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Akedah

I’ve always shuddered at Genesis 22. As a child, I’d read the story of Abraham’ s willing journey to sacrifice his son Isaac (which Jewish rabbis refer to as the Akedah — Hebrew for “binding”), and a lump would form in my throat.

I was the firstborn son in our family.

This week, I’m preparing to preach from Genesis 22. As coincidence or providence would have it, this week our family is also celebrating our oldest son’s 15th birthday. As is my usual habit, I began sermon prep on Monday morning in my study at our home by memorizing the text I’ll be preaching. So, as my wife Monica sat at our kitchen table, planning details for what we’d make for our son’s birthday dinner, when our family would give him presents, and how we might celebrate him, I was next door in my study, internalizing the unrelenting cadences of that harrowing story:

Take your son,
your only son Isaac, whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah,
where you will offer him as a burnt offering…
(Genesis 22.1-2)

The Worst Story in the Whole Bible

For 21st century people skeptical about the God of the Bible, this story sits right out in the open, not even two dozen chapters into the canon, seeming to prove just how backward and barbarous faith in this God really is.

The prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, in his bestseller The God Delusion, says exactly this: “this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, [and] bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships. . .Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.”

But it’s not only secular people who are bothered by the Akedah — it troubles the seasoned believer just as much as the skeptic — maybe more so. Martin Luther wrote that he couldn’t stand to be a spectator to this biblical scene, let alone a participant. He says that he, and all of us, are no better than the beast of burden left at the bottom of the mountain.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about Genesis 22, Fear and Trembling, in which he described that, as he got older, he came to appreciate this story more and more, but understand it less and less.

Several years ago, I was preparing to preach the Akedah. My administrative assistant at the time, when she realized what text she’d be hearing that Sunday, blurted out with a groan: “this is like the worst story in the whole Bible!”

The theologian Ellen Davis writes in her book Getting Involved with God that this story stubbornly refuses our attempts to edit it out of our faith or explain it away. She says that, “as personally involved readers of the Bible, our back is against the wall.”

So, what to do with it?

I’m discovering that the way forward isn’t to skirt around, or keep away, or blindly accept, but to go further in. To keep looking, keep listening, keep wondering. To keep wrestling, and to not let the text go until it yields its blessing.

Jehovah Jireh

Strangely, the heart-rending account of Abraham and Isaac’s journey into the mountains of Moriah together, wood on Isaac’s back and knife in old Abraham’s hand, is the centerpiece of the book of Genesis. As the Jewish scholar Everett Fox notices, it is “the paradigmatic narrative of the entire book [of Genesis].”

There’s much in this story that will leave any thoughtful reader with questions, or that seems downright unspeakable. But the spare, skillful narrative texture of the Akedah points the way to its beating heart.

The story is structured in three cycles. Three times, there’s a summons to Abraham — first by God, then Isaac, and then by the angel of God. Three times, Abraham’s tender answer: “Here I am.” Three times, a response. And those three cycles have Abraham’s trembling reassurance to Isaac in verse 8 at their rhetorical center: “God himself will provide” — literally, “God himself will see to it.”

Set against the backdrop of God’s dogged commitment to work through Abraham and his family to repair a sin-polluted creation, it’s a stark picture of God’s utter vulnerability, the lengths to which divine love will go to heal the world. Can we trust God in the face of a bleak future? Is God anywhere to be found when we’re walking in darkness? Is God at all present in the horrors of human life?

God himself will see to it.

This is what Abraham, after God provides a ram for the sacrifice, names that mountain: Jehovah Jireh, “The LORD will provide.” And as the ancient Church father John Chrysostom notes, Genesis 22 is a “sketch ahead of time in shadow” for how God would one day provide for the putting right of God’s whole world, once and for all.”

Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org

As is often the case, it’s art that imparts what explanations cannot. I encountered the most stunning depiction of this biblical scene in the Golgotha Chapel of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of Jerusalem. On the site traditionally associated with the crucifixion of Jesus, one wall of the chapel features an immense mosaic of this scene: Abraham, knife in hand; Isaac, atop an altar; a ram caught in a thicket of bushes. But on the adjacent wall, there’s a mirroring mosaic: Jesus, nailed to the cross, being raised in the air. There’s an identical thicket in that mosaic, but no ram this time.

