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The Bible has no shortage of parts that are very unsettling.
Now, some of these are peripheral to the overall Christian worldview; they are obscure snippets that report some strange or disturbing things people did, with no indication of what God spoke in response. The Book of Judges, for example, has a number of these. Many other parts are unsettling largely because of the difference between us and the people who lived back then—our different social or cultural norms, our moral stances, or our particular understanding of the cosmos.
But, neither of these is the case for what we’ll explore this episode—God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. A father’s love for his child is something that is the same, regardless of culture or time, whether today, or 4000 years ago. This is even emphasized in the story as God speaks to Abraham with these words, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering.”
And this is a pivotal story in the Bible; it’s not some small story tucked in an obscure corner in the Bible. It essentially completes Abraham’s story and his journey with God, so that what comes after in his life feels more of an epilogue.
But, why? Why would God ask this of Abraham? This horrific thing?
And one answer is perhaps the most unsettling part of the story: it’s because this is what everyone who follows in Abraham’s footsteps—everyone who encounters God Who speak to them—will eventually hear. We will all eventually be confronted with the same call: “Take the one, whom you love most, and give them over to God.”
[ music / ]
Welcome to "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our ninth episode of the third season, “Why God asks Abraham to offer up his son: we are all Abraham, laying Isaac down.”
[ / music ]
Here’s a question: at what point do you think you would become so sure that God is with you, that you’d feel secure about everything in your life, no matter what happens? …If you believe in God, that is—or, arrived at that belief at some point.
We can even retrace the journey we’ve taken so far in this series. So, you’ve learned that what we mean by “God” is not simply some invisible, super-powerful entity that seems nowhere to be found in our modern “scientific” world; rather, God is Reality that is all around you—all of reality, encompassing every real and possible thing. And let’s say, you’ve come to think that reality is more like a speech, than an inert mass of things, because the entire cosmos is formed and shaped by principles and laws, and because reality does unfold, sort of like an infinite story, as if it is spoken by some Author. Let’s also say that you’re moved by how truthfulness, justice, and compassion enable us to flourish together, and that love—of ourselves, of each other, of the world around us—is what makes Life beautiful, and that is a fundamental character of our reality. So, you’ve concluded, from all of this, that Reality seems to be more of a Who, than a What: Who that speaks forth all things—laws, principles, goodness, beauty, and everything else—and perhaps even personally speaks with us.
Suppose you took that idea and actually tried it out; you’ve begun to relate to Reality as Who, by listening, to see if something does speak to you. Perhaps, you went on some kind of pilgrimage, or a meditative retreat. Or, maybe you went to a church service or a gathering. Or, perhaps, you simply prayed. Let’s say, something did “speak” to you in a meaningful way; maybe you had one of those religious experiences, like a vision or a dream; or perhaps it was more like a sense of calling, or inspiration, or an inner voice speaking—all of that can be “God” speaking to you, since the only definitive trait of God speaking to you is truth. After all, to ask whether God is speaking to you, is the same thing as asking, are you hearing from That which speaks forth everything that is real? And say you followed what was spoken to you—whether it was a call to a change the way you live your life, or to uphold some moral conviction, or to strive for an ideal or a life-goal, or perhaps something simple like taking caring of your family or friends.
Suppose that when you did so, your life unfolded in a way that confirmed the truth of what you heard—it really was the voice of “God.” Maybe what you heard were things you’ve known already, and you needed to be reminded of them. Or, maybe your life unfolded in remarkable ways as you followed that voice, enabling you to overcome adversities you never would’ve faced, or learn things you never would have grasped otherwise; perhaps your family was rescued from a crisis, or you were transformed as a person. Or, maybe the Voice that spoke to you, spoke of things you could not imagine was possible—something you could not believe even as it was spoken to you—but, what that Voice spoke, really did happen, and you realize that you were hearing from the Living God. You witnessed what you can only call a miracle. Reality unfolded things that everyone thought was impossible; things you have long given up—things everyone gave up on—after years and years of trying and hoping, and they suddenly came to life and bore fruit. That is how it was with Sarah, when she gave birth to a son, long past her child bearing age, just as God spoke to her and Abraham.
