Second Sunday After Pentecost
June 26, 2011
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for
this Reading, but there is available a
There is also available a Specialized Study of Genesis 22:1-12
This is one of the most poignant stories in all of Scripture. It is also generally recognized as one of the best and most deliberately crafted pieces of Hebrew literature. Those factors combine to help give this reading a prominent place in Jewish tradition where the story is simply called the Akidah, the "binding" (from the Hebrew verb used in v. 9). Apart from that, the story serves as both the literary and theological climax to the Abraham story that began unfolding in chapter 12. It also serves structurally as the second "hinge" narrative in Genesis around which the entire book is organized (the first was the other end of the Abraham story in Genesis 12:1-4).
The story tends to touch us deeply with its pathos and deeply moving portrayal of Abraham's final act of faithfulness to God. And so we are easily led to try to psychologize or emotionalize the story, to try to hear the story from the perspective of Abraham's own emotions or even from the perspective of Sarah and what she must have been feeling or thinking. But here we need to be very cautious that we do not move too far away from the story itself. The story is not told from Abraham's or Sarah's emotional perspective, but from the third person perspective of a later community reverently watching the divine-human drama unfold, knowing the outcome but needing to come to terms with the same issues. The very fact that the story is so moving says that we probably need to resist the temptation to rewrite the story in our own terms, which is what Abraham consistently did with the promise. We probably need to leave the story as it is and not try to add elements to it that are not there.
The approach here will be to take the story seriously for what it says (and does not say), and try to hear its faith confession from within the limits of the narrative itself in its larger literary context. Still, the story does not lend itself to easy or settled formulations. There is a disturbing dimension to the story that is left hanging in the air at the same time that this passage and the larger Abraham narrative seems to provide resolution to the plots of both. This uneasiness that refuses to be subsumed into any creedal statement may itself be a clue to the most important dimension of this reading.
Like most other narratives within the book of Genesis, and especially in the Abraham and Joseph stories, this reading must be placed into the context of the larger narrative of which it is a part. It cannot really have the impact it warrants without seeing it as the last chapter in the long physical and spiritual faith journey of Abraham (see commentary on Genesis 12:1-9). God had come into the dead end of Abraham's life and given him a marvelous promise of a future in which his descendants would be the channel of blessing to the world (12:1-4). Yet Abraham's wife Sarah was barren, which made the promise impossible from any human perspective (11:30). Accompanying the promise was the call of God to Abraham to leave all the security of the past and strike out for an unknown destination that God would show him.
Abraham's initial response was to go as God had told him. But in the going, in the journey that unfolded over the next 25 years, Abraham constantly struggled with the promise under which he had been called to live. Soon after he received the promise he allowed his fear and cowardice to overcome his faith and trust in God, and so gave Sarah away to Pharaoh to save himself (12:10-20). In that failure he unleashed a curse upon others rather than the intended blessing. But God had reaffirmed the promise and continued to call Abraham to be faithful.
In other incidents throughout that 25 years, Abraham demonstrated the very human mixture of incredible faith in God and at the same time the tendency to want to have the promise on his own terms with what he could see and control (for example, 16:1-6). His journey was a roller coaster of obedience and failure, all held together by God's faithfulness and commitment to him and his wife and the steady journey toward the promise. Finally, after that long struggle, the barren Sarah gave birth to the miracle child of promise, Isaac (21:1-7). Finally, after all his failed attempts to make the promise work, Abraham had the very real physical proof of the promise that he could hold in his hands solely as a gift from God.
After his difficult journey, and God's faithfulness in guiding Abraham through it to the point of accepting God's work in the promise, we would expect Abraham to be able to relax in the fact that he now had the promise. The conclusion of Chapter 21 seems to lead us this direction as the story turns from Abraham's own struggle to his dealing with surrounding people as he settled in the land that was not yet his but was the land of promise (21:22-32). Abraham's planting of a tamarisk tree at Beersheba and naming God El 'Olam, the everlasting God (21:33-34), indicated his settledness in the land and seemed to bring to a closure Abraham's journey. But into that settled serenity and a secured promise God again intruded as he had before at Haran, and called Abraham to a final journey more threatening and more problematic than his trip from Haran. It is this intrusion of God into Abraham's settled promise that provides the tension of this reading.
