January 27, 2021

Abraham in the Wilderness

Lent 2012: A Journey Through the Wilderness

Abraham in the Wilderness

The story of Abraham and Isaac was on the lectionary this past Sunday.  It’s an appalling story.  We aren’t told how Abraham felt when he was commanded to sacrifice his hope in God’s promise.  But we can assume that he entered the wilderness not only literally but also metaphorically.  He must have looked back to all his wanderings at God’s direction and asked if they were a joke. He doubtless remembered his joy when Isaac was born to him and Sarah in their old age; he had looked forward to descendants through Isaac who would be as numerous as the stars.  And now the voice of God told him to negate all those years of faith.  I’m sure he wondered what kind of a god had called him – how was this one any better than Marduk, with his child sacrifices?  But Abraham still obeyed.

I would have a hard time obeying.  Honestly, I don’t think I would.  First of all, I don’t listen to God’s voice nearly as well as Abraham did; I’d find some way to dilute or divert the command.  But even more importantly, I make the mistake of having faith in the “How” of God’s promises rather than in the “What.”

What I mean is this.  God makes a promise to someone – to Abraham, that he will have descendants; to David, that he will be king; to the disciples, that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; to us, that good things will come when we trust him.  Then we look at that promise and picture how it will be fulfilled.  The danger is that we begin to have faith in our own picture.

At this point we experience a common delusion: that because we think we see God’s end, we therefore can recognize God’s means.  I struggle with this delusion frequently.  That’s why I might have withheld Isaac.  God told me I would have descendants, and I could see exactly how that promise was fulfilled in my growing son – so I’d keep him.  If I were David, I might have justified killing Saul in the cave, because God promised I would be king and obviously sent Saul so that I could do what needed to be done.  And I certainly would have been the disciple with the sword and the booth-building plans.

When we are invested in the “how” of our pictures and plans, it seems that God has betrayed us when he puts them to death.   We believed him!  We followed him and did what he commanded!  It was all working out so well!  And now he says we have to take our very faith and cut its throat on a mountain in the wilderness.

Let me give you a modern example of what I’m talking about.  An acquaintance of mine invited a foreign Christian to study with his mission agency in the United States, against the advice of many people who knew the foreigner.  Within half a year the foreigner had been asked to leave the country, relationships had been broken, reputations damaged, and a lot of time and money wasted.  My acquaintance believed God’s promises to save people of every nation, tongue, and tribe, which is good.  The problem was he also believed that his current plan was how God was going to fulfill those promises.  In an ugly display of pride and self-justification, he continues to insist that the fiasco was all to God’s glory.  Because he confused the “What” (God’s promise of salvation) with the “How” (his own ill-conceived plan), for him to admit that his plan was a disaster would be to admit that God “failed.”  But God is asking for him to humble himself and in obedience to sacrifice his pictures and plans.

In the Old Testament God reminds us again and again that he is a jealous God.  It’s true.  He will have nothing but our total devotion to him.  We love our Isaacs, our good works, our pictures and plans.  We are told to kill them.  God will not share our devotion even with his own blessings.

There will come a point for each of us when we have to sacrifice everything we love.  The servant of the poor will be asked to give up her ministry; the missionary will come home in disgrace; the politician who truly loves peace and justice will have to step down.  We ask the eternal question:  Why?  Doesn’t God want me to care for the poor and the lost and to do justice and love mercy?  Has my faith been groundless all along?

No.  But we have to kill what we most love, even when that thing is supremely good.  We have to enter the wilderness with our knife and our beloved son.  We have to sweat blood and cry out from a cross that God has forsaken us.  This is the narrow way and the only path to life.

Of course we know the end of the stories.  God provided a substitute for Isaac.  David finally got to be king.  Jesus rose from the dead.  We get back what we lost and it all works out fine.  But let’s not forget that to get to the happy ending we have to pass through death, and we can carry nothing with us on that journey, not even our confidence in happy endings.  Death means pain and loss.  In its extremity it means that even the remembrance of God and his goodness is wrung from us.  It means utter darkness.

