Written by Courtney McHill, United Methodist Pastor
There is something in Judaism called midrash. Midrash is a way to explain scripture by adding storytelling to fill in the blanks. It is rabbinic literature. Midrash attempts to explain the ethics and flesh out biblical characters. For example, a midrash may attempt to explain why Adam didn’t stop Eve from eating forbidden fruit in the garden. Scripture doesn’t explain it out so rabbis have passed down other stories to try to explain and to fill in the blanks.
There is midrash all over the place for this story in Genesis. The story about Abraham and Isaac doesn’t make any sense! In fact, this is one of my least favorite stories in the bible because it is violent, ugly and doesn’t fit. It seems to be a different writer than before. First of all, Abraham is way too passive in this whole thing. Just before this story in Genesis, Abraham fights with God about saving people in Sodom and Gomorrah. He has never been this passive with God. He debates with God, fights with God, and has quite the relationship with God throughout Genesis. For some reason in this scripture he just replies, “Here I am!” This seems to be the place where he would fight the most. He has been waiting for this son Isaac. Isaac is a true miracle wrapped up in all sorts of promises with God.
This story doesn’t fit with the promises given by God. God has promised a great nation from Isaac. Why would he ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? God has been so against child sacrifice and has promised covenant with God’s people. This doesn’t line up with previous promises and care for God’s people.
And why wouldn’t Isaac figure out what is going on? He helps his father carry the wood to burn the sacrifice and Abraham is acting weird. Wouldn’t Isaac be able to figure out that something weird is going down? Abraham is vague about where to get the sacrifice and leaves everyone else behind.
So what do we do with this story? It doesn’t fit God, Abraham, Isaac or what we know of the Jewish people. Rabbinic culture in using midrash tells us that this becomes then a story of how God actually fulfills promises by providing a different sacrifice. This story becomes one of obedience on behalf of Abraham. And this becomes a story of putting God before everything else. Our children can’t take place of God. Our busyness can’t take the place of God. Our expectations can’t take the place of God. In the end God pulls through, calls Abraham away from what he is about to do and provides for Abraham while saving Isaac. It is ok if we don’t like this story but here it is and we must do something with this is as part of history. It is ok if we doubt the reasons but let us continue to explore and fill in the story. What do you think?
“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” ― Corrie ten Boom
“Faith is walking face-first and full-speed into the dark. If we truly knew all the answers in advance as to the meaning of life and the nature of God and the destiny of our souls, our belief would not be a leap of faith and it would not be a courageous act of humanity; it would just be… a prudent insurance policy.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert
Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-14 (NRSV) 21 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.
22 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill[a] his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”;as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
Questions for the Week
How do you deal with this story?
What do you do with stories in the bible that don’t make sense to you?