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Abraham Put to the Test

Genesis 17 - 22

Because Abram has been faithful in his search for the truth, he experiences a profound change. The outward sign of this change is a change of name. God adds to Abram’s name the letter “h” and calls him “Abraham.”

The name “Abraham” suggests the phrase ab hamon goyim, “father of a multitude of nations.” What could “multitude” possibly mean? Abraham’s distant descendants, the Jews, have always been one of the smallest nations on earth. Could it be that Abraham is destined to become the spiritual father of more than just the Jewish people?

In the Bible a change of name symbolizes a change in one’s sense of identity, and also a revealing of one’s vocation. Because of his steadfast search for truth, Abraham’s identity stretches him beyond himself. He is no longer living only for himself, his family, or his own people.

We now arrive at the second use of “covenant” in the Bible, “Covenant” with a capital “C.” God made his first covenant with Noah, when the world was in a state of emergency, the flood was imminent, and God needed a representative of humanity to save it. In that covenant God promised never again to destroy the world through a flood. The Covenant with Abraham is deeper, a bond of faith between God and the one who trusts and searches for God even though one does not know where the search will lead.

And the search takes Abraham into some dark places. To fulfill the destiny symbolized by his name, he had to learn something that only a severe test could show him. The spiritual path is not always a pathway of peace.

What happens next is bizarre. God asks Abraham to take his son Isaac and make of him a burnt offering. We are not given details of how Abraham must have felt, but we do get a hint: God asks Abraham for “your son, your only son, whom you love.” This is what Abraham heard and experienced.

We may wonder why Abraham does not question God’s command, indeed, why he does not vigorously protest it. Very possibly it is because at the time this story took place, child sacrifice was not unheard of. In many places the Bible condemns this practice. But could Abraham really believe that God would require this of him?

Yes. Because life requires of every one of us that we be ready to let go of that which we hold most dear. And Isaac was the dearest thing to Abraham. Isaac was the embodiment of God’s promise, the fulfillment of the Covenant, because God said that through Abraham’s descendants would he be blessed. Life always threatens to take from us what we love the most, one way or another. Would our faith survive in spite of it?

God does not sanction child murder. At the last minute, with Abraham’s hand holding the knife over his son, God’s angel calls to him and tells him to stop. Abraham then sees a ram in the thicket and offers it instead.

The meaning of the story is not obvious, and it has often been taken as portraying a God who is cruel and barbaric. It is not God, but life, that is cruel. Life often does demand such sacrifices from us. And the one certain thing in life is that eventually we will lose everything. Can we still have faith, having to live such an existence, the existence that befell Adam when he was expelled from the garden? It is precisely because Abraham was able to maintain his faithl, even at the prospect of losing his son, that God renews the Covenant with him.

The great spiritual challenge that we face is how to have faith when suffering and death are certain. The Bible’s core message, through its long circuitous path from the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament, responds to this question. And so when God renews the Covenant with Abraham, Abraham is told that through him all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

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