God put Abraham to the test. ‘Abraham, Abraham’ he called. ‘Here I am’ he replied. ‘Take your son,’ God said ‘your only child Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a burnt offering, on a mountain I will point out to you.’
When they arrived at the place God had pointed out to him, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. Then he bound his son Isaac and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and seized the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven. ‘Abraham, Abraham’ he said. ‘I am here’ he replied. ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy’ the angel said. ‘Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God. You have not refused me your son, your only son.’ Then looking up, Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt-offering in place of his son.
The angel of the Lord called Abraham a second time from heaven. ‘I swear by my own self – it is the Lord who speaks – because you have done this, because you have not refused me your son, your only son, I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants shall gain possession of the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, as a reward for your obedience.’
First reading for the 2nd Sunday of Lent
Writers – theologians, philosophers and others – tussle with this episode. Is God just testing Abraham? If so, is it a morally-justifiable test? Is it -under any circumstances – a moral thing for Abraham to consent to the sacrifice of his son? And what is the impact of this on Isaac, and on Sarah? How do they deal with the aftermath of the event, let alone Abraham (and God?)? The questions are many but we will look in vain for answers in the passage itself. It is what it is, and it leaves us with the questions.
As does life in general, so often. We are where we are and we struggle and struggle to make sense of it.
There is of course the sequel to the story, another hill, other characters – but the same God. And this time the beloved Son of the Father is sacrificed, not by the Father, but by the Son’s offering of himself in solidarity with the Father and in love for the world.
Maybe, just maybe, we look in vain for ‘the meaning’ of the Abraham and Isaac story until we factor in the story of the Trinity and God’s love for all of humankind…
The same story needs factoring in to our attempts to understand our own story, or we struggle in vain to make sense of ourselves…
Detail of Doors, Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth. (c) 2017, Allen Morris.