A son for sacrifice

It’s nearly Christmas. My children read stories about lambs and donkeys visiting a baby, but the story I’m up to my Bible reading plan shows the season in a different light…

Rembrandt: The sacrifice of Isaac (detail)

How strange Genesis 22 has always seemed to me. Why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? What kind of Father asks another father to kill his child? Did Sarah know what was going to happen as her husband and son left that day? What psychological scars did Isaac carry into adulthood? (A very modern question, I know.)

What did it cost Abraham to take each step on that three-day journey? Did he stare at the knife as he cut branches for the fire, thinking about what else it would soon cut? What thoughts ran through his mind as he reassured Isaac that God would supply the sacrifice, knowing he had supplied it in the boy who walked by his side?

I picture them trudging up the mountain. They’re at the top, and the wind whines in their ears. Isaac watches his father lay stones for an altar, place branches on the top. Perhaps Abraham lays the last branches slowly, one by one, making time for a reprieve, a last-minute escape clause. It doesn’t come. The sky is steely, silent.

I don’t know how a father binds his son. I don’t know how he lays him on an altar. I don’t know how heavy the knife feels in his hand. I don’t know how faith brings itself to such a pass.

Does the boy close his eyes against the sight of the knife? Does he turn his head away? Does he fight the bonds? Does he cry, or moan, or whimper?

We’re told that Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead (Heb 11:19). He’s no longer the man who lied about his wife, who slept with a maidservant, who laughed at the impossibility of a child (Gen 12:10-20; 16:1-4; 17:17). By this time he knows something of the God who keeps his promises against all odds.

I don’t know if knowing this makes it any easier.

The sky booms. Words echo. He knows this voice. He has heard it before:

“Abraham, Abraham!”

“Here I am.”

“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22:11-12)

There’s a rustling noise, a “Bleat!” from a bush. Startled, Abraham looks behind him. Was it there before? How did he miss it? A ram in a thicket, caught by the horns, struggling as if it already knows its role in this drama.

The knife cuts, but instead of flesh, it cuts through rope. Isaac rubs sore arms. Abraham seizes the ram, binds its legs, throws it on the altar, slices its throat. They watch blood run down the sides of the altar, smell flesh burning, and tremble to think of the blood that came so close to flowing. A father receives his son back from death (Heb 11:19).

No small family drama, this. No psychological tragedy. No theatre played out for the amusement of the gods.

What was lying there was a boy, yes. A man’s only son,1 his one hope for family and future. But what lay on the altar that day was also the son of the promise, the seed of a great nation, the hope of world-wide blessing. For from this boy would come a son, and from him a son, and from him a son, and yet more sons, until the One and Only Son came into the world. God made visible. Salvation clothed in flesh. Hope in human form.

What God asks of Abraham, he gives himself. Once again, a father offers up his only son. But this time there is no reprieve, no last-minute escape clause. The sky is unbroken by a voice. Instead, darkness gathers, and the full weight of a father’s anger descends. A cross instead of an altar. Nails instead of a knife. A Lamb instead of a ram. Blood thick on the ground. A voice whispering, “Father?”. A life given so that others may live.

Three days later, the Father receives his Son back from death.

And suddenly the story of Abraham and Isaac doesn’t seem so strange, but inevitable, a line drawing for the future to fill in.

  1. Yes, he did have another son, Ishmael, but Isaac was his only legitimate son by marriage, the son of God’s promise, his “only son” according to Genesis 22:12.