Today I had written a whole post about how hard it is to live in the space between what God can do and what God will do. I’d written about Abraham and Job and the sheer seeming incomprehensibility of a God who always has a plan, but does not necessarily reveal it to those who are a part of it – about how Job, though he was allowed to speak with God and is ultimately restored, never really knows why all of these horrible things have happened. About how arbitrary and cruel God’s demand that Isaac be sacrificed must have seemed to Abraham.
And then I saved that post and am putting it away for now because I got stuck on Mt. Moriah and a truth I had forgotten.
Genesis 22 has not been, for me, one of those faith-strengthening stories. For a long time it has been the epitome of Old Testament Jehovah to me: demanding of reverence and fear, but perhaps lacking in the warm love and comfort I find in the New Testament. Perhaps because the event itself is seemingly so arbitrary. With very little prelude, God asks Isaac to sacrifice “your son, your only son, whom you love.” He doesn’t explain why. He offers very little in the way of comfort or guidance. Abraham – who has what must be a horrible night to think about the implications of this – accordingly loads up the donkey the next day and hauls both son and servants to the altar.
Does Abraham believe God will spare His son? We don’t know. I wonder, myself. Abraham tells the servants that “we will worship and then come back to you” (22:5, emphasis mine). Does he know Isaac will be safe? When poor innocent Isaac asks where the lamb is, and Abraham answers that “God Himself will provide the lamb,” does he suspect the lamb might be something other than his son? We have no way of being sure. What we do know is that whether he suspects this is a test or not, Abraham doesn’t intend to fail it. He binds his son to the altar and grabs the knife.
The angel of the Lord intervenes with a call that, to me, has an air of urgency attached. (We’ll see aside all the theological implications of the “angel of the Lord” for now – it’s enough to understand him as a representative of God’s will and thought). “Abraham! Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him” (10-12). Can you hear it? Okay! Okay, okay, put down the knife. ….don’t do anything. Seriously, nothing. And after that God’s great pleasure with Abraham’s devotion becomes clear:
I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you…
In the past this story has left me feeling somewhat ill-at-ease, I’ll admit. (I suspect we don’t admit these things enough.) “Well, that’s great,” I often think, “but what a horrible thing to ask. What a horrible thing to put a father through. And the son! I wonder how ‘blessed’ he felt after waiting for his father to stab him through the heart.” And so this story seemed ideal to me to talk about the God we don’t understand, the God who does incomprehensible things, the God in whom we must just have faith without knowing or perceiving what He is doing or thinking behind the scenes.
Until I realized. God spared Abraham the anguish of “his son, his only son”‘s death – but not Himself. The test He spared Abraham, He endured. Jesus endured the fear and dread that Isaac must have felt, but was not spared His end. And although I’ve intellectually understood the parallels between Christ’s sacrifice and the almost-sacrifice of Isaac, it’s the first time my heart has understood: God suffers what He did not permit us to suffer. And there is no pain we have endured that He cannot understand.
It doesn’t necessarily make the world any clearer. I still don’t know why God does what he does. I still wonder about the tension between what God can do and what God will do and why sometimes our faith doesn’t move mountains – even when we have as much as we can muster. But this story comforts me by reminding me that God asks so little of us in comparison to what He has demanded of Himself to love us. Truly, He is not far.
He is not far from understanding our pain.
He is not far from the difficult experiences we endure.
And knowing that He is this kind of God – that He will spare Abraham what He knows He must later endure, that He loves enough even in the time of testing to spare His children undue pain – is enough. Like Job, I have no answers and there is no clear “why.” But after having read the story today, I understand Job’s conclusion:
“My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).