So, if all of that happened, what would you think? Would you be convinced, for example, that you should relate to Reality all around you, as a Who, and not a What? Would you become convinced that the One that unfolds everything that happens is “God” Who also personally speaks with you? I’d imagine the answer is “yes.” However, would that make you feel secure? Secure about everything, no matter what?
Remember, that is the question I asked earlier in this episode; if you are sure that God personally speaks with you and is present in your life, would you feel secure? If you are convinced that God that speaks forth all of reality is speaking with you and guiding you, would you feel safe? Would you be at peace?
Not necessarily. Because life is full of uncertainties. Which is to say, we do not know what God will speak forth into our life in the future. God speaks forth the Light, but also commands darkness; God brings sunshine and the rain, but also drought and floods. All this is part of Life; all this is what God can speak forth.
That makes us afraid; we are afraid of what Reality may unfold—what God may speak.
[ pendulum ]
Life is full of trouble, even after miracles. Because unlike children’s fairy tales, our life on earth never simply ends with “living happily ever after.”
For Abraham, it happened a few years after Isaac, the miracle child, was born. When Isaac is weaned from his mother, Abraham holds a great celebration. But, during the festivities, Sarah sees Ishmael, now in his pre-teens, “playing with” her son, Isaac. Now, the Hebrew word here is rather ambiguous; it could mean, “mock,” or “play around.” So, it may be that Sarah saw Ishmael, harassing and mocking her son, Isaac. But, the word could also just mean harmless horsing around. Whatever it was, this sets her off. She goes to her husband, Abraham, and demands that Hagar and her son, Ishmael, is sent away and removed as a member of their household.
This sounds rather harsh, and it is. But, for that society, the brothers, Ishmael and Isaac presented a very complicated and potentially dangerous legal conundrum. The problem was simple: who’s the heir? Well, Isaac was. He is born of Abraham’s proper wife, and is the legal heir, whereas Ishmael is the son of a slave-woman. But, Ishmael is also the firstborn son of Abraham. And this is not simply an issue of who inherits which parts of Abraham’s estate. You can split the things you own to your children, but, Abraham is the head of a household, and the leader of a community of people. So, the question is: who will be the next head? Who will continue Abraham’s legacy? That’s much, much harder to split. And even worse, Ishmael is older, it is likely that Ishmael would gain the support of the group, before Isaac can come of age and proves himself.
Simply put, if Ishmael continues to hold some claim to Abraham’s inheritance along with Isaac, he would be in a position to oust Isaac from his rightful place. It is unclear from the story alone whether Sarah was fully aware of this danger—though I’d expect so— but, either way, Genesis reports that Abraham became very distressed because of this. After all, Ishmael is, before anything else, his son—not some threat to Isaac’s future leadership, but first and foremost, a son he loves.
Then, God speaks to Abraham. “Do not be distressed because of the boy, and your slave woman, and do what Sarah tells you.” Then, God promises Abraham, “I will make your son, Ishmael, into a nation.” God will bless and care for Ishmael and Hagar, as Abraham’s family. But, what God promised specifically to Abraham, will continue with Isaac. In other words, God was saying it is Isaac, who will continue Abraham’s journey with God, because it was Isaac, who was born from God’s impossible promise to him. Ishmael will walk his own path with God. Indeed, numerous people, throughout the ages, across the world, have their own encounter and walk with God, and leave their mark in history, and Ishmael will be one of them. But, Ishmael’s journey will not be Abraham’s, nor will his be the one that will continue it.
So, Abraham gives Hagar and her son, a supply of food and water, and sends them away. Technically speaking, they were “freed” from their bondage, but, in their social context, this was equivalent to being laid off from your job and evicted from your rental housing. Hagar and Ishmael then wander the wilderness, both figuratively and literally, until their supply of water runs out. Hagar lays her exhausted son down under a shade of a bush, and sits down some distance away from him—about a bowshot’s length, the story specifies. Then, she weeps, saying, “Don’t let me see my child die.”