This dark story, in the end, foreshadows another journey taken untold centuries later. Jesus of Nazareth — Son of Abraham, and Son of God — would walk into that same mountain range, with wood on his back, and make the dreadful three-day journey into death. These are the lengths to which the divine Love would go for the sake of the world.

God himself saw to it.

Jared Ayers

Jared Ayers serves as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach, Florida. Prior to this, he founded and served as the senior pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary & the Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 16 years, and have been graced with two sons and a daughter.

20 Comments

  • PHIL DEHAAN says:

    Saw this in the spring in Christian Courier, a fine publication out of Canada. The review had some interesting insights, and the book, which I have not read, looks equally interesting.

    https://www.christiancourier.ca/abrahams-silence-revisited/

    ABRAHAM’S SILENCE REVISITED
    Review of ‘Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God’ by J. Richard Middleton.

  • I wrestle with this story also. Thank you for your reflections.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Abraham. Always questing. What do you ask of me? Did you promise my offspring would be a blessing to the world? Am I willing to sacrifice what I most love in this world, my son?
    It was a test. When he saw the ram in the thicket, he concluded this was the provision God had provided.
    Prefiguring the Lamb lifted up for the salvation of the whole world. As Jesus’ followers are now quick to point out.
    What am I willing to sacrifice to put “God” first, believing God will be totally sufficient now and forever? The God who is always just beyond our grasp. Ineffable. Gracious. Demanding. Out ahead. Comforting and challenging. This “God” cannot be boxed in, controlled or manipulated. God in communion with his restless creation. Conversation. Relationship. For blessing the whole world. One decision at a time.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    What if Abraham just got this totally wrong? It wouldn’t be the only time in history when deep anxiety or a lust for power or some other motivation drove people to believe God was commanding them to do a horrific thing. See the similar story of jephthahs daughter in judges 13. Sadly there’s no last minute ram in the bushes in this text of terror.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    This story is one of the hardest for me, but I think we render is so difficult because we only consider our cultural perspective. We might note that God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and he never hesitates. He doesn’t ask why. We do these things because it’s unthinkable, but in Abraham’s context and wider culture, this is the sort of thing gods ask of people all the time, testing the commitment of the people who claim to follow them.
    So, what if this isn’t a test of Abraham, though it is of course, but a test of God, a test of the God who made the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, where he promises to do what the servant should do for the master? He promises to fulfill both ends of the covenant. What if by the end God reaffirms this covenant and passes the test, as Abraham passes his test? God will not be a god like the others, but Elohim will fulfill both ends of the covenant in the Akedah, and in the cross, as you aptly point out.
    I can’t help but think we miss all this because we’re so stuck in our own context of how horrific this story is (and it is) and thus we never bother to ask about Abraham’s context or what God might be doing in it to reveal more about God and what it will take to transform Abraham and the world.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Wow! The conversation that came from this blog (text)!! And all the comments. Thank you
    Joyce and Wes

  • Mel VanderBrug says:

    Always wondered why this story is not told from Isaacs viewpoint. Why didn’t he fight his father? Did he try to run away? Both would have been natural instincts. Did he suffer later in life from this trauma? May be the first case of PTSD.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Mel,
      These are great questions. One wonders if Isaac trusted his father, who clearly loved him so very much. One wonders about a son’s duty to his father. What is interesting is Abraham had an ongoing conversation with God and we see this over and over again through many means.
      Isaac? He barely speaks with God and fights with the tradition that he must have known (God chooses the youngest over the oldest, again upending the cultural traditions). You get the sense that Isaac is not on good terms with God, at least not on the terms that Abraham was on with God.
      What’s more interesting with this relationship is God doesn’t give up on Isaac and does not let him go, even with the cold shoulder and the bad relationship. It may be that God understands what happened to Isaac. It might reveal even more about God’s commitment to the covenant and the commitment to being a God like no other god.
      Just some thoughts

      • Tom says:

        Perhaps a way to think about it is that later on we are told this story from Isaac’s perspective – in the gospels with Jesus path to the cross. Being a father myself, I identify with Abraham in this story and find myself trying to imagine what was going through his head (and heart); and through that, having a greater understanding of the Father’s great sacrifice.

