraham did it, to the best of his ability.
Child sacrifice was, of course, not unknown in that era and that region, and some scholars even think that it was not unknown among worshippers of God, although it's explicitly and emphatically forbidden in the various books of the Law. The Israelites were not to copy their neighbours' bad example! Deuteronomy 12, verses 30-31 says: “After the Lord destroys those nations, make sure that you don't follow their religious practices, because that would be fatal. Don't try to find out how they worship their gods, so that you can worship in the same way. Do not worship the Lord your God in the way they worship their gods, for in the worship of their gods they do all the disgusting things that the Lord hates. They even sacrifice their children in the fires on their altars.”
Anyway, Abraham and Isaac – who, by the way, wasn't a small boy by then, but probably a young man – go off with the servants up to the mountain to sacrifice. Traditionally, they went to where the Temple would later be built in Jerusalem, where the Dome of the Rock is now. At least, that's what Jewish scholars say – Christian commentators have thought it was more probably Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. The Bible isn't exactly clear, but it's in that sort of area, anyway. And Abraham causes the servants and the animals to wait behind, while he and his son go and worship, “and then we will come back to you.” Note that “We”; we'll come back to that!
And Isaac asks where is the animal for the sacrifice, and Abraham says that God will send one – but he binds Isaac and puts him on the altar. You notice, Isaac doesn't struggle – or we are not told if he does – but accepts his fate as from God. And then, just in time, the angel intervenes and the ram is sacrificed instead of Isaac.
Well, it's a very extraordinary story! What was Abraham thinking? What was Abraham thinking God was thinking? God had promised him that he would be the father of many nations – but Isaac had not yet married or had a child, so if he was killed, that would be the end of the line!
Of course, the traditional Christian interpretation of this story is stated in the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 11, verses 17-19: “It was faith that made Abraham offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice when God put Abraham to the test. Abraham was the one to whom God had made the promise, yet he was ready to offer his only son as a sacrifice. God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that you will have the descendants I promised.' Abraham reckoned that God was able to raise Isaac from death – and, so to speak, Abraham did receive Isaac back from death.”
Abraham may well have thought that God might provide a last-minute substitute for Isaac, or, failing that, would return Isaac from the dead. Remember that he said to his servants that “We will come back”, not “I will come back.” He trusted God.
The story is, of course, considered to be a picture of the Atonement, too – God sacrificing his own son, Jesus, in place of humanity. And Isaac, like Jesus, went more-or-less willingly to his death. And where Jesus was raised, Isaac was given the ram as a substitute.
Of course, there are many other ways of looking at the Atonement, and frankly, this one is one that I don't find says anything to me at this stage in my Christian journey. It is part of the truth, of course, but not all of it. I prefer those parts of the truth that focus on God's love, rather than on God's judgement. But it's there, nevertheless, and it is part of it.
I said at the beginning that the stories had probably been written down during the Exile, and it's also interesting to read what some of the Jewish fathers have made of it. One writer reckons that actually, Abraham was testing God, not vice versa! This, after all, is the Abraham who had pleaded with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah – it's like he went off and did what God was asking without arguing in order to put pressure on God to do the right thing, as it were, and send the ram! After all, he doesn't even say “You what? But you told me Isaac was to be the father of many nations!” He just went off and obeyed what he believed God was asking him to do.
And that, of course, is the important thing that I wish to leave with you this morning. We have just begun the very long haul of Ordinary Time that goes on until the end of November. And while, during the first half of the Church's year, we look at the life of Jesus, his birth, his teachings, his death, resurrection and ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, during this second half of the year, what we are basically looking at is our faith, and what happens when what we believe comes up against what we think we believe!
And that's what happened to Abraham. He was asked to trust God even for the life of his only Son, the Son that God had promised would father many nations.
Of course, that test, if that's what it was, didn't come out of the blue. Abraham had had long practice in believing God, in trusting him, from moving out of Ur of the Chaldees, through the promise of a son – and the failure to trust that led him to conceive Ishmael – and the birth of Isaac, and so on. He was used to trusting God, and so when the crunch came, he was able to.
Are you used to trusting God? If and when the crunch comes in your own life, will you still be able to trust him? Job, you may remember, said he would go on trusting God even if it killed him. And trusting God has killed many, many people down the centuries, the martyrs who preferred to die than to renounce their faith. Could you trust God when the crunch comes? Can I?
I tell you one thing; we may or may not be able to, but we certainly won't be able to if we don't practice trusting Him in our everyday life! Amen.
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