Then, God speaks through an angel. “Don’t be distressed; I have heard the voice of this child even where he is. Come, lift him up, because I will make him into a great nation.” And as Hagar looks up, she sees a well of water—this was, according to Genesis, God “opening” her eyes to see what was really there before her. She hurriedly brings water to her son and has him drink. And from there, they regain their strength, and Ishmael grows up in the wilderness. Genesis reports that God was with him, so that he grew to be a renowned archer. Hagar found a wife for him from her own homeland, Egypt, and Ishmael eventually became a leader of his own band of people.
Even now though, I don’t really understand why Abraham didn’t send his own son away with, well, more things—livestock, money, whatever, at least enough for them to get set up. I mean, I do understand why thematically, and narratively. Hagar and Ishmael are heroes of their own story that God has called them to, encountering God who speaks forth their lives, to face their adversities and hardship. And God enables them to build a life and legacy of their own, without any support or help from Abraham.
So, in terms of the message that the story seeks to convey, I understand. And it may be that this kind of answer is the only definite kind of answer Genesis will provide us. If you remember the second episode of this season, the account of the lives of Abraham and his family we read in Genesis was written primarily to inspire people to follow in their path and continue their journey with God; it is not simply a description of things that happened in the past; it is not, for example, a log or a journal. It is meant to be about the lives of real people, yes, but the specific details of their lives and what happened, were adapted and composed in order to raise a very particular set of questions. What does it mean to relate to God that speaks with you, walks with you, and guides you? Where does that journey lead you? What sorts of things will you experience, and what kind of adversities will you face? What struggles will confront you, and how will this change you? What kind of character will be forged in you through all this? This is what the biblical accounts address, and what its stories are trying to answer.
So, the reason why Hagar and Ishmael were sent away with only a supply of food and water? Because that‘s what it’s like, when we are cast out into the world, with only God going before us. That is how Genesis would answer such a question, because that is the message that Genesis is trying to impart to us. And it is likewise with what happens next, when God speaks to Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering: it is meant to impart something regarding our relationship with God that speaks with us.
[ pendulum ]
After these events, God calls to Abraham, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” Abraham said. God speaks, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
This is how Genesis opens the story that is commonly called the “Binding of Isaac,” or in Hebrew, the Akedah. (Aqedat Ishaq). And there is something deeply perplexing about God’s call to Abraham to offer up his son. And it isn’t just that it is such a cruel command, or that Abraham obeys the call to essentially kill his own son.
Firstly, human sacrifice is utterly taboo in the Bible; God forbids human sacrifice as abhorrent and abominable. There is even a passage in the prophetic book of Jeremiah, where God speaks out against the people of Judah, a nation descended from Abraham, because they sacrificed their children to God. “That was something I did not command,” God declares, “and it never crossed My mind.” Except that God did command exactly that to Abraham. So, what’s going on?
Now, some people may rather thoughtlessly chalk this up to another example of the many inconsistencies of religious belief. But, remember that those who put together the book of Genesis, at least the version we are reading today, would have been well aware of this taboo; so, why didn’t they just omit this story? And this is why there is a prominent view in Jewish religious tradition,  that God was not commanding a human sacrifice, and Abraham knew this. The wording is very specific—not slaughter his child as a sacrifice, but to present him to God as an offering. But then, why go through with this at all, with wood and fire and knife and everything? There is clearly something more, and that’s probably why this is still a live debate in Judaism to this day.
Secondly, God promised that that Abraham would have descendants—so numerous that they would form a nation—and that this promise was regarding Isaac, born through a miracle, and not Ishmael. But, if Isaac is sacrificed and killed, the promise would not be fulfilled. So, what God commands Abraham goes directly against what God spoke and promised; God is contradicting Himself, and it makes the promise a lie. And again, the primary and absolute character of God speaking to us is truth. This issue is brought up explicitly in the New Testament portion of the Christian Bible, in the Letter to the Hebrews. This Letter, which is in the form of a written sermon, points out that Abraham was called to offer his son, even though God had promised him that his descendants would come from Isaac. And this is one of the reasons why in Islam, the view that the son that Abraham was asked to offer was Ishmael rather than Isaac became prominent. Yet, again, this would have been an obvious point for those who put together the book of Genesis. Still the story of the Binding, the Akedah, confronts us today.