The opening words of this passage, "after these things," serves to mark a period of time between Isaac's birth and this event (v. 1). We are not told how much time had passed, but some have suggested as much as 12 years (note that Isaac is capable of carrying the wood for the offering, v. 6). While it is not really crucial to the story, we should probably not visualize an infant here. But this phrase also serves to connect this passage with what has preceded. In this context "these things" likely refers to the entire sequence of events that began to unfold in chapter 12 (cf. 15:1).
We are also told very early in the narrative that this is a test of Abraham (v. 1). Two features of this comment are important to observe. First, this comment is from the narrator speaking from that later perspective of the community who was part of the "great nation" (12:2) that Abraham's children would become. They not only knew the outcome of this incident, they knew the track of the rest of the story as it unfolded through history. So, we are told as observers of this drama across the years that this is a test. But from within the story, Abraham does not know that it is a test. He is only told to go under GodÃ's direction just as he had been told to go many years earlier when God called him to leave Haran (12:1). This entire passage depends on the fact that Abraham does not know that God's second call is a test.
Second, we must take seriously the fact that this is a test. Our tendency here is to invoke certain conceptions of God and assume that God never really tests anyone. Yet, the Hebrew term used here (nisah) simply means to examine, in the sense of proving something to be true or reliable. There is a consistent perspective throughout Scripture that God tests his people to see if they will be faithful in relationship to him (for example, Ex 15:25, 16:4, 20:20, Deut 8:2, 16, 13:3, Jud 2:22, etc., cf. Psa 26:2). The same term is also used of the people testing God to try to prove if he is really God (for example, Num 14:22, Psa 106:14, etc.), although such testing is almost always portrayed as a lack of faith (note that God through Isaiah offered Ahaz a sign, to which he responded in false piety that he would not test God, Isa 7:12).
At this point many of our Western systematic categories deeply rooted in metaphysical speculation tend to overrule the biblical story. We need to note here what is not at issue in this story that might cause us to have difficulty hearing it on its own terms.
1) Causality is not at issue here. We tend to operate with the kinds of metaphysical questions that demand an answer to the questions of ultimate cause. And so we tend to separate the world into primary and secondary, or direct and indirect, causes, and declare that God does not directly cause most events in the world (see World View Comparison). We think that most things that happen are the results of secondary causes, impersonal "forces" of nature, over which God does not exercise direct and immediate control.
And yet, the Israelites did not live in such a thought world. For them, there was only God and therefore they conceived of everything that happened in the world as coming from God, whether it was good or bad ("evil"). This is the basic premise that underlies the book of Job (note Job 2:10). For them, everything including what we label as "nature" (for which there is no word in Hebrew) was the direct result of God's activity, and so they interpreted their experience of the world in terms of God. That does not mean that we have to revert to an 18th or even a 5th century BC worldview. But knowing the differences between the assumptions that frame their questions and ours will help us listen to this story rather than to become preoccupied with issues that are not within the range of the text.
2) God as omniscient is not at stake here. We cannot assume based on some classic formulations of the nature of God that God knew from the beginning what Abraham's response would be. Whatever claims we may want to make about God based on other assumptions, in this story God does not know Abraham's response. That premise lies behind the concept of testing and is a crucial element in the story. It is only by following the story on its own terms that God's statement in verse 12, "now I know," can have any real meaning. To assume any form of omniscience as a filter through which to read this story is to force it into categories that are totally alien to the text, and is thus to destroy the story itself.
However we understand God in any other categories, the message of this text must be heard within the parameters of divine testing. And it is a genuine test in which God truly does not know the outcome.
Having determined to hear the story for what it says, we are immediately confronted with the magnitude of what God called Abraham to do. In language that parallels Abraham's original call (12:1-4), God asked Abraham to make yet another journey to yet another place that he would show him. The parallel elements of the two calls of God indicate that this second call of God is directly related to the first, that in some way it is still part of the unfolding journey on which God is leading Abraham. Yet this time instead of promising a future with many descendants, God asked Abraham to surrender the future that he had already provided for him in Isaac.
