I estimate that I’ve participated in or observed, roughly, 29 years of Vacation Bible School. Never, in those years, has the Binding of Isaac been featured as a story to fit with the year’s VBS theme.
We could have a whole child sacrifice/near-sacrifice thing- Isaac, Jepthah’s daughter, Jonathan and Michal, Hosea’s horrifically named children, and Jesus. Well, maybe I won’t start writing that curriculum just yet. Nevertheless, the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is an important story- painful in what it says about God, obedience, providence, and faith.
In this year’s Narrative Lectionary cycle, this is the only story from the Abram/Abraham cycle. If this is your congregation’s first year in the NL, you may wish to do a quick summary of the highlights of Abraham’s life. It is important to know Abraham’s history- personal, marital, extra-marital, and spiritual.
In the summary, it is important to include God’s repeated promise to Abraham (and Sarah!) that they would have a child. They both attempted to fulfill God’s promise by using Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar, but her child- Ishmael- is not the promised offspring in either the Jewish or Christian traditions.
There comes a point in time when both Abraham and Sarah laugh at the idea of a pregnancy for her, sired by him. She is 90 and he is 100. Yet, God assures them that it will happen. It’s always amusing to me to note that Isaac is not a virgin birth, therefore Abraham and Sarah continued to, um, participate in the working out of God’s covenant (as it were).
Isaac is a beloved child, a longed-for child. His name means laughter– a connection to his parents’ incredulous reactions to God’s promise. Therefore, a command to sacrifice this child, to slaughter him, is terrifying and sickening. Most parents feel enough devastation at the idea of anything happening to their child that the idea of deliberately causing harm is beyond horrible. Yet, here it is.
When we read the first two sentences of Genesis 22, everything in the world stops: After these things, God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” God said, “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 that I shall show you.”
Why would God choose this as a test?
Why would Abraham, who previously argued on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, agree?
What does Sarah think?
What does Isaac think?
Does God still test the faithful in this way?
What would happen if we heard of this same incident occurring today?
There are multiple theories as to the significance of this story in Genesis and in the pre-history story repetition. The cautious preacher must resist seeing a pre-figuring of Jesus in Isaac because it is not appropriate, parallel, or even truly there. This is also isn’t truly a test of Abraham’s faithfulness. While the text indicates this, as does tradition, such a test only ends up with 2 “morals”: 1) God always provides and 2) Abraham must understand Isaac as a gift from God and monitor his attachment and devotion to one who is not God.
The problem with those two conclusions is that many people in your congregation or context have been in situations where they perceive that God did not provide. They have experienced very deep and intense suffering. While they may not believe God caused that suffering, they did not experience God as immediately relieving the suffering. If the upshot of the story is that the ram is always in the thicket at just the right moment, some people will under themselves to be weaker in faith than Abraham or undergoing greater testing because, for them, the ram has failed to appear.
With regard to the attachment/gift point, non-attachment is not really a biblical concept. Certainly the first commandment and the greatest commandment point to the injunction and need to put one’s dedication to God above all else. However, God is not such a petty tyrant as to test that devotion through child sacrifice. One of the points of the Narrative Lectionary is to reveal the steady nature of God’s character through scripture. The God who will free the Israelites, support the prophets, send Jesus, and call Paul is NOT a God who will kill children.
There is a stream of thought, which suggests that this is a learning experience for God. Abraham has not always been completely trustworthy- see; passing Sarai off as his sister in front of a king, see: doing the same thing a second time, see: sleeping with Hagar and ignoring the promise of a child with Sarah- among other things. God may genuinely have no intention of allowing Isaac to die, but does need to know that Abraham trusts enough to be worthy of the promise and future that God has laid upon him. If the generations of people who are to stream from Abraham’s line are to be as God hopes, God needs to know that Abraham’s own relationship with the Divine is solid enough to be a foundation the plan. If you believe the people you serve will be squeamish at the idea that God demanded a child sacrifice, it may be best to avoid the idea that divine foreknowledge may not be perfect or complete.
