- Bible Reading: Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14
- Free Resource: Could Have Been (Families – NL)
- Unit Theme (September 12—October 10): God Provides Blessings
- The Point: God can provide even in impossible situations.
Why does God test Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac? And what if God’s test was really about Abraham (and all of us) learning to say no to sacrificing those closest to us?
What Do We Do with Difficult Stories?
This is not an easy story to read. In moments like these, God often speaks more through the deep prayer, reflection, and conversation that tough Bible stories provoke than the actual characters and plot. Below, I have tried to model creative wrestling with this week’s passage. I hope that my questions will encourage you to bring your own ideas to the text as the Spirit leads you to find God’s good news for you in these stories today.
Using the Bible to Interpret the Bible
When encountering complex passages like this one, an ancient Jewish and Christian practice is to use clearer passages and themes of Scripture to clarify the more difficult ones. From my survey of Jewish and Christian Scripture, I believe that God is firmly against child sacrifice. The Bible repeatedly forbids child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-4; Deuteronomy 12:29-30; 2 Kings 23:10). Accordingly, in interpreting this passage, I am looking for a reading that is consistent with God’s revelation elsewhere in the Bible. God is testing Abraham, but God must be testing something other than our willingness to sacrifice our children.
Despite their initial disbelief, God keeps God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham, and Sarah gives birth to a son, Isaac. For very young readers and listeners, this is the section of the story to focus on this week. From there, the Narrative Lectionary moves to the pivotal story of Isaac’s youth: Abraham’s testing by God. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Without protest, Abraham complies and follows through with God’s request to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. An angel intercedes before Abraham slaughters his son; God provides a ram for the sacrifice instead, and Abraham dedicates the mountain to the memory of God’s testing and provision.
Not the First Sacrifice
Sacrificing one another is nothing new for Abraham’s family. Within Abraham’s larger story in Genesis, we read four sacrificial narratives that follow a pattern: the identity of Abraham’s family is hidden or distorted, a sacrifice is made (or initiated), and God intervenes to stop the sacrifice.
- In exchange for his safety, Abraham lies about his wife’s identity. He gives Sarai over to the Egyptian Pharaoh, and God intervenes to stop this unjust action (12:10-20).
- Abraham lies about Sarah’s identity again to King Abimelech. He gives her to Abimelech, and God—again—acts to stop the sacrifice of Sarah (20:1-13).
- Sarah distorts Hagar and Ishmael’s identity, refusing to acknowledge Abraham’s familial connections to the mother and child. Sarah asks Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael to be sent to die in the wilderness without adequate provisions (21:9-19), but God—again—provides to stop the sacrifice.
His Only Son?
Finally, God reverses this pattern of dishonesty and betrayal. God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac, but each time God or God’s messenger speaks in our story, Isaac is referred to as Abraham’s only son (22:2, 12, 16). Like the liturgical repetition in Genesis’ first two chapters, “and God saw that it was good,” we should pay attention when the Bible creates another repetition in this story in reference to Isaac: “your son, your only son.”
Truthfully, Isaac is neither Abraham’s first, nor only, son. I wonder if this repeated phrase draws us toward the real test God is posing: After lying about his relationship to Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael, will Abraham break the pattern when tempted this time?
What Is the Test?
What if God is not testing whether Abraham is willing to murder his child to show his loyalty? What if, instead, God is testing whether Abraham will finally speak out when his family’s ties are hidden and another sacrifice looms (like he challenged God to save a portion of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18:16-32)? What if Abraham learns to recognize that the way of denying and sacrificing his family is not God’s way?
Before, Abraham has refused to speak the truth when his family’s well-being is in danger. In our story today, Abraham is again silent at first when asked to give up his second son. But that changes when Isaac questions him: “[W]here is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (v. 7). In responding to Isaac, Abraham affirms that, unlike before, he will not sacrifice his son this time; somehow, God will provide a lamb, not Isaac, for the sacrifice (v. 8). This is the breakthrough statement of faith that marks Abraham’s transformation: God will provide for us; I can protect my family rather than forsake them.
Abraham’s change of heart is praised by God’s messenger in verses 12 and 16. Both times, Abraham is lauded for not “withholding” his son. But from what is Abraham no longer withholding Isaac? Verse 12 is clear: this time, Abraham has not withheld his son from God.
With Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael, Abraham assumed the worst of God and willingly sacrificed his own family; each time, God responded to show that Abraham and Sarah’s actions were not what God wanted. This time, Abraham stops withholding his family from the goodness and well-being that God is offering each of them.
Teaching the Process of Questioning
As faith leaders, we have the opportunity to teach others that there is not a single correct way to read or interpret a biblical story. As a pastor, my goal is to empower congregants of all ages to be Bible scholars for themselves; sometimes the best response to tough questions about the Bible is:
“I don’t know, but let’s keep talking.”
Peace to you as you read and question and follow,
Rev. Billy Kluttz serves as Associate Pastor at Govans Presbyterian Church (USA) in Baltimore, Maryland where he focuses on children and family ministries, community engagement, and communications. He is also co-host of the TLDR Bible Show, a humorous Bible summary and discussion podcast, and a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Wesley Theological Seminary.
During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: Sept 12 to June 5), we provide a free activity download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download “Could Have Been,” an imaginative activity from our Living the Word: God’s Story @ Home (NL) family, home-based curriculum, though this can be used with many ages in many contexts!
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