Again we are tempted to raise the wrong questions here. Would God really ask for a human sacrifice? Is that really consistent with the kind of God that we want to confess as God? Is this the same God who would hear the cries of Hebrew slaves in Egypt? Some have attempted to solve this dilemma by pointing out that this text is likely the remnant of a old story from Israel's religious history in which human sacrifice was outlawed and replaced with animal sacrifice. This text would then be a polemic against Canaanite child sacrifice and a defense of Israelite temple sacrifice on the basis that God himself replaced the Canaanite practice by calling for the substitution of a ram that he provided as creator.
While that may be an adequate historical response, and may indeed be the history of this particular story, it is simply not what this text is about as it stands now. It is not about the ethics of child sacrifice compared to temple worship. The story is clearly presented as a test of Abraham, on the premise that God really did call Abraham to offer Isaac. The point here is not to debate the character of God, but to try to understand what the story intends to communicate. There is certainly a question about God left unanswered in the story. Yet that very ambiguity about God's actions and how we try to justify them (theodicy) may be part of story's message.
Yet a different set of questions is still there even from within the story and forces itself into our thinking. What is God doing here? Why would God, after all this time in patiently dealing with Abraham in getting him to accept the promise, now take it all back? After Abraham finally had some peace in the world and had finally settled into life with God's promise, provided solely by God as a commitment to the future, why would God turn that settled world upside down again? Why does God not just leave Abraham alone? And finally we cannot help but form the negative question that lies behind the positive faith confession of Job (1:21): If God gives as an act of grace, is it really right for him to take away just as easily? And how do we live in such a world if we cannot finally hold onto the promise once we have it in our hands?
We cannot help but ask these questions. Our sense of fairness and justice demands it. The fact that these questions loom so large for us may help us to place ourselves in this narrative and to grapple with its affirmation. Yet the narrative has none of these questions on the lips of Abraham. He has not hesitated before to try to get God to explain the promise (15:2ff). But not here. It is not that these questions are improper. They are inevitable in the context of the larger story. Yet in this test Abraham would respond differently than he has ever done before. That response is the heart of the story.
God's call to Abraham is presented here in a particular literary form (v. 1). The normal form of this address is the person's name repeated twice to which the person answers with the single word in Hebrew, hinnenei, "Here am I." Even though the name Abraham only occurs once here, the Septuagint Greek version of this same verse recognized the form and has the name twice just as in verse 11 (cf. Gen 46:2, Exod 3:4, 1 Sam 3:4, 10, etc.). While unable to carry the theological weight of the passage, this structure serves to introduce Abraham's willing response to God that the narrative continues to explain. Note that Luke used a similar structure with Saul (Paul) in New Testament Greek to emphasize exactly the opposite point. Rather than the expected faith response of "here am I," Saul's response was, "Who are you, lord?" (Acts 9:5).
The exact location of Moriah and even the meaning of the term is lost to us. However, the geographical location is not as important in this story as is the theological imagery associated with this site. Later tradition identified Moriah as the temple mount in Jerusalem (2 Chron 3:1). While that reference is in the context of David's purchase of a site for the temple, the connection of the name Moriah with Abraham's story here is unmistakable, since those are the only two references to Moriah in the Old Testament. That simply connects the temple site and the sacrifice conducted there theologically with the sacrifice of the ram later in this story, serving to ground temple sacrifice in God's past gracious provision for his people through Abraham.
A second allusion can be seen in the traditional meaning of the name. While its origin is not clear, some connect it to the verb word horah, to teach (a hiphil of the root yarah), the same root that lies behind the word torah, "instruction." Another similar form of the word, moreh, "teacher," occurs in older tradition to refer to a sacred tree, hill, or idol that was revered as the source of divine instruction in Canaanite religion (Gen 12:6, Deut 11:30, Jud 7:1; a participial form of the word occurs in Hab 2:18). If we take this meaning, the connection here with the traditional site of the temple mount where "instruction" from God was to go forth to the world (e.g., Isa 2:2-5) would cast this incident as an example of the "torah" from God, as instruction about how to live in the world as his people. Indeed, that seems to unfold as the primary intention of this narrative.
The narrative becomes very deliberate as it unfolds, with carefully matched trios of verbs, and a purposely paced cadence of action. But the literary artistry of the passage is not our primary concern. It is the unfolding story itself that draws our attention.
