“The Lord will provide,” Abraham promises Isaac — and Scripture promises its readers from antiquity to today. “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” But do any of us really live as if that were true?
I am an expert worrier. I cope with the daily anxiety of being human by trying to micromanage the world around me. If something goes wrong, I may not be able to fix it, but believe you me, I will have anticipated it! Yet, nine times out of ten, my attempts to “fix” the precarity of life make things a little bit harder and a little bit worse. So many things go horribly wrong in week’s reading from Genesis 22, including most notably God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his son (What?!). What’s worse : this hero of our faith is willing to go through with it. Abraham binds Isaac and raises his knife before the angel of the Lord intervenes. Surely this is a traumatic, awful story. Where is this guy’s Book-of-Order-mandated child protection policy?
Yes, there are many things that are wrong with this story. But one thing is right: Abraham trusts that God will provide. And God makes good on that promise.
I’m not going to excuse God or Abraham in this text. The way they toy with Isaac’s life is utterly inexcusable. But I do think we make a mistake if we read this story as a one-way test of faith. There are two sides to every covenant. In verse one, the narrator tells us that God is testing Abraham. But as the story develops, perhaps we will see that Abraham, the narrator, and the whole of the covenant people are also testing God.
I remember a clarifying moment back in my seminary Greek class when we learned that there are two grammatically valid translations of Paul’s enigmatic phrase, pisteos Christou. Depending on who’s translating, Paul either proclaims that we are saved by “faith in Christ” or “the faithfulness of Christ.” (For the Greek nerds out there, it’s the objective genitive v. subjective genitive.)
I had a little epiphany when I heard that second translation — the faithfulness of Christ. It is so much more consistent with both my lived experience and Reformed theology to trust that our salvation depends upon God’s gracious action rather than on what we do – or don’t – believe.
I think that’s what happens in this passage, too. Abraham has faith in God, and the God who has promised to use Abraham to bless the whole world (Genesis 22:18) delivers on that promised faithfulness.
If this were just a story about Abraham’s faith, Isaac would not have made it to verse 11. Without God’s faithfulness to the covenant, Abraham’s behavior is barbaric and cruel. When Abraham says to his young men, “Stay here … the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you,” he is calling upon God to be good. He is calling upon God to be God.
“The Lord will provide,” Abraham says. What might our lives look like if we abandoned our endless machinations to make things go our way and trusted God to show up in our lives exactly as they are?
“On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” What might our churches look like if we stopped wringing our hands asking, “Where are the people who used to come before COVID?” and got to work worshiping and serving God with the people who did show up?
Isaac is saved, not because of Abraham’s faith, but because of God’s faithfulness. May it be so in our lives as well.
Questions for reflection:
- How do you read passages like Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16? Are we saved by “faith in Christ,” or by “the faithfulness of Christ?” Both?
- What do you make of this difficult text? Should we be willing to hold Abraham up as a paragon of faith for nearly sacrificing his child?
- When Abraham tells Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” do you think he believers what he is saying or just sincerely hopes it is true? Is there a difference?
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