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“By then day had broken everywhere, but here it was still night – no, more than night.”
Pliny the Younger

Years ago, while serving as a counselor at youth crusades, we were trained to hand each person making a decision for Christ a pocket version of the Gospel of John. Why? Because our leaders thought it captured the love of God better than any of the other Gospels. The stories of the Samaritan woman at the well, Nicodemus, the blind beggar healed, the feeding of the five thousand, and the raising of Lazarus – as well as what may be the most famous verse in the Bible – were all there. The Gospel of John is drenched with the spirit of “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” and for a new convert it would be essential to take hold of the depth and certainty of that love.

However, since then I have sometimes wondered what might have happened had we instead handed them the story of Abraham being told by God to sacrifice his beloved and only son, Isaac. Would they have stared at us in stunned disbelief or have turned and run out of the room as fast as they could? What kind of heinous God would make such a demand of anyone – especially someone who trusted Him so completely?

The account of Abraham and Isaac is one to which I have returned for many years, and each time I realize more how inscrutable it is. Early on, it was easy enough to chisel off a small piece for Sunday school lessons and illustrations foreshadowing John 3:16. But as I have now come back to the passage for decades, I have realized how overwhelming it is, like trying to uncover a massive stone buried deep in the earth using a child’s plastic spoon. In fact, we have so covered it over with layers of inventive interpretations and ingenious teachings – like those brightly painted side-of-the-road boulders in Kentucky that shout, “Jesus Saves” – that we have almost lost the dark horror of it.

Last week I read “Night” by Elie Wiesel for the first time. As you probably know, it is his terrifying account of being taken as a teenager to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald. It is the record of the death of his family, the death of his own innocence, and his despair as a deeply observant Jew confronting the absolute evil of man. Elie Wiesel does not lose his faith but, like Abraham, it is tested.

“How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praise be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?”

It is an insult to millions of people sacrificed – then and now – and to God Himself to offer up glib answers for what I have come to believe can only be answered with silence. For that is how Abraham, the same man who negotiates with God over His sweeping away the righteous with the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah, responds. He does not object or cry out. He does not plead. He experiences no dark night of the soul. He only obeys.

Maybe this is why I have come to think if I believe (as I do) that this account is more than a compelling myth passed down to make a point or an allegory for dissecting in sermons, then my only response for now is silence. Each of us deals with the test of Abraham in our own way and at different stages of our lives. Each time I come back to it I bring more of my life and have finally put down the spoons and the chisels and simply read and re-read what, in the end, passes understanding.

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    Thank you!

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    Toni Hibbs

    Oh! The faith of Abraham! I can’t begin to understand silent obedience for any parent placed in these circumstances. Truly, there are no words …

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    Charley gordon

    Very thought-provoking Fred. Thank you

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    Fred, I just finished reading Elie Wiesel’s story. I was struck by his transparency of his thoughts towards his father and wondered how they might parallel with his thoughts of his Father God. Wonderful post. Thank you.

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    Bob Lupton

    I wondered when I responded to a call of God to move with my family into the inner-city if I was sacrificing my two sons on the altar of my ministry. I did not have Abraham’s faith. I determined if I saw them being harmed I would leave. I have wondered many times what my sons, like Isaac, thought of their father’s obedience.

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    Thanks Fred! You help me understand the cost of discipleship.

    God give us the grace to obey You regardless of Your ask!

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    Brian Bollinger

    Fred, almost every time I read a word from you, I’m reminded of what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”

    Thank you for sharing not just your heart, but that which leads you to such words. Like, Bob, I marvel at and am terrified by the faith of Abraham when his own children are the sacrifice to be counted. Thanks for giving me yet more to consider.

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    Ann McKusick

    Especially in these days of daily tragedies , we can only trust rather than understand . Thanks, Fred

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    Thomas Bakewell

    Thanks Fred. Made me think of WWI Poet Wlfred Owen and his famous Poem about Abraham…pasted her. Blessings, Tom

    The Parable of the Young Man and the Old
    So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
    And took the fire with him, and a knife.
    And as they sojourned, both of them together,
    Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
    Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
    But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
    Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
    And builded parapets the trenches there,
    And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
    When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
    Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
    Neither do anything to him. Behold,
    A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
    Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
    But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
    And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
    Wilfred Owen

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    simon middleton

    Thank you.

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    Michele Dillon

    Such a good word, Fred. I was recently reading this account in Genesis myself and had no words for the horror of what was asked of Abraham. Yet, it is true that we are each tested by God in ways similar (though very thankfully not so violently). Who is this God we serve?

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    Fonda Latham

    Excellent! In the world I work in the “Sunday School answers” just don’t work. Sometimes silence is the only answer.

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    Carl LaBarbera

    Thanks Fred.
    As a college student studying in Europe, I will never forget the moment I saw Rembrandt’s depiction of Abraham and Issac. It was powerful and impactful and left me speechless. Thanks for reminding me of that vision of faith.

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