The sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:1-19) forces the question: What do I hold most dear? Promised a child at age 75, Abraham waited 25 years more for Isaac’s birth. A few years later, when the Lord commands Abraham to sacrifice the promised son, He pulls no punches. He knows precisely the depth of the sacrifice He is requiring.“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” “Your son, your only son…whom you love“.
In the end, God does provide the sacrifice, a ram with its horns caught in a thicket. Isaac’s life is spared. Father and son walk back down the mountain together. But what Abraham must have gone through! How did he hold it together on that walk up the mountain? How much did his hand shake as he took out the knife? And Isaac. What did this do to him? To his relationship with his Dad? In Frederick Buchner’s novel, The Son of Laughter, Isaac, nearing death, tells his son Jacob the story of the near-sacrifice. By the time he’s finished, Isaac is shaking, wailing, tearing up the earth and scattering it on his head. “I was not always as you see me now, my son!”
In her poem, “Abraham to kill him”, Emily Dickinson portrays God as a petty tyrant. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac placates Him – for now. Dickinson’s Christianity was, at best, ambivalent. Committed Christians know that God is not cruel or abusive. He takes no delight in ruining father-son relationships or making unreasonable demands. So what was He doing?
There’s no simple answer. We know that although God ultimately spared Isaac, He freely gave the sacrifice of His only son. Truly, God provided “the lamb for the burnt offering.” We also know that Abraham’s faith and obedience changed the world forever. Had he not offered up Isaac, I would not be writing this post. You would not be reading it. To use Rich Mullins’ beautiful image, when Abraham looked up to count the stars (Gen 15:5), “one star he saw had been lit for me” – and for you. All believers in the God of Israel, Jews and Christians, believe because of Abraham’s belief.
But the main fruit of the sacrifice of Isaac was to show Abraham his own heart. How much do I trust God? Will I surrender everything – everything – to Him? Will I trust that whatever I give Him, He will give back a thousandfold? Do I believe that His grace is sufficient, that He cannot be outdone in generosity.
On an immeasurably more minor note, Mary and I are going through our own sacrifice of Isaac. Our son Michael is moving into his own apartment this week. It’s time. He just celebrated his 22nd birthday. His friends are starting to get married, and one couple already has their first child. He’s been champing at the bit ever since graduating college. We know that it’s – literally – the right move.
We know that this kind of thing happens all the time. A billion more difficult events happen every moment. Spouses, parents, and children die. War, famine, pestilence, poverty, chronic or fatal illnesses, homelessness devastate. A billion far worse things. It should be no big deal.
But it is. Arggh. We almost lost him as a child, first to miscarriage, second to bacterial meningitis. We homeschooled him through high school. A year away at college, and he was back to finish college here in Omaha while living at home. We are so used to his always being home. There would always be a light under his door, the sound of the fan in his room, his dirty dishes and plates left on the counter, the sound of his violin, guitar, or vinyl records booming from his bedroom. There’d always be the less frequent but still treasured talks late at night about his work, his latest projects, his many passions and enthusiasms.
Sure, we’ll see him. He’ll visit us, we’ll visit him. We’ll probably take occasional vacations together. We’ll text and talk. God willing, there’s be marriage and grandchildren. But it will be visiting. Each time, he’ll go to his home, we to ours. This will never be his home again.
So, I’m a mess. Mary’s a mess. We’ll get over it, we know. Probably sooner than we can imagine. It is a little Isaac amidst the Isaacs that everyone offers all the time. The key is truly to offer each Isaac freely, to place it on the altar of one’s own accord. If it’s torn from us, it’s not an Isaac, unless at some point we say “Yes” to the loss. We don’t want to stop Michael from moving, and realistically, we couldn’t even if we did want to. But it matters that we face this needed transition with a willing heart. He desires our freedom from an over-attachment to everything that is not Him so He can give Himself – and all things besides – completely to us.
What is your Isaac right now? What is the one person, possession, goal, dream – good in itself – that God is calling you to put on the altar? What is “your son, your only one, whom you love”? Give it to Him. Trust Him. He knows you. He knows your heart. He asks for your Isaac. Because you are His Isaac, His son or daughter, His only one, whom He loves.