Restoration Quarterly 29.1 (1987) 47-51.
Copyright © 1987 by Restoration Quarterly, cited with permission.
Sacrificing Our Future
RICK R. MARRS
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
the better known wisdom tales from
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
own sacrificial fire and the father with the flint and knife. As
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
and Isaac as they journeyed on alone to
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
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
also incredibly demanding, and she was forced repeatedly to renew her
commitment to this demanding God who allows no rivals. In hearing
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.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Restoration Quarterly Corporation
report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: