“Genesis 22: Faithfulness” by Cari Willis

June 29, 2008


2008 Pentecost bulletin

I will confess something right off the top – I HATE Genesis 22!

  • Who is this God who asks someone to sacrifice his son?
  • How can Abraham be so willing to put his son on the altar?
  • Doesn’t this portray God as just playing around with our human emotions with this test it is only a test?

Ok, I will confess something else. I hated this story until I took a Midrash class with Rabbi Stephen Sager. I am not sure if any of you have heard of the term Midrash. I personally had never heard of it until I entered seminary. And to be completely honest it was a couple of weeks into the class before I caught onto what it was. But quite simply Midrash is the rabbinic tradition or rabbinic art of letting scripture interpret scripture by looking at the textual irritants or by asking questions of the text and finding the answers elsewhere in scripture. For in the Jewish faith they believe that Scripture is one long conversation and so you can use other Scripture in order to answer what is happening in the “irritating” Scripture that you do not understand. During our entire class we looked at a dozen different midrashic texts for just Genesis 22 probably because it is the most irritating scripture there is!

Certainly as one looks at this scripture one can relate to these early Rabbi’s as hundred’s of questions pop up like:

  •  Where is Sarah? Sarah who has been so prominent in all of the other stories is missing! It was Sarah who laughed at God as we read a couple of weeks ago when she heard she would get pregnant at such an old age, but who did indeed miraculously give birth to her son Isaac. It was Sarah who got jealous of Hagar after she had given birth to Ishmael so Sarah got rid of her. And yet here she is completely absent in a story about ending her precious son’s life! Does she not know what God said to Abraham? Or does she know what God has commanded and has simply given up?
  • some of us are amazed by Abraham’s willingness to just go along with this scheme of God’s, but then aren’t we further amazed that Isaac is going along with all of this too? Maybe he just doesn’t know what is happening?? Maybe he is too young? Or maybe he is a teen as those in the Jewish faith believe. Does it change our reading of the text if Isaac is 13-17 years of age?
  • Where are all of the emotions? It seems like this is just another day in the neighborhood – just another stroll to the mountain top between father and son. But which parent here would be stoic for three days knowing you are about to kill your son?
  • In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham objects time and time and time again. Why isn’t Abraham objecting with this? Here his family, his promise from God is involved and he just keeps saying “Here I am” instead of praying to God for something else to happen. Why is that?
  • This is a story of very few words, so why does it repeat the phrase “so the two of them walked on together” in both verse 6 and 8? This twice said phrase bookends the only conversation we hear between Abraham and Isaac, why is that? Were they just walking in silence otherwise?
  • Where is the land of Moriah mentioned in verse 2? In 2 Chronicles 3 you will find out that God appeared to David in the land of Moriah and that this is where the Temple is to be built. Does this change our reading of this story when we know that this is where the Temple will be built?

And of course I could go on and on with my questioning. There are so many questions in the text we see before us this morning and there are so many questions in the white space of the text. This is how the art of Midrash began. The early Rabbi’s were trying to understand the confusing text so they looked to other scriptures to answer of what was going on.

One of my favorite midrashic texts is this – listen carefully:


I. And it came to after these things, that God did prove (Nissan) Abraham (XXI, I).  It is written, Thou hast given a banner (nes) to them that fear Thee, that it may be displayed (le-hithnoses) because of the truth.  Selah (Ps. LX, 6): this means, trial upon trial, greatness after greatness, in order to try them in the world and exalt them in the world like a ship’s ensign [flying aloft].I  And what is its purpose?   ‘Because of the truth. Selah’: in order that the equity of God’s justice may be verified in the world.  Thus, if one says, ‘Whom He wishes to enrich, He enriches; to impoverish, He impoverishes; whom He desires. He makes a king2: when He wished, He made Abraham wealthy, and when He wished He made him a king,’ then you can answer him and say, ‘Can you do what Abraham did?’  Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him (Gen. XXI, 5); yet after all this pain3 it was said to him, Take now thy son, thine only son (XII 2), yet he did not refuse.  Hence, ‘Thou hast give a banner to them that fear Thee, that it may be displayed’; so it is written, That God did prove Abraham.

Notice that the Rabbi in this midrash uses Psalm 60 and I will start reading from verse 1:
“O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; restore us! You have rocked the land and split it open; now repair the cracks that your earthquakes are causing! You have made your people feel hardship; and given us stupefying wine. Now raise a banner for those who revere you to which they may flee out of bowshot.” As you read the first three verses you may think “maybe these are the words that are going on in Abraham’s mind” But the Rabbi of this particular midrash wants us to pay particular attention to the next verse which is: “Now raise a banner for those who revere you to which they may flee out of bowshot.” Why? Let’s read Genesis 22:12 “He [The angel of the Lord] said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear or revere God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’” The midrashist is taking the banner that we read about in Psalm 60 that is being raised for those who revere God and interjecting it into Genesis 22. In other words, the Midrashist in this midrash we have in front of us today is saying that God is raising the banner over Abraham because Abraham has shown that he reveres God. Abraham after being tested has shown that he above anyone else is faithful to God.

