Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Genesis 22:2
In the story line of the Bible, the sacrifice of Isaac represents a direct threat to God’s covenant promise to Abraham. God had promised Abraham, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” How can God make Abraham’s descendants a great nation and a blessing to the world if Isaac is dead? I can think of no better answer than the one offered by the author of the New Testament epistle of Hebrews. “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” But while that is how I approach this text theologically, it’s not how I approach it emotionally.
Through most of the last millennium, paintings depicting Genesis 22 typically portrayed Abraham with his arm raised, knife in hand. The 20th century painting shown here portrays Abraham with his arms embracing Isaac. The knife and the wood are visible, but it’s the love that stands out. In a recent tweet, Peter Leithart noted that Isaac was the first “beloved” of the Bible. Isaac was Abraham’s son, his only son, the one whom he loved.
Abraham and Isaac lived long ago. Thank God the culture no longer sacrifices children to the gods of our age. Thank God, we no longer live in a culture which considers wives and children property to be disposed of at will. Or maybe we’re just blind to the ways society hasn’t changed in 4000 years.
In any case, I can’t believe that four millennia changes the basic affection that parents have for their children. I look at this picture and I see how I felt every time my children have walked in the door for the last 34 years. Can’t I just hold on? Do I have to let them go? Maybe they will walk out that door and never come home. Here in the nation’s capital, you can’t go a day without reading of children lost to accidents, crime and a host of other causes. The children left home to go for a walk in the woods or to walk home from a place of worship or to meet up with their friends, and their parents never saw them alive again. The future the parents envisioned together with their children was suddenly gone forever.
It doesn’t even have to be a matter of life and death. There are lots of things that can wipe away your dreams for those you love. Injury. Disease. Money. Legal difficulties. Or maybe just life’s circumstances. Sometimes – many times – things just don’t work out like we want them to.
It seems to me that godly people lay all those they care about on the altar every day, trusting that God will work out his purposes in both life and death. It’s much easier to trust God for yourself than for another. We never know what the day will bring. There isn’t always a ram in the thicket just waiting to take their place. Like Abraham, we have to trust that God can even raise the dead. God’s purposes for our lives will not be thwarted.
In Abraham’s love for Isaac, we also see a bit of the Father’s love for the Son, whom he sent to conquer sin, death and the devil on his own altar of sacrifice. The Father knows a parent’s broken-hearted love.
The United Methodist funeral ritual contains a prayer for use in the committal that has a much wider application. I think of it frequently.
Give us such faith that by day and by night, at all times and in all places, that we may without fear commit ourselves and those dear to us to your never-failing love, in this life and in the life to come. Amen.
See also: Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac