posted on Sep, 19 2014 @ 05:06 PM
The key point of the episode which we call “The sacrifice of Isaac” is that the sacrifice of Isaac did not happen.
This negative result is just as revealing, in its own way, as the incident of “the dog which didn’t bark” in the adventures of Holmes.
The story begins with the command which God gave to Abraham.
“Take your son Isaac, your only son…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.” (Genesis ch22 v2).
The offering of sacrifice to the gods was the normal practice of the ancient world, and this would sometimes include the offering of human victims.
They might be strangers or criminals, or they might be the children of the people offering the sacrifice.
There’s evidence of this elsewhere in the Old Testament.
We find reports of children being “sent to the fire to Molech” by the worshippers of that god.
The idolatrous king Manasseh “burnt his son as an offering and practised soothsaying and augury and dealt with mediums and wizards” (2 Kings ch21
We also find the story of the king of Moab who found himself hard-pressed in war. “Then he took his eldest son who was to reign in his stead and
offered him for a burnt offering in the wall” (2 Kings ch3 v27).
So the command which Abraham received would not have come as an absolute surprise.
At the very least, though, it would have looked like a puzzling contradiction.
He had been promised a multitude of descendants, and that promise could only be fulfilled through Isaac.
Nevertheless, without understanding how the command and the promise could be reconciled, he resigned himself to accepting the command and began making
The story dwells on each stage of the journey into the mountains, building up the tension.
The separation from the servants, while Abraham and the boy continue on alone together.
The innocent question; “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering”.
The ambiguous answer, given in faith, that “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering”.
The ritual carried through, right up to the taking of the knife, and then the last-minute reprieve.
A message from God stops the sacrifice and instructs him to replace the boy with a ram, the beast “which God has provided”.
So what was God’s purpose in making this demand?
The more obvious and more explicit purpose was to bring out Abraham’s response.
But if we look more closely, we can also see a teaching purpose in the story.
The reason given in Genesis, when God retracts the command, is “Now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only
son, from me” (Genesis ch22 v12).
For the writer of Hebrews, the story is a demonstration of Abraham’s faith, not just his general trust in God but his faith in the resurrection.
The logic is that Abraham did not cease to believe that the promise of descendants would be fulfilled through Isaac, even if this command was obeyed,
and that implies a belief that Isaac would in some sense be “raised from the dead” (Hebrews ch11 vv17-19).
While James can see how Abraham showed his faith and carried it through by acting in obedience.
The story demonstrates how Abraham was justified by his deeds (James ch2 v21).
Neither explanation is quite complete, because his faith and his obedience could have been tested in other ways.
We find the real key by returning to the words of Genesis.
“You have not withheld…”
This was about Abraham’s willingness to give up everything he had and surrender it all to God.
That’s why the test had to be based upon Isaac.
Isaac was the continuation of Abraham’s life, so the offering of Isaac was the most complete act of self-surrender (short of giving up his own life)
which Abraham could have made.
The outcome of the test was the revelation which God had been looking for;
“Now I know that you fear me”.
In Biblical terms, “the fear of God” is the willingness to keep his commandments.
It means the appropriate respect for God’s authority as Creator.
This was where Adam and Eve had failed.
They detached their wills from the will of God, setting themselves up in attempted independence.
The response of Abraham, in contrast, was that he surrendered his will to the will of God, in complete trust and obedience.
He withheld nothing.
Thus he went as far as humanly possible in reversing the offence of Adam and Eve.
And he takes his place appropriately as the role-model and progenitor of “God’s people”.
The teaching purpose
The teaching purpose of the story is fulfilled in the way the command is given for the purpose of being retracted later.
This acts like a “double negative”, which has a very useful function in literature.
When Timofey Pnin, one of Nabokov’s characters, turns back to his research “with a not unhappy sigh”, the effect of that phrase “not
unhappy” is much more subtle than a simple “happy” would have been.
It briefly offers up the possibility that the sigh might have been “unhappy”, then quickly takes it away again.
The thought stays in our minds just long enough to be negated.
The story of Abraham and Isaac might be described as “a dramatised double negative”, because it works in just the same way.
The opening command puts into our minds the negative possibility that God might want human sacrifice.
And this possibility stays in our minds just long enough to be negated at the end of the story.
The result is a forceful affirmation that the Biblical God does NOT want human sacrifice from his people.
Elsewhere he gives commands forbidding the practice, but the drama makes the point more emphatically and has a much bigger impact on the memory.
In a cultural world where human sacrifice has been found acceptable, this rejection of human sacrifice makes a profound change in people’s ideas
about the gods.
In fact the story of “sacrifice” in the Bible shows a gradual transformation of the way the word is to be understood.
One of the key instruments of the transformation process is the simple principle which counts as one of the lessons taught by this passage;
“God will accept one kind of sacrifice in place of another”.
In this case, human sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice.
Later in the Bible, we find that animal sacrifice can be supplemented in turn by substitutes such as praising God, “the sacrifice of the lips”.
Paul urges us to make ourselves “a living sacrifice” (Romans ch12 v1).
The climax of the process is the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, which might be seen as God’s way of telling the Jewish people that he never
really wanted animal sacrifice either.
If one kind of sacrifice can be replaced by another, we should learn from this that God has little interest in the exact forms of sacrifice.
He does not want or need anything specific among the kinds of sacrifice which might be offered.
What he’s looking for is the willingness to sacrifice.
And even the willingness to sacrifice is only a symbol of what he really wants from us.
Namely, the full offering of ourselves.