Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio, c. 1603, Piasecka-Johnson Collection (Princeton)
(About this Image)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 22:1–2, 9a, 10–13, 15–18
February 28, 2021
Our reading today from the book of Genesis is usually called the “sacrifice of Isaac.” It is important to the three great monotheistic religions. The Jews call it the Aqedah (the binding) and it is important for liturgy, especially Rosh Hashanah and mysticism. Christians see it as forerunner of the sacrifice of Jesus. For Muslims Isaac is the perfect Muslim as, for them, he willingly submits to being sacrificed. These developments are important, but not as important or as immediately meaningful, as the original intent. We need first however look at two aspects of the story.
This is the dramatic center of the four stages of the relationship between Abraham and God.
(1) God calls Abram (Gen 12:1-2): Abram was a prosperous resident of Haran, somewhat elderly and without a male heir. He is told by God that if he gives up his present life to follow him, he will be the Father of a great nation. Abram would not have believed in an afterlife in any way recognizable to us so the only life beyond the grave would have been through descendants and he is willing to give up everything to have them.
(2) First covenant (Gen 15): Abram, getting ever older, has followed God for some time and is still without an heir. God promises him great gifts but Abram tells him:
O Lord GOD, what good will your gifts be,(Gen 15:2)
if I keep on being childless
and have as my heir
the steward of my house, Eliezer?
God assures Abram that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars and offers to make a covenant with him. As we saw last week, this covenant created a close relationship with God with a solemn and unbreakable pledge by God to fulfill his promise to make Abram a great nation.
(3) Second Covenant (Gen 17:1-17): In the first covenant Abram’s duties were not clearly stated. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and is again told that he will be the father of many nations. Here Abraham demonstrated his participation by giving up a part of himself.
This is my covenant with you and your descendants(Gen 17:10)
after you that you must keep:
every male among you shall be circumcised.
(See last week’s commentary about the importance of a “Sign of the Covenant”). But he is 99 and still has no legitimate son.
(4) The testing of Abraham (Gen 22): By this time God has given Abraham and Sarah a legitimate son and thus heir: Isaac. All his hopes and dreams have now been fulfilled and Abraham is content and happy.
Before examining the sacrifice, itself we must remember that Abraham had another son: Ismael (Gen 16: 3) through his wife Sarai’s handmaid Hagar. Sarai gave her to Abraham so that at least he could have a son from her. This of course showed a lack of faith in God’s providence and immediately there was disharmony. Hagar was disrespectful to Sarai and Sarai made Hagar’s life so miserable that she ran away. An Angel however found her in the desert and told her:
“Go back to your mistress and(Gen 16:9–10)
submit to her abusive treatment.
I will make your descendants so numerous,”
added the LORD’S messenger,
“that they will be too many to count.”
After the second covenant is formed, Abraham is told that he will definitely have a son who is to be called Isaac. And
I will maintain my covenant with him(Gen 17:19)
as an everlasting pact,
to be his God and the God
of his descendants after him.
Abraham asks God about Ishmael requesting that he “live on by your favor.” (Gen 17:18)
As for Ishmael, I am heeding you:(Gen 17:20-21)
I hereby bless him.
I will make him fertile and
will multiply him exceedingly.
He shall become the father of twelve chieftains, and
I will make of him a great nation.
But my covenant I will maintain with Isaac,
whom Sarah shall bear to you
by this time next year.”
This is very noble of Abraham but after Isaac was born Sarai, now Sarah, demands that Hagar and Ishmael be driven off to secure her son’s place. Abraham is distressed, but God tells him to do so. He gives her some food and water but after a few days they run out of it.
So she put the child down under a shrub,(Gen 21:15–16)
and then went and sat down opposite him,
about a bowshot away; for she said to herself,
“Let me not watch to see the child die.”
As she sat opposite him, he began to cry.
God heard his cry and he rescued them both and “God was with the boy as he grew up.” (Gen 21:20a) Muslims consider themselves descendant of Ishmael and he reappears in the story at the graveside of Abraham. (Gen 25:9)
The story of Isaac and that of Ishmael are made to be read together. God always fulfills his promises even if it is not in a way we can understand. We have indicated only the outlines of the comparison, but we could spend pages on how the stories are written in parallel.
It is noticeable that the stories of Ishmael and Isaac are written with more emotion and detail than other stories in the Pentateuch. There are many examples of God testing his people but this one is the most heartfelt. We are told immediately that Isaac is not only Abraham’s heir but that he loves him. The section we read today is abridged because the author is stretching it out for dramatic effect.
We should usually resist attempting to understand motives of people in Bible stories much less God’s. This is an exception. It means to disturb us. The author wants us to question God and our relationship – covenant – with him. After decades of following God, Abraham will now be denied his greatest desire.
We know however that Abraham did not slay Isaac. He assumed even as he was raising the knife that God would, somehow, be true to his word. This story may seem outrageous, but it may have lasted because it is so true.
Scholars analyzing the words and grammar of this text believe that passage was composed after 1000 BC during the monarchy. The authors saw the tearing apart of the country that David had built. The rulers that followed seemed to get worse and worse. Isaac for them was both sympathetic and real. The story tells them that God does not break his promises although it may seem as if he is. Note here that this also includes people who are not Jews like Ishmael.
God tests his people many times in the Bible. It is always with the same purpose, to remind us that his power is more than we can understand, his love is more than we deserve.