The Sacrifice of Abraham: Genesis 22:1-18
In this story God tells Abraham to offer his only son Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham is willing to do as he is told and proceeds with the sacrifice only to be stopped at the last moment. God accepts Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as proof of Abraham’s faith. In the letter to the Hebrews the author identifies this act as proof of the strong faith of Abraham. The passage comes near the end of the Abraham story in Genesis. This passage is the second reading in the Liturgy of the Word at the Easter Vigil.
So, why is this passage part of the Easter Vigil? I think that there are two things that stand out about the story. First of all, the early Church saw the figure of Isaac in the story as being a “Christ” figure of sorts. Isaac, like Christ, was the only son offered to the Father. Isaac, like Christ, carried the wood of the sacrifice to the place of sacrifice. Second, and most importantly, the Church sees Abraham as a model of faith.
Throughout the period of Abraham’s relationship with God from being told to leave his homeland to the question of his being childless to finally being told to offer Isaac in sacrifice there is a strong element of testing. God does not seem willing to just let Abraham “be”. In this reading it would be easy to get side tracked by the horror of what Abraham is asked to do. In fact part of the reason for the story could be that Israel’s neighbors over time probably practiced child sacrifice at certain times. In this context this story merely shows God’s repudiation of such practices. It is also interesting that some commentators point out that Isaac was not likely a young child since he could carry the wood for the sacrifice. It might also be easy to be side tracked by issues surrounding the nature of God. How could God ask such a thing? If God knows all things and knows that Abraham will obey then what is the purpose of the test? These might be worthwhile questions but they miss the point of the reading in the liturgical context of the Easter Vigil.
The central question in this context is; what does faith, which we celebrate when we initiate new members at the Vigil, ask of us? In Genesis, Abraham is asked a number of times to leave security behind and to follow God in faith. God asks Abraham to leave his homeland and in trust Abraham does so. Even though he and Sarah are advanced in age Abraham is asked to believe that God promise (that he would be the father of many nations) would be fulfilled. Finally in this passage Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac (the one on whom Abraham’s hopes rest). Abraham’s willingness to completely trust God, even in these extreme circumstances, brings the test to an end. God now knows that Abraham completely trusts God.
Do we completely trust God? The Sacraments of Initiation offer us an intense experience of God and a sacramental celebration of our first commitment to God. After this experience are we going to be able, like Abraham, to continue to leave security behind and to trust God as we continue on our journey of faith? David Gushee, a Baptist commentator, writing in Christianity Today recently wrote:
“I suggest that we tend to confuse the beginning of the faith journey with its entirety. Yes, believe in Jesus – that’s the first step. Yes, invite Jesus into your heart as your personal Savior. Then, empowered by God’s grace, embark on the journey of discipleship, in which you seek to love God with every fiber of your being, to love your neighbor as yourself, to live out God’s moral will, and to follow Jesus where he leads you, whatever the cost.” That is, I think, a good summary of the essential meaning of Genesis 22: 1-18.
Prayer (from the missal)
God and Father of all who believe in you, you promised Abraham that he would become that father of all nations, and through the death and resurrection of Christ you fulfill that promise: everywhere throughout the world you increase your chosen people. May we respond to your call by joyfully accepting your invitation to the new life of grace. We ask this through Jesus the Lord. Amen.