“Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac,” the Hebrew Bible reading for today is one of the most famous and most famously disturbing stories in the Bible.
The story begins as God decides to test Abraham. God calls him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replies. Then God commands, “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” (Genesis 22:1-2). What God asks Abraham to do here is no doubt an extreme case of child abuse as well as a murder. Abraham himself should have known what he was up to and the consequences. But in spite of all dangers and anxieties, Abraham obeys God.
Regarding this story, many Christian and Jewish commentators have tried to neutralize controversial contents within their interpretations. They say, God only wanted a symbolic sacrifice; Abraham knew that God would never allow it; Abraham believed God’s power even to raise the dead, and so on. Some atheists claim this story as a prime example of religion’s inhumane cruelty.
In his book The God Delusion, renowned atheist Richard Dawkins writes, “this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships…Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.” Indeed, few scripture readings have provoked more doubts and anguishes, more controversies and commentaries, than Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. However, today we are here in this church neither to make some sense out of the story like commentators, nor to one-sidedly judge the story from a limited moral ground like atheists. Rather, we are here to see the story as God’s Word for our souls. And certainly, we are here to honestly grapple with this uneasy story and tap into the deeper meanings that God provides for our lives.
Let us begin with the common understanding that most of us may have. What is Abraham famous for? Yes, faith. We learned that this story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is a representative example of his faith. But have you ever asked what kind of faith Abraham reveals in the story? This question can be absurd because we habitually describe one’s faith only on the measure of intensity. I mean, when we talk about someone’s faith, we tend to say mostly like someone’s faith is strong or weak. Of course, we can say that Abraham’s faith was strong enough to be willing to give Isaac. But again, “What kind of faith does Abraham have? What enabled him to pass God’s test and eventually be called the ancestor of faith?
In Christian theology, the basic nature of faith is a response. It’s a human response to God’s grace. God loves us and initiates a covenant relationship with us for our new life. As sinners, we don’t deserve this grace, and we have no merit to receive this grace. But God freely chooses to do so. So we call God’s love unconditional. There is no certain reason or condition for God to love us and give us grace. Look at Abraham’s story. It shows the beginning of human faith. One day God came to Abraham out of nowhere and made a covenant with him. He suddenly received God’s grace. But it was not the end. God not only gave him a new life but also promised to Abraham that he “shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4). Then, God gave him Isaac. What an incredible gift from God it is! In return, God only asked him to be faithful. But at that time, Abraham was not clear about what kind of faith God looks for.
Now the test begins. God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. For Abraham, Isaac is not just the precious only son and not just a living miracle that he got when he was over hundred. But Isaac is also the son of God’s promise, because with him God begins to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, with him God builds up a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:4). In other words, Isaac is the single most important condition of the covenant made between God and Abraham, and the condition of Abraham’s faith in God. If you look into Abraham’s story in Genesis, you can see that Abraham, who couldn’t even believe God’s promise for a son, comes to enter a deeper level of faith, when he has Isaac. So when God asks Abraham to give up Isaac, God doesn’t just test Abraham to see whether he can give God the most precious thing. But I think God wants to find out whether Abraham would still remain faithful to God even when the essential condition of his faith is gone. Let us go back to the question, “What kind of faith does God want from Abraham?” Now we can answer. God wants faith free from any conditions. God wants unconditional faith from Abraham.
But how hard is it to attain this kind of faith? We cannot imagine how challenging it would be. Having received God’s command, Abraham must have struggled seriously. We cannot even imagine Abraham’s agony. The Bible tells us that it took three days for him to arrive at the place where God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac. For those three days, I think he would’ve been anxious to death and had sleepless nights. However, after he went through those days and finally put his total trust in God, he experienced a leap of faith.
We call faith a journey. The journey can be happy, when everything we experience on the journey is pleasing and good. But there are also hard times on this journey like Abraham’s three days to the land of Moriah. In those challenging times, conditional faith gets tested. We may not be able to move on, and even worse, we may lose our ways to God. In those days, I hope you to remember Abraham and what kind of faith God ultimately wants from us on our journeys.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, most times, our faith just remains on a conditional ground. As soon as we say, “I believe in God,” we naturally add some conditional clauses to it. Think about it. How many times we say, “I believe in God, because…” Or “I believe in God, if…” But we shouldn’t forget… God looks for unconditional faith from Abraham and from us today. And God wants to hear more frequently from us, “I believe in God, in spite of…” “I put my trust in the Lord, even though…” And “I decide to remain faithful to God, no matter what…”
What kind of faith do you think you have now? Let us stop downgrading the covenant relationship that God made with us to a contractual relationship. God loves us first, comes to save us, makes a relationship with us, and gives God’s only Son without any conditions. God’s unconditional love calls us today to grow our unconditional faith in God, the faith that is not subject to any human conditions or circumstances. Let us remember the word of the Prophet Habakkuk, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
Unconditional faith. Let us keep this word in our hearts today. I understand that this unconditional faith may look very absurd and bizarre to the eyes of the reasonable and atheists, because anyone who has this faith rejoices always in spite of any hardships, believes in God always even though they experience miseries, and keeps the faith always no matter what. But we know that this is the way we are called to pursue in our special relationship with God. So in response to God’s unconditional love poured out for us, let us try to put our total trust in God. And let us try to be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ no matter what, with this unconditional faith. Amen.
 Daniel B. Clendenin, “A Father Sacrifices His Son, A God Tests His Disciple” (For Sunday June 29, 2008), from the web magazine, Journey With Jesus (www.journeywithjesus.net).