We camped overnight at the base of the mountain. First thing in the morning, after breakfast, we set out for the top. Just the two of us.
Dad went in front, striding out at a brisk pace with his long walking stick thumping rhythmically into the soft ground. He’s an old man, my Dad, but you wouldn’t think it if you saw him. His hair may be grey, but it’s long and thick, and if his face is a bit lined, his eyes are as clear and sharp as a young mans. And he’s as strong as the proverbial ox: that stiff climb hardly slowed him at all.
I’m a lot younger, of course, and I’ve inherited all his strength and fitness: but before long I was struggling to keep up. Of course, it didn’t help that I was carrying a big bundle of firewood and a can of oil. I did think of asking Dad for a bit of help, but he wasn’t in an approachable mood, even if I could have caught up with him. Better to struggle on as best I could.
It was, at least, a pleasant day. Warm, but not hot, with sunshine slipping between the trees on the lower levels, and a pleasant breeze to cool us as we climbed above them. And the view was spectacular: wooded hills rolling off in all directions, stony grey peaks jutting above them, little rivers glinting down in the valleys. I did my best to enjoy the weather and the view and even the exercise. But there was more troubling me than the weight of my load or the steepness of the path.
Dad’s poor temper had persisted for some days, now, and he wasn’t talking about it, even to Mum. We’d all been worried about him: if he was feared and respected, he was also much loved by family, servants and neighbours alike. But no one had a clue as to what troubled him. He’s spent much time alone lately, and when we saw him in unguarded moments he looked old, and tired and even afraid. Not things that you’d ever associate with Dad if you knew him.
I had hoped that this mysterious trip into the mountains would help clear the air, maybe give us chance to talk: but he’d said hardly a word all day. He’d woken me early in the morning with just a shake and a nod. I’d had barely time for a quick bite of breakfast before we’d been on our way. All my attempts to start conversation had been ignored. Dad didn’t even tell me where we were going, much less why.
And now we’d arrived – or almost: the ground underfoot was no longer turf or soil, but hard granite, and the metal shod tip of Dad’s stick sounded loud and harsh as it struck. The summit was just ahead, but the path became ever steeper, and at last I called up. “Dad! I need a rest!”
He turned to look down at me, his face hard: then something seemed to shift inside him, and he nodded. “Just a short one, mind.”
I put down my load with considerable relief, and sat back on a convenient sun-warmed rock. Dad came back down the path and sat next to me, and together we looked out at the view without speaking.
When I’d got my breath back, and the sweat had dried, I tentatively tried once more to talk.
“Well, it’s a nice day for it Dad – whatever ‘it’ is.”
The only answer was a non-committal grunt.
It was clear that subtlety was going nowhere. So I asked outright.
“Dad – just what are we doing here? And what’s with the wood and oil?”
For a moment I thought that he’d still refuse to answer. Then he spoke, quite quietly, and without looking at me.
“God has spoken to me.”
I nodded. I had guessed as much. It was well known amongst us that God spoke to Dad a lot – at least, a lot more than He spoke to anyone else. And what’s more, Dad spoke to God. It was part of the reason for the respect, even awe, that people had for Dad: he was a man who talked with God. Not just received messages from God, you understand. He talked with God. He was a remarkable man, my Dad. Everybody said so, and I’d grown up knowing it, and grown up full of pride and wonder and love and awe that this was my Dad!
“So… what did he say, Dad?”
The silence this time was even longer, but finally Dad replied.
“He wants – He wants me to make a sacrifice. A burnt offering. Here, on this mountain.”
I nodded. Offering a sacrifice like that was a pretty common part of our worship, though it was unusual for God to ask for one – and to name the place. Still, it didn’t seem such a big deal – not something for Dad to get so upset about. Yet his voice was so odd: quiet, but strained, like every word that came out was a struggle, a victory of will over desire.
And there was one other thing that was bothering me.
“Ok, sure. But – I’ve got the wood, and the oil – you’ve got the flints, yes? – but what exactly are we going to sacrifice?”
The silence that followed was very long. The sun shone as brightly as ever, but I felt a shadow over me, none the less: a shadow that came from Dad.
He stood abruptly, and turned back towards the upward path.
“God wants this – He’ll provide for it!” he snapped over his shoulder.
