The Sacrifice of Isaac
Posted by foryourfaith on January 28, 2011
As terrible as it was for Abraham to send his son Ishmael away, his final, most excruciating test was yet to come. This test was to involve Isaac, the son of his old age. God called on him to “take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
What was Abraham to make of this? From the initial call to leave his homeland and set out for the Promised Land, his entire life had been based on the seemingly impossible hope of having sons to carry on his line and inherit his patrimony. With Ishmael gone, Isaac was his sole heir. And now the same God who had miraculously granted a son to Abraham and Sarah was insisting on the sacrifice of that child. What could this awful demand mean? And what kind of a father would heed it? Surely the man who had negotiated with God to forestall the destruction of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah would question the justice of sacrificing an innocent child.
Yet the Bible does not portray Abraham as outraged against such a horror, but rather as an obedient and silent servant of the Lord. Rising early in the morning, he saddled his ass, took wood to be used at the sacrifice, and brought Isaac along with two servants “to the place of which God had told him” (Genesis 22:3).
After traveling for three days, they saw the place from afar. Leaving the servants with the ass, “they went both of them together,” Isaac carrying the wood on his back, and Abraham carrying the fire and a knife. But Isaac’s suspicions were aroused. “Behold the fire and the wood,” he said, “but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” With simplicity, beneath which one senses the kind of hope against hope that had moved him throughout his life, Abraham responded, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
When they reached the appointed place, hope was waning. Abraham built an altar, laid the wood on it, and in grim silence tied Isaac down. As Abraham was about to plunge the knife into his son, an angel stopped him, calling “Abraham, Abraham! . . . Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Abraham untied Isaac from the altar and replaced him with a ram. “And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice’” (Genesis 22:15-18).
This powerful story, which the Bible conveys in stark, unembellished prose, has fascinated countless readers through the ages. Bible scholars have sought to pierce the mystery, theorizing that the story was meant to show a transition from child sacrifice to animal sacrifice. Yet nowhere in the account is child sacrifice discussed. And later stories in the Bible recount instances of it, which casts doubt on this interpretation.
In fact, Abraham’s final test is exactly that – a trial of his devotion to God. For Jews, the binding of Isaac has been a powerful theological symbol. The Jew’s devotion to God, it was taught, should be modeled on Abraham’s unquestioning obedience and Isaac’s meek acquiescence.
In the Christian tradition, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac prefigures God the Father’s willingness to let his son Jesus die on the cross for the salvation of all mankind. In the Islamic religion (the word “Islam” means “submission” in Arabic), this narrative plays a pivotal role. Interestingly, Moslem tradition holds that it was Ishmael, progenitor of the Arab people, and not Isaac, who was brought to be sacrificed.
Tradition equates the mountain of the sacrifice with the Mount Moriah on which the Jerusalem Temple was built. Thus, Israel’s worship through the centuries was linked to Abraham’s trial. To this day, Moriah is considered to be sacred by millions. Capped by the Dome of the Rock, a Moslem holy site, Mount Moriah looms above the modern, sprawling city of Jerusalem.
When Isaac came of age, the elderly Abraham, eager to see him married in his own lifetime, sent a servant to Mesopotamia to find a suitable wife for him. Loaded with “choice gifts,” the servant arrived at the city of Nahor and sat down by the town well to wait for a sign. Rebekah appeared, “very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known.” Moreover, she was Isaac’s cousin. Meeting Rebekah’s father and brother, the servant explained his mission. Rebekah’s father said: “The thing comes from the Lord . . . Behold, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son.”
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