Restoration Quarterly 29.1 (1987) 47-51.

       Copyright © 1987 by Restoration Quarterly, cited with permission.



Sacrificing Our Future

(Genesis 22)



   Austin, Texas





Not inappropriately, the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice

Isaac is titled by Elie Wiesel "Isaac, a survivor's story."1 If we were to

question people in the pew concerning the ultimate value in life, after the

expected pious answers, many would finally (and perhaps most honestly)

answer: life itself. Survival is a dominant factor in our modern world.

However, the importance of survival is not a new phenomenon. In one

of the better known wisdom tales from Egypt The Dispute of a man with

his Ba, we overhear a dialogue between a man contemplating suicide and

his inner being. As the man marshals arguments favoring suicide, the inner

being counters with arguments against suicide. After extended discussion,

the debate is finally won by the inner being with the argument that life,

namely this life, is a known entity--and the known is always preferable to

the unknown! Even we who claim a confidence regarding the future can

understand such thinking, for in our lives we have known that anxiety

concerning the future. For many of us, to survive is preferable to loss of

life. Because of this, Genesis 22 makes us uncomfortable, for it presents

us with a reality at odds with the dominant world view.

However, this passage may also make us uncomfortable because of

its disharmony with modern religion. We live in a religious society in

which virtually all talk centers on what God can and will do for us. God

the giver dominates our religious scene. (This is most clearly manifested

in the popularity of such programs as PTL and the 700 Club.) Little, if

any, talk discusses the demanding God. In response, modification of a

famous charge is most appropriate: "Ask not what your God can do for

you; ask what you can do for your God."

In this context, the message of Genesis 22 must be heard. The passage

throbs with drama, for it contains the stuff of which life is made. It treats

fear and faith; it pulsates with conflict--conflict of the past, present, and

future; of faith and justice; of obedience and defiance; of freedom and



     1 Messengers of God (Summit Books, 1976), p. 69.

48                                            Restoration Quarterly


The Old Testament Setting


We cannot help being struck with the pathos of this account. If we

are honest, we read this account with fear and anxiety (even though we

know the outcome), for it raises nagging questions which continue to

haunt us. What kind of father would seriously consider killing his son?

What kind of God would ask of a father the murder of his son? The pathos

is heightened as the account progresses. Three times the term "together"

(vss. 6, 8, 19) appears. Each successive movement is charged with drama,

from the saddling of the pack animal to the splitting of the wood to the

long, wordless trip. The anguish comes to a crescendo as the son and his

father journey alone the final leg of the trek, the son with the wood for

his own sacrificial fire and the father with the flint and knife. As E. Speiser

has so aptly stated, " . . . ‘and the two walked on together,’ (8) covers

what is perhaps the most poignant and eloquent silence in all literature."2

Never was so much and so little said. Soren Kierkegaard, in Fear and

Trembling, attempts to delve into the "conversation" (or lack of it) between

Abraham and Isaac as they journeyed on alone to Mt. Moriah. Kierkegaard

struggles with the dilemmas presented in this story and rightly concludes

that we too quickly solve the dilemma through abstraction and moraliza-

tion. To say "the great thing was that Abraham loved God so much that

he was willing to sacrifice to him the best remains a problem when we

concretize the account once again and realize that the best is his own son!3

And yet, if we can get beyond the initial repulsion of a father being

called to sacrifice his son, we discover that this passage involves in reality

a much larger issue. For in ancient Hebrew mentality, Abraham is being

called to sacrifice more than just his son; he is really being called to sacrifice

himself, his very future. For Abraham, this was a call to end his story, to

end the promise he had embraced in faith. Isaac was more than just the

child of Abraham's old age; he was the only link to that far-off goal to

which Abraham's life was dedicated.4 And so, if we read the story aright,

we can only agonize with Abraham as he comes to grips with the reality

that the God in whom he has put his hopes is in fact calling in the very

substance of his hope. For some inexplicable reason, God is recalling the

heart of the promise.


     2 Genesis (AB Doubleday, 1964), 164-165.

     3 As Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling [Princeton Univ. Press, 1941], 36)

states: And there he stood, the old man, with his only hope! He knew that God

Almighty was trying him ... and that it was the hardest sacrifice that could be

required of him ... but that no sacrifice was too hard when God required it-and

he drew the knife.

     4 Speiser, Genesis, p. 164.

MARRS/SACRIFICING OUR FUTURE                             49


And yet as we shrink back at the intensity of this account, we remember

that in a very real sense this issue has been central to Abraham's life from

the beginning. The issue of obedience (or as Breuggemann would call it,

"embracing the promise")5 is central in the accounts treating Abraham.