Even though God abhors child sacrifice, even though God spoke forth an unbreakable promise that Abraham’s descendants would come from Isaac—and unfolded a miracle, having Sarah give birth to him long past child bearing age. God still calls to Abraham, “Take your son, Isaac, and offer him as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Because there is a kind of Cold War that humanity has been waging against God since the opening chapters of Genesis.
[ pendulum ]
Remember that episode in the second season, “Why did humanity fall by eating from a Tree?” Humanity eats from the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, this was not about gaining “knowledge” per se, nor about “morality.” It was about knowing what can happen in our lives, the good and the bad, and Adam and Eve ate the fruit of this knowledge because they came to distrust God; they listened to the accusation that God was secretly their enemy. And there is a particular kind of knowledge you gain from learning to distrust others. It is knowledge of what might be the case, even if it turns out it actually isn’t the case. Your friend might betray you, even if they never actually do so. It is a knowledge that brings fear, and paralyzes you.
Humanity is marked by this fear—this distrustful fear of God that speaks forth all things. We are afraid because what God speaks forth—what can happen in our lives—hold an infinite sea of possibilities, some of which terrify us.
The problem is: not everything is about us, and what we want. Another episode in the second season, this one on the Genesis Creation account, titled, “What is the Purpose of it all?” explored our tendency to think that everything exists for our sake, but Genesis actually implies that God spoke forth each thing into being… for their own sake. God speaks forth the Light and darkness—the cycle of time—so that things can happen; God speaks forth the Sun, moon, and the stars, to move across the heavens and shine; God speaks forth Life, so that it can grow, multiply, and fill the world. And that is what they are, and what they do, whether we want that or not. So, time flows, even when there’s a looming deadline that we can’t make; the sun rises even when we want to sleep in; and weeds grow and multiply, filling our garden, to our dismay.
Yes, according to Genesis, God created humanity with the capability to gain mastery over the world around us, and so forge a life worth living in this world. But, we still do so only within what God speaks. We may defy gravity in a way, by flying on a plane, or rocketing ourselves to the moon, but we are still following the Laws of physics that God speaks; our mastery of the world is paradoxically about learning with humility, learning what is real and true, seeking what is good, and realizing our place in this world. We live in the world that God speaks—a world that is not just about us, and will not yield to our whims. We cannot bend God to our will; we cannot gain mastery over God.
And that terrifies us because we, just as Adam and Eve, have ingested the knowledge that comes from distrust; we are suspicious of God, fearing that God may be our enemy, and that makes us vulnerable—at the mercy of what God may speak. And there is at least something to our fears, because depending on what we do and how we build our own world, God responds differently, so that we can flourish together, but we can also perish together. So, a kind of Cold War has been waged between humanity and God, except it is entirely one-sided—like fish plotting against the ocean, even as they swim in it, or the planets, rising up against the law of gravity, while orbiting the sun.
And Abraham is a child of Adam, and he has plenty to fear. He has already lost one son, Ishmael, at least in the sense that he now lives a life separate from his father. What of Isaac? What can happen to him? He may become gravely ill. He may have a horrific fall, while playing outside. A wild animal, like a lion or a bear, can attack him. Raiders can strike him down or carry him off. Perhaps he will be unable to have children. What if something like that happens? What if that is what God unfolds in his life tomorrow? Now, the story itself in Genesis does not say this is what Abraham feared; it does not tell us what he was thinking or feeling. But, it does not have to. Remember, this story is still part of Genesis; the account of Abraham’s life a continuation of what happened when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the Garden, recounted in the earlier chapters from the same book. Abraham is part of the Cold War, because all of humanity is.
