A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 29, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Genesis 22:1-14
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

On Wednesday, I looked in my file of sermons for this week in the three-year lectionary cycle. I was stunned to discover that I preached on the Genesis passage three years ago, and three years before that, and, luckily, not three years before that.

Caravaggio’s “Sacrifice of Isaac,” which now hangs in the Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

There is something about this story that I find compelling, that draws me to it, that demands attention. There is something about the drama – the sense of betrayal, the offer of salvation, the juxtaposition of naïveté and the plotting – that hooks me. And now I have Caravaggio to blame for rekindling the drama in my psyche with his painting, which has stayed with me since I saw the original in Italy seven years ago. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this story called to me again this year, taunting me to reflect on it, wrestle with it, draw something from it.

My first reaction to the story is anger. I’m angry at a God who would call on a parent to sacrifice a child. I’m angry at a father who would go along with such a request. I’m angry at an absent mother who does nothing to stop it. And while I don’t think it’s the responsibility of children to stop their own abuse, I admit that I’m angry at a son who doesn’t cry out, “Stop it!” when his father binds him and places him on the altar.

A Facebook clergy friend posted a question on Friday: Does God test us?[1] Me being, well, me, I responded, “Quizzes … and a final exam.” Others engaged the question a little less flippantly. A lot of people think that God tests us. This scripture starts out with the assertion that God is testing Abraham.

You’re probably familiar with the old adage, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Based on that philosophy, God must think I’m freakin’ awesome. I don’t think God tests us, at least not in the way testing is portrayed in this story.

One of the gems Facebook discussion that followed the question said this: “I think my issue with ‘god is testing me’ is that it simply reinforces the mindset that everything is part of a plan – like [God’s] a dude with a cosmic checklist. ‘Let’s see, Tuesday 8am. Time to make some ducks cross the road in front of Timmy’s car so he’s late for his final, and I guess I can infect a few thousand people with Ebola in Africa too. Everything is going according to plan!’
“That mindset is what gives atheists like me some heartburn … because it removes personal responsibility. ‘Give all of your problems to god and he’ll carry them’ or ‘Well, it’s part of god’s plan’ can pretty easily transition to ‘I was just doing what god told me to do’, which is pretty reminiscent of ‘I was just following orders’.”[2] It occurred to me, as I read that comment, that “I was just following orders” is pretty much Abraham’s excuse.

So, regardless of what the Bible says, I reject the notion that God ordered Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It turns out there may be some scriptural basis for this rejection. The practice of human sacrifice was central to the religions of Israel’s neighbors, and so human sacrifice stands as a backdrop to the story’s first hearers. I would like to think (and I’ll explain more later as to why I think this is true) that if child sacrifice was culturally abhorrent, surely Abraham would have bargained with God to save his own son. But because human sacrifice was culturally normative, God’s demand could easily have struck Abraham as harsh and bitter without seeming ungodly.

A Jewish Commentary says, “It is therefore important to notice that in the beginning of the test the command is issued by Elohim – the generic for God or gods – and the command is one that other elohim could and did make. But when the sacrifice is about to be performed it is Abraham’s God, Adonai, who stays his hand. Elohim might ask him to proceed, but Adonai says ‘No.’ He, too, will ask extreme devotion, but it will never again take this form.”[3]

That’s one of my takeaways from this story: God stays Abraham’s hand. And if we take nothing else from this story, let us take that fact: God stays Abraham’s hand.

Caravaggion's "Sacrifice of Isaac," detail

Caravaggion’s “Sacrifice of Isaac,” detail

Regardless of who called Abraham to sacrifice his son – whether it was elohim from the surrounding religions or the God who called Abraham and Sarah to leave Haran – regardless of who called Abraham to sacrifice his son, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

Whenever we think of sending our sons and daughters into situations where we ask them to kill and die, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

Whenever we ask our sons and daughters to be the knife that will slice the throat of another father’s son, another mother’s daughter, the Isaacs and Isabels of other nations, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

If we ever think we should just send back home the undocumented children who have fled violence by coming to our country, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

If we ever think we don’t have a responsibility to protect children who suffer abuse, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

If we remember nothing else from this story, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

Of course, I think there is more to learn, more for us to remember from this story. There are two additional themes in this story that universalize it: trust and sacrifice.

Taken out of context, the Abraham of this story seems like a real – I’ll let you fill in the epithet – who doesn’t give a damn about human life. He takes his son on a three-day journey so he can kill him. Joy Moore[4] points out that this image of Abraham stands in sharp contrast to the one we read about just four chapters earlier.

