Take the Test: A Sermon on Genesis 22:16
Today we’re radicals because we’ve read Genesis 22 out loud in church on the near sacrifice of Isaac. Many Christians today are saying that these Bible verses shouldn’t be read in church because they scare children–traumatizing them with the thought that God might also ask their parents to kill them. So why have we today, blithely and a bit recklessly, waded into these deep and dangerous waters?...
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (+) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we’re radicals because we’ve read Genesis 22 out loud in church on the near sacrifice of Isaac. Many Christians today are saying that these Bible verses shouldn’t be read in church because they scare children–traumatizing them with the thought that God might also ask their parents to kill them (cf. James L. Crenshaw, A Whirlpool of Torment, 1984). So why have we today, blithely and a bit recklessly, waded into these deep and dangerous waters?
That Gushing Fountain
Some may think we actually haven’t been so reckless, since Genesis 22 is assigned to be read only once every three years–and that’s not so bad. What’s more, having been read, it doesn’t have to be preached on. So why are we being so brash today and doing that? Why are we preaching on it after it’s been read, instead of pretending that no one was paying attention to it when it was read–and then just simply skip over it? We want some answers.
Well, the short answer is because Abraham was blessed when he passed the test up on Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22:16). And since we want God to bless us too, we can’t skip over the test like that. So in order to take the test, Genesis 22 has to be read out loud and preached on from the pulpit. If we were to run away from what Martin Luther (1483-1546) called–in his hundred page lecture from 1539 on Genesis 22–“the greatness of this trial” (Luther’s Works 4:92), then we wouldn’t be blessed. And the blessing we’d miss is that Abraham will have many descendants and that all the nations will be blessed through them (Genesis 22:17-18). Luther points out that Christ is included in those descendants—as forecasted in Genesis 3:15 (LW 4:175)—and so what we want from God is actually “the gushing fountain” of those blessings (LW 4:151). And that is “deliverance from sin and hell” (LW 4:149). So a great deal is at stake for us on Mt. Moriah—therefore we will have to climb that mountain of sacrifice with Abraham and Isaac.
That Traumatic Walk
And when we do, it will also be traumatic for us—since the blessing we’re after can’t cover over the terror the test brings with it. No, the trauma goes along with the test whenever and wherever it’s taken up. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), that great admirer of Luther, wrote a famous book at the beginning of his authorship on Genesis 22, aptly called, Fear and Trembling (1843). In it he argues that we can’t receive the same blessing Abraham did without also enduring that slow three day journey up the mountain with him—at least in a figurative way. We can’t, as he said, skip the walk and fly to the top of the mountain, in a flash, in a moment, on some “winged horse,” to steal the blessing without any accompanying pain (Kierkegaard’s Writings 6:52). No, the “anxiety and distress” in the walking is the necessary precondition of the blessing itself (KW 6:53, 64, 65, 66, 74, 113). And it is this distress that makes the test an “unbelievable trial,” as Luther notes (LW 4:106)—because for three days Isaac’s life was up in the air. Would he live or would he die?—it simply wasn’t known.
“Nowhere else in Holy Scripture,” writes Luther, “is a walk like this described” (LW 4:111). Well, I should hope not! One’s plenty enough. For that slow walk up the mountain keeps “the reader in suspense to the point of weariness” (LW 4:112). And our anxiety in large part comes from knowing that we could not endure as Abraham did—Abraham being “the greatest among the holy patriarchs” (LW 4:91). For Abraham is called the father of the faithful (Romans 4:16)—and we are not, since none of us has the magnitude or level of trust in the Lord that he had. This is because even though Naomi (Ruth 1:3-5) and Job (Job 1:13-19, 2:7) lost more than Abraham did, neither of them were commanded to immolate their own children, as Abraham was told to do. That he had to bear the burden of that heavy command is what makes him the father of the faithful—since the command “confronts Abraham with a contradiction,” which then makes his Lord and God look like “an enemy and a tyrant” (LW 4:94). Luther explains the magnitude of Abraham’s faith in this way, saying that its glory is in
not to know... what you are doing, what you are suffering, and, after taking everything captive—perception and understanding, strength and will—to follow the bare voice of God [nudam Dei vocem] and to be led and driven rather than to drive.... It is certain that Abraham had many who found fault with... this faith and... out of some pernicious piety advised him not to believe that what was happening was from God (LW 29:238).