Coming to this story from the larger Abraham narrative, it is hard to miss the import of verse three: "Abraham . . . set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him." Abraham's entire life had been marked by his journey to a place that he did not know, into a future that he did not always understand while trusting that God would show him the destination and how to get there. Even the New Testament remembered Abraham as a man on an uncertain journey (Heb 11:8): "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going." And so we see Abraham still traveling, this time toward a future fraught with still greater uncertainty and the possibility of endings arising out of new beginnings, the exact opposite of what his previous journey had taught him. And yet, in contrast to his earlier responses, this time Abraham simply went without incident.
Much has been made of Abraham's instructions to his traveling companions as he and Isaac took leave of them for the final stage of the trip (v. 5). Many see in Abraham's plural forms, "we will return to you," a faith that God would really spare Isaac. This then would become AbrahamÃ's faith statement, the belief that God would not carry through with what he had demanded of Abraham.
But this perspective is problematic in light of how the story itself tracks. It seems to be another way for us to deal with the magnitude of what God had asked of Abraham by reducing it to a kind of grotesque charade. Abraham, then, was only going through the motions of offering Isaac all the while convinced that God did not really mean what he had said. If that were the case, the test would be over here, and it would be somewhat cruel of God to carry it any further. And such a perspective raises serious problems in how we might appropriate this story today. It raises the specter of us assuming that God would act in a certain way to fit within our expectations, only to have no where left to turn when those expectations do not work out in life. At the heart of this story is the uncertainty of the journey, and how we respond to it.
The real test here is not whether Abraham had the faith to believe God would spare the child. That was never at issue in the story. The test was whether Abraham could trust God enough to give up the promise and start again from the same place he had started 35 or more years earlier (v. 12). The test was whether Abraham had really made this journey of faith to a point where he could trust God and not just what he could see and hold in his hands. In fact, from this point on in the story the metaphor of seeing, and who sees what, becomes a key rhetorical and theological element in the story to which we will return.
The interchange between Isaac and his father is intense because we, along with Abraham, know that Isaac's question and Abraham's answer mean more than they appear to mean (v. 7). The question from Isaac is innocent enough: "where is the offering?" There is no room here for speculation as to whether Isaac had begun to be suspicious. In fact, the near total silence of Isaac throughout the whole story says that the story cannot be seen through the eyes of Isaac. This is Abraham's story, and his alone, so it is Abraham's response to Isaac that becomes the focus.
Again, the literary artistry threatens to overwhelm the story. The tenderness that lies behind the gentle reply of Abraham, the intimate interchange between father and son fraught with meaning, the sharing of the burdens with two offerings (Isaac and the wood) on the one hand and the agents of the offering (Abraham, the fire, and the knife) on the other yet all journeying together, combine to grip us with the intensity of the moment. But again, the point of the story does not lie here.
The heart of the story begins unfolding in Abraham's response to Isaac (v. 8). Most translations obscure what is obvious in Hebrew. The traditional translation of the response is: "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." However, the Hebrew word translated "provide" is actually the word "see" (Heb. root: ra'ah): "God will see it, the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." This affirmation of God seeing becomes the key rhetorical element from this point on in the story.
While this Hebrew verb does not ordinarily mean "provide," and in fact is given that meaning only here in the Old Testament, Karl Barth has made an interesting connection between the nuances of the Hebrew and English terms (Church Dogmatics). He notes that pro-vide comes from a root Latin verb that means "to see" (cf. video) with a suffix that means "before" (note "provision"). So while "provide" may not be the lexical definition of the Hebrew word ra'ah, in this context "provide" in the sense of God "seeing before" Abraham sees catches the nuance of meaning very well here. God "seeing before" is not a matter of seeing the future, which would take us in a different direction away from the story. It is God seeing what is needed before Abraham sees it, or of God seeing what Abraham does not see. Still, even though "provide" is an adequate sense of the word usage here, we need to keep in mind that the word is "see" because of the word plays later in the use of that term.
