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It was evening at the oasis under the oaks of Mamre. Evening in the Near East is always the most delightful time of the day. The yellow hills and sandy plains take on a soft and friendly color when night comes down, and the cool south wind begins to blow softly, refreshing the soul. Most evenings Abraham could be found there, sitting before the black tents. He would watch the children playing, listen to the contented sounds of the flocks and herds nearby, contemplate the day just complete. But not this evening.
As this day draws to its close, Abraham is two days' journey away. He and his young son Isaac along with two servants are in the desert to the north. They have made camp for the night on their way to the Mountains of Moriah. Abraham had passed this way before, many years ago, on his way from Shechem to Egypt during the great famine. Under any other circumstance, Abraham might have recalled that journey for his young companions as they sat by the crackling fire. But this night, the normally talkative man was uncharacteristically quiet. In fact, he had said little during this whole trip.
Isaac had worried. "Father, what is troubling you? Why are you so silent? Have I done something to offend?"
"No, my son, everything is all right."
But everything was NOT all right. How could it be? Abraham had made many journeys in his life, but none like this one. You see, this was not so much a journey as a mission - Abraham had been given a task by the Most High God, and this man of faith was carrying it out.
As the darkness drew more closely around the little group, the servants and Isaac conversed by the fire while Abraham stood up and walked a few yards away. With the firelight to his back he looked toward the heavens and saw the vast panoply of stars exploding against the blackening desert sky. So many other nights the sight had brought a smile to the old man's face as he recalled the promise God had made him so long ago: "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them...So shall your descendants be." (1)
The promise had seemed ridiculous at the time. He and Sarah knew the facts of life, and they knew that, as far as a child was concerned, the issue was closed - too old. But a son WAS born to them. No wonder he would normally be so pleased at the view of this celestial panorama! But not this night. As Abraham gazed toward the heavens, his view was blurred - yes, the stars glistened; any light glistens when seen by eyes filled with tears.
Abraham kept his back to his companions as warm streams began to run down his cheeks and moisten the gray strands of his beard. As he stood there his thoughts drifted back through the years to the first time he had heard the voice of the Almighty - the call to leave his ancestral lands in Ur of the Chaldees and travel to an unknown destination where he would found a great nation. He heard that all humanity would be blessed through him and his children. Of course, it sounded unreal. But despite the ridicule of friends who could not fathom a mature and successful man uprooting kith and kin, severing connections, giving up comfort and convenience to live as a nomad in some strange who-knows-where land, Abraham answered the divine call. He finally settled in Canaan.
Life had been hard at first, especially during the famine. As Abraham thought back on the journey to Egypt, with embarrassment he remembered telling Sarah to say they were not husband and wife but brother and sister. With a sense of shame he recalled telling the Egyptians to "Do with her whatever you please; just leave me alone." Abraham's faith in the God who had given him a new home wavered when it came to faith that this same God could keep him safe. Foolish man. "Behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own." (2) Both Abraham and Sarah were kept safe, and they returned to Canaan both wiser and wealthier than they had ever been.
God had promised land, but in a desert where pastures were few and far between, disputes were bound to arise. Problems with the locals might be expected, but Abraham even had trouble in his own household. His own servants and those of his nephew Lot who, with his family, had also made the journey from Ur, began to quarrel over care of the livestock. Finally, there was no choice but for the two families to separate. In a magnanimous gesture Uncle Abraham gave Lot the choice of territory - Lot chose the fertile Jordan valley near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (an inauspicious choice, as it turned out). Abraham was left with the rocky hillsides. No matter. God spoke to Abraham again: "Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward: for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. And I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth: so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted." (3)
"Your offspring." How ironic, Abraham thought. For so many years, there had been no "offspring," no child, in his tents. Sarah's womb had been shut. She had been more distressed than her husband at her inability to conceive, finally offering her handmaid Hagar as a surrogate. Hagar DID give Abraham a son, Ishmael, but he was not Sarah's son. It was only after years and years of frustration, after all hope was gone because Sarah was no longer physically able to have children, that Isaac had come along. It was a miracle. Nothing less.
A desert wolf howled in the distance. As Abraham stood there under the darkening sky, he stole a glance back toward the campfire at his son. How he loved that boy. He thought back to those first years with Isaac. This child of their old age had given his parents so much joy...they glowed with pride as they watched him learn to eat and walk and play the little games with the other children. He was the child of God's promise. If through Abraham a great nation would come, then it would be through Isaac as well. Yes, Isaac was just a child, but he was a child of destiny.
Abraham's reflections were interrupted. "Father, are you coming to sleep? I have prepared your bed next to mine." The desert sky was like pitch now. Abraham saw that the two servants and his precious boy were ready for rest. The flickering fire was reduced to glowing embers. In silence the old man came over and wearily laid down.