Here we see that the magnitude of his faith rests on his trust in that bare, uninterpreted word of God (2 Corinthians 4:2; 2 Peter 1:20)—the nudam vocem. This is a faith that does not waver when challenged, since it rises above it all—for your life is “hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:2). For, properly understood, faith is not grounded in what is seen or handily managed (Hebrews 11:1; John 3:8, 20:29; Romans 10:17; Acts 14:22). No, it’s based on hearing the word of God and keeping it (Luke 11:28; Romans 10:17).
Now what’s so terrifying about Abraham’s trial is that he says virtually nothing about what’s going on during it. If we knew, for example, that he had private assurances from God that he wasn’t going to have to kill his son, then we could much more easily go along with it. Then our fear and trembling would be abated to a great extent. But all we have instead is silence—infuriating, exasperating, silence (KW 6:60). Nowhere does Abraham argue with God over this command (LW 4:107)—as he earlier did regarding Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20-32). No, they just walk along calmly to their dreaded fate without saying much of anything. There’s only silence as they go. And that’s not because Abraham is reticent about what he knows, but because he just “can’t... explain” what’s going on (KW 6:115, 80, 71). It would be as if he were speaking in a “strange tongue” if he had tried to explain his ordeal (KW 6:114, 119). So he wouldn’t have been understood if he had talked about it. Maybe that’s why the little bit we do get from him is fraught with ambiguity—namely, that God will provide the lamb (Genesis 22:8). But couldn’t that be Isaac himself, we wonder, in some symbolic way? And that maddens us—that we don’t know exactly what God will provide as the burnt offering. And come to find out, it’s not a lamb at all, but a ram instead (Genesis 22:13). In addition, when Abraham speaks about God providing the sacrifice, he does “not... disclose [the plan] that Isaac himself must die” (LW 4:112)—which is something of a lie which also complicates the silence all the more.
So there’s trauma galore in Genesis 22. At the end of this reading, we learn that Sarah, the mother of Isaac, dies (Genesis 23:2). The old rabbis, we’re told, thought they knew what happened before she died. Abraham and Isaac came home from Mt. Moriah and Sarah asked them how their trip had gone. Abraham told her that he almost killed their boy in a sacrifice to the Lord. Sarah then “uttered six cries and... died”—probably of cardiac arrest—maybe screeching out at the end, “What! Have you gone mad, you old fool?!” (G. von Rad, Biblical Interpretation in Preaching : 38). That’s not much of a stretch, it seems to me, even though it’s only legend. And from this we see that the trauma in this trial endures even after the it’s over and the blessing has come. So the blessing cannot wipe away the fear it’s everlastingly built upon.
Our Modified Exam
So what about us, now? What’s it like for us up in the thin air atop Mt. Moriah? What will our trial look like? Will it be exactly the same as Abraham’s was? Luther argues that our test will differ from his because we, unlike Abraham, haven’t been commanded by God to kill our children (LW 4:124). King Ahaz thought Abraham’s command extended to all of us, and so he “burned his son as an offering” (2 Kings 16:3). But by so doing, Luther argues, he committed “a grievous sin; for God did not command this” (LW 4:180). Our trial, then, will be different—“from afar, so to speak” (LW 4:96). This is because Abraham’s command is not repeated to us. If it was intended to be, some monument would have been built on Mt. Moriah to draw our attention, but that wasn’t done (LW 4:178-179). What then will our trial be like? How will it differ from Abraham’s? How will it look to us—from afar?