Abraham knew that kind of death as he took his trusting child through the wilderness to Mount Moriah.  He couldn’t see the end of the story.  But he obeyed.  He sacrificed the “How” of the promise and even the “What” of the promise.  Instead he chose the “Who.”  He chose to want God more than his own plans and pictures, and more than all the blessings that God gives.




  1. Abraham and Isaac? God’s challenge to Abraham on sacrificing Issac? Oh God… (Eagle’s stomach is in knots…) I can just imagine John Piper or Mark Driscoll handling this subject. Nothing but the concept of a sovereign God who demands blind obediance becuase the child is a wetch who doesn’t deserve to live. (I suppose with this theology one can also use theology to justify abortion as well…) I also think I have a better understanding as to how events like the Crusades or September 11th took place.

    Only a totaliterian state would demand blind obediance….

    • Come on, it’s just a story. It’s not like any of these people actually existed. Jews and Christians know as well as anyone else that this kind of behavior (sacrificing your children in order to obey disembodied voices) is crazy, if done in real life. It’s in the Bible because people need stories like this to help us confront the fact that God, if he exists, is dangerous and unpredictable. Otherwise we end up with some sweetness-and-light religion which bears no resemblance to the real world.

      It’s not about absolute obedience–it’s about trust. Remember the earlier story in which Abraham haggles with God about how many righteous men he would have to find in Sodom in order for God to spare the city? Read Kierkeegard’s “Fear and Trembling” for an existentialist meditation on the Binding of Isaac, and by extension, the darkness of God.

  2. Read Kierkegaard instead. http://www.amazon.com/Trembling-Penguin-Classics-Soren-Kierkegaard/dp/0140444491

    It’s probably “worse” than anything you’ll hear from John Piper though, but much truer and more beautifully put.

  3. “The danger is that we begin to have faith in our own picture.”

    Boy howdy, am I guilty of that one!

  4. “When we are invested in the “how” of our pictures and plans, it seems that God has betrayed us when he puts them to death. ”

    It can lead to the death of our faith if we go down the rabbit hole without understanding this concept.

  5. I don’t know. I honestly hate this passage, because I feel like the Rosetta stone needed to understand it has never been found.

    I think of extreme religious sayings, like “If you see The Buddha walking down the road, kill him.”. Maybe a similar message is implied. It may be a type of parable, where the extreme of the story is meant to make a point, rather than to be taken literally. I struggle with this being about a jealous deity.

    • The basic picture is that of Christ. We are Isaacs, God’s loved children doomed for death by God’s law and command. But God’s nature compels him to provide an substitute so he may be with his children. The ram in the bushes is God’s substitute, himself in Christ. Abraham is an observer in this, and learns a little more about God’s loving nature and what kind of Christ God will send. He also learned about faith. He trusted God to fulfill his promises despite the fact that fulfilling God’s command seemed to defeat God’s promise. Jacob learns these lessons too, when he demands God bless him and wrestles with God.

      We face the same struggles everytime we want to replace God’s command with our own desires. We look to God’s instruction, and ultimately must trust it above our own reason. This kind of faith makes it essential that pastors be good students of Scripture and well trained to understand the theology of the cross. Otherwise, you get fools preaching of the demands of faith without love behind it, which leads to cults and soul-destroying discipline and despair.

      • I’m with you. You make a great point regarding theology of the cross. Making the story into purely a prophecy has its problems. God killing His own Son to appease His sense of justice is only slightly less disturbing than God expecting us to kill ours to appease His jealousy. If I ever make it to heaven, I’m going to look up Saint Anselm and kick his…

  6. “we have to kill what we most love, even when that thing is supremely good.” This is really appalling. I can’t worship a God who is morally nastier than I am.

    • No one is being asked to kill their wives and children here. We are being asked to kill our need to be number one, our reliance on worldly props and idols, our insistence on …whatever. We must lose our lives if we wish to gain them. Those who seek to lead must be the servant of all. Our morals are nasty. God’s are just backwards.

      • Amen.

        We are all three year old children who cannot fathom the things Daddy does to us that make no sense, and make us cry and feel unloved and punished, even when the actions are all for our ultimate welfare and happiness….but we are too little and uninformed to be able to see any of the “why’s?’.

