Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Death and Resurrection of Isaac

The story of the binding of Isaac—or as it is sometimes referred to in Hebrew, the Akedah—is a strange story. Let’s just acknowledge that up front.  It is a story about an ancient Middle Eastern wanderer who hears a voice from God that tells him to kill his first born son, and he does it! Or at least he has every intention of doing it.

At this point many modern readers say, “This is sick,” and close the book, turn on the TV, and watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad.

Seriously though, a story like this is hard for us to accept, at least coming from a religious text.  The Bible itself condemns the practice of human sacrifice (Deut. 18:10). People in Abraham’s day, however, would not have batted an eye. This was the type of thing gods regularly asked of their worshipers. 

I would like to suggest that this rather strange and troubling story makes a lot more sense when we read it as part of a larger story. God revealed himself thousands of years ago, in very primitive times, to a man who came from a tribe of moon worshippers. It took many generations, but—beginning where they were--he was slowly teaching his people who he was. This is an important chapter in a story that is still unfolding even in our own day.  God was laying the ground work—way back then—for his revelation of his character and identity in Jesus Christ.

Our text begins, “God tested Abraham.” What was Abraham’s test? It often is suggested that this is a test about who Abraham loved more, God or his son.  I want to suggest that there is something more going on here. God is testing, or proving, the strength of Abraham’s faith.  God had promised to make of him a great nation through his son Isaac. The children of Abraham would be a blessing to the whole world. Did Abraham believe that God would keep that promise no matter what?

If we take a closer look at the text we find something rather puzzling. Listen to what Abraham tells his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”

Both of them will come back? Was Abraham not being honest with his servants, or did he honestly expect to come back down that hill with his son Isaac?

We cannot know what was in the mind of Abraham, but generations later the author of Hebrews wrote,   “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”

Interestingly enough, similar ideas are presented in the Jewish Midrash (the rabbis’ commentary on scripture),

Rabbi Judah says: When the sword touched Isaac's throat his soul flew clean out of him. And when… [God] let His voice be heard from between the cherubim, "Lay not thy hand upon the lad." The lad's soul was returned to his body. Then his father unbound him and Isaac rose, knowing that in this way the dead would come back to life in the future; whereupon he began to recite, "Blessed are You, LORD, who resurrects the dead." (Pirkei Rabbi Elieazer)

Isaac’s obedience, in allowing himself to be bound and offered for sacrifice was interpreted by some rabbis as atonement for the sins of Israel and a promise of the resurrection of the dead. The Midrash goes on,

“By virtue of Isaac who offered himself as a sacrifice on top of the altar, the Holy One blessed be He, will resurrect the dead in the future…so that He may set them on their feet in the Age to Come. (Mekilta Simeon)”

Did Isaac actually die and return to life? Probably not, but the author of Hebrews—consistent with some of these traditions—seems to see in this story a type or figure of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Abraham in his willingness to offer up the son of his love is a figure of our Heavenly father who did not spare his own son but gave him for us all. Isaac in his obedience even unto death, is a figure of our Lord who willingly laid down his life as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

Notice that Isaac is not the unwilling victim in this story. The text says, “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.”

Just as Jesus is in harmony with the will of his Father in offering up himself, so Abraham and Isaac walk together. The wood for sacrifice is laid on Isaac and he carries it himself, just as Jesus bore his own cross to Calvary.  Even when Isaac is bound on the altar, there is no suggestion of a struggle. Rather Isaac goes as Christ who, “as a lamb who before the shearer is mute, did not open his mouth.”

Once again, however, we have the puzzling suggestion that there is something more going on. Isaac asks, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” 

Was Abraham merely trying to avoid the painful question? Again, we cannot know the mind of Abraham but his remark seems awfully prescient in light of what follows.
Just as Abraham is set to kill his own son, his hand is stopped by the voice of God’s messenger.  The deed is done. Notice God never instructed Abraham to kill his son. The word he uses suggests sacrifice but it literally means, “offer him up.” God had another sacrifice in mind.

Abraham raises his head, and what does he see?

He sees a ram caught in the thicket, but I want to suggest that he sees beyond the ram to what that ram represents. God reveals to Abraham that he is not like the gods of his neighbors who needs to be satisfied with the blood of sacrifice. He himself is able to atone for our sin and reconcile us to himself. The sacrifice that God himself provided was Jesus Christ, the son of Abraham—God incarnate—who laid down his life for the sins of the world.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

In this story, God reveals to Abraham—generations before the time—the anguish of the cross—the  anguish that God felt in handing over his only begotten son to die—but  also the joy of the resurrection. It was yet a further promise to Abraham of God’s faithfulness and of the greatness of his calling. 

Consider friends, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” How then should we respond to such faithfulness? What sacrifice is too great?  In the words of our Epistle this morning, Let us present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life

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