Abraham is headed up that mountain with his son Isaac, under orders from God to offer the boy, his beloved long-awaited son, as sacrifice.
There is a strange sparseness to the story. God tells Abraham what he must do – we know it is a test of Abraham’s faithfulness, although Abraham does not. There is no response, no argument, no anger. The old man, still strong, with sturdy legs and powerful arms, prepares for the task. He gathers up the live coal, wrapping it carefully to preserve its ember-heart so that it will light a fire on Mt Moriah. He throws the saddle over the donkey’s back – Abraham thinks for moment – how many donkeys have I owned over the years of my life? Ten, twenty? Will this be the last one doing my bidding as I am doing God’s bidding? He calls out to two of his men “walk with me – we have work to do on the mountain – El Adonai commands it.” He beckons to Isaac, a gawky spindly-legged boy of eleven, the curly-headed love of his life, his miracle boy, to come with them. The boy is excited, always glad to be invited by his father to participate in another adventure. He does not see the knife tucked in his father’s belt, but even if he had, he wouldn’t be frightened. His father always has the knife, to cut a sheep’s umbilical cord, to slice a rope, to slaughter a sacrificial animal. It is just another tool. They begin to hike to the mountain. They know it – they have grazed the sheep there before. It is green at the lower levels, where they take the sheep to graze. They reach the mountain and begin to scrabble up as Abraham directs them. There are some trees where they can sit and get some shade in the heat of the midday. Abraham has the men gather some branches, and he cuts them into short lengths. “For the sacrifice to El Adonai,” he gruffly says, as he ties the bundle of wood to Isaac’s back. The men stay put now, as Abraham and Isaac continue to ascend.
It is late in the afternoon now, and the climbing has become more difficult as they near the top of the mountain. It is not hot up here, and Isaac is glad they are now starting a fire for the sacrifice that might warm their bones as well. They are above the treeline, and there are only scrabbly bushes to cut the wind. A chill breeze sends a shiver down Isaac’s back, and suddenly he realizes that something is missing. Where is the animal to be slain and offered to Adonai? He turns to his father. “Where is the sheep, father?” “Adonai will provide it, my son.”
Isaac is puzzled. Isn’t the whole point of sacrificing to take something of your own and give it to Adonai? Why would Adonai provide the sheep? But now his father is approaching, and his face is grim. There is rope in his hand, and suddenly his father is wrapping the rope around him, tying his hands, whipping his feet together. What is this that is happening? Isaac is struggling, but his father is strong, and he cannot escape the ropes that now imprison him. He twists around and looks with panic into his father’s eyes, his father who now has the knife in his hand. Isaac has no words, but a small moan escapes his lips, and his father, his dear father who has loved him with a passion beyond imagining, is looking down on him as the boy arches his back in fear, and the tear that is rolling down the crevasse of his old and wrinkled cheek shines blood red in the reflected fire…Isaac knows that he is to die, that he is the sacrifice. The son of the patriarch, sacrificed on the fire. He thinks, “May my father’s hand be swift as it is with the sheep or the ram.”
He is on the verge of fainting, and he is ashamed to realize that he has soiled his breeches. All he can think of is how the knife will feel, how the coursing blood running down his neck will feel, or will he feel any of it at all? Why is his father doing this? Something inside him freezes and then breaks into a thousand icy crystals, and then melts away. Something is gone from him.
And in that moment, when he is sure he can feel the edge of the knife making the first slivering cut into his neck, it stops.
The boy hears a voice. It is not his father’s voice, nor is it the voice of the men who had come out on this march of death with them. It is not an earthly voice, but it is not the voice of Adonai as the boy had imagined it. Not deep and thundering, but steely…and yet there is a tenderness there. The voice says, “Stop it, Abraham. Go no further in this sacrifice. You have proven your faithfulness.” And the heat of his father’s hand and the steel of the knife are gone now, as his father turns around and lets his beautiful boy with the broken heart drop to the ground. There is a ram, bleating, caught in the nearby brush. His father grabs the animal with a fierce anger, savagely slashes its throat, and tosses the lifeless carcass onto the fire.
The boy thinks, “He is angry. Angry at me? Angry at the ram? Angry at Adonai?” His father, who has always loved him with a passion beyond description, is now a stranger to him. His abba, his daddy, whom he had always loved with the blissful assurance that his father would never forsake him, is now the one who stood ready to kill him, an alien to him. And yet the boy does not have the strength to be angry himself. No, he is merely cold and tired and broken and wants his mother. Did his mother know what was about to happen? Did she permit this? Can he ever trust her again?
