Some time ago, I sent one of our grandaughters a book of Bible Stories
for children, which I had selected with the greatest of care. No sentimental
pap for my grandaughter.I wanted to be absolutely certain that the book
was not only theologically acceptable for an Anglican, but was also
pedagogically suitable for a six year old child. One evening when we
were visiting her and her family, she asked me to read one of the stories
of her choice. To my surprise, and dismay, she chose the story of Abraham
and his near sacrifice of his son Isaac, today's first reading. I winced
through my whole reading of the story, at the end of which my granddaughter
asked, "Is that a true story?" Well, there I was - against
the wall - no escape. How do you answer such a question of a six year
old, about a biblical that lots of people find very difficult? Obviously
I had two choices. Unfortunately I chose to say, "Yes, it's a true
story". My cunning granddaughter responded, "Grandma said
it isn't." I was unaware that she had asked my wife to read the
same story the night before!!! What a dilemma!
The story is doubtless one of the most intense but also dismaying passages
in the Old Testament. We read it today as part of this long current
series of readings from the Book of Genesis, which is really a history
of our salvation, a history which includes the Exodus, the Covenant
with Moses on Sinai, the wilderness wandering, and the settlement of
the people of Israel in the land of Canaan. We need to realize that
today's story is therefore part of a much larger story, for it is not
only the life of one little child, Isaac, that is in jeopardy, but the
future of the People of God as well.
Now the point of the story is explained right off the bat in the first
verse. "God tested Abraham". But reading that doesn't help.
Do you know when God is testing you? Maybe you suspected after the testing,
but I doubt you knew before. I'm not talking about temptation. The older
and more cunning we get, the better we are at knowing when we are being
tempted. Testing is different. Abraham didn't know he was being tested.
He only hears the horrifying command to take Isaac and offer him up
as a sacrifice - to kill his own son ! The command is repeated, this
time with great pathos. "Take your son, kill your only son, Isaac,
whom you love !!!!!!
Although we've heard the story many times, and we know how it turns
out, to hear it again is to become engaged in its poignancy and power.
It has mystery theatre qualities. Will the angel of the Lord arrive
in time to save Isaac? Will Abraham pass the test? Will Isaac live?
Of course the questions are answered. Abraham who had never hesitated,
was willing to obey, but God did not require the life of his son, Isaac.
Yet other questions still remain. Why the story? Why did God need to
test Abraham in the first place? And why in such an extreme manner?
Did Abraham know what God was up to? There aren't any satisfying answers
to such questions in the biblical text. We can only speculate, which,
as an aside, is not bad advice about how we might deal with some of
those difficult to understand passages, especially in the Old Testament.
.To speculate is not wrong. It can be a substitute for literalism.
I think now that there are two things I might have said to my granddaughter
if I had been prepared for her awkward question. The first would be
to say something to her about what I discern from my experience to be
the nature of God. The God in these biblical stories is the God, not
of abstract philosophers, but, as scripture describes Him over and over
again, the God of people! Of specific people! The God of Abraham, Isaac
and Jacob, and therefore of Joe and my grandaughter Amanda Fricker,
and of us all. A God who is known only in the context of a shared and
lived experience. Without that human experience, God remains an intellectual
abstraction. But our God is a God with whom we are in a deeply personal
The other thing I might have said has to do with something that as six
year old can perhaps comprehend more easily than her ancient grandfather.
It has to do with faith. Abraham trusted in God even when God's action
was not readily understood, even when he really knew what the outcome
would be. Faith is like that. Faith is commitment, sometimes it is,
if not a blind leap, then frequently an unclear leap into the unknown,
a leap into an unfamiliar territory with only a few recognizable sign
posts. Faith involves trust, that the God Abraham and Isaac and Amanda
is always the God who knows; the God who cares; the God who wants to
protect; above all the God who always loves.