Yet, it goes beyond just the common fears of a doting parent over their child. Isaac is the promised child; God promised Abraham that his descendants will come from him. If something were to happen to Isaac, Abraham wouldn’t just lose his son, he would lose his God. And it would be especially terrible because God brought about a miracle by enabling Sarah to give birth to Isaac in her old age. So, if something were to happen to Isaac, it would not be that the Voice that spoke to him was powerless and so, somehow failed to fulfill the promise; it would mean that God would have betrayed him.
But, Abraham trusted God; he had journeyed for a long time, following this Voice that spoke forth everything in his life. And so far, God was with him, and fulfilled everything He promised. Abraham had faith in God because God spoke with him as a friend.
But, that’s today. What about tomorrow? What if Abraham missed something? After all, God did bring a drought to this land before, forcing him to flee to Egypt—yes, his wife was saved from the ruler of Egypt, but, the drought did happen. God did strike down the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah—yes, for their cruelty and tyranny, but still, God does bring down cities and people. And God did instruct him to send his older son, Ishmael, away—yes, he had his own destiny, and Abraham’s journey was to continue with Isaac, but, the bottom line is, Ishmael was taken away from him.
So, on the one hand, fears confront Abraham, because he is a child of Adam. On the other hand, he would remember what God has done in his life, what God has spoken. And so, he would have been, like us, suspended between faith and distrust.
So, God calls Abraham. In all the other times in his life, God simply spoke to Abraham; in previous times, Abraham was simply presented with a truth that God speaks. This time, God calls and waits until Abraham responds, and then speaks. There is a faint echo here of that moment in Genesis when after eating from the Tree, Adam and Eve hears God and goes into hiding, so that God calls out to them, “Where are you?” So, God speaks, “Abraham!” Abraham responds, “Here I am.”
“I want you to take your son,” God speaks, “Your only son, Isaac, whom you love. Bring him to a mountain I will show you, and offer him as a burnt offering.”
[ pendulum ]
The term, “burnt offering,” has a very specific meaning in the Bible. Other kinds of offering described in the Bible can leave something for you; you burn up certain organs and fat of an animal, but you get to keep some of the meat and eat it with your family and your community. You burn everything with your “burnt offering,” which signifies that it is given over completely to God.
That is what God is calling Abraham to do. Give his son over completely. Step forward from where he hangs, suspended between terrified paralysis, and hopeful faith. Bring his son and present him as an offering, and consciously and deliberately face the very real possibility that God may take him away completely and utterly.
Abraham takes his son, Isaac on a three day journey. Then, he sees the mountain from which God is calling him. “Father,” Isaac speaks up. “Here I am, my son.” “We have the wood, and the fire, but where’s the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham responds, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the offering, my son.”
I used to think that this was just Abraham lying to his son, because he couldn’t bear to tell him the truth. But, I no longer think so. If he just wanted to lie, he could have said other things, like someone will meet us with the animal, or something. And much more importantly, how this story ends suggests strongly that Abraham believed, or at least, hoped that this was what God would do—that Abraham would present Isaac as an offering, but God would instead take a lamb He would provide for Himself.
We tend to think that this story is simply about God testing Abraham, but, it is also about Abraham betting on God. Abraham is confronting his vulnerability; God may take away Isaac from him, despite the Promise; God may speak forth things in his life that will reveal that God was deceiving him all along. The poison of Adam’s fruit burns him. So, he lays Isaac down, resolving to believe that God will not break His promise, that God will not betray him, no matter what happens. This is about faith—about what holds together Abraham’s relationship with God.
But, how far can that go? What will make suspicion and distrust overwhelm his faith and corrode his hope? What if Isaac becomes ill? What if he’s injured? What if he is mauled by an animal? What if… what if Isaac dies? Would that mean God betrayed Abraham?
