"Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son." - Genesis 22:10
Often when I read scripture, I come away wondering where most of us get our notions of Christianity from, myself included. How do we hear the kinds of stories that make up what we call the Word of God and come away with the impression that God just wants us to be nice people and that if we will do that he will bless us and make us happy? How does the story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son, his only son, translate into us getting dressed up and getting into our nice new cars and driving to our nice comfortable building where we see people we are comfortable with and sing music we enjoy and then tell the pastor what a great job he did? How can we hear this story that calls us to a life of sacrificing what is most precious to us in obedience to God and then complain when our church varies in the smallest way from what we think it should be?
But even that last sentence doesn't do this story justice because we are expert rationalizers, masters of justifying our own actions. To say that the story of Abraham and Isaac's journey to Moriah is "really about" sacrificing what is most precious to us in obedience to God is to take Isaac's very human, very boyish face off of the matter. It is an abstraction. It is an escape hatch that allows us to say that this story is about "something else". It is to make this story less threatening by saying "A loving God would never actually have me kill my own child. This is just an illustration," And such words would not be untrue. I don't believe the God revealed in Jesus wants anything to do with child sacrifice. I do believe God calls us to sacrifice what we value most in life to him. But the great speed with which we move to our explanations and rationalizations of God's command reveal just how uncomfortable they are for us. It is easy to explain what this story "means". It is much harder to hear the confusion and fear of Isaac's weak and cracking pre-teen voice as he wonders aloud to his father where the lamb is for the sacrifice. It is easy to say "God is the most important thing in my life." It is much harder to put the face of our own son or daughter on that claim. God is great...as long as he knows the limits of our relationship with him.
The irony of the story in Genesis 22 is that it is actually very much about God testing the limits of his relationship with Abraham. God doesn't seem to know just how far Abraham is going to let him into his life. Inasmuch as this is a story about Abraham's trust it is also a story about God putting himself at risk. It is tempting to think that this is all fixed from the outset, that God knows what Abraham will do, or at least that there is really nothing at stake for God in the matter. It is simply a test for Abraham to pass or fail; to move up or fall down a rung on the spiritual ladder. This is another way we attempt to "explain" the story, to make it more comfortable, to empty it of any real risk.
But as the story is told, the test of Abraham involves risk for God as well. After all, this is not just Abraham's son, this is the child of the promise. Isaac is the one through whom God is to fulfill the promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations. If Isaac is dead, how will this promise be fulfilled? Or to put it another way, if Abraham fails to be obedient to this command, then where will God be? God has bound himself to Abraham by making these promises to him. If Abraham fails this test of trust, then God's promises fail also, don't they? If Abraham refuses to offer his son, then does God start over with someone else? Nor is God sitting comfortably by as all this goes on, for in v. 12 the angel of the Lord says "Now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" implying that God didn't know it before hand. The outcome was in question. The promise of God was genuinely at risk. God's plan, at least in its present form, depended on Abraham's trust.
Abraham trusts. God provides. This epitomizes so much of what our relationship with God is/should be about. And yet it bears repeating; it is easy to talk about trusting God to provide but to say "The Lord will provide" is to do what Abraham did. It is not some general notion of faith where we sit back and wait for God to throw good things our way. It is not exchanging our belief for God's blessing. It is to allow our fate to be bound up with God's. It is to step out in real, concrete action that could cost us dearly. It is to allow God to test the limits of our relationship with him when even he doesn't know for sure what the outcome will be. It is to know that the God of Abraham is a God of risk.