We can only approach Genesis 22 from the perspective of the New Testament. Just as “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Leviticus 24:20) isn’t carried over into the New Testament (Matthew 5:38-39), and Psalm 8 isn’t really about exalting us, but praising Christ our Lord (Hebrews 2:5-9), so, too, Abraham’s trial isn’t the same for us. Our version of it is in Matthew 10:37-38: "He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me."
That’s the New Testament version of Genesis 22. That means our test will be a matter of getting our priorities right. It’s not that we love God and kill our kids—but that we love God more than our children. It means having our priorities set straight. That’s our test—to love God more than anything else. And that’s not too far away from Genesis 22:12 about fearing God more than anyone else.
Martin Luther digs deeply into this test in Matthew 10. For him it’s about keeping the creator above the creatures. The creator is the ocean and we are but little drops of water by comparison. “Let the drop” therefore “yield submission to the ocean,” he charges (LW 26:107). This does not mean, however, that we should disregard one another, abandon our families, practice social irresponsibility and become disrespectful children or dead-beat parents. No,
in the absence of an emergency everyone must remain in his town, place, and calling, and not forsake his family; all should remain together where they belong. But if the alternative ever confronts us—either to leave our calling and position or to deny Christ—then I declare: “Rather than deny Christ, I will sacrifice life, house, home, etc.” (LW 23:202).
That’s because God is most important. He trumps everything—for in our test he has “commanded confidence and condemned despair” (LW 4:105). As such, we must keep our priorities straight and know what’s most important in our lives. When creatures aren’t challenging God’s superiority, then it’s fine for us to care for them—and diligently at that (LW 6:27). But when they want to usurp God’s place, then there’s an emergency and we must put them in their place—demote them, if you will—but not try to kill them. This means that being steadfast in faith is the limit that our love for one another must face. Therefore “a curse on a love that is observed at the expense of the doctrine of faith, to which everything must yield—love, an apostle, an angel from heaven, etc.” (LW 27:38). For “love and faith are exact opposites in their intentions, their tasks, and their values” (LW 26:119). When they conflict, love must lose out (LW 14:244). That’s because if “love is the most important… I lose Christ” (LW 26:270)—which is blasphemy.
Therefore we must be dialectical about this, needing as we do, “careful distinction and accurate logic,” so that we don’t confuse faith and love (LW 6:28-29). An example of such an emergency would be marriage. If a non-Christian husband doesn’t let his wife “be a Christian and live a Christian life… then divorce is in order” (LW 28:33), when otherwise it’s strictly forbidden (Matthew 19:18). Another example would the Lord’s Supper. “If fickle fanatics juggle and play the clown with the words of the Supper according to their fancy,” then we must “shun, condemn, and censure them” (LW 37:27). In these cases, being tolerant is out of bounds, as it would be if your children were discovered to be fornicators (Ephesians 5:3) or practicing homosexuals (Romans 1:26-28). Just because your children are doing this or that doesn’t make it right (LW 1:122). In this case even the Muslims have it right that our children can be temptations to us (Qur’an 8:28; 64:14-15).
Kierkegaard spells out this asymmetry very well. In Matthew 22:37-39 it says we are to love God with everything that is in us, but our neighbors we are to love only as ourselves. This is because
a person should love God unconditionally in obedience and love him in adoration. [But] it is ungodliness if any human being dares to love himself in this way, or... another person in this way, or dares to allow another person to love him in this way (KW 16:19).
Once again, creatures are not to be treated like the creator (Romans 1:25). This distinction must be admitted and honored.
So are you ready for the test? Or are you tormented by that recurrent collegian’s nightmare—that you’re lined up for an exam in a class you forgot to attend—and so you panic, since no solution is in sight. Is that how you feel—when looking at Mt. Moriah afar off? Are you rattled—unprepared for the test God has for you?
