“It happened some time later that God put Abraham to the test. ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ he called. ‘Here I am,’ he replied. God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, your beloved Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, where you are to offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall point out to you.’
When they arrived at the place which God had indicated to him, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. Then he bound his son and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of Yahweh called to him from heaven. ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ he said. ‘Here I am,’ 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 own beloved 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 Yahweh called Abraham a second time from heaven. ‘I swear by my own self, Yahweh declares, that because you have done this, because you have not refused me your own beloved son, I will shower blessings on you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies. All nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed my command.'”
Genesis 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18
This is a difficult text, which at first glance understandably prompts people to marvel at the harshness of the Old Testament God. Why put a man through the horror of having to sacrifice his only son, only to tell him at the last moment that he doesn’t need to? Surely it can’t the purpose of this first reading from today’s Mass, to present God to us a cruel God who demands sacrifice?
Indeed, that can’t be the purpose, especially since it doesn’t gel at all with the God we have come to know in our own lives.
I recall once reading a story in which a Jewish scholar, at the end of a lifetime of study, came to the conclusion that this story was not so much about Abraham displaying his willingness to do whatever God demanded of him, but about God having to earn the right to be our God. By showing Abraham, who is our father in faith and therefore represents us all, that He does not demand unreasonable sacrifices and is not a fickle deity, God shows us that He is a God who takes His people seriously, who doesn’t see them as pawns in His games.
In the journey towards Easter especially, another important aspect of this story presents itself: what God stopped Abraham from doing,He did instead Himself. He sacrificed His own Son for our sake.
What does this say about God? In the first place, that He is not like the other gods that people in past and present worshipped. His first and primary characteristic is love. Secondly, that He values man for who He has created him to be: a being who deserves to be taken seriously. Thirdly, God is not above doing the dirty work; while He did not want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God sacrifices His own Son, Jesus Christ, for the salvation of all mankind. If that is not an indication of how high His esteem for us is…
Art credit: ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’, attributed to Caravaggio