What Abraham affirmed in his answer to his son (v. 8) was not just the inevitability that God would provide a substitute offering in place of Isaac. Again, that is not really the story here. The affirmation is much more general than that would allow. The only object of the provision in Abraham's statement is a lamb for the burnt offering. While we know from the end of the story that this would be a ram, from within the narrative at this point the answer only includes Isaac. God, indeed, had provided him in a miraculous way. And from everything in the story to this point, he had provided him for just this occasion!
This response to Isaac was simply an affirmation of God's purposes, a clear and unambiguous acceptance of GodÃ's work in the world in the provision of what was necessary to fulfill the promise. It was an affirmation from Abraham that God could see in ways that he could not. This was a big step for Abraham, especially important in light of the horrific nature of the test in this story. He had responded in faith to God before, but had always managed to reserve some part of that commitment for his own prerogative. This affirmation opens the way for Abraham to respond, for the first time, in a totally unqualified way to God and his purposes in the world, even at the cost of his son. It is no wonder that God would learn something about Abraham here!
When they had arrived at the "place God had shown him," Abraham built an altar upon which to carry out his act of obedience to God (v. 9). That was not the first altar that Abraham had built, nor was it the first sacrifice that he had offered to God. Abraham had marked his long journey with altars at significant points of that journey (12:7, 8, 13:4, 18). And at a crucial point he had offered a sacrifice to reaffirm his commitment to the promise and God had responded by renewing his covenant with Abraham (15:7-21; cf. 21:17-18). While this aspect may have been important for the later community in recounting this story, it also serves to highlight Abraham's ongoing devotion to God, even amid his frequent failures. This emphasis on altar building and sacrifice serves to emphasize communion with God as an important dimension of Abraham's journey of faith.
At the very moment of carrying out his supreme act of faithless to God, the call came again from God in the two-fold repetition of Abraham's name (v. 11). As we now expect of Abraham, his response was the response of faithful obedience, "Here am I." The entire narrative here turns on the words of the messenger who is indistinguishable from God: "Now I know." The test was successful because Abraham had demonstrated that finally he was willing to trust God totally with the promise and the future. The references to Isaac that opened the test are carefully repeated here to draw it to a conclusion.
"Now I know" marks the end of the test from God's side. Abraham had finally proven himself faithful and willing to trust God without question even in the face of the most severe and ominous test of the promise. But there is one thing still lacking, a resolution to this event from Abraham's side. As before, he had built an altar, but now has no offering even though he had affirmed that God would "see" the offering. What unfolds is not just the offering of a sacrifice to satisfy the requirements of ritual, either for Abraham or the later community telling the story. It is not, as some have suggested, an apology for temple sacrifice. The final element of the story is not even about sacrifice as such, since it moves to address the unsettled and unsettling questions about God that have hung over the whole story. If we listen to the conclusion of the story carefully, we will begin to realize that it addresses a far deeper issue than even Abraham's faithfulness to God.
In fact, the test is the background against which a much more troubling set of questions finally emerges that has far more direct impact on the descendants of Abraham (including modern Christians!) as they tell the story. How do we live in a world in which we are faithful to God, accept his promise, experience his gift, only to have the gift taken away for reasons that we do not know or understand? How can we live with a God who can bring such unsettledness into our lives, who can call us to live in a constant state of journey into an unknown future, who can call on us to do the most heart wrenching things? How can we trust a God who would ask of us impossible things, show us that they are indeed possible, and then close the door on the very possibility that he had opened up? How can we live with a God that we cannot predict and who works in the world in ways that go beyond what we can comprehend?
The story returns to the theme of seeing to address this most basic of issues. Abraham had earlier affirmed that God would see the sacrifice (v. 8), and now the story tells us that Abraham saw the ram (v. 13). Two modes of seeing, one of faith and one of physical sight converge here as Abraham sees with his eyes what he had affirmed earlier that God would see, encompassing both in what God had "seen before." As with the promise of the child earlier in his life, one mode of seeing finally gave way to the other. Yet, the story is governed not by what Abraham could see in the thicket, but by what he affirmed that God could "see before."
The final play on the metaphor of seeing is the name Abraham gave to the place, yhwh yireh, "God will see" (v. 14) or "God will pro-vide ("see before"). The explanation of the name at the end of the verse is ambiguous in Hebrew, and could be translated in different ways. The import is clear, however. It is a strong affirmation of trust in God who sees or provides, as the story has just illustrated (frequently in biblical narratives, naming a place was a form of faith confession of an encounter with God, for example, Gen 16:13, 21:33). And yet, this strong affirmation of trust does not answer all the questions that the story raises.
