June 23rd, 2018
Life can often strike us with events that cause major distress as well as physical and/or emotional damage. Oftentimes we are left confused and miserable, and it can seem difficult, if not impossible, to find our way through the calamity. Hope seems distant and we wish that we had something, anything, to cling to that can pull us back on our feet and get us moving forward again. Sometimes, all it takes is a small yet profound phrase to give us that spark of hope. Such a phrase can be found in the story of Abraham, in chapter 22 of Genesis.
In order to understand the distress that faces Abraham in Genesis 22, it will help to visualize the broader scope of his story. Abraham’s story begins in chapter 12 of Genesis, where God promises to make him into a great nation. God declares that “To your offspring, I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7, NIV). Of course, for this declaration to materialize, Abraham will need a male heir through whom God’s promise can continue. From this point forward, Abraham faces several obstacles before God’s promise becomes more concrete. The first obstacle is clear: Sarah is barren and is therefore unable to provide an heir for Abraham. The next set of obstacles deal with Abraham’s alternative option for an heir: his nephew Lot. First Lot is separated from Abraham due to the lack of unclaimed territory in the land of Canaan. Next, Lot is captured due to a war that takes place in the area. Finally, after being rescued from his imprisonment, Lot still decides to depart and live his own life separate from his uncle. Next, Abraham decides to acquire a male heir through his Egyptian slave, Hagar. Ishmael is born and finally it seems that God’s promises are moving forward. Soon after, however, God declares that Sarah will be the one to provide Abraham with his heir; Abraham’s plan to use Ishmael as his heir must be abandoned. Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant and, once again, all seems to be in order. But some time later, Sarah, due to the foolishness of Abraham, is taken by Abimelek to be his wife. Until God comes to the rescue, Abraham’s miraculously conceived heir seems lost. Finally, after all of these obstacles, Isaac is born and all of God’s promises to Abraham no longer appear as distant realities. No doubt this is a time of great hope and joy in Abraham’s life. Then comes chapter 22 and calamity strikes.
All of Abraham’s joy and hope seem to fade away as he is suddenly commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain in Moriah. (Note: While this story poses difficult moral questions, they will not be discussed in this post since that is not the focus.) While Abraham’s internal emotions do not clearly manifest themselves in the text, his journey up the mountain is no doubt a journey of deep sorrow and confusion. What is going on? After multiple obstacles, God’s promises finally seemed tangible. Now, the future in which God’s promises are actualized seems shattered alongside the joy and security that Abraham felt. However, through the confusion and grief, one phrase stands above the rest; a statement that encapsulates the theme of this story: “God Himself will provide” (Genesis 22:8, NIV).
The profound way in which this phrase is revealed to be the central theme of the story is through what is known as a “chiasmus”. This is a structural pattern that can be found throughout the Bible. The name comes from the Greek letter “chi” which is in the shape of an ‘X’. A text that has this kind of structural pattern has parallel elements on either side of some central phrase that is the focus of the text (Gorman, 2009, pp. 92-93). If we apply this structure to Genesis 22, this is what we find:
A. “Your son, your only son” (Verse 2)
B. “Abraham took the wood… and placed it on his son Isaac” (Verse 6)
C. “The two of them went on together” (Verse 6)
D. “My son” (Verse 7)
E. “The lamb for the burnt offering” (Verse 7)
F. “God Himself will provide” (Verse 8)
E. “The lamb for the burnt offering” (Verse 8)
D. “My son” (Verse 8)
C. “The two of them went on together” (Verse 8)
B. “Abraham… arranged the wood… Isaac and laid him… on top of the wood” (Verse 9)
A. “Your son, your only son” (Verse 12)
The parallel elements are displayed from the letters A to E. At the center is the letter F which reveals the central point of the text. As we can see, “God Himself will provide” is the centerpiece of this “chiasmus”. Not only that, but the phrase is repeated twice more in verse 14. Despite all of the confusion, sadness, and distress that Abraham experiences, he is able to push forward by holding on to the truth found in this phrase. When calamity strikes, clinging on and trusting in a simple yet profound statement like “God Himself will provide” might just be enough to push through the misery and confusion.
Gorman, M. J. (2009). Elements of biblical exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
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