The story of the Binding of Isaac is not simply about Abraham willing to give whatever God asks of him. The background of God’s call is that there are things that can happen that will reveal what God speaks as a lie. There are things that we fear God will speak forth, which will reveal that God is our enemy, and that His promise is a sham. God must preserve Isaac’s life; God must uphold His promise. But, Isaac is vulnerable to things that can happen in life, and so, Abraham’s relationship with God, and everyone else who follows in his path are likewise vulnerable. And Abraham must, by his own choice, bring himself to that crossroad where he must confront his fear that God may in the end, betray him. Because until he does, he will always remain frozen by that fear.
And on the top of the mountain, Abraham binds his son and lays him down on the pile of wood. What will God do? Abraham still hopes that “God Himself will provide a lamb.”
What if he has to go through with this, and has to kill Isaac? Yet, that question was something he has been asking all along in a different way. What if Isaac dies? Even if not by this knife, but by an illness, or an accident, or a wild animal, or raiders?
Here, the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament writes, “Abraham had faith that God can even raise dead people back to life.” And so, according to Hebrews, God’s call to Abraham to offer his son was really about faith. What will make Abraham secure and at peace, that God is with him? God unfolding miracles after miracles would not bring him peace; because that is today. What about tomorrow? What will bring him peace is courage—courage that comes from faith. Courage to believe that God will not betray him. Abraham must, once and for all, step past his fear to lay down the very life of his son, as well as all his faith and hope in God, and see for himself what God will do in response.
Abraham takes out his knife and raises it. Suddenly, something calls to him—the voice of God, speaking through an angel. “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” Abraham answers. “Don’t lay a hand on your child,” God speaks.
And just as he spoke to his son, Isaac, there is a ram caught in a thicket before him by his horns. Abraham offers the ram as the burnt offering, and names the place, “The LORD will provide.”
And God speaks through the angel. “You have not withheld from me your son, your only son, so now I know that you fear God.”
The word, “fear,” that the angel says is not the fear that humanity has for God after their fall. That fear is the terror of being betrayed, borne of distrust and suspicion, rooted in our ignorance of God. This word in Hebrew denotes a kind of fearful respect that comes from being deeply engaged with something and knowing it closely. It is the “fear” that old sailors have of the sea, which they regard as their true home, as they peer into its horizons, reading its waves and the storms. It is the “fear” that old mountaineers have of the mountains, their knowledge of the crags and peaks, the cold and the ice.
Abraham knows God; he knows what it means to approach God. He knows God will never betray him, and he has staked everything—his own son—on that faith.
And so, God declares, “Because of this, I will bless you. And your descendants will indeed be as numerous as the stars, and all the peoples of the world will be blessed because of your offspring.”
[ Genesis music ]
There is a tribal people called the Sawi, living in Western New Guinea, Indonesia. It is reported that in their culture, those that can deceive their enemies through cunning and trickery are regarded as great heroes. This in itself is not too unique. Even in the West, we have the figure of Odysseus, the Greek hero, who defeats his enemies by trickery and strategy. But, this does make it very difficult to for the Sawi to make peace, when they are at war with each other. After all, because trickery and betrayal is so respected, you can never be sure that an offer of peace is not a lie.
According to the Christian missionary who lived with them, the Sawi therefore had a sacred practice: the Peace Child. The leaders of the warring tribes would offer their own son to the enemy tribe, to be raised among them. Their sons would become vulnerable to their betrayal. And when they present their son to their enemies, they must have faith, that no Sawi will ever deceive or betray the peace child, because that child is their sole, and unbreakable promise of peace.
Humanity has been waging a one-sided Cold War on God; God then calls a man to offer his son to him, a peace child, and when that man, Abraham, offers his son, he finds that God is not at war with him, and never was.
And so, Abraham finally reaches his peace with God.
But, that is not quite the end of the matter. For, according to Christianity, Abraham offering his son as a peace child was a foreshadowing of God, offering His Son, the One who will live among humanity, speaking everything that God speaks to them. But, this peace child would be betrayed.
[ Music ending / ]
So, please join me next time, as we continue to journey toward that still distant time when God offers His peace child, as the generation of Abraham and Sarah passes over to that of their son, Isaac.
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