This was now the third night Abraham would get only fitful rest. You see, this man of faith, this one who had built altars for sacrifice to the Lord over the length and breadth of the land, three days before had again heard the voice of God, this time asking for one more sacrifice. God had said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering." What? The command had struck Abraham numb. How could God ask such a thing?
No wonder Abraham had not been able to sleep. It was no moral problem that troubled him, for it was common custom in Abraham's world to make a religious sacrifice of one's own offspring. Perhaps it should not have surprised him that his God should expect at least as much dedication from him as the Canaanite pagans were willing to offer their own gods. It was not that which shook Abraham. His shock was emotional, certainly, for he loved his handsome Isaac. But the real shock was this apparent change of destiny. Was it not through Isaac that the great blessings were to flow? Why had the Lord given the boy in the first place if now he would be taken? Why would God have made such magnificent promises if now they are to be recalled? What would he tell Sarah to whom Isaac had been the answer to every prayer? Life had lost its meaning for Abraham and seemed dust and ashes in his mouth. Who could sleep?
By morning light the next day, Abraham had fought his battle through. This man of faith might find God inscrutable, but he knew God to be reliable - he was ready to do the divine bidding. He told Sarah that he was going afar off to Mount Moriah to make an offering and would take Isaac with him. There was the bustle of preparation for the pilgrimage. The boy ran about helping the servants to gather the wood, saddle the donkey, fill the water gourds, and make ready for the expedition. Like all young sons, he was eager for a trip with his dad.
At length breakfast was over and the fond Sarah drew Isaac to her and kissed him. Abraham's eyes misted over (as they would so often over the hours that followed), and he turned his face away from the scene. In a moment, he too embraced Sarah, but in a more perfunctory manner than normal. She looked at her husband quizzically as he too-quickly pulled away, but dutiful wife that she was, she raised no question; she just said her farewells. "God be with you."
Two days had passed now. Abraham lay there under the stars. He was shivering - the night breeze was cool; he pulled his robes around him. The incessant chirping of the crickets mocked his feeble attempt at rest. How could he rest knowing that, in just a few hours, at the dawning of the new day, he would take his beloved Isaac and kill him.
At daybreak the pilgrims could see the dim outline of the mountains which were their destination. "Stay here with the donkey," Abraham instructed the servants, "the boy and I will go over there; we will worship." The bundle of twigs for the fire was laid on Isaac's back; Abraham carried the knife and tinder with which to start the fire. Off they went, over the sandy brush-covered hills and down the dry dales. Soon they began to ascend a narrow mountain path, stopping now and then for the aging father to catch his breath.
When they were halfway up, and taking one of their periodic rests, Isaac said, "Father...The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"
As Abraham looked at his boy, his answer almost choked him coming out: "God himself will provide a lamb for a burnt offering, my son."
Isaac wondered how that could be, out here in the middle of the wilderness. But the lad had learned to trust his father and to trust his father's God; so he asked no further questions.
Soon they arrived at a clearing. Together father and son gathered the stones, built the waist-high altar and set the wood on top. Still there was no sign of any lamb and Isaac began to wonder. Then Abraham told him. If this journey had been an exhibition of supreme faith for Abraham, what must this moment have been for the youthful Isaac? Had he been so minded, with his robust young arm he might have seized the knife from his aging father's hand and turned the tables. But like one who would come later, "as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, he opened not his mouth." (4)
With his son now prostrate on that pile of wood and stone, tears streaming down both faces, Abraham raised the knife and poised it aloft, its blade flashing in the bright mountain sunlight. The old man was ready to return the gift that God had given. "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." (5) But just as he was about to make the downward plunge, Abraham heard that voice from heaven again: "Abraham, Abraham."
"Here am I."
"Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."
What? Could he believe his ears? What a relief! The tears were still steaming down the old man's face, only now they flowed in joy rather than sorrow. The knife was still at the ready in the old man's hand. Isaac raised his head from the rocky pillow. Suddenly something caught their eyes - it was a ram caught in a thicket. Quickly Abraham cut the cords that had bound his boy and together they seized the ram and offered it on the altar. Abraham had passed the test.
Their worship concluded, father and son descended Mount Moriah. As they made their way down the rocky path, the heavenly voice came once more: "Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore...and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice." Think of that! All humanity forever blessed because one man, one very imperfect man, obeyed God.
There are always Moriahs that dot the landscape on the journey of faith, moments when the call comes to sacrifice. They come to me, they come to you, just as they came to Abraham. What made him special and earned him the title of Father of the Faithful was that, despite his occasional wavering, he put feet on his faith, and even when he did not understand where God was leading, he followed. The scripture calls Abraham the friend of God. What will I be called? What will you be called?
1. Genesis 15:5
2. James Russell Lowell, "The Present Crisis," http://lowell.classicauthors.net/PoemsOfJamesRussellLowell/
3. Genesis 13:14-16
4. Isaiah 53:7
5. Job 2:1