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Proper 8A Alt 1st Reading

Genesis 22:1-14

J Thomas Johnson

Part of the richness of the Christian Bible for me lies in its blending of consistency and tension. I’m confident that this flows out of the Hebraic culture’s penchant for what Marvin Wilson, in his book Our Father Abraham, has called block logic.

Greek logic, which has to a large extent influenced the Western world, was different. The Greeks often used a tightly contained step logic whereby one would argue from premises to a conclusion, each step linked tightly to the next in coherent, rational, logical fashion. The conclusion, however, was usually limited to one point of view—the human being’s perception of reality.

By contrast, the Hebrews often made use of block logic. That is, concepts were expressed in self-contained units or blocks of thought. These blocks did not necessarily fit together in any obviously rational or harmonious pattern, particularly when one block represented the human perspective on truth and the other represented the divine. This way of thinking created a propensity for paradox, antinomy, or apparent contradiction, as one block stood in tension—and often illogical relation—to the other. Hence, polarity of thought or dialectic often characterized block logic (Wilson, Our Father Abraham, 150).

The influence of Genesis 22:1-14 in the larger Hebraic canon—i.e., the Old or First Testament—and in the broader Christian canon seems to participate in this polarity of thought. The text of Genesis 22:1 tells us that “God tested Abraham” with the command to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. At first glance, this narration seems to contradict the only New Testament author to make substantial use of this passage—James, the brother of Jesus. James 1:13-16 reads:

13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved (NRSV, James 1:13-16).

Now perhaps in English tested and tempted might appear to be quite distinct concepts. But, in the source languages of the Scriptures, such distinctions melt away. When Genesis 22 was translated into Greek, the word chosen to translate the Hebrew nasah (“to test”) was the Greek peirazo (“to test, tempt”). And it is peirazo that James used in 1:13 of his epistle. So, Genesis 22:1 tells us that God ‘tested’ Abraham, and James 1:13 instructs us never to say that we are being ‘tested’ by God because God cannot be ‘tested’ by evil, and God does not ‘test’ anyone. Intriguing, right?

James’s claim begins to look even more suspicious once we notice that God ‘tested’ more folks than simply Abraham in the First Testament. For instance, in Deuteronomy, Moses declared that God led the Israelites through the wilderness for forty years, “in order to humble you, testing you (nasah/peirazo) to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (NRSV, Deut. 8:2). And Moses also suggested that false prophets might appear among the Israelites by God’s design, “for the Lord your God is testing you (nasah/peirazo), to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” (NRSV, Deut. 13:3b).

Even James himself has confessed that it was the ‘test’ of Isaac that demonstrated the quality of Abraham’s faith in God:

20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (NRSV, James 2:20-24).

So, what might this tension teach us? Did God test Abraham or does God test no one? Is this an either/or situation. Do the First and New Testaments fundamentally contradict each other on this point? My suspicion is that the question of God testing humans is not an either/or nor is it exactly a both/and. The tension itself, I believe, might be instructive.

After all, Jesus Himself taught His disciples to pray, “And do not bring us to the time of trial (peirasmos, the noun form of peirazo).” This tension reminds us that there is no way to excise God from the most perilous trials of our lives. James was certain that it was not God’s intention for any to fall into rebellion and disobedience, and yet, Jesus and the prophets of Israel were also insistent that it was God’s will, at times, to lead us into times and spaces in which we would be tried, in which we would be tempted, in which failure would be a real and present danger.

The best example we have been given of how to navigate these treacherous waters is the example of Jesus, and, as several of the Fathers of the early church recognized, it is amazing how many shadows of His experience are threaded throughout the Abraham-Isaac narrative in Genesis 22. Abraham and Isaac travelled together up to Mount Moriah, as the Father and the Son walked together in His earthly journey. Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice, and Jesus carried his own cross. Isaac was the sacrifice God required, as Jesus Himself was the sacrifice. Abraham left Isaac alone on the mountain after God spared Him, and Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And the tension is here, too. The Apostle Paul has insisted that Abraham was justified by faith (Genesis 15), and James has insisted that said faith was proved by Abraham’s obedience (Genesis 22). Testing/tempting, faith/works, God’s sovereignty/human responsibility, all coalescing as God asked Abraham to demonstrate the faith by which he had already been declared righteous by releasing his son to God, and as Jesus asked the Father for another road to walk, yet submitted to the Father’s will.

We are saved by grace through faith, not by works, and yet, faith is not disembodied. God never intends us to fall into rebellion against Him, and yet God intends to lead us into spaces in which that possibility is increased. “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (NRSV, Proverbs 16:9). Jesus has instructed us to pray that God lead us along quieter roads, and yet, as we submit to His will, we may find ourselves, as both Abraham and Jesus did, in perilous waters. What are we to do? We are to trust the One who leads us. Hebrews tells us both that Abraham “considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead” (Heb. 11:19a) and that Jesus, “for the sake of the joy set before him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2b). Our hope and our faith is not in where we are or in where we are going, but, rather, in the One who is leading us. May we demonstrate our faith in God by where we put our feet.

About the Contributor

Senior pastor of New Beginnings Church of the Nazarene

J Thomas Johnson