In Genesis 18, Abraham dickers with God in an attempt to save Sodom and Gomorrah. He argues that if there are 50 righteous people in Sodom, the city really ought to be spared. God agrees and then Abraham argues God all the way down to just 10. If there are 10 righteous people in Sodom, God agrees not to destroy the city. Here, Abraham displays deep compassion for humanity. (And it is because of this window into Abraham’s character that I assume he would have bargained for Isaac’s life if child sacrifice was culturally abhorrent.)

Moore sees this story in light of what Micah says God requires of all people: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.[5] She calls this “submission.” I call it “commitment.” Abraham is totally committed to God and totally compassionate toward humanity. And this cruciform commitment – a vertical commitment to God and a horizontal commitment to humanity – sometimes puts us in a place of tension. Sometimes these two commitments seem to call us in contradictory directions.

“God … will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,”[6] Abraham tells Isaac when he wonders about what will be offered in sacrifice. I’ve always read this as a loaded answer. I’ve always read this as Abraham not lying to Isaac, but also not telling the truth.

But maybe Abraham is able to be so obedient, so committed to God because Abraham has such a huge trust in God. They’ve been through a lot together: desert travel, foreign countries, palace intrigue, spousal mishaps, family fights, battles, circumcision, a son and slave sent off into exile. Maybe Abraham’s answer comes out of this place of trust. Maybe Abraham believed that God told him to take his son off to be sacrificed, trusting all along that God would provide a substitute sacrifice.

This story is an invitation to a trust in God that is beyond mindless obedience.

The story is also about sacrifice. Maybe Abraham believed that God was God and he wasn’t. Maybe Abraham believed that God really was calling him to kill his son, trusting in the deep Abraham way that God would be faithful and make it all work out in the end.

Abraham could have said, “No,” to God. Abraham could have heard God’s call to take his son to the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice, and Abraham could have said, “No.” I’m sure it’s happened before, that people have said “no” to God.

But in my experience, the divine magic happens when we tell God, “Yes.” The thing is, saying “yes” to God almost always requires a “no” to something else. Saying “yes” to God almost always requires a willingness to let go of something.

I finally got around to watching the Disney musical animated movie, Frozen, last week. I should probably give a spoiler alert here. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m going to tell you about some of the movie, though I don’t think I’ll tell so you much that I ruin it for you.

The story centers around two sisters, princesses whose parents die early in the film. The elder sister, Elsa, has a – I’m looking for a neutral term here – a skill that might be a blessing or it might be a curse. She was raised to think of it as a curse. The blessing is that, using willpower, she is able to create cold. The curse is that sometimes this skill manifests itself as an emotional response, so she is doesn’t trust it.

“Conceal it. Don’t feel it,” her parents tell her. And she tells herself the same thing. She separates herself from others, including her beloved sister, lest she unintentionally injures them. She locks herself away and locks her skill away, until finally she’s had enough.

The song from the show that is most famous is, “Let it Go.”[7] Elsa sings it about mid-way through the movie. She is singing about letting go of all the energy she’s used to keep her skill a secret and locked up inside herself. This is, in many ways, her coming out song: this is who I am, this skill is my gift. Except that she sings it to no one, because she’s run off into the mountains.

Her true release doesn’t come until she allows herself to be embraced by others – in all of who she is – by letting go of her fear. Only when she accepts that love does she find fullness of life.

Genesis 22 is about sacrifice. Not the sacrifice of our sons and daughters, but the sacrifice that takes place when we willingly let go of anything we’re holding on to that gets in the way of God’s desire for abundant life for us. What are you holding onto that gets in the way of abundant life? What are you willing to sacrifice?

Thich Nhat Hanh

In the midst of the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh a Vietnamese Buddhist monk exiled in France, struggled to find a way to peace in his home country and around the world. “He was once asked straight on by someone if he would be willing to sacrifice Buddhism for the sake of peace. And he knocked the guy over by saying, ‘Of course. If I weren’t willing to sacrifice Buddhism for the sake of peace, I would have already sacrificed Buddhism.’”[8]

What are you willing to sacrifice? Or perhaps the more fruitful question is, what are you unwilling to sacrifice? The answer to these questions will tell us what stands in the way of abundant life.


[1] Darrin Harvey, https://www.facebook.com/darrin.harvey1 (posted 27 June 2014).

[2] Scott Grant, comment posted on 28 June 2014; a couple spelling corrections were made.

[3] W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), 149.

[4] Joy J. Moore, “Words We Wish Weren’t Here,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/words-we-wish-weren’t-here (accessed 24 June 2014).

[5] Micah 6:8, NRSV: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good;and what does the Lord require of you
 but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

[6] Genesis 22:18a, NRSV.

[7] You can see/hear the song here: : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0MK7qz13bU

[8] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, TheCurse and Blessing of the Wilderness,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/curse-and-blessing-wilderness (24 June 2014).