Now we come to the most famous incident in Abraham's story. God tells him to take his beloved only son, Isaac, and sacrifice him. No one ever really understands this until they become a parent but it is enough to strike horror into anyone's heart if they stop and visualize the scene. What really brought home the obedience required by all involved was when I realized that in order to carry the wood for his father, Isaac also knew exactly what was going on when he was told to lie on the altar. What a test of faith for everyone.
This whole scene was recently put into clearer context for me. At the time, child sacrifice was nothing new. Many "gods" demanded it and there is ample archaeological evidence for the fact that thousands of children were sacrificed, usually when they were at least 3 or 4 years old so that the gift was more valuable — they'd made it past infancy. This whole story adds a bit of perspective to Abraham and Isaac's seeming calm. It doesn't mean that they weren't feeling the horror, but it was an understandable demand.
The unbelievable part for them — the amazing blessing — was when God used it to show exactly who He was. How amazing and new this would have seemed to Abraham and Isaac. He is not a God who demands that sacrifice of us. He himself will provide the sacrifice, both of the ram and, later, of his own son.
|Abraham and Isaac, Rembrandt, 1634|
An interesting bit of factual information about the place where Abraham offered Isaac.
[Note: " Mount Moriah is the place where Solomon (king of Israel in about 950 B.C.) set about building the house of the Lord, the temple that contained the Holy of Holies. Mount Moriah wasn't out in a remote desert; it was located where the city of Salem was situated in Abraham's day, which later became known as Jerusalem (see Ps. 76:1-3). Why the name change? An old rabbinic tradition attributes it to Abraham, based on what he said after sacrificing the ram: 'Abraham called the name of that place, 'The Lord will provide'; as it is said to this day, 'On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided (Gn 22:14). The Hebrew word for 'provide' is jira, which was then prefixed to Salem, thus making Jeru-salem." (A Father Who Keeps His Promises, by Scott Hahn; Ann Abor, MI: Servant Publications, 1998; p. 108)]
Abraham's test brings up the question that we frequently ask and seem to find no answer for ... why are we tested at all?
The test that God gives Abraham is so severe that it presumes an advanced level of knowledge and experience of Him. Compare it to the relatively simple test that God first put Abraham through, back in Gen. 12:1-4. There it was simply, "Pack up and go." Here, at least thirty years later, the test is staggeringly difficult. It builds on everything that has gone before in Abraham's life. For Abraham to endure the test, he will have to act on all that he knows about God, and he will have to be willing to mortify even the smallest weaknesses and imperfections yet remaining in his character.All quotes from Genesis, Part II: God and His Family. This series first ran in 2004 and 2005. I'm refreshing it as I go. For links to the whole study, go to the Genesis Index. For more about the resources used, go here.
This is what we call "purification." It is the final step in Abraham's life that establishes him as the Father of faith, both for Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 4:11-12). His obedience burned away the dross of even relatively minor imperfections. Interestingly, the test of Abraham gives us a dramatic demonstration of why God tests men in the first place. Men must freely choose to lay down their own wills in order to serve God. When they do this, they are conformed to the likeness of God. They participate in self-donation, which is the essence of the life of the Blessed Trinity. Abraham not only obeys God, but he becomes a living example of the character of God; he is a human being who reflects both the image and likeness of God. As the Catechism says, "As a final stage in the purification of his faith, Abraham, 'who had received the promises,' is asked to sacrifice the son God had given him...And so the father of believers is conformed to the likeness of the Father who will not spare his own Son, but will deliver him up for us all." (2572)