        As a simple example from my own world….I can say with 100% certainty that NO pre-school child is happy when they are getting their booster vaccined. It hurts, and Daddy or Mommy are just SITTING there letting the horrible nurses hold me down and stick needles into me, and they HURT!!

        No way to understand that parents are preventing furture pain, blindness, hearing loss, amputated limbs, paralysis, and death.

    • H. Lee: This is a hard story, no question. I have to ask, though — by what standard of morality are you judging God? Traditionally something is considered good because it is in accord with God’s will, so God = good. There is no standard above God to hold God to; if there were, then God would not be supreme. This position requires faith, I realize, especially when faced with a story like this one.

      • Damaris: I think you are making the case that if God does something, it must be good, because there’s no higher good than God’s will. I guess I’m saying that if God’s will is utterly at variance with what Jesus told us humans to value — love, mercy, generosity, kindness, treating your neighbor the way you want to be treated — if, to God, love and compassion are not the highest values, then why should we worship Him? Why worship someone whose morality is alien to us? If we can’t discern the “outline” of God’s morality by looking at Jesus, then He’d just be like a creature from outer space — no use trying to worship Him or form a relationship with Him, because there’s no way to tell what He values or wants. I guess this is a longish way of answering your question: “by what standard of morality are you judging God?” I guess the answer is: by the standards of Jesus. If not by those standards, then whose?

        • Jesus is the standard, yes, and it’s true that some of the depictions of God in the OT seem contrary to the things Jesus said, did, and was. But then what do we do with Jesus’ assertion that he and the Father are one?

    • “God as a subject makes me into an object which is nothing more than an object. He deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. I revolt and try to make him into an object, but the revolt fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are with- out freedom and subjectivity…This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control.” – Paul Tillich.

  7. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. Abraham might be described as having a savage faith, astounding in it’s tenacity. Looking neither left nor right, the raw power of that faith is born of love. Love and not knowledge is the propulsion. The carnal mind is averse to such irrationality and simply will not tolerate it. The spirit, on the other hand, can step forward in silence with no ‘answer’ being needed. The irrationality of Abraham was born of devotion and intimacy with his God. He humbly walked with the Lord. I pray for the humility of Abraham, the father of many nations. On the other hand I fear the test of such a faith as his. I guess that clearly illustrates that I don’t have it yet.

  8. What if the story is being read backwards?

    Think of it this way: what would have been the penalty if Abraham had disobeyed? What if Abraham was supposed to stand up against God in defense of the child – standing in the gap, representing the redeemer – rather than sacrificing the child to save his own skin, as he did twice with Sarah by offering her to Pharaoh and Abimelech? When God offered to destroy the Israelites and raise up a new nation from Moses’ offspring, Moses protested – interceding on the behalf of the rebellious people. I think Moses demonstrated the greater faith and courage by standing up to God.

    • That Other Jean says

      There is a school of thought in Judaism that the sacrifice of Isaac was a test that Abraham failed, by not refusing to obey God’s command. I like that; I would rather see a parent brave the consequences of not sacrificing a child, than give in to the monster who would demand it.

      • I guess Hebrews 11:17-19 defends the traditional translation. Oh well. Still don’t like the story. I guess I don’t have to.

        • dumb ox, I had to go see what hebrews 11:17-19 says and I read in the NIV, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.”

          So, I guess it is saying that even though it sounds terrible to us that God would ask Abraham to kill his son, Abraham figured God would bring Isaac back from the dead since he believed God about the offspring coming from Isaac.

          It is still odd that God would ask Abraham or anyone to pass such a test. There are people in Maine (and throughout the world) who have killed their children saying “God told them to do this” so this particular part of the Bible “bothers” me.

          • I admit the story bothers me, too, Joanie. The more allegorical interpretation I’ve offered in this post is one way I try to understand why God wants us to know it.