Whereas this incident is the climax of the issue, in a sense Genesis 22

simply epitomizes the extended relationship of God and Abraham. We see

in Verses 1-12 a movement in the relationship between God and Abraham,

a movement revealed in two ways: (1) "take your son, your only son Isaac”

... (vs. 2) "you have not withheld your son, your only son. .."(vs. 12)

(2) "God tested Abraham ..."(vs. 1) "for now I know that you fear God

" (vs. 12). At the center of this movement is the affirmation in Verse

8 ("God will provide"). Verse 8 provides both movement and disclosure.6


The New Testament Perspective


We may be tempted as New Testament Christians to smugly dismiss

this ancient text as a somewhat embarrassing reminder of an era plagued

with barbarity. However, if we are honest, there are passages in the New

Testament which should terrify us as much as Genesis 22. Mark 8:31-38

is such an example. Surely we shrink back as we seriously contemplate the

call to follow and to emulate a crucified Messiah!

In Mark 8,7 we see the question of Jesus' identity intimately related

to the question of his disciples' identity and call. In the confrontation

between Peter and Jesus, Peter rebukes Jesus for his inappropriate defini-

tion of Messiah. Jesus responds that to profess "Christ" is to relinquish

any right to define what "Christ" means. Disciples are not to guide, protect,

or possess Jesus; they are to follow him. Thus we see a movement in this

passage from the issue of "who Jesus is" to "what being Christ means" to

"what being a disciple means."

This passage demands the utmost from us, for we are called to sacrifice

everything that would insure our own vision, our own sense of our future.

Just as Jesus left (sacrificed) everything (his family, possessions) for the

cause of God, so we are called to sacrifice our future. The invitation of

Jesus to us strikingly resembles God's call to Abraham. The call to deny

ourselves, take up the cross, and follow Jesus is a call to give up our future.


     5 Genesis (John Knox, 1982).

     6 As Brueggemann (Genesis, p. 187) states: We do not know why God claims

the son in the first place nor finally why he will remove the demand at the end.

Between the two statements of divine inscrutability stands verse 8, offering the

deepest mystery of human faith and pathos.

     7 I am indebted in the following comments to the excellent exposition of Mark

8:27-9:1 by James L. Mays, "Mark 8:27-9:1," Interpretation 30 (1976): 174-178.

50                                Restoration Quarterly


The call is not to deny ourselves something, but to deny ourselves. This

is the great paradox of the call. It attacks the fundamental assumption of

our human existence. We can never possess our own life! The significance

of the passage lies in its paradox. I learn who I am by discovering who

Jesus is; the way to self-fulfillment is the way of self-denial. As D. Bonhoef-

fer so aptly stated, "When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die."


He [Jesus] begins with a condition: "If anyone wants to come

after me . . ." The condition is gracious in its openness.... It

is expressed in three phrases: "let him deny himself, take up

his cross, and follow me." The symmetry of this offer with the

vocation of Jesus is obvious. His vocation must become the

vocation of those who name him "The Christ," . . . Taking up

one's cross is not a pious interpretation of the usual woes of

mortality as "the cross we have to bear." All these notions can

be thought and enacted apart from Jesus. The call rather means

that Jesus is to become the disciples' passion. It is the exposition

of the only authentic sense in which one can say to him, "You

are the Christ." It is the possibility of a new state of being in

which one can say, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no

longer 1 who live, but Christ who lives in me ..."(Gal. 2:20)

The cross in the call of Jesus makes it a contradiction of

the best human wisdom and a threat to the basic human instinct.

Who can want to choose crucifixion of the self, when the will

of man is set on saving his own life from whatever threatens

or on finding some savior in whose power to take refuge? In

four interdependent sayings Jesus attacks the essential assump-

tions of human existence in an appeal to the will of those he

confronts. Expressed in each saying is the core wisdom of faith

in God: A person can never possess his own life. One cannot

enact or fulfill it as an expression of the sovereign self.8




Genesis 22 deals with something much larger than child sacrifice. It

treats the issue of response to a giving God who also demands. It issues

a call to Abraham to relinquish the gift of promise. The call to sacrifice

goes to the core of Abraham's existence. It is a call to see the gift of

promise for what it truly is--pure gift.


      8 Ibid.: 177-178.

MARRS/SACRIFICING OUR FUTURE                             51


However, this passage is not simply about God and Abraham. In it

Israel , saw the story of her own relationship with God. Israel could see

her own existence as solely a gift from her gracious God. She who had

been "no people" had been brought from death to life by a freely saving

God. However, Israel learned that the God who is graciously faithful is

also incredibly demanding, and she was forced repeatedly to renew her

commitment to this demanding God who allows no rivals. In hearing

Genesis 22, Israel was reminded that her giving God was a God demanding

undivided loyalty.

In like manner, we are called by the same God. The God who gives

us a future in the miracle of the resurrection is the same God who calls

us to sacrifice our future. As we sacrifice our future, our very selves, we

are given a "future" by God. And yet, the only thing going for us is our

conviction (faith) in our God's ability to recreate that miracle in us

(1 Cor. 15). In an age of self-fulfillment, the call of Jesus remains resolutely

firm and radical: He who would save his life must lose it and he who

would lose it for my sake will find it.




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