His father mutters a few words of prayer over the now-smoldering remains of the ram, and reaches out his hand to help the boy up, to bring him back down the mountain. He looks at the boy with a glimmer of fear – does the boy hate him now? But all he sees is a dull, blank stare. The boy takes his hand to stand, shakily, then quickly drops it once he is upright. And his father, wordless, gestures to him to walk down the mountain.
They go down slowly, because the boy is a bit unsteady on his feet. The old man is, too. The sacrifice has taken as much trust out of the boy as it put into the old man, and they are shaken by that.
And then the voice returns, commending Abraham on his faithfulness, and awarding Abraham the gift of many offspring. An odd thing, that. Having proven that he is a father willing to sacrifice his son for his God, God gives him many more descendants. A cynical person would see only the irony and say Abraham was the least fit to father a mighty nation, given his behavior on the mountaintop, but we are followers of the same God, and we know that sometimes his commands are more painful and difficult to interpret than we would imagine a loving creator would demand.
Did Isaac have any words for his father as they tramped down the mountain? Did he ask his father why? Did he say, “I’ll never trust you again?” Or did he simply say nothing?
What do we know of Isaac after this event? We know that he remained unmarried until the age of forty, when his father arranged his marriage to Rebekah, through the good offices of an unnamed servant. We know when Rebekah first saw him, she fell off her camel…although some translations say she slipped down off the camel in a very genteel manner. But I like to think she was so blown away by his good looks that she fell off – after all, she invited him almost immediately into her tent…you can read between the lines.
Then we don’t hear much about Isaac until the birth of his twin boys, Jacob and Esau, who had their share of ups and downs. Isaac, this son of Abraham, was the first seed of a mighty nation promised by God, and his story is short and full of sorrows…not what one would expect from such a lineage.
And yet, Isaac, the boy broken on the altar of his father’s faithfulness, still contributes to the great story. Even though his life is troubled, he still contributes, by virtue of his fatherhood to Jacob and Esau. Jacob, of course, was himself something of a problem child, but he was renamed “Israel” by God and was also promised in a dream that he would be the father of a great nation.
Perhaps the lesson here is that God uses these imperfect broken people to perfect a broken world. When Isaac came down from the mountain, I wonder if he had a question: what kind of God would demand love of God before love of his child? Could he follow such a God? I wonder if that was why he hadn’t married at the age of forty, making his father go find him a wife? Was love too untrustworthy for him? I wonder how that shaped his own vision of fatherhood when the twins were born? Were these two boys who wrestled even in the womb the ones who taught him the power of paternal love, so much so that he was willing to be duped by one of them at the end of his life? What kind of love would Isaac see in his own difficult family, and what kind of love would Isaac experience in this seemingly distant God? And yet, he kept turning back toward the God who, all those years ago, had been willing to demand the unthinkable from his father.
He realized at the end of his life, I think, that God never intended to see Abraham’s knife make the final cut. He understood at the end of his life that relationships are complicated, and love is rarely utterly pure between fathers and sons. He knew at the end of his life that you love the best you can, not as well as God loves – even the seemingly harsh God in today’s story – and that if you love, God uses you to spread that strange and mysterious love to the larger world.
We are all broken. Not all of us have come back from the precipice of death at our fathers’ hands, although some have. Not all of us have seen our fathers cast off our half-brother and his mother, although some have. Not all of us have suffered because of love, but most of us have at one time or another. The lesson of Abraham’s faithfulness and its impact on Isaac’s life is not so much that God tests our faith, but that God loves us and sees us as worthy of the work whether we respond with utter and complete faithfulness or with incomplete or feeble attempts.
We are worthy to be the sacrifice, as Isaac was worthy. We are worthy to do the work that God expects from us. That is love, the belief that we are worthy, and even if we are imperfect, we are still beloved and worthy. We are cherished. We are worthy. That is why God trusts us to do the difficult tasks he places before us. That is why God keeps asking us, even when we fall short in our prior attempts. That is why even a God who would ask something beyond comprehension is confirming that God thinks his beloved creation is up to the task.
We may be broken by what God sets before us, as Isaac was and as Jesus was when he cried out “why have you forsaken me?” We may not be able to finish the work. But we can still do it as much as we can, and we can still try again. God loves us, so he asks us, and we try, because God finds us worthy to be asked and we find God worthy of serving.