Read the text here: Genesis 22:1-18
Hineni = Here I Am!
In many respects this story of the Sacrifice of Isaac (or, as it is known in Jewish Tradition – “The Binding of Isaac”) is one of the most difficult stories in the bible to interpret and for 21st century believers to even hear. The principal objection centers around the issue of human sacrifice, or even worse, child sacrifice and the suggestion that God not only approves, but that God is the one who commands it. Even the fact that Isaac is not sacrificed in the end does little to compensate for the sense of revulsion we feel towards both Abraham and God in this story. So we reject and perhaps ignore the story. Or we come up with a couple favorite explanations that we use to explain it away. Perhaps the most prevalent of these explanations is that we want see the story as a story of beginnings and a transition from uncivilized cultures that practiced human sacrifice to the more humane animal sacrifice. But the problem with this explanation is that it is simply not true. By the time this story was actually written down from the oral tradition human sacrifice had been abandoned and condemned not only in Israel but among Israel’s pagan neighbors as well. So if this is not the point of the story, what is the point of this story?
The point of the story in a word is contained in one word – testing. Well, now, that opens a whole other set of objections. And these hit even closer to home. We 21st century Christians do not like the idea of a God who tests our faith, especially in such a dramatic way. But even so, we do have some idea that perhaps our faith is tested from time to time. This is how we explain away suffering, loss and challenge. “God must be testing us” we say when we have suffered some kind of loss or other difficulty. Well, no. God doesn’t send those kinds of test. The bible is clear about that. When we experience hardship or loss this is not the kind of test that God is in the business of sending. And this is not the kind of test that Abraham faces in this story. So, who exactly is being tested and how?
Go… leave your land… wander... settle in the place I will show you… With these words God begins this adventure and Abraham obeys. And in this act Abraham gives up his past. Go… take the Son whom you love… to the place I will show you… offer him there as a burnt sacrifice… With this command Abraham faces the loss of the future. The child of promise, Isaac, the one who would father a great nation who would be a blessing to the nations is now to be destroyed? What then was the point of chapters 12 though 21? What about the promise? Would God so easily destroy the promise? If the sacrifice is Isaac is carried out the promise is nullified and God’s objective of reaching out to the creation through the people of the promise is destroyed as well. Maybe Abraham is not the only one being tested here. Maybe God’s own commitment and love is also on the line. Maybe God is also being tested!
Jesus, God incarnate, born in Bethlehem, emerges from the wilderness and begins a life of embodying the in-breaking into the present of the Kingdom of God. In the words and actions of Jesus the Kingdom of God has come into our midst, God’s love and grace is showered upon us and through Jesus God is bringing the world into relationship with God. But it comes to an abrupt end. “Let this cup pass from me…” Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. What is going on? Will God really allow his son to be destroyed by crucifixion? Will the promise that is embodied in Jesus be destroyed that simply? Will crucifixion put an end to God’s involvement with the creation once and for all?
God will provide the ram for the sacrifice my son… And there caught in the thicket is a ram. On the first day of the week at early dawn, the women went to the tomb… And there the tomb is empty. Jesus is risen! Resurrection is God’s response to crucifixion! The ram in the thicket is God’s response to the threatened loss of the promise. God’s commitment to the promise – God’s commitment to the creation – God’s commitment to you and me and all of us is unwavering. A bound Isaac on the altar waiting to be butchered; a crucified Jesus hanging on the cross seem to suggest that in fact God is not committed, and that ultimately death and the powers of death are stronger than the powers of life and love and grace. But then there is resurrection! And resurrection concerns the keeping of a promise where there is no ground for it. Faith is nothing other than trust in the power of resurrection against every deadly circumstance. Abraham knows beyond understanding that God will find a way to bring life even into the midst of this scenario of death. That is the faith of Abraham. That is (also) the faith of the listening community.(1)
This story is also a story of demands. God demonstrates God’s complete and total commitment to the creation and to us in Jesus, and we see this in this story as well. God demands from Abraham everything, his total unwavering commitment. But God also demands the same from us: our complete and total commitment. God gave up his only son; Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his future and all that he had – what about you? We don’t like to think about a demanding God. We like to think of a giving God that showers blessings without expecting much if anything in return. But this story shows us that God does expect something from us – God demands our very life. Jesus makes the same point in the Gospel text – pick up your cross… those who would loose their life for the sake of the Gospel will find it…
Abraham is called three times in this story – 1st by God; 2nd by Isaac; 3rd and finally by God. Each time Abraham responds with this word = Hineni. This is a Hebrew word that is translated = Here I am. There are no great protestations of faith by Abraham; there are no speeches or sermons. Just a simple word – Hineni! Perhaps here we can learn something about responding to God. The ideas of this story – the idea of God’s demands upon us can be very overwhelming, not to mention confusing. What are we to do? How do we respond? Perhaps we simply open ourselves up to God and say what Abraham says, Hineni – Here I am – and to that we might even add Jesus’ words from the Garden – not my will but your will be done. God provides from Abraham, God’s response to crucifixion is resurrection. Do we trust God to provide for us? Hineni – Here I am….
(1) Quote from The Interpretation Commentary on Genesis by Walter Bruggemann, page 197