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Minnesota Episcopal
Environmental
Stewardship
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Episcopal Church in Minnesota
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Lectionary Reflection

Year A, Proper 8
Revised Common Lectionary (Semi-Continuous Track)
Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture) Reading

Genesis 22:1-14

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 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.

 

Reflections on Genesis 22:1-14

by the Rev Sally Maxwell

This Sunday's Old Testament reading begins a series of subsequent lectionary passages on the patriarchs. Abraham is the key figure whom God tests and then blesses abundantly.

One could look at Abraham's faith and calling as well as his willingness to be sent, and compare that to our calling for eco-justice. What stops us from responding as fully and as trustingly as Abraham did? What sustained his faith that he would even sacrifice his beloved son? What sustains our faith for justice for the environment?

The most common exegesis of this passage looks upon Abraham as extremely faithful, but a reflection from the margins takes a different viewpoint. It poses the question,

"Why didn't Abraham speak up for his son?! How can we hail him as a hero for that?" This can lead to reflection about the use of one's voice for justice. What does it do for your spiritual life when you fail to speak up for a deafening need, such as for the environment?

I heard, for example, that 30,000 people in Santiago, Chile, walked the streets of downtown in the spring of 2011. They raised their voices about the proposed hydroelectric dams in the Patagonia, which so far has been undeveloped. Giving voice for eco-justice is certainly a faithful and heroic thing to do.

This passage ends with Abraham naming the place where God has acted. He names the place where Isaac was saved, calling it "The Lord will provide". This was an honoring of that place on earth and an honoring of God. What if we always honored the land where God has acted, or where we have encountered God? There is nowhere in creation that we would not honor! The name includes future tense, also encouraging us to move forward as we honor the earth and God.

by John G. Gibbs, PhD

This is for us a curious story, freighted with many challenges for interpretation. There is the issue of child sacrifice. The question arises for some: why would God choose this means of "testing" Abraham? There is the significance of Isaac for Abraham. There is the relation between God's promise and its fulfillment. What about references to this story in the NT?

Child sacrifice is abhorrent to us. For the teller of this tale, however, human sacrifice could credibly be in play, for it was present in surrounding and preceding cultures (e.g. Canaanites). But one accomplishment of this story about the "binding" (Jewish term) or near-sacrifice of Isaac is to make clear that now and for all time human sacrifice is no part of Israelite worship. The last-minute provision of a ram instead of the son emphasizes that God does not demand human sacrifices.

Why would the Elohist (who wrote this story) portray God (Elohim) as making the frightful command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac? Given the way the story concludes, possibly one reason for doing so was to set Israel's faith emphatically against its environment. The story does not elaborate any theology of sacrifice, so it appears that the Elohist's story simply used a pagan practice for the apologetic practice of showing the distinctiveness of Israel's cultic practice; namely: they would never sacrifice a human being.

But much more is at stake than such an apologetic purpose. We remember the laughter with which both Abraham (at age 99) and Sarah responded to the promise that she would bear a son (Gen. 17:17; 18:9ff.). But what seemed to them incredible happened, and Isaac was born (his name meaning "he laughs"). This event was not only the birth of a new son. It was also the down-payment of God's promise that through Abraham all nations would be blessed in the future (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:17-19). If Abraham and Sarah had died without an heir, on the other hand, there would be no tangible way for that promise to be fulfilled.

Isaac must live in order for God's promise to be fulfilled. That is the theological significance of Isaac for Abraham. As von Rad claimed, the motif of promise runs as a uniting theme through all Abraham narratives. [Genesis (Westminster Press, 1972), pp. 237-45]

This exalted theme does not, however, displace the father's affection for his son, which is clearly emphasized in this story. The father takes the knife and the fire, lest the son be injured thereby. The father lives on the basis of his faith, which he shares with his son: "God himself will provide…" (22:8). Accordingly, there is a normal father-son relationship here.

What was "tested" in this story? Abraham's faith, of course. The relation between God and Abraham is open, according to this story, and there is ongoing communication between them. The plot does not portray a game. It describes real development from God not knowing (22:2) to God saying "Now I know" (22:12). The story does not provide psychological information about the state of Abraham's mind, or Isaac's, so it is useless for us to dwell on that lacuna of data. The point of the story does not emerge psychologically. It is driven home theologically. Abraham had such faith in God as to trust that God would provide a way for fulfillment of the promise whether or not Isaac, the last known means for God to fulfill the promise (Gen. 21:12), was taken away.

For the early Church Abraham's faith amounts to faithfulness. This conviction is particularly clear in Romans 4:3, 9, 12ff. and in Hebrews 11:17-19. His faith "is reckoned" to be "righteousness."

Some other reflections:

  1. Faith is not sight. It has no "proof." It has promises. It "worships" (22:5). As the story proceeds from its beginning the question is: would Abraham's faith survive the loss of the only living evidence (i.e., Isaac) that God's promise could be fulfilled? Faith is a long journey with no guarantees.
  2. Abraham's worship takes place at a distance from familiar surroundings: "in the distance" (22:3), "far away" (22:4), "on the third day" of the journey toward a certain mountain. His trust that "the Lord will provide" is not passive resignation. His worship is active, it journeys, it makes preparation for sacrifice, it engages in earnest dialogue with both son and God.
  3. "provide" is the usual translation for this text of a Hebrew verb that otherwise designates "seeing." Karl Barth suggested that we take "provide" as "pro-video," in which case God sees beforehand, according to the story. A ram would be needed for sacrifice, God sees in advance, and so provides it. [Church Dogmatics 3/3, pp. 3, 35] Brueggemann cites this.
  4. The most helpful clear discussion of Gen. 22:1-24 is, in my view, Brueggemann's in his commentary on Genesis (John Knox Press, 1982), pp. 185-94.
  5. In Fear and Trembling (1843) and his return to this story in The Sickness Unto Death (1849) Soren Kierkegaard displays a depth of psychological insight that caught the attention even of Freud. The translation by Walter Lowrie (Princeton Univ. Press, 1941, 1954) includes an account of Fear and Trembling written by David F. Swenson who rightly sees SK focusing on "some of the distinctive traits of the religious concept of faith." These include: the particularity of faith's relationship to God (without intermediary of community or tradition), infinite resignation and removal from wish-fulfillment, independence of reason, "teleological suspension of the ethical as exemplified in Abraham," and the paradoxical movement of faith. That is, Abraham had to find his own way as he journeyed up the mountain with his son. At the summit, his son was given back to him as a kind of second confirmation of the promise that through Abraham the nations would be blessed.
  6. There is nothing explicit here about the Creation. Instead we have in Abraham's faith a model of faith that is open to God's own future with the world and with himself and his family.

Printable version

To Reflections on other Readings for Year A, Proper 8:

Reflections available at the active links

Semi-Continuous Track
Gospel Theme Track
Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture) Reading:
Genesis 22: 1-14
(this page)
Jeremiah 28: 5-9
Psalm
New Testament Reading
Romans 6: 12-23
Gospel
Matthew 10: 40-42

 

The Rev Sally Maxwell was the campus minister at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Duluth, MN, when she originally wrote this reflection in 2011. 

John G. Gibbs, a retired theologian, resided in Park Rapids, MN, when he originally wrote this reflection in October 2011.

Sally, John, and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to Sally Maxwell, John G. Gibbs, or any MEESC member, or mail them to:


MEESC
c/o C. Morello
4451 Lakeside Drive
Eveleth, MN 55743-4400 USA

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