So what will you do? Talk about spirit tests? Discuss Abraham’s up and down relationship with God? Offer consolation of God’s covenant because of Abraham’s trust?
As for myself, I’m considering writing a monologue to deliver as Sarah, regarding her perspective on this event. We’ll see how the week unfolds before I totally commit to that. I also have a baptism next Sunday. What a baptismal text!
This is my third year in the Narrative Lectionary and the first time I’ll touch this text. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking. And if you’re planning to use the Bob Dylan song, Highway 61 Revisited, quoted in the title, YOU’RE MY HERO!
16 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: God said to Abraham, “Kill Me a Son.” (Genesis 21:1-13; 22:1-14)”
Thanks for the great intro. After deciding to use the NL…this text has been in the back of my mind. We have a 5th grader who takes turns in the liturgy rotation…and this is his Sunday. I’m picking a Psalm for him to read and I will read the Genesis text. It is also communion Sunday.
A question I will be researching this week is the Jewish understanding of sacrifice to see if that helps at all. Also, a God who “tests” is not my theology and so there is that sticking point as well.
The congregation I serve does not challenge God and the testing language is their “way out”.
Looking forward to what others have to say.
In Jewish tradition, this is called the “Akedah”- the binding. There are many midrashes and commentaries around this story, so I hope you find a couple threads that weave a continuity for you. It is hard to reconcile a God who tests. Something to consider is why do we feel responsible for salvaging God’s reputation? I recently was trying to soften the flood story, but I realized that God simply says God will send a flood. The Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the desert, prior to his time of testing. Are we to save God from God’s self? Blessings on your own exploration!
ooooh, oohh! Thanks, Julia. The “why do we feel responsible for salvaging God’s reputation?” question resonates with me. I’m thinking about our need to hold up a progressive theology (explain) against the very conservative theology in our public discourse. And do we need to explain God to try and attract those who are not believers? Thanks for this!
I, too, have asked why Abraham didn’t question God about killing his son. “Why would Abraham, who previously argued on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, agree?”
Now let me throw out something else to think about. God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…” Did the writer forget that Abraham had a son before Isaac? What about Ishmael, who was still very much alive? The only time God could say “your only son” would have been before the birth of Isaac. And that is exactly what the Qur’an says, that it was Ishmael who was almost sacrificed. Muslims say our text has been corrupted by scribes changing the name. On the other hand, you could say Isaac was the only son left after Hagar was sent away with her son. Granted, this isn’t the point of the story, but it’s interesting.
“What does Isaac think?” Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you” (Gen 22:5). After the ram was sacrificed and it’s time to go home, do Abraham and Isaac return to the men with the donkey? Not exactly. “So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba” (22:19). My speculation is that Isaac wanted some time to go off by himself and think about what just happened. Abraham returned to the men, but where is Isaac? Further speculation (by me) — Sarah would long since have been watching fearfully for them to return, and what did she see? Imagine this elderly mother of this very special child watching, watching, watching for days for the return of her husband and her beloved son. Here’s the rest of verse 19: “So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.” Where’s Sarah? Why isn’t she mentioned? What happened? Verses 20-24 are about Abraham being told about his brother Nahor’s children. And then we read: “Sarah lived one hundred twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died” (Gen 23:1-2a). What if Sarah saw the men returning and realized her boy was not with them? What if Sarah’s heart broke, and she died? If you were in her place, would you have a heart attack if your only child was taken away and didn’t return? What if she didn’t live long enough to know Isaac was still alive, just terribly troubled and off pondering what had happened to him, with his father raising that knife over him? (An aside — Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose years of life are given, and Abraham buys a whole field so he can get a cave to bury her. Was he feeling guilty?)
In the passage just prior to this, Sarah asks Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. So now Isaac is the only son living in Abraham’s tents. Is it possible that God is needling Abraham a bit or that in the Jewish/Christian tradition- Isaac is the only son who “counts”?
