The Sunday Sermon, July 2nd, 2023: The Binding of Isaac

Rev. Cn. Richard Hogue Jr.

We Christians often look to the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac as a sort of foreshadowing of God’s willingness to send Jesus into this world for us, but there is an enormous and fundamental difference between these stories. While Jesus does get sacrificed Isaac does not. That’s why it is a real misnomer to call this story “the sacrifice of Isaac,” it robs the story of its punchline. The real title of this story is the one our Jewish siblings give it, Akedat Yitzchak, “the Binding of Isaac.”

            A lot of pearls get clutched at the mention of this story, and it is understandable in our context that we are taken aback by it, but to see it for what it is instead of condemning it immediately, we must keep in mind this text was not written for us as an audience. We must study it as disciples of Jesus, after all, this is Jesus’ Scripture too, and he loved Scripture more than most. Instead, inasmuch as we can, we need to extricate ourselves from the social mores of our time and, as impossible as it is to fully accomplish, put ourselves into the time and place for which this text was written.

            Not long before this story, Abraham is told by God that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed for their wanton abuse of vulnerable people, and Abraham asks God to reconsider for the sake of any righteous people he may find in the cities. Ultimately, he finds none and they are destroyed. Why then, does this same Abraham, who is willing to ask God to pump the breaks on destroying whole cities, suddenly seem so meek as to simply accept the request by God to prepare a sacrifice of his own son? This is where, if we place ourselves in that time, this story becomes radically progressive and unique. Abraham lived in an era where human sacrifice, adult or child, was accepted as normal across cultures. Why else would he accept such a proposal without protest, particularly given his protestations for Sodom and Gomorrah. Because it was a normal, acceptable, and widespread practice, whether it was to curry divine favor in battle or for a rain and a fruitful harvest, there are numerous examples of human sacrifice throughout the time period Abraham would have lived in. Thus, the binding of Isaac is the first time in human literature that there is an ethical line drawn against sacrifice of humans. The very point of the story is that no human sacrifice is to take place at all.

            Sadly, our Western consciousness has so often used the label of “the sacrifice of Isaac” to recall this story that it has set us to total misapplications of the text. The most famous Protestant literature on the subject is of course Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling which is the most obvious example of this. Immediately before writing Fear and Trembling and with this massive mistranslation of the story in mind, Kierkegaard broke off his engagement to his much beloved fiancée, Regina Olsen. It doesn’t take much to draw the parallel that he had in his head: if the Patriarch of faith had to give up that which he loved most to follow God properly, then I must give up that which I have loved most to dedicate myself properly. Clearly, Kierkegaard writes exceedingly well about the torment that Abraham must have undergone on the journey up to the mountain, but he nearly misses the story’s point. Martin Buber would later write: “[Kierkegaard’s analysis] is sublimely to misunderstand God… God wants us to come to Him by means of the Reginas He has created, and not by the renunciation of them.”[1]

            Abraham’s journey and torment, as well as God’s grace, are ultimately so successful that we now judge this story through the very lens of ethics that it built for us. The judgement we often bear upon it is proof of the story’s success, we no longer accept human sacrifice to gain divine beneficence. And this brings me to how much of our Christian theology is founded on the idea that Jesus was necessarily sacrificed to redeem the world. It’s in our Holy Week liturgy, it’s all over the Gospel of John, it’s part of our orthodoxy: Jesus, the lamb of God, as a human being, had to be slaughtered like the Paschal lambs of Passover. Do we begin to detect some irony here?

            I think it’s worth pondering this idea more deeply precisely because the Binding of Isaac points in the opposite direction of this theology, that God, as a human, needed to die as a human sacrifice. That’s not to say God shouldn’t have chosen the life Jesus did. Jesus chose to die. And that’s the point, he chose to die. But I think pondering why he chose to, rather than simply chalking it up as a necessity based on a misunderstanding of a key story, offers far more questions for us to contemplate on our own journeys, as individuals and as Christian communities. It also makes Jesus as a person and as our God all the more fascinating, as death was not predetermined destiny, but a conscious choice, even if it absolutely terrified him. He gave himself up willingly and knowingly to religious and imperial authorities, having literally sweat blood over the decision. Instead of worrying about how God had to die, we can begin to embrace questions of why Jesus chose the life he did. When we move what may be a perceptual stumbling block to our understanding of how truly loved we are, then we too can choose how best to be alive as God’s love as Christians. That can become the cornerstone of how the world might know us by our love.

            One of the ways Jesus points to for us to achieve this living as God’s love is in today’s gospel. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

            Based on this and with the story of Isaac’s binding in mind, maybe faithfulness is more about what we can embrace than what we choose to push or cut away from ourselves. What are the ways we can welcome more life into our lives, and those of our friends and our neighbors? How might we, by doing even the smallest of kindnesses to even one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, receive life? May we all follow Jesus as the Holy Spirit leads us, welcoming the opportunity to look beyond what we expect to sacrifice, and instead listen for who God is calling us to welcome.


[1] Between Man and Man, Martin Buber, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith. New York, Macmillan, 1948.

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