We are not told that God directed Abraham's sight to the ram caught in the thicket. We are likewise not told that God placed the ram in the thicket for Abraham to see. We are only told that Abraham saw (Heb. root: ra'ah) the ram and used it for his sacrifice instead of (Heb: "beneath" or "in place of") Isaac. We are left to conclude on our own God's role at this point, or in the metaphor of the story, exactly what God saw. Like much of life, we can conclude different levels of God's involvement here. We could conclude that this was a fortunate coincidence for Abraham. We could conclude that God put the ram in the thicket solely for Abraham's use, or even that he materialized the ram out of the air at the proper moment. We could conclude that God led Abraham to this particular place because God had already seen the ram caught in the thicket long before Abraham arrived. We could conclude that the ram was there all the time and Abraham only needed to have his eyes of faith opened.
It might be easier for us if the story would have just told us directly what we should learn here. But as in many of Jesus' parables, the conclusion is finally left to the hearer. And that may be the most powerful affirmation in this story. Finally, it is up to us whether we trust God's seeing or whether we try to see on our own. We may conclude that only our own sight is adequate. Or we may trust what God sees that we cannot see. Finally, as with Abraham, it is a faith journey that leads us to our conclusion. The story invites us to participate in that journey with Abraham, and to reach his conclusion, to affirm God as the one who sees and then to live life under God because it is true. But finally, the decision is ours. Perhaps that is what makes it a test.
The temptation in preaching this story will be to dwell on the emotional aspects of the passage and neglect the deeper questions that the story itself raises. The emotional dimension is certainly there, but not directly as part of the Scripture itself. It is more the emotion that the story evokes within us as we are drawn into Abraham's plight and struggle than any emotion portrayed directly in the text. Yet, that may give us one of the best preaching paths if we follow the story and let the hearer respond at their own emotional level. It is here that the literary artistry of the story lends itself well to narrative preaching in which the story is retold to create the tensions and the questions that are then addressed by the conclusion.
There are two dimensions of these questions that provide solid paths for preaching, both of which involve how we think about and respond to God. First, this text like so many others in Scripture challenges our settled notions about God and ourselves. Especially in some evangelical circles that have roots in Protestant orthodoxy, we tend to think that we have all the questions about God answered. We can define him in neat categories, list his attributes, know what he will do, and even draw up formulas for how he will respond in any given circumstance. We dare to think that we just about have God all figured out, and that nothing he could do would surprise us. And to insure that nothing disturbs our settled world, we construct theological systems that insulate our ideas about God from anything that happens in the world that would challenge what we know about God. So, we assign God a certain role, and then assert that anything that happens in the world that does not fit within what we already know God to be must be from some other source.
Yet the Israelites did not have that luxury. They remembered the long struggle of Abraham, and they understood that it described their own journey through history as God's people. And if we truly hear this story, we will begin to realize that it describes our own journey as a community and as individuals as well. The Israelites lived in a world that was totally God's, and they understood that whatever happened in the world, whatever came into their lives, came from God (cf. Gen 50:20). It was not that they did not understand that some things were the result of human sin and some things were the result of how the world worked (what we moderns call "nature"). It was simply that they allowed no other options. There was only God. They placed all of life in all of its facets under God.
So they knew that they had to come to terms with that God and the ambiguity of life in such a way that they could retain faith in him, and yet live in a world that did not always make sense. They confessed in this story that God sometimes went beyond what they could understand, that he led them in ways that seemed threatening and even contrary to what they thought he should do. Yet, they were able to affirm that "God will see." They were willing to trust in a God who did not always do what they expected, who did not always act like they thought he should, and did not always fit into their settled categories (the book of Job deals with much the same issue from a more intellectual or reflective level).
They understood that often life is a long and unsettled journey in which God calls us to make unexpected detours from what we thought was the right path. They were not willing to abandon the journey just because they did not know the place to which God was leading them. And they were not willing to allow the "stuff" of life to thwart God's purposes and promises in the world.
