“And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering.”
This story is rich with layers of meaning and symbol. Abraham provides us with a model of great faith. As one commenter notes, his faithful response has enabled many to accept the “incomprehensible, unendurable and contradictory and to reflect upon it” (Clemens Thoma). In this story we also find a prefiguration of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, sacrificed for us on Good Friday. And as the writer of Hebrews notes, Isaac is figuratively brought back from the dead—a foreshadowing of Easter Sunday. On Good Friday our primary focus will rightly be on the sacrificial suffering of Jesus and on our own penitential and sorrowful response. But in light of this passage I would like to reflect briefly on one other symbolic layer of the story—Abraham as the father sacrificing his “only son.”
At first glance, the description of Isaac seems an error—Abraham had in fact two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. In the translation of Hebrew scholar Robert Alter, God tells Abraham, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.”
Alter comments, “The Hebrew syntactic chain [the order of the words] is exquisitely forged to carry a dramatic burden, and the sundry attempts of English translators from the King James Version to the present to rearrange it are misguided.” Alter then quotes from a medieval rabbi’s imaginative rendering of the scene: God says, ‘ “Your son.” [Abraham] said to Him, “I have two sons.” [God] said to him, “Your only one.” [Abraham] said, “This one is an only one to his mother and this one is an only one to his mother.” He said to him, “Whom you love.” He said to him, “I love both of them.” He said to him, “Isaac.” ’
Your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac. These brief phrases reveal the unbearable weight of “God’s terrible imperative” to sacrifice his beloved son, the child of the promise.
God’s incomprehensible demand reminds me of the parable of the wicked tenants from Mark 12. In that parable, a distant landlord sends a servant to collect rent from tenants who instead beat the poor man. Jesus says, “And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ ” Guess what: they don’t. I remember reading that not too long ago and immediately thinking, “What a very stupid landlord!” Of course, a moment’s reflection reveals that the landlord symbolizes God our Father who sent his Son into the world to be killed. So too does Abraham in our story prefigure the Father who will not withhold his Son.
What are we to make of this God, our Father?
Romans 8 gives us an answer. “What shall we then say to these things?… He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
As we consider the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, as we reflect on our sins for which he suffered and on our own terrible need for this Savior, let us also reflect upon the immeasurable love of the Father.
“He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things.”