Yesterday I did my commentary reading for this coming Sunday’s sermon. Since StS is following Track 1 of the Revised Common Lectionary (don’t ask) was wasn’t surprised to read the story of Abraham’s being tested via the requested sacrifice of Isaac. I was surprised that one commentator mentioned the nearly immediate story of Abraham driving Hagar and his, legitimate first, son Ishmael into the desert to die, at Sarah’s request. Surely Ishmael’s expulsion influences Abraham’s behavior as he took Isaac to the mountain as sacrifice.
A quick review of Ishmael’s story. Sarah decides Ishmael is a threat to Isaac and tells Abraham to take Hagar and Ishmael into the dessert. He is distressed by the idea; however, God tells him to do as Sarah says, but that Ishmael and Hagar will be okay, that God will also make a nation of him also (Genesis 21:13). He does as God tells him, which is not always the case, remember Ishmael is the result of Sarah and Abraham taking the concern about an heir into their own hands. Genesis tells us Ishmael does well. It’s not unreasonable to believe Abraham knows of Ishmael’s status.
Genesis does not tell us how long it is between Ishmael’s and Hagar’s dismissal and Isaac’s journey to sacrifice; however it must be some years, because Isaac walks the distance, carries the wood for the sacrifice, and engages his father in knowledgeable conversation about the sacrifice, so he would be at least in his early teens. Time enough for Abraham knew of Ishmael’s life. He knew God kept God’s word.
So here’s the logic. Abraham knows God’s logic is incomprehensible, it took how many years for God to fulfill the promise of an heir? Abraham knows God keeps God’s promise, Ishmael is growing into a nation. Abraham knows God promised him an heir, knows Isaac is that heir: it is through Isaac that offspring ill be named for you. (Genesis 21:12 b) so even though this journey to sacrifice Isaac makes no sense Abraham makes the journey in faith that God will do as God always has, keep his promise.
A note about burnt offering. The Hebrew ʿōlâ is most frequently translated burnt offering however it is also translated to ascent or to go up. It’s root ʿālâ means to come up, to ascend. (Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary.) Easton’s Dictionary notes burnt offerings were regarded as ascending to God while being consumed (Easton). It is at least conceivable that Abraham has a notion that he is ascending to God perhaps to commit him to God’s service, as all first born will be after the Passover, or as Nasserites are (Samuel, 1 Samuel 1:11).
All this is to realize the story of Isaac as sacrifice is far more complex than the horrid idea of human sacrifice as a test of loyalty. There is a test of loyalty here; Abraham is being asked to commit his (now) only son to the service of another, no easy task, and does involve trusting God, place your child’s and your futures solely in God’s hands.
Easton, Matthew George. Illustrated bible Dictionary. Wordsearch, 2008.
Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.