Abraham is the one who received the promise from God. God’s promise is that Abraham will have his own land and have many descendants, and through his descendants all the peoples of the world will be blessed. This is not only a big promise, but also an astonishing one, given that Abraham is a landless nomad and a childless old man, and his wife Sarah is barren.
Nevertheless, Abraham believes God’s word of promise and the promise is kept. Sarah becomes pregnant and bears a son, whom they name Isaac, which means laughter, for Sarah laughs when God tells her she will have a son. Young Isaac is now the bearer of the promise, but in today’s story the promise is threatened.
As with many biblical stories, we know more than the characters do. We know that God is testing Abraham, but Abraham doesn’t know this. God commands him to take his son, his only son whom he loves, to the land of Moriah to sacrifice him. The form of the command from God echoes the original promise to Abraham. So the God who made the promise seems to be putting the promise in jeopardy. Abraham hears God’s command. He has already lost his first-born son, Ishmael, whom he sent away into the desert with his mother Hagar, so the loss of Isaac will be the end of Abraham’s family, as well as the end of the promise.
Israel would have heard this story as their own story, for in their story the promise is always threatened. And the threat to the promise is the threat to their continued existence. Yet Israel would also have heard it as the story of how, though the promise is always in jeopardy, somehow God “sees” that the promise is kept, that the story continues.
So Abraham does as God has commanded him. He prepares for the sacrifice, takes Isaac and heads out to the land of Moriah on a three-day’s journey. After three days Abraham looks up and sees the place from far away. Father and son climb the hill and Isaac asks Abraham, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham answers “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
God will provide. The word providence itself derives from this passage, and also from verse 14, after God has produced a ram. Then Abraham called the place, “The Lord will provide” or “The Lord has seen:” Jehova Jireh.
And God does provide. He produces a ram. Abraham passes the test. He is prepared to sacrifice his son, and with him Abraham’s own prospects as the carrier of the promise. But God doesn’t require the sacrifice of Isaac.
It is a disturbing story. It raises any number of troubling questions, and from the beginning interpreters have tried to figure out its implications, from the ancient rabbis to Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. In our own time a psycholoanalyst has suggested that the story is a story of child abuse, and has burdened our religious heritage with a climate in which abuse is tolerated (see Alice Miller, The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1990, p 139). A tradition can be misused, of course, but let us leave the psychological and philosophical interpretations aside today and look at this story within the larger Biblical story of the promise.
In its own context within Genesis this episode is the climax of the larger story of the promise. It is a story about human faith, but above all, about divine providence, about the way God keeps his promise from generation to generation in the lives of these ordinary people.
Notice how few details we are told about God. In this story there is no burning bush, no ladder to heaven, just the simple command of God. Does Abraham see God? Does the command come in a dream, in a voice, in a cloud? We don’t know. Although God is the chief actor in the drama of promise and fulfillment, he remains in the background, speaking from mystery, his intentions not fully known.
In comparing this story with the Odyssey of Homer, literary critic Eric Auerbach notices that, unlike the Greek god Zeus, who is comprehensible in his presence, the God of the Bible is not; “It is always ‘something of him’ that appears, he always extends into depths.” The Greek narratives with their gods take place in the foreground, while the biblical narrative with its God remains mysterious and is ‘fraught with background.’ Here in Genesis we are not told everything as Homer would tell us, we are only what we need to know. Homer’s poem is almost photographic in its detail, but here we have few details. We don’t know what Abraham was thinking, what Isaac looked like, what kind of day it was. We are not told of inner states of mind. The narrative is spare. And it is not Abraham’s character, courage or pride that is decisive for the story, but his previous history, as the one to whom God has made the promise. (Eric Auerbach, Mimesis, p 12)
The story keeps us off balance. Its outcome is not predictable. And the spareness of the biblical narrative means we have to look for clues to discern what is going on. One of the clues here is the idea of seeing. Throughout the Genesis story there is the motif of seeing, the human characters seeing, and God seeing. For example when Hagar is told by an angel of the Lord that she will give birth to Ishmael. She says, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”
The human characters see, but only now and then, little bit by bit. Seeing is never complete. They see, to use Paul’s phrase “through a glass darkly.” The characters see only part of the way. But seeing seems to be essential for faith. The characters need to see, at least in part, what God is up to. They need to see how the promise is fulfilled. They won’t see completely, they must act in faith, and perhaps it is faith that lets them see as much as they do.
So Abraham travels for three days and looks up and sees the place for the sacrifice. And when he is about to sacrifice Isaac he looks up and sees the ram. Was the ram already there? Had God prepared for the sacrifice in advance? Could Abraham only see the ram when he trusted the Lord and met the test? We don’t know.
In any case “God says, ‘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 the 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.’” The Hebrew means “The Lord will see.”
So God also sees! But this Hebrew verb “to see” is a “warm verb,” so God is not merely a passive seer, but an active doer in response to what he sees. Providence means not just that the Lord sees, but that he “sees to it.” In the Latin, “to see:” Pro video. God will see to it!
So Question 27 of The Heidelberg Catechism:
“What does thou understand by the providence of God? Answer: The almighty and present power of God by which he still upholds and therefore rules as with His hand heaven and earth and every creature, and that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty and all other things do not come by accident but from his fatherly hand.”
The Lord will provide. He both sees and “sees to it.” Divine providence has often been understood as foreseeing, but that is only half of it. So Karl Barth writes:
“. . . The God who so wonderfully foresees and provides is not a mere supreme being but the God who, in this happening in which Abraham was to spare his son, acted as the Lord of the covenant of grace that Abraham was promised and given his successor Isaac, that he had then (as a prophecy of the One who was to come) to separate and bring him as an offering to God, but that he had not to die but to live as a type of the One who was to come and give life through His real death, a substitute being found for him in the form of a ram.” (Karl Barth, CD 3.3,35)
I am convinced that the earliest Christians were prepared to interpret the death of Jesus as an atoning, sacrificial act by God because they knew this story of Abraham and Isaac. As good Jews they trusted the identity of God as the One who both sees and “sees to it,” and so the crucifixion and resurrection were seen as the ultimate act of divine providence, doing for us what we could not and can not do for ourselves, saving us from sin and death.
A son climbs a holy hill with wood on his back for a sacrifice. They recognized that story! They knew it was a terrible story. But they were able to see in faith that God sees, and in Easter light, they saw with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, that God did provide the sacrifice, that the promise was kept and the story continues.
(I preached this sermon at the Tabernacle at Craigville, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, on June 27, 1999. It is also a chapter in my book When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement, Pickwick, 2000).