The difficulty of this passage roots in the conundrum that what seems to be the specific will of God in this instance so clearly contradicts the general will of God throughout the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament God unequivocally commands the Hebrew people not to engage in human sacrifice and employs prophets to condemn those cultures that practice such barbarism. So when the Scripture records Abraham hearing the call of God to take his son to Mount Moriah and offer him up as a burnt sacrifice as a means of worship, one cannot help but ask such obvious questions as: “Has Abraham temporarily lost his mind? Did he perhaps mishear and misunderstand the command of God? Did Abraham conjure up this wild proposal out of his own guilt-ridden and tortured psyche? Could Abraham’s own sense of unworthiness at being summoned by God to be the father of many nations have caused him to create this yearning to kill his own son and thus prove worthy of God’s blessing? Could Abraham be suffering a temporary psychosis in which he hears voices that urge him to kill his son in the same way a mentally-ill person in our community occasionally hears voices that urge him to shoot his neighbor or execute his family? All of these are legitimate questions. None can be dismissed out of hand. But for the moment, let us accept at face value the notion that Abraham has heard God’s command correctly and, though he knows this command is completely out of character with the general will of God, he deems that in this instance God truly wants Abraham to offer up his son as a human sacrifice. Let us assume for a moment that Abraham is sure that he knows with absolute certainty the will of God.
That’s really the key question here, isn’t it? Is this plan for Abraham to slay Isaac truly God’s will or is it a product of Abraham’s warped mind, trying to prove worthy of God’s grace? The truth is, we often use the term “will of God” rather glibly. I think of the small town pastor who was issued an invitation from a big city church to accept a call that would quadruple his salary. One of the pastor’s deacons asked the man’s young son what he thought his father would do. The boy replied, “Well, Daddy’s upstairs praying, trying to find the will of God. But Mama’s downstairs packing.”
The key to understanding this incredibly difficult passage is the first verse, “After these things God tested Abraham.” God. Tested. Abraham. This is the first thing that any of us must understand about knowing the will of God. For each of us, our particular understanding of God’s will must flow out of our singular relationship to the divine. I will unpack the implications of that statement for all of us in a moment, but for the time being let us focus upon Abraham and his unique pilgrimage of faith. The truth is, Abraham has been wrestling with the will of God for a long time. His communion with God has been genuine, intense and intimate. A keen sense of God’s will caused him to abandon his home in Mesopotamia and leave everything he had heretofore known and set off a journey of faith toward an unknown destination. Only a profound trust in God’s will caused him to hold to the belief that he would be the father of many nations when month after month he and his wife couldn’t conceive even one child. Only an outrageous faith in God’s trustworthiness could instill in him the belief that even at their late age God could bring forth the laughter of birth from the loins of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham had believed all of that, and more. Prior to this particular encounter, Abraham had had a long life of hearing and obeying the will of God, even when God had called him to engage in ridiculous acts of trust. Abraham knew that the very fact he and Sarah even had their son Isaac to enjoy was a pure gift of divine grace. By all laws of logic and biology he and Sarah should never even have had a son. But it was precisely the birth of Isaac that gave Abraham reason to heed God’s call even in this extreme instance. Over a lifetime of repeated obedience to God’s will in preposterous situations Abraham had gleaned a sublime sense of the character of God. And having gleaned that sense of the character of God, Abraham could in obedience travel toward Moriah with the intent of sacrificing Isaac – and yet still travel in an attitude of hope that God would provide another way of solving the problem.
Now, for a moment, let us pull the spotlight off of Abraham and shine it upon our own lives. I have already stated what I believe is a fundamental truth about knowing the will of God: for each of us, our particular understanding of God’s will must flow out of our singular relationship to the divine. We encounter the will of God on two planes, the general and the specific. The general will of God is spelled out in certain universal divine declarations: Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness or commit adultery or live a covetous life. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Those are general theological and moral guidelines which we are to all to respect. Yet I think of that scene in The Sound of Music where the von Trapp family is fleeing the Nazis and none of the pursuing Nazis’ cars will start. Then a couple of nuns appear before their Mother Superior holding various automotive parts in their hands, saying, “Forgive us, for we have sinned.” The general will of God is that we do not steal. But in this instance the nuns disregarded the general will of God to act in obedience to the specific will of God to further the cause of liberty and freedom from oppression.
More to the point, in our individual and genuine communion with the divine, we will all find ourselves called to answer the will of God in ways that those around us regard as outrageous. So it is that a shepherd boy named David feels called of God to challenge the Philistines’ gigantic champion; a persecutor of Christians named Saul feels called of God to turn his life around 180 degrees and become the champion spokesman for Christ; a gifted scholar named William Tyndale feels called of God to translate the Bible into his native English tongue though he knows doing this illegal act could (and does) result in his being burned at the stake; and a brilliant scholar and organist named Albert Schweitzer feels called of God to leave his life of privilege and prestige and become a medical doctor in the jungles of Africa. Viewed from the perspective of their peers, maybe even by their best friends and parents, all of those actions seem insane. The actions to which David and Saul and Tyndale and Schweitzer are called to take strike external observers as so absurd that they couldn’t possibly be the will of God. But from inside each believer’s pilgrimage of faith, the call of God to engage in these crazy actions seems exactly what they should be doing.