I have always heard Genesis 22 preached as either God was proving to God’s self that Abraham was indeed that faithful – or that God was showing Abraham the faith that Abraham actually did have – or that this is the foretelling of the sacrifice that God would make of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. I have never heard it preached that God was showing all of us – all of the generations that would follow what faithfulness looks like. And this kind of faithfulness deserves a banner to be flown over Abraham saying “wooooo hooooo – this is what faithfulness looks like! This is the ultimate test of faithfulness. Look here and see.”

Case and point, several weeks ago we were reading Romans 4 where Paul used Abraham as the example of what faithfulness looked like. In Romans 4:23-24 we read “Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ [speaking of Abraham] were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also.” Abraham is our exemplar or is our prototype of what faithfulness looks like. When God told him to go – he went. When God told him to do something – he did it. Abraham being the perfect picture of faithfulness is also brought up in both Hebrews 11 and James 2 by the writers of these two epistles. Again, they were recalling the words of the Torah to wave the banner over Abraham to say “this is what faithfulness looks like not only for Abraham who believed in God, but also for us who believe in God’s only son, Christ.”

But I also want us to notice something else about Genesis 22. In verse 4 we read: “On the third day Abraham looked up…” So was Abraham looking down for three days? Is this something we are to infer from this passage? In my own midrashic fancy I want us to look at our Psalm, Psalm 13, for this week.. “How long, Adonai? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my anguish, and wallow in despair all day long? .. Look at me! Answer me, Adonai, my God!” Could these words also be the words of Abraham as he was looking down for those three days? Could we also go on to imagine that Abraham also further stated the last two verses of our psalm? “I trust in your love; my heart rejoices in the deliverance you bring. I’ll sing to you, Adonai, for being so good to me.”

My answer is yes and yes. Yes, Abraham could be lamenting as he is walking those three days to that distant mountain with servants, donkey, Isaac, knife, wood, and fire. Why? Because as we see from our beautiful psalms of lament, which Psalm 13 is, the psalmist even in her honest pouring out of her soul to God never ever let’s go of God. Adonai is still HER God. Adonai can still be trusted. Adonai’s love is still a present reality. Adonai hears the cries of Abraham and as Abraham clings to Adonai, Adonai clings to Abraham. Abraham stays faithful in his lament because he trusts God with his entire life.

One of my professors told us a story about a night in which she and her husband werehaving dinner with some friends at her home in Durham, North Carolina. It was late at night when they heard a knock at the door. They turned the front porch light on and realized that it was a black man. She paused for a moment wondering what to do. Her friend then answered the door to find out that the man needed. He stated he needed a ride across town. Without hesitating he said he would get his keys and take him. My professor confessed to us that her first instinct was to be shocked and worried about his safety and so reminded him of the crime rate in Durham being one of the worst in the country. To which he replied, “I am already dead.” When she first told the story it really made me pause. She went on to explain something that we who are baptized believers in Christ know that we have died to this life in order to be raised in newness of eternal life. We are “already dead.” As we were dipped into those baptismal waters we, like Abraham and Isaac, have put ourselves on the altar and said “Here I am. Take me.” But my question is, do we live into this baptismal reality on a day to day basis? Do we follow Christ’s call to lay down our lives?

Just last week our preacher talked about the gospel passage in Matthew 10 where Christ tells us about the cost of discipleship – meaning we choose Christ over mothers, fathers, sons and daughters – or as our preacher inferred we separate ourselves from anything that is getting in our way of serving Christ fully. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so famously said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." (The Cost of Discipleship, 99) We are called to die with Christ on a daily basis in order to be transformed into the new life that Christ has for us. For it is only by loosing our life

 But are we ready to lay it all down on the altar today?

As we look around this room at these boots, shoes, sandals, and yes, even Simpson slippers we wonder if we too can walk as these others have walked. Can we go when God calls us to go? Can we do what God has called us to do? Can we walk in the sandals that Abraham wore in order to have faith as Abraham had faith? Can we lament as our psalmist laments by crying out while also having absolute trust and assurance that the Holy One has not left us? Can we die to this life in order to be raised to a transformed life in Jesus Christ? Can we think about our varying life situations and ask “is this a banner time?” When others look at our lives, do they see on a daily basis the banner flying over our heads which says "wooo hooo this is what faithfulness looks like”? 

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