If so, how shall we proceed? Trying harder doesn’t seem to get us very far. Trying to forget never lasts very long. So it seems we need help from beyond ourselves—or extra nos, as Luther put it (LW 24:347; 26:387; 42:48; 51:28). At just this point the words from Mark 1:15 feel like a fresh breeze blowing gently our way: “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” they say. So rather than trying to dig ourselves out of this hole, all we have to do is admit we’ve failed.
Repent, the Good Book says. Say you’re wrong and ask God to forgive you. And God will step in. But not because we’re worth it (LW 30:301; 31:57). No, God will rescue us because he’s loving and not because we’re lovable. So don’t despair. That can send you right back down into the hole you’ve dug for yourself earlier. No, instead do this: Repent and believe in the Gospel.
But what is that Gospel? Mark 10:45 says it’s that Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for us. But what’s a ransom? It’s what gets you out of prison, or frees you from the oppression of kidnappers. And what is our imprisonment? Where are we in jail? Sin is our prison!—that ignorance and defiance from which we cannot free ourselves (John 8:34; Romans 6:20-22). Luther called that being twisted in on ourselves—or incurvatus in se (LW 25:291, 313, 341). This is the chief burden that weighs us down (Matthew 11:28). It’s what generates the “objectless anxiety” that counselors report hearing about from their mysteriously depressed clients (see Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety, 1950, 1996). But what exactly is that ransom that saves us from this imprisonment—from this objectless anxiety that terrifies us as long as it’s allowed to go on without any identification or resolution?
The ransom is simply the cross of Christ. That’s the price paid to set us free (1 Corinthians 6:20, 7:23; LW 47:113). For only in the crucifixion of Jesus is our poverty of spirit turned into glorious riches (2 Corinthians 8:9). Only on his cross are we saved from our sins. Only in his death do we find life—getting out from under the burden of sin, guilt and fear. Only in his suffering and death are we kept free from that “place of torment” (Luke 16:23, 28)—which is hell itself (LW 25:435). Only in Christ do we see that “death is nothing but a sport and empty little bugaboo of the human race, yes, an annoyance” (LW 4:116)! Therefore we must “see the enormity of God’s wrath over sin, and learn that there is no other remedy for this than the death of God’s Son… If there is no sin, then Christ is nothing. Why should he die if there is no sin or law for which he must die?” (LW 47:110; 52:253).
Our only remedy or ransom, then, is Christ Jesus. Without this ransom, whatever else we say about Jesus will only be “preaching half of Christ.” That is because Christ is fundamentally “the Price by which satisfaction is made for divine justice and wrath on our behalf.... If He has placed Himself in His own Person to turn away wrath from us, He has established Himself as the price for us” (LW 28:264).
And so we cannot settle for an idea, a concept, a narrative or some work of art. What we need instead is this person who is both human and divine—as well as his painful suffering and death for us. For in the cross the wrath of God is lifted off of our backs (John 3:36). Jesus is our ram caught in the thicket (Genesis 22:13; LW 4:137, 11:102). No longer are we then the object of his divine fury—just as Isaac’s throat was no longer under that knife’s blade. For in Christ God has sworn to be merciful (Genesis 22:16; John 6:27; LW 4:132, 143, 150). Knowing this, and believing in this, makes us “buoyant” (LW 4:158)—freed from darkness and despair. So God tests us that he might “stir up faith and love in us” (LW 4:132).
Sacrificing to the Lord
And when you come down from the mountain, see to it that you also walk in the ways of the Lord. Struggle with Luther to “carry out God’s commands”—foreswearing all social “wantonness, lewdness, extravagance in dress, gluttony, gambling, [and] extortion in every trade” (The Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert : 291, 290). And do that by heeding Romans 12:1-2: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
For this is “the most useful knowledge” of all (LW 25:438). Amen.
Ronald F. Marshall is the Pastor at First Lutheran Church of West Seattle.