Last week I brought home the new Disney movie “Tangled” from the library. In case you missed out on seeing the movie – or its previews – “Tangled” is a twist on the Rapunzel story. When the Queen is pregnant with Rapunzel, she becomes deathly ill. The only thing that can save her is a miracle – in this case, a golden flower with special healing properties. Folks from the kingdom pluck the flower, turn it into a broth and the queen is healed. Shortly after, a baby girl is born.
Of course, it turns out an evil woman was dependent on this flower to keep herself young. She quickly realized that the girl’s hair now possesses the healing properties of the flower, so she sneaks into the girl’s room and kidnaps her. The old woman keeps Rapunzel in a hidden tower and raises the child as her own.
But the King and Queen never give up on their child. Every year on her birthday, they release floating lanterns in hope that their lost daughter will see them and return. They dream their daughter will come home.
Do you have dreams for your children? I don’t have any kids yet, but I already wish things for them – I want them to grow up knowing they are loved. I want them to be confident and kind. I want them to find jobs doing something that they enjoy – preferably something with a large enough income that they will not need to live with Mom and Dad in their adult years! We all have dreams for our children.
Abraham was no different. Reading through Genesis, it is clear that Abraham had dreams of his own. He dreamed of having children – he and his wife, Sarah, were barren. In a time when children were the only retirement plan, being barren was a serious matter. He dreamed and dreamed of a child – and finally received a son – and then another. I imagine he dreamed of his sons having lots of children of their own. After all, that was God’s promise – “I will make of you a nation.” Perhaps he dreamed that his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, could grow up together, play together. Maybe he dreamed that the children would bring peace to their mothers.
The beginning of our text shatters that dream: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go into the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” The instructions continued, but I wonder if Abraham even heard the words.
My friend, Rabbi Justin Kerber points out that the instruction is rather wordy – couldn’t God have just said “Take Isaac?” And wouldn’t that have been more accurate? – Isaac isn’t Abraham’s only son.
Or is he? I wonder if this isn’t the first time Abraham has been asked to sacrifice a son. In the chapter before our text – chapter 21 – Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac and becomes furious. “Cast them out,” she says. I don’t want THAT boy inheriting what could go to MY son. And we are told that Abraham is distressed because “THAT boy” is his son. THAT boy is a child he loves. But God tells him to listen to Sarah and not be distressed, so he sends Hagar and Ishmael away. And a dream dies.
“After these things God tested Abraham.” I wonder if Abraham didn’t feel the pain long before God said anything about a burnt offering. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” I can’t help but wonder if Abraham begins thinking of another son, whom he also loves. Surely God has not forgotten Ishmael. Then are these words intended to hurt Abraham? To point out that he has a missing son? To remind Abraham that in some sense he has already sacrificed his first son? To make perfectly clear that following this request would mean the end of the promise God has given Abraham? We don’t know. Perhaps Abraham didn’t know, either.
But just like he did when God asked a younger Abram to “go to the land I will show you,” Abraham simply packs and sets about the task at hand – again not knowing where the journey will lead. Again embarking on a road that will lead to a cutoff from all that is known. The first time, Abraham was leaving behind family, culture and security. In many ways, the journey into the land of Moriah is the same – how will Sarah respond to news of her son’s sacrifice? How will the couple survive without a son to care for them in their old age?
I imagine these questions are circling through Abraham’s head as he leads the donkey, the two men and Isaac on the journey. Three days in, Abraham sees that the place was “far away.” When you travel for that long, there is plenty of time for reflection.
Isaac senses something is wrong. We aren’t told his age. Some say he must be at least 10, because he is able to help carry the supplies. The Jewish tradition says that Isaac is about 37. We know Sarah is 90 when she gives birth to Isaac, and the chapter right after this one refers to Sarah as being 127 years old. All we really know is that Isaac is old enough to make a several day journey and old enough to know that when you go this far to sacrifice something to God, you bring your sacrifice with you. Isaac may be hoping that his elderly father has begun losing his mind. Many scholars point out that child sacrifice was common during this time, so it is entirely possible that Isaac suspected that he was the object of sacrifice.
Isaac’s fears were certainly confirmed when his father bound him and placed him on top of the altar. Have you ever thought about what it must feel like to be sacrificed? To have your father lift a knife over you? To know that God asked him to do this?
And then a voice cuts through the thoughts, the fears, the prayers. “Abraham, Abraham!” He responds “Here I am.” “Don’t hurt the boy!” And Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket. I don’t know much about rams – and I’m not talking about football, although my husband will be glad to tell you that I don’t know much about that, either. What I do know is that animals caught in something tend to be loud. They thrash around, trying to free themselves. Was Abraham so distressed, so focused that he missed it before?
Through the ram, Isaac is spared. The promise continues. A dream lives. But if you are like me, you are left scratching your head. The God who provided a ram was the same God who asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The provider was the tester.
What does that say about God? Do we serve the kind of God that would risk our relationships just to test us?
Lest we think this struggle is part of an old system that is changed with the coming of Jesus, let’s look at the New Testament. Remember the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples? We often refer to it as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Many churches pray it together during the Sunday service:
“Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed by thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On Earth as it is in Heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses/sins
As we forgive those who trespass/sin against us
LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION – Don’t test us, Lord!
But deliver us from evil – provide for us.
Don’t test us. As Walter Brueggemann says, “The prayer commended by Jesus is that God should not put us in a testing situation where we are driven to choose, decide and risk for our confession of faith. The prayer is the petition that our situation of faith may not be so urgent that we will be found out. The prayer bespeaks fear that we will be found wanting if such testing comes.”
And don’t we live in that fear – in that question? Our lives are a struggle between testing and provision. “Where is God when disaster strikes?” and “Why did God let this happen to me?” meet “Thank you Lord for opening up this parking space” and “We weren’t hit by that tornado, God was really looking out for us.” So… does God cause trials or does God protect us from them? Is God the giver of dreams or the destroyer of dreams? How can God be both tester and provider? And how is it possible to trust such a God?
You might think this is the part of the sermon where I give all the answers. I have a confession to make: I don’t have any. The question, the struggle, the tension are part of the story. My Hebrew Bible professor, Laura Moore, addresses these passages by saying “there is a reason we call this faith.” And she’s right. Our faith isn’t about knowing the answers. In Philippeans 2, Paul urges the people of Phillipi to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
I urge you to continue wrestling with this text. I invite you to welcome the questions and see them not as an enemy of your faith, but as an important part of your faith. Perhaps, like Abraham, we will learn to trust God even when God doesn’t seem to make sense. “There’s a reason we call this faith.”
Read more from Jennifer at her blog.