I shouldered my burden again, and set off, puzzling over this last remark. Dad was expecting God to provide us with an animal to sacrifice to him? I thought that the whole point of a sacrifice was that it was something of ours that we gave up to worship God. It didn’t seem very reasonable for God to have to give us something to give to him!
Of course, in a sense everything we had was from God in the first place. It was all on loan, sort of: everything we gave to God was in fact, being given back. Still, it somehow seemed that Dad was trying a rather radical short cut to the process.
Meanwhile, the last few hundred yards to the summit were the steepest of all, and I was struggling with my burden.
“If God’s going to provide the sacrifice” I muttered under my breath “Why can’t he bring the wood and oil as well?” It seemed a reasonable point, but not one to discuss with Dad.
In any case, we were finally at the top.
It was a wide, mostly flat space. Bare rock, except for patches of moss and a few scraggy bushes. A blackened spot near the centre showed that the site had been used before. Thankfully, I dumped the wood near the spot, and without speaking we laid it out, and poured the oil on it.
“So now what?” I asked.
Dad looked at me, and I was astonished. He was sobbing. Tears were flooding down his face.
“Oh, my son – oh, Isaac, Isaac, my son…”
“Isaac… You know that you are special? You are God’s Promise to me and your mother.”
I nodded. It was well known amongst us: Dad and Mum had really been too old to have children when I came along – a direct result of one of those conversations with God.
“Well – now God wants you back.”
Suddenly, I felt very cold. Suddenly, I knew what he meant. But I couldn’t face the thought.
“He wants me back?” I asked.
“Yes. He has told me to offer you to Him as a sacrifice. Here. On this mountain.”
I was crying, now. “But – but why? Why, Dad?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. But – He gave you to me, to us – He has always been faithful, always kept his promises. He promised me you – a son, an heir. And He will keep his promise.”
“But if I’m to be a sacrifice – how can I be your heir?”
“I don’t know!” The words seemed torn from him. “Perhaps he will bring you back to me – somehow. I don’t know!”
He reached for me then, and I stumbled forward into his arms. We clung together for what seemed like forever, and barely a moment. When he spoke again his voice was soft, even gentle.
“This is the hardest thing He’s ever asked me to do. I love you more than my own life! I did not know if I could even do it. I all but refused Him. But now we are here, now we are come to it – I find that I can still trust Him. He has made His promises, and His Word is unbreakable. Stronger than the very rocks of the Earth. You will yet be my heir, as He as said. If we keep faith with Him, so He will with us.”
He held me back at arms length, looked into my face. “Do you trust Him, Isaac?”
I looked back at him. For another long, long moment, as I searched my own heart.
“I don’t know.” I answered at last. “I don’t know Him as well as you do. But I trust you, Dad. And if you trust Him, then I can trust Him for your sake.”
He nodded, slowly, smiling through the tears. “I think that is alright. I think that He will understand that.”
I held out my hands. “You’d better tie me. I don’t know if I could.. hold still. Long enough. You know.”
“Yes. Oh my brave son.”
He took the rope that had bound the wood together. Gently, but firmly, he tied me: hands together, hands to body, feet together. So that I could not move, could not escape, could not defend myself – even if my will failed.
He lifted me easily, laid me carefully on the wood, and kissed me. As he had so often kissed me goodnight, as a baby, as a child. He unsheathed his knife, laid the edge to my throat. To this day I can feel the razor-keenness of it, ready to slice into my flesh.
He raised the knife. I shut my eyes.
The voice came from the sky. Not just a part of the sky: the whole sky spoke!
Dad paused, knife in the air. “Here I am.” He answered.
The voice came again, from higher than the clouds, yet as close as the air we breathed. “Don’t harm the lad, Abraham. There’s no need. Now I know that you truly trust and honour me, because you would have given him up for me.”
There was a noise from the bushes: I turned my head, and saw that a ram was there, caught by it’s horns. It hadn’t been there before, and I had no idea where it had come from: but it’s purpose for being there was obvious. As Dad had said, God provided.
After we’d finished the sacrifice, we set off down the mountain, as silently as we’d come up, but in a different mood. The world seemed even more beautiful to me than it had before: everything clearer, sharper, bright. As if it was all brand new.
As we reached the camp, Dad turned to me again. “How are you feeling?”
I thought about it. “Strange. Not bad. Fresh, somehow . New. Like I’ve just been born.” I thought some more. “You know Dad, in a way, God saved me back there.”
Dad nodded. “In a way, Isaac – He saved us both.”