Connections 07.02.2017: God Provides

Genesis 22:1-14

I work for the Jay’s HOPE Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Macon, Georgia, that serves children with cancer. We give meal certificates and gas cards to families who travel for treatment, take care packages and toys to children who are stuck in the hospital, provide a fun playroom where kids can stop by after visiting the chemo clinic, offer counseling and tutoring, and plan monthly family events where everyone enjoys food, a fun activity, and fellowship with other people who understand the childhood cancer journey.

To say it’s a meaningful job would be an understatement. Nothing has taught me more about hope than watching kids who have been through hell on earth continue to laugh and play in spite of the suffering they have endured.

To say it’s an easy job would be a lie. Nothing has frightened me more than seeing how easily life can take a tragic turn, leaving a child’s parents and other loved ones reeling in shock and longing for answers.

I’m thankful for such a meaningful way to use my gifts. But I sometimes have to fight the desire to give up when the hard times come. Why do children get cancer? Why haven’t researchers found better treatments, less harsh drugs, or even immunizations against cells that mutate and wreak havoc on little bodies? One of the most frequent answers I hear to these types of questions is that “everything happens for a reason.” Another is “God gave our child this disease for a reason.”

While I have utmost respect for those who are going through this experience personally, these answers are very difficult for me to hear. They make me feel the same way I do when I read the story where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Not only that—in the Old Testament story, God asks Abraham to kill his son himself. I have read, heard, and studied this story multiple times over the past thirty years since I first encountered it as a child, and no amount of talking or praying or pondering makes me feel any better about the God it portrays.

What kind of God would ask such a thing? To me, this story indicates a God who works against God’s own self, much like an insistence that God gives kids cancer seems to work against God. When I read it, I see a God who toys with people just to see what their reaction will be. In my opinion, God didn’t have to test Abraham. God already knew Abraham’s heart.

Some would say that the test wasn’t for God, but for Abraham—so that Abraham could see what was in his own heart. Maybe. I do like that answer better. Even so, it seems like a terribly cruel test, just as God giving someone cancer seems terribly cruel. And that kind of behavior doesn’t match up with what I’ve come to know about God.

I think it can be easy for us to explain away or gloss over the Bible stories that upset us, but I’m not sure that’s what we ought to do. In the end, I don’t know exactly what to do with this particular story. I hope it’s merely one writer’s interpretation of a situation that Abraham went through. I hope the writer put the responsibility on God because he wasn’t sure how else to explain it. But of course I don’t know that.

Because of this, I have to ask, “What do I know?” The title of the Bible study session is “God Provides.” I think this title provides an answer to my question. Terrible things happen in this life. Kids get cancer. War shatters lives. Marriages end. Loved ones die. Criminals invade our peace. I don’t believe that God causes any of these awful things. But I do believe that, in the midst of all of it, God provides. We often have to look hard for it, but God provides peace. God provides love. God provides support. God provides comfort. God provides hope. And often, these provisions come through people God chooses to use. People just like you and me.

Discussion

1. Have you ever read a Bible story that made you question the character of God? If so, what story was it? How did you come to terms with the way God was portrayed?
2. What do you think when you read the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? What reasons might God have had for commanding this? Do you think those reasons justified the command?
3. Do you think it’s possible that God would not approve of the way God is portrayed in some of the stories in our Bible? If so, why do you think God allowed the stories to be written this way and survive for so long?
4. Why might it be important to be honest about how such stories make us feel?
5. When we are confused or upset about a particular portrayal of God, what might be helpful about asking, “What do I know?”

Reference Shelf

22:1-19. The binding of Isaac.

The belief narrated here, that Abraham was commanded by God to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, is traditionally referred to in the Jewish tradition as “the binding of Isaac,” or simply as “the Akedah.” Several important features of the way this tale is told have been mentioned above in the comparison of it with the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael (see commentary at 21:8-21). Coming mainly from the E source (vv. 1-13, 19, although vv. 14-18 appear to be J), this narrative is a showcase example of the classically laconic, allusive, and introverted style of Hebrew narrative in the OT.

Paradoxically, in the absence of reference to the characters’ emotions, the laconic reporting of a word or a gesture (e.g., vv. 1, 3, 7-8) forces the reader-listener to reflect on what must be happening emotionally “behind the scenes.” The narrator relies heavily on the involvement of audience imagination (for a study of the impact of the narrative style in this passage see Auerbach 1953, 7–12).

No further identification of the site of the Akedah is given other than the land of Moriah (v. 2). Identification is made more of a puzzle by the literal wording in Hebrew: “the land of the Moriah.” Later biblical tradition associates MORIAH with the temple site in Jerusalem (2 Chr 3:1), as does Islamic tradition. Samaritan tradition holds that the altar for Isaac was on Mount Gerizim, above Shechem.

God tested Abraham (v. 1) makes it explicit that the command to offer up Isaac is from God. The syntax of this Hebrew sentence has “God” in the emphatic position, that is, before the verb. Usually in Hebrew the noun-subject follows the verb.

The story sets forth and explores the enigma that God claims the offering up of the very life he has given. That it is meant to show that sacrifice of the firstborn human is not finally God’s wish, is a possible and understandable way of reading it. Yet if God is willing to forgo such an offering, it remains troublesome that Abraham’s faith should be measured by his willingness to offer up Isaac if called to do so (vv. 15-18). The story can also be interpreted to mean that God alone can ask for such a sacrifice, in which case the lesson is directed against humanity’s readiness to sacrifice its children on some lesser altar such as the nation in war.

Søren Kierkegaard’s extended and profound meditation on the import of God’s testing of Abraham, and the meaning of Abraham’s faith in being prepared to obey, found in Fear and Trembling, offers a classic perspective on this difficult story.

That at the end of the story Abraham rejoins his servants and returns with them to Beer-sheba, but nothing is said of Isaac’s return, led some Jewish interpreters to the disturbing speculation that this perhaps implies that Isaac was indeed sacrificed by Abraham after all. (On this view, and for a comprehensive history of Jewish and Christian interpretations of the tale, including Christian interpretations of it as pointing to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, see Spiegel 1967.)

Bruce T. Dahlberg, “Genesis,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 110.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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