So it is with us. If your communion with God is profound and prolonged and genuine, you will feel the will of God calling you to acts of obedience that others regard as strange, perhaps outrageous. Perhaps it is the call to surrender your life to Christ and engage in believer’s baptism. Maybe it is the call to step out of the shadows and join Christ’s fellowship, or summon your courage and invite a friend to livestream the church service with you. Maybe it is a call to devote more of your time and talent to ministering to those in need. Maybe it is the call of God to widen your circle of grace and affirmation and invitation. I don’t know what the individual will of God for your life might be. But if you engage in meaningful communion with God, you will find God calling you to engage in specific acts of courage and trust that pull you out of your comfort zone.
I have learned over the course of my life that there are two kinds of Why. When I was a young teenager my father on Saturday mornings would hand me a pair of hand clippers and demand that I clear the driveway and sidewalk and the curb of grass before I could go to the ballfield. When I would ask, “Dad, why do I have to finish the job before I can go the ballfield?” his answer would be “Because I said so.” Well, there was no arguing with that. When my friends would come by and say, “Why are you edging the yard when you should be going with us to the game?” my answer would be, “Because my ogre of a father says I have to finish this job first.” Yet, even as a young teenager there was within my heart an inchoate, inexpressible, conviction that there was a “why behind the why.” I knew I was growing up under the guidance of loving parents who had the development of my character in mind. In future years I perceived the second Why, the why behind the why. I realized upon reflection that my fulfilling assigned chores was my father’s way of teaching me values of responsibility, discipline and taking pride in accomplishing a job well done.
Abraham experienced both kinds of Why in answering the command of God. If you had asked Abraham, “Why are you going to Mount Moriah to sacrifice your son?” he would have said, “Because God told me to go.” If you had pressed him and asked, “Why did God tell you to go?” he would have answered, “Honestly, I don’t know.” In fact there is a rabbinic tradition that says after he passed the test, Abraham asked God that very question: “Why, God, did you give me such a terrible request?” and God answered, “Because I knew you would pass the test, and your testimony of faith would stand as a shining light for future generations. Your passing the test would speak of your amazing trust in Me.” Only then, only after he had passed the test and received this answer from God, did Abraham understand the why behind the why.
The truth is, we don’t have to know the why behind the why before we embark in obedience to God’s will. Sometimes we just have to answer the summons to answer the will of God on that day. Sometimes it is only in following the light that God gives you for one day that a sense of God’s grand vision for you becomes clear. Abraham, for example, had no idea of what God’s grand vision for him would be when he stepped out of his tent and started walking an unknown road, like Bilbo Baggins off on an adventure. Abraham was simply obedient to the daily call of God, and in taking one step and then another and then another, the grand plan of God eventually became clear to him. His example paralleled the story of a nun who spied a single Hindu woman lying in a gutter and picked her up and took her to a place where she could die in dignity. Then she picked up another dying woman, and another, and another, and over time this repeated action snowballed into the ministry of Mother Teresa, who eventually garnered the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Abraham trudges toward Mount Moriah with his son, but also accompanied by two other young men, slaves. Commentators have wondered if maybe Abraham was hedging his bet, that maybe at the last minute he would choose to sacrifice one of them instead of Isaac. If that was his plan, he repented of it. The longer he walked, the surer he was that he and Isaac must go alone. Yet Abraham continued to travel in hope. Yes, if God demands it, he is prepared to sacrifice his son; but he, having discerned the gracious nature of God, continues to travel in hope. That is why when Isaac asked, “Daddy, you have the fire and the knife. But where is the animal for the offering?” Abraham can answer honestly, “God will provide. God will provide.”
There are those who say that Abraham was a mere puppet in this drama, that God had already predetermined that Abraham would tie Isaac to the altar and raise his knife and then God would step in and save the child. If that was the case, this story would have no meaning. It only has meaning because Abraham experiences terrible freedom of choice: he has to feel that in the ultimate moment he is free to lay his son on the altar or find a way to wiggle out of the deal. I should note that when it comes to following the will of God, not all of life is so starkly binary. There is not always only one right path to take. There are times when people have said to me, “Dr. Kremer, I face a difficult decision, but all of the options seem about equal. I don’t know which one is really God’s will.” My answer is, “Maybe they all are. Maybe they are all okay. Sometimes life is not a true/false test, but offers us multiple choices where the answer is d) all of the above. Sometimes any of the paths that we choose will lead us to the will of God. Then again, sometimes none of the choices seem exactly right. Sometimes we are compelled to choose a path when none of the options seem exactly the proper thing to do. In those situations I lean upon the advice of Martin Luther who said, “Choose to do good and sin boldly.”
That is not the case here. Abraham knows that the only right path is to build that altar and to place his beloved son upon it. Then he takes the knife and raises it. Only then does God cry out with clarity: “Abraham! Abraham!” God wants to make sure that Abraham hears him! “Abraham, don’t harm so much as a hair on that child’s head!” That is when Abraham puts the knife down and spies the ram caught in the thicket, the ram that had probably been there the whole time, but Abraham was too preoccupied to see it. But he knows what he has known all along: the gracious and strange God he has served all his life can be trusted. The gracious and strange God with whom he has communed all his life, that God would indeed provide.
There are times in life when maybe God gives us no clear signal as to what we are to do next. But there are other times when ambiguity of direction would be fatal, when uncertainty would mean paralysis. In those pivotal moments you can trust that God will make every effort to get your attention. In God’s own way, God will call you by name and make God’s will clear to you. There are times when there is only one true road for us to take, and God will make every effort to make sure that we know it. But most of the time we grasp the will of God slowly and by degrees. Most of the time we simply answer the daily summons of Christ who says to us, “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” We may not have any clear idea in which direction our Lord will lead. But we can follow Him with one sure conviction: our God will provide for us along the way – and there is a divine why beyond the why.