In “preaching study” posts, I’m really interested in fostering a “community” approach to study and prep for the message, so please interact as much as you like. All Scripture quotes are from the TNIV unless otherwise noted. Thanks!
This week in our contemporary service, I’m preaching Genesis 22:1-19, the well-known Abraham and Isaac text in which Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac as an offering to the Lord and at the end of which, God relents and allows the boy, the child of the promise, to live.
This is one of the most difficult texts in all the bible to deal with theologically. The questions it invites include those concerning God’s promise, goodness, omniscience. These all seem to hang in the air at the end of the chapter; the passage closes, the narrative moves on, but the seemingly discordant notes linger. One question does not lack some resolution, however…more on that later.
- Basic Structure: vv1-2, God’s Command; vv3-11, Faithful Response; vv12-19, Faithfulness Honored
- The dramatic portion is framed by narrations of God’s calling Abraham (“Abraham!” vv1, 11), and references to Abraham’s attentive posture (“Here I am,” vv1, 11) and to Isaac (“your son, your only son,” vv2, 12).
- The centerpoint dramatically is the same as it seems theologically and devotionally in connection with the overarching narrative of God’s saving mission in the world. It is Abraham’s answer to his son Isaac’s question, “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” “Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (v8). This is the one question that gets resolution within these verses where the others seem not to be addressed beyond their being raised. It is answered in vv13-14.
- We might investigate cultural and historical background that would help fill in some of our knowledge gaps, like…
- How did the practice of burnt offering sacrifices work?
- What was the practice of human and/or animal sacrifice like in the Ancient Near East (ANE) at that time?
- What is the significance of the mountaintop (literary or historical/cultural, or both) for (a) sacrifice and (b) religious experience?
- What is the significance, if any, of the types of animals–sheep and ram?
- An obvious connection for Christians is the parallel with Christ’s experience of self-sacrifice: “son, only son” (v2), placing of the wood “on his son Isaac” (v6), the lamb as the burnt offering sacrifice (vv7, 8), setting is a mountaintop (vv2, 14), and Abraham’s words, “God himself will provide the lamb” (v8)
- There are other canonical references that comes to mind as well that we might benefit from bringing into conversation with this text, including gospel passages of the passion such as Mark 14-15 and Luke 22, and the passage on faith and works in James 22:14-24 in which James refers explicitly to this text to make his point in the context of New Testament faith.
- Pressing a bit further to the theological questions advanced in the story, we might find Daniel 3 (the young men in the fiery furnace) an engaging conversation partner for questions about God’s protection, God’s provision, our faith, and sacrifice that finds one faithful to God.
- Another conversation partner that may help us encounter this text all the more faithfully is our sharing in Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, this Sunday. This sacramental practice reminds us also of a connection to the Passover event, but we’ll listen to its voice in and through an engagement of our text and the richness of the sacrament itself.
4 thoughts on “preaching study: genesis 22:1-19”
I find it a little interesting that you phrase this as one of the most difficult texts to preach. Taken by itself, yes, it is nearly impossible for us today to understand Abraham’s actions and motivation.
However, since we have been spending the summer in Genesis, if I take the narrative story to this point, and through that try to put myself into Abraham’s place, his actions are understandable.
God has already proven to be devoted to Abaraham, and has already made the seemingly impossible possible. Further, we know that Abraham has heard from God previously, so we know that he is capable of discerning God’s word from the noise of the world.
Taking these thoughts in total, Abraham’s actions are completely understandable.
Theologically, I see the story wrapping up nicely in vv. 14-18. Abraham’s obedience was rewarded immediately through the provision of God, and God’s covenant with Abraham is strengthened for the future. Abraham is promised abundantly more than he could have considered asking.
Note that tying into Communion might be tough, but I also can’t say that I am seeing exactly where you are heading there. If I am missing the “Ahah!”, I look forward to hearing more!
I’m actually quite excited about what happens when we bring the texts, symbolism, and practice of Communion into conversation with this text, but want to hold that part back at the moment–if you’re in Mosaic I hope I’ll do a good enough job for you to see what I mean; if not, I’ll just tell you about it later.
I’ll get more into this in my second post on this text (probably later tonight), but the difficulty in this text is in walking through the narrative and feeling the weight of this mysterious business of God’s testing Abraham, seemingly (for the text itself never suggests otherwise) in order to find out something God does not seem to know, that Abraham’s faith is that trusting (see v12, “now I know”). Not only is God’s omniscience somewhat hidden in mystery in this text, this story opens up questions about what sort of God this is, to put persons to such extreme tests as child sacrifice in the face of his own promises regarding that child in particular.
Of course, at the end, we see that this is a God for whom a place may be named “The Lord Will Provide.” If the issues surrounding God’s testing are rigorous (and I think they are), the power of God’s providing is equally so. This is where I plan to “camp out” in the sermon. All the issues raised here are rich, but God’s provision of the sacrifice is where I’m really working it.
From a pastoral vantage point, this is a tough text. We live in an increasingly “literalizing” society, and I worry that people who have felt tested, particularly where a child is concerned, might come away from a straight-ahead obedience message to feel blamed for their own suffering.
For that reason drawing the connection to Jesus, or for that matter to Daniel, whose story is so clearly beyond the average person’s everyday reality, reinforces that we are talking about a broad concept of human faithfulness and God’s provision, rather than explicating a code for getting what you really wanted from God by following instructions to the letter. Do you post your sermons? I would love to hear where you go with this?
Thanks for the conversation around this text. It is challenging to handle properly.
I actually don’t write out my sermons in advance, so I hate to admit I usually fail to go back later after they are preached and write them out. I do intend to do so as best I can for this one and will post it here. I’m also thinking of some other thoughts that have spun off from preparing for this sermon that I hope to post here in the coming week or so too.