There is a strong Jewish tradition that Sarah dies of a broken heart after this. This would make Isaac 37 (if she dies shortly thereafter), which seems a little old to be so compliant in this situation. Nevertheless, one can nurse a broken heart for years and have it be the root cause of an illness that might kill one. Who could blame Sarah?
There is another tradition in which Isaac is so traumatized by this that he never speaks again, except to bless his sons at the end of his life. This is partially to explain why we don’t have any more stories about him in Scripture, except as they relate to Jacob.
Your comments reminded me that I had written a short monologue on Sarah way back when I took a ‘church and drama’ class. It’s doesn’t have any answers and leaves Sarah waiting for Abraham and Isaac, and waiting for God…
If anyone would like to read it, message me. I’d be happy to send you a copy
I highly recommend the Working Preacher podcast on this text (http://www.workingpreacher.org/?lectionary=nl). Kathryn Schifferdecker recounts rabbinic commentary, that posits the conversation going something like:
God: Take your son….
Abraham: I have two sons…
God: your only son…
Abraham: Each son is the only son of his mother…
God: the one whom you love…
Abraham: A father’s love for his children knows no bounds; I love both my sons…
You can see Abraham dodging and weaving and trying to find a way out of what he knows is coming.
Other wonderful nuggets in there as well.
Here’s what I wrote for Abingdon about Sarah.
Reblogged this on Bible stuff.
Greetings from the Thursday sermon cave. Anyone have thoughts on if while this story was being told around the campfires of exiled Israel if it was not really about Yahweh at all, but was really focused on Abraham and how the Father of their faith was worthy of the title? Just playing…
Also, I was really surprised to hear the working preacher podcast ‘go there’ as far as the parallel between Isaac and Jesus was concerned.
Julia, awesome kick off to the text – thank you!
In the exile, the story might have been a consolation as to how God spared Abraham’s “firstborn” and that God would spare Israel, but not without some heartache. Or perhaps it was a way to “remember” God testing their ancestors and might be, thus, testing them?
One of my struggles with the etiological possibilities of the story is that a God who tests becomes awfully convenient when we don’t want to take responsibility. Do we say that a particular struggle is a test of God rather than acknowledge how our human fallibility and the forces that oppose God might be attempting to derail the work of God’s kingdom?
Yet another question posed that proves this text is for midrash and Bible study… Not preaching. I wonder if it will make the cut when the NL folks evaluate for next time.
I wasn’t thrilled with going there to Jesus. I might go “back there” to Isaac when we get to Jesus, but I very very very very rarely go forward. I read the New Testament as influenced by the Old Testament, but not the Old Testament foreshadowing the New.
I stumbled on your site tonight, and am pleased (and a little astounded) that our NL podcast has reached such a wide audience. I’m glad that you found the podcast helpful. There are many good midrashim on the Akedah. I didn’t have time to talk about all of them. As for the moving to the Jesus/Isaac parallel: I don’t usually “jump to Jesus” in my preaching on the OT either, at least not in many sermons. But for this particular story, it is difficult (I think) not to draw that parallel. The rabbis drew the parallel between Isaac carrying the wood for his sacrifice and those on the way to crucifixion carrying their own crosses. And a Jewish scholar, Jon Levenson, who has written probably more than any other scholar on the Akedah in recent years draws that parallel himself in his book, “The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.” So, while I want always to let the OT text have its own voice first, I am still reading the text as a Christian and I can’t help but see the parallels with Jesus.
Anyway, this is all a moot point since we’ve moved on to Jacob this week. I appreciate, again, your engagement with this experiment we’re calling the Narrative Lectionary. Feel free to offer feedback through the Working Preacher website on the lectionary and/or the podcast. Blessings to you all!
Kathryn, welcome! As more and more members of our blogging and Facebook communities begin to use the Narrative Lectionary, we’re excited to be offering a discussion on our blog just as we have for the RCL for many years. Thank you so much for both the “experiment” and the resources at Working Preacher.
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