The Witness of Abraham
The Witness of Abraham
Reflection by The Reverend Ted Witham
The story of the (near) sacrifice of Isaac is foundational for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Abraham’s faith is proved. It is a mysterious story with many threads. I have written the story The Witness to highlight one of those threads.
The climb up Yahweh-Jireh in the wastelands of Moriah brought me to the edge of insanity, but I honestly don’t think it shook my faith in Lord Yahweh, blessed be his Name.
The lands of Moriah are barren and windswept, bad lands where even sheep don’t bother to go. They are dotted by rounded steep hills which at first glance look identical to each other. Actually each one is slightly different in height and shape. It’s a maddening place to find your way through. You are never sure of landmarks, and even the sun casts shadows in unpredictable directions off and around those hillocks. A place to lose your way and your mind.
The only place to go when God asks you to weigh up what you value most: your faith or your son. How can you make such a value choice? My faith gives me life; my son is the brightness of my life. Everything I have comes from God, and I acknowledge that by faith. Everything I am, and everything that I have produced, is summed up in my son.
I think I would die of grief and emotion if my son was taken from me by disease or accident. I know I would die from the spirit down if my faith was taken from me. Yet here was I being asked to take the initiative in killing off one or the other. Your son or your faith. This was not the thief’s choice of
“your money or your life”.
This was the no-win choice of
“your life … or your life”.
We set off, travelling light. Just two servants, young men who would not awkward questions, new workers for whom I hadn’t yet built up that lifelong sense of mutual loyalty. But I travelled with that heavy-heart of dread that drags a man down, dreading the moment when Isaac and I had to leave them and go on on our own.
Isaac could ask awkward questions. He always had that sense of freedom with me. I encouraged it, indulged him, if I tell the truth, because he was the son of my old age, the miracle of God’s provision. You can’t believe the joy of knowing that one time in my life when I was capable of fathering a son, and the even more intense joy that that son turned out to be Isaac. Don’t blame an old man for spoiling his son, for idolising what God had given, when his faith had proved him right.
Yet for all my errors, God was never faithless. God never let me down. You might feel it was cruel of God to place that ultimate test before me: stand and deliver, man; hand over your faith or your son. Your life or your life.
It was hard to bear, I can tell you that. My throat cramped with pathos at Isaac’s innocent question. “Father, the fire and the wood I see for a burnt offering, but where is the lamb?” I choked out my reply, “Yahweh Jireh” … God will provide. No logic in my answer, but it was the deepest statement I could give. With my whole being, I knew it in my depths. Yahweh Jireh. God will provide.
But I was caught, like a ram caught in a drafting race. I had to go through with it: The fascinating horror of it all drew me on. I built the altar on the desolate hill-top. My hands carried stone after stone, building what I thought was his tomb. Isaac was eager to help. “Father, let me carry that large stone,” he kept saying, each offer a stiff blow to my chest.
Numb to the core, I motioned to my lovely son to lie on the wood on top of our altar. I tied him there with a rope, forcing myself to look into the beautiful eyes consenting strangely with patience and trust to this ultimate violation.
As he lay, his head fell back a little, not fully supported by the dry branches. His throat was exposed. I raised the monstrous knife, my eyes affixed to that new skin, not yet stubbled with a man’s beard, and my brain seemed to explode as I brought down the knife thrusting to kill God’s most precious gift.
After that appalling moment, I opened my eyes. Isaac was alive. My hand was still above my head, still poised, but there was no purpose left in it. The knife hung slack like a broken question mark. My head was light, almost dizzy. I vaguely realised that a sacrifice was about to take place, and there, caught in a thicket of thorn bushes, was a ram. A most pleasing subject for a burnt offering. Yahweh Jireh. The Lord had provided. The feeling in the depth of my being was right: deeply and marvellously right and in tune with the heartbeat of the Universe: In the most desperate, the most threatening, the most tearing apart experiences, trust and wait. Yahweh Jireh.
God knows what that choice is like. God also sent his son to a wasteland – the loveless, lifeless, sad place that Israel was under Roman occupation – and took his lovely son Jesus up the hill of Calvary and broke his heart too.
God, though, completed what I couldn’t complete. He allowed the sacrifice of his only Son, his only hope for the future. He killed him off. From my experience I can whisper of some of the pain which that caused God. Some of his grief, some of his extreme agony. God brought that knife down and took the breath away from the son whom he loved as his own life.
But my experience also tells me of the deep hope that runs strongly underneath even in that nightmare time. The knowledge – far deeper than wishful thinking, far more real than casual hoping – the sure knowledge that Yahweh Jireh – it will be provided.
Surely Yahweh himself had that deep knowledge as he waited for the resurrection of Jesus – Yahweh himself must have shouted with joy on the first Easter Sunday, “Yahweh Jireh” – my son is given back to me!
Surely each one of you, though you may not, as I was, be driven to the edge of madness, but simply as you live, as you cope with joy and sorrow, as you experience the attainment of relationships and their breaking-up, as your career paths open and close, with all that makes up life, you too can shout with the deep knowledge “Yahweh Jireh” – in God’s providence, it will be provided.