We have trouble seeing our world in the same way that the Israelites did. We live in a much more complicated thought world in which we know that God does not always directly cause every single event that happens in the world. Most Christians today believe that some things just happen through chance and random event and coincidence. It is difficult for us to conceptualize, for example, God sending a tornado through Oklahoma City and killing 44 people. But that does not really change the reality of the questions in how we must deal with life. Whether or not we think God sent the tornado, we still ask the question of "why?" We still must live in God's world as people of faith without knowing as much as we think we know and want to know about God.
So even though the way we see the world is different, the basic issue is the same. How can we live in a world in which God cannot be so easily subsumed under our definitions and does not behave according to our rules? Here, the faith affirmation of this reading can still apply, precisely because it affirms that no matter how final an ending may seem, or how absurd the path to which God has called us to travel might be, he still is the God who sees what we cannot see. That still calls from us a faith in God that even though we may not see, we trust the one who does see.
And that drives deep to the heart of our own insecurities and attempts at control. We want to live by sight. We want to trust in what we can hold in our hands. We are far more comfortable when we can control the promise. And we want a predictable God, one who will keep us comfortable, who would never call us into uncertainty and ambiguity, and who would certainly never ask us to give up anything that we cherish. We want a safe God and a safe world that we can manage. We want a God who will fit within the confines of our finite thinking at the same time that we are using the biggest words that we can find to draw those boundaries for him. In our more honest moments, we will admit that we really want a God who is known and domesticated and controllable by our creeds and affirmation. And yet in those same moments we know all too well that such a God is only a god that we have created in our own image to serve us.
Abraham's God is not that kind of God. But he is the God who sees what we cannot see! He is the God who tests. But he is also the God who provides! (cf. 1 Cor 10:13). And so we are called to trust his seeing, to base our lives on "the conviction of things not seen" (Heb 11:1), to journey into the unknown with the assurance that God will show us the path and that he will "see before." The journey may take us into unspeakable personal tragedy in our lives. It may take us into circumstances that we cannot control. God may ask the impossible of us, and work on his own timetable and not ours. The journey may not even be what we thought it was when we started as we grow and mature and change as God transforms us. And part of the journey may be the "test" that will be the opportunity to demonstrate that we have truly committed ourselves to the journey and to the God of the promise. But whatever the nature of the journey, it cannot be our seeing that guides us. It can only be God's! Finally, it is God's pro-vision that defines our life and charts our journey.
A second dimension of this text is even more difficult for many to hear, but is clearly a part of this reading. There is an incredible trust placed in Abraham by God in this story. If this is truly a test as the text says, then there is much depending on Abraham. God called him to make this journey, but finally it is he who must make it. God had placed him under promise. Abraham did nothing to get the promise. But he can reject it. There is no sense here that God has compelled Abraham to accept the promise. In fact, the whole story depends on the possibility of Abraham failing and rejecting the promise.
Clearly here, God did not know how Abraham would respond. This portrays a genuine relationship, with Abraham free to accept or reject what God had called him to do and be. This is truly a covenant, a relationship in which God chose Abraham and then called Abraham to choose God. God may see what we cannot see, but he does not see how we will respond to the testing.
The implications of this for us as people of God are sobering. This clearly defines a responsibility in living out the promise. It is here that the questions about God's work in the world become important, because it really does matter how we live out the promise. The issue here is not whether we sin and are cast out of God's presence the moment we do so. This is not just a legal issue of sin. It is a far more important issue of how seriously we take the responsibility of living life under the promise. It is not enough just to be God's people in the world. We have to live in the world with all of its heartache and uncertainty. Many think that we must do that in terms of obeying laws and rules, or doing everything right and believing all the right creeds and doctrines. There is certainly a place for that. But this story demonstrates that sometimes it is in the faithfulness to God amid the uncertainties of life and the ambiguities of what we think about God that leads to the declaration "now I know."
What God does not know here is eloquent testimony to the tremendous trust that God has placed in his people to respond to him in covenantal relationship. And along with that trust, as any parent knows all too well, goes the responsibility of living up to that trust, of responding faithfully. The call of God to make the journey of faith is not by force or coercion, but arises out of love that is willing to trust us with response.
This Sunday in the Church Year
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