"When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.
"But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, 'Abraham, Abraham!...Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.'
"And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son."
- from Genesis 22 (ESV, adapt.)
On the surface, the Old Testament selection in this week's lectionary is an absolutely appalling story. I simply cannot imagine serving a God who demanded the murderous sacrifice of my child. The event so respulsed Abraham's wife, in fact, that the Scriptures suggest that it caused a permanent rift in that marital relationship (Abraham lived in Beersheba, Sarah at Hebron).
Most interpreters through the centuries have viewed this uncomfortable episode as a test of faithfulness, noting that Abraham kept nothing from God...even his heir. That is certainly a valid explanation. The book of Hebrews makes much of this view.
But I have tended to look at this story through different eyes.
A 1937 commentary entitled The Pentateuch and Haftorahs by Joseph Hertz, a prominent rabbi and scholar, suggests that since child sacrifice was so very common in the ancient Near East, the amazing component of the account isn't the patriarch's faithfulness, but rather that the Lord commands Abraham to cease from killing Isaac. The narrative thus may be in our Bible to teach that child sacrifice is simply an unacceptable practice for the people of God; this would be yet another mark of Israel's uniqueness and holiness among the nations.
What a powerful interpretation!
The repercussions of the "Binding of Isaac" story for the 21st century Church seem clear. We, like ancient Israel, are to reject the sacrifice of children in the face of a culture which seeks to hypersexualize and exploit them. We are called to stand against those movements and societal impulses which would diminish childhood and ultimately harm children. We are to serve as witnesses to God's prevenient grace for all children, and advocate for their safety and wellness. This means to not only provide a "safe sanctuary", but also to champion better education, truly caring family environments, adequate health care, safety and security, and appropriate standards in "entertainment" marketed to children.
Above all else, it means that the Church needs to stop looking at children as "the future", as so many seem eager to do, and instead think of children as "the present", and lovingly invest in them not because someday they will build or save the Church, but rather because right now...today...they are precious souls in the Kingdom who need to know that their Heavenly Father is deeply in love with them.
My prayer is that we as a society and especially as a Church, like Abraham, turn from sacrificing our children to the gods of a culture which is broken and diseased, and that we find ways instead to truly love these treasured young people through the merciful grace of Jesus Christ.