    • This is a late update, but I saw a comment on the internet attempting to correlate the sacrifice of Isaac and the Pass-Over. This makes some sense, that the writer of Genesis was trying to weave the law into the Genesis stories, e.g. six day creation to teach on the Sabbath; God passing over Isaac as teaching about Pass-Over; Sodom and Gomorrah as a warning not to adapt to the pagan cultures through which the Israelites passed, the flood as an allusion to passing through the Red Sea, or to look back longingly to Egypt. This may be the rosetta stone I have been looking for: Genesis is a set of morality plays placed in the context of the people’s history. Here was a people who lived for generations in Egypt with no individual ethnic identity. They needed to be retrained to be Hebrew, so the writer put together these stories to integrate the law into their heritage. Just a thought.

  9. Damaris said: “We aren’t told how Abraham felt when he was commanded to sacrifice his hope in God’s promise.”

    I heard a little insight to this a long while ago, I think from a rabbi who guest lectured in an OT class. But I could use some of you Hebrew scholars to confirm something. In most English translations, God’s command to Abraham goes in this order: “Abraham! Take your son; your only son; Isaac; whom you love…”

    But what I heard was that the order doesn’t go like that in the Hebrew; that the last two phrases have been reversed in the English and that it should go from the general to the specific. In this way Abraham’s fear becomes heightened with each unfolding of God’s command. Something like this:

    [Abraham winces, goes uh-oh, but says:] “Here I am.”
    “Which son? I have two sons!”
    “Both my sons are only sons of their mothers.”
    [laughs nervously] “But I love both my sons equally!”
    [feels sick to his stomach but listens and obeys]

    Does this help? It works for me, helping to understand Abraham’s dilemma, but again, can anybody confirm that this is the correct order?

  10. Another perspective on this story is that shortly after exile from Eden, man’s universally distorted knowledge of good and evil invented the religious system of sacrifice as a tool to gain God’s favor or appease his anger. (Throw the virgin into the volcano to ensure a good harvest, etc.) Post-Eden, God now reaches out to mankind, seeking to win us back out of our own estrangement and ignorance about how to relate to Him.
    In this regard, God’s initial request to sacrifice Isaac would not have been at all surprising to Abraham, living in a culture where false gods / religious systems demanded sacrifice of preteen sons and firstborn virgins all the time.
    On the way to Mt. Moriah, Abraham tells Isaac that “God will provide His Own [sacrifice]”, which is prophetic in hindsight, but in the moment could’ve possibly been just a way to calm Isaac. God is teaching Abraham to trust Him, holding onto His original covenant in the face of frustrating and painful adversity.

    So for Abraham, the real *shock* comes when God intrudes at Mt. Moriah and provides His own sacrifice. God dramatically differentiates himself from all the other false gods: THIS God does NOT require our sacrifice to draw near, to keep His covenant.

    Most importantly, Abraham names the place “the God who will be His own”. This is our early glimpse of how God provides for us; an early understanding of the future work of Christ:
    “I tell you, something greater than the Temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned the guiltless.”
    Matt. 12: 6-7

    (PS: Wayne Jacobsen teaches more extensively on this perspective at www[dot]lifestream[dot]org/the-jesus-lens-part3.php)

  11. Final Anonymous says

    I don’t remember where I heard this (I can’t believe I came up with it on my own), and I wish I could because I could give credit where it’s due.

    Abraham sacrificing Isaac could be a foreshadowing of God “sacrificing” Jesus. When we read the story, we go through the agonizing emotions of a parent losing a child, or losing anyone close to us… something we will all go through at some point; possibly the worst “wilderness” we will go through. How could God possibly know how we feel?

    Well, He knows, because He had to experience it when Jesus was tortured, suffered, and died on the cross. Now I don’t pretend to understand the nature of God, and why He wouldn’t just save our loved ones, or keep them from suffering, or why He allows this stuff into the world anyway. But maybe He does actually come alongside and feel our pain. He didn’t create us, leave us to our own devices, and wander off to play tennis with the stars; He’s been there, He feels our pain.

    The beautiful thing about the Abraham story is it demonstrates the depth of God’s love for us — even though it was called for (for whatever OT reason), God couldn’t bear to let Abraham go through the pain of sacrificing his child. Because He understood the pain, He wouldn’t ask Abraham (or us) to do what He ultimately did for us — gave His Son for us.

    Again, I’m sure there are theological holes all over this story; my apologies. For some reason it has always spoken to me anyway, and I share it just in case it might speak to someone else.

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