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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.
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.”
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.