NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: GENESIS 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am!" he replied.
Then God said:
"Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a holocaust
on a height that I will point out to you."
When they came to the place of which God had told him,
Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD's messenger called to him from heaven,
"Here I am!" he answered.
"Do not lay your hand on the boy," said the messenger.
"Do not do the least thing to him.
I know now how devoted you are to God,
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son."
As Abraham looked about,
he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.
So he went and took the ram
and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.
Again the LORD's messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said:
"I swear by myself, declares the LORD,
that because you acted as you did
in not withholding from me your beloved son,
I will bless you abundantly
and make your descendants as countless
as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore;
your descendants shall take possession
of the gates of their enemies,
and in your descendants all the nations of the earth
shall find blessing--
all this because you obeyed my command."
The ancient days of Israel were not a time of mysticism or metaphysics; the human experiences of God were blunt and direct. In Sunday’s first reading the faith of Abraham is challenged in a stunning fashion: the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. To be honest, I had not seriously considered all the implications of this story, nor the remarkable overlap with Sunday’s Gospel from St. Mark, in which Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain and reveals his full glory. Our Hebrew text here is a good example of the difference between “carrying a story line in our heads” and examining the revealed text word for word.
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) points out that the intention of the passage is stated clearly in the first line: “God put Abraham to the test.” This is the only instance in the Pentateuch where an individual is tested by God; the common format is God’s testing of the entire people of Israel. The very purpose of Genesis 22 is the establishment of Abraham’s unshakeable personal faith in God, his fitness to be the father of Israel. After this test, God will address and test the descendants of Abraham as a corporate entity, his chosen people. The crux of Abraham’s obedience will center around his willingness to sacrifice Isaac.
God’s command to Abraham describes Isaac as “your only one, whom you love.” This passage overlooks [deliberately] Genesis 16, a mini-redemption story in its own rite, in which an aging Sarah gives her Egyptian handmaid Hagar to her husband to produce a male heir and begin the line of the promised people. Hagar bears Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael, though it is clear in Genesis 16 that Ishmael is not loved. Sent away by Abraham, Ishmael and Hagar are rescued by an angel and great things are predicted for Ishmael, though the Bible does not elaborate. Middle Eastern thought identifies Ishmael as the father of the Arabic peoples.
Sarah and Abraham had forgotten that God’s promise of a son was made to them; in Genesis 18 Sarah laughs at the idea of mothering at her age, as does Abraham. Father Boadt, in his commentary, identifies several “tests” of faith faced by Abraham, culminating in the sacrifice of Isaac, and both Abraham and Sarah question God’s wisdom or plan from time to time. When Abraham begs God to make the healthy Ishmael the child of the promise, God refuses and repeats his statement that the heir of the kingdom would be the child of the couple, Abraham and Sarah, hard as that was for the couple to believe. Wait out the promise.
The order from God to Abraham that he sacrifice his own son is stunning in any age, but particularly so in the age of the patriarchs. In the primitive societal structure, the measure of a man was his progeny and his amassed fortune. When God made his initial promise to Abraham, it consisted of fruitfulness and an abundant offspring, as well as a great nation and descendants who would become kings. There is no mention here (or elsewhere in the Old Testament) of heaven or reward after the grave. To sacrifice Isaac would, for all practical purposes, make the fulfillment of God’s promise impossible. Had Abraham carried out the execution without God’s intervention, he would have had to face the idea that the God of a future Israel was nothing more than the numerous petty divinities so common to his experience.
It is interesting, too, that when Abraham attempted to put his obedience into action, he is halted by an angel or divine messenger, who delivers the blessings from God: “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.” The JBC summarizes Abraham’s religious experience on the mount: “[Abraham] had finally learned to give up control over his own life that he might receive it as a grace.” (p. 25) Genesis does not describe Abraham’s obedience as perfect throughout his lifetime, but as exemplary enough to build a people who would be the Lord’s own.
Jesus, a devout Jew, was certainly aware of his Scripture and the theological meanings that generations of Hebrew thinkers had brought to interpreting the Biblical text. The theme of obedience and trust that permeates the Old Testament was the very theme around Jesus’ mission to bring the Law and the Prophets to fulfillment. One of the most riveting examples of Jesus’ ministry to obedience to the Father is Sunday’s Gospel, where Jesus takes his three most intimate followers to the mountaintop, where he is “transfigured;” even the evangelists do not have a detailed vocabulary to describe the image of Jesus in his full divine nature.
There, on the mountain, the disciples are joined by Moses (father of the Law) and Elijah (the voice of all the classical prophets.) There is a perfect storm here of past, present, and future. For our purposes it is enough to reflect upon the voice of God from inside the cloud, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." In Genesis God had spoken of Isaac as Abraham’s beloved son; in Mark God uses the same word “beloved.” The parallel drawn by Mark is loving obedience; what Abraham had begun, Jesus will complete.
To advance the point, God held back Abraham from killing his son in obedience. In the New Testament, God will hold back nothing, allowing his beloved son to “give everything” in his passion to the last drop of his blood. The love of Christ fulfills the entire range of generous possibility. Isaac was the silent potential victim, his fates dependent on others. Jesus embraced his death totally and unconditionally, which is why his Father calls him his “beloved.” With each Sunday of Lent taking us closer to Good Friday, the Scripture of the Lectionary explains why the day of Christ’s unjust and painful death has carried the name for centuries, Good Friday.