        • Rodney Haveman says:

          Thanks Tom, that’s an interesting thought. I’m a father of a first born son, a son we spent a good bit of time trying to have and being told it wasn’t going to happen. I’m a first born son to a father who didn’t exactly “sacrifice” me, certainly not to God, but sort of “sacrificed” me to other “gods” in his life. I identify with both. It’s always made me ponder what sacrifice a righteous act requires, because they all do require some sacrifice. Thankfully God never asked me to sacrifice my son. I’m guessing I would have ignored it. I suppose for the better. Our current culture would deem me a monster. I get the sense that Abraham’s culture would deem him normal.

  • William Harris says:

    I am wondering if our discomfort is part of the male gaze, an androcentric way of seeing. Is this different from Hagar placing Ishmael under the bush to die? More particularly, two interesting poems came to mind:

    The Mother, Gwendolyn Brooks, about abortion and the closing lines:
    Believe me, I loved you all.
    Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
    All.
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43309/the-mother-56d2220767a02

    The lost baby poem, Lucille Clifton, about a miscarriage, It’s beginning:
    the time i dropped your almost body down
    down to meet the waters under the city
    and run one with the sewage to the sea
    what did i know about waters rushing back
    what did i know about drowning
    or being drowned

    To read the story of the sacrifice is to again confront the violence that is at the heart of our own lives. And that even our participation in violence is not the last word.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    You can listen to Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” as a soundtrack for your study this week. And note the motif in this song of “Hineni, Hineni” or “Here I am” Abraham’s thrice repeated line in Genesis 22. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0nmHymgM7Y

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    What about the missing Mother voice – of this rendition of the Divine? And, the missing presence of the woman who birthed the boy. What if this one story is way too narrow to hold all the Fullness of how Creation moves & has her being – then & now?

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Thank you for this important reminder, Emily. I’ve always tried to imagine what the conversation must have been like when Isaac runs home ahead of Abraham into his mother’s arms and shares, “What dad did!” I can’t help but imagine a rather cold wind entering the home that may never quite go away. One wonders if Sarah ever comes to see it the same way. One also wonders if that matters. God is the God of Sarah too, and maybe God doesn’t require that Sarah sees it the same way as Abraham. God welcomes both responses as faithful. After all, Sarah doesn’t leave. Maybe she can’t, but she doesn’t. Maybe she stays to keep an eye on her son, never trusting Abraham again. Who knows, but we shouldn’t forget her voice.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    It helps me to realize that we often think of God’s speech in the Bible in magical terms.. What if God talked to Abraham the same way he talks to us today? Whether it was with signs and wonders, or astounding visions, or dreams, or a still small voice, or two visitors stopping for dinner giving Abraham and Sarah a verbal message using sound waves–whatever it was–it still took faith for Abraham to believe that it was God himself speaking to him and to have the courage to act on it.

    Imagine Abraham, after decades of hearing and following and finally seeing the fulfillment in Isaac, noticing that all the people around him followed a god who required an even more difficult obedience–that of sacrificing their firstborn. So Abraham with his spiritual sensitivity and courageous faith wondered whether God was telling him to do the same. Surely he was as dedicated to his God as they were to theirs. He became obsessed. He finally thought that the only way to decide was to go, while on the lookout for God to tell him he was mistaken “God will provide,” he told Isaac.

    God did provide, and for the rest of time this story continues to be the evidence that God wants his people, beginning with their father Abraham, to know, among other things, that child sacrifice is an abomination.

    It always takes faith to hear God.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      This is an interesting thought. It pairs with my comment earlier, except you take it one step further (not unwelcome) to turn the first verse of the story, “God tests Abraham,” to a version of “Abraham tests God.” You could be right. There’s ambiguity by the end of the text in this regard, but the beginning is rather clear. This is about Abraham.

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