|Abraham Sacrificing Isaac, Gerhard Wilhelm von Reutern, 1849.|
Unlike anyone else, Our Lord came on earth, not to live, but to die. –Fulton Sheen
One Christmas gift my community received was a copy of this year’s television miniseries The Bible. The first episode, which I watched on Boxing Day, covers the whole book of Genesis. Needless to say, given that it was only an hour long, the writers had to be very selective about what to include. For example, Jacob and Esau, as well as Joseph and his brothers, are omitted entirely. On the other hand, one of the most famous stories of the book (if not the whole Bible) is given ample attention: the Binding of Isaac. I thought the film did a decent job of conveying the range of emotions that are present in the story, and it recalled to me how I have often thought of this peculiar and yet strangely powerful narrative.
When I was studying Hebrew many years ago, this was one of the passages that we worked through in class. I remember two things about reading it in the original text. First, I was struck for perhaps the first time with how extraordinarily dramatic the story is. It has everything: suspense, irony, pathos and a surprise ending. Hebrew is even more direct than English, and the straightforward narrative heightens all of these elements. For example, every time the angel or the Lord speaks to Abraham about Isaac, he calls him “your son, your only son”. The addition of the second clause, “your only son”, simple as it is, loads each sentence with emotion and bittersweetness. There are many other stylistic elements throughout which make the story a masterpiece of literature, too many to list here.
The second striking thing about the passage came to me in class. The student I was sitting beside happened to be Jewish. (I still remember his surname, Cohen, because that was one of the first words we learnt in the class: it means “priest”.) He mentioned to me that in one of the rabbinical commentaries, Bereshit Rabbah, it is assumed that Isaac is a grown man and, moreover, that he is aware that he is to be sacrificed on the mountain. Somewhat surprisingly, according to this commentary, Isaac acquiesces to the sacrifice:
When Abraham wished to sacrifice his son Isaac, he said to him, “Father, I am a young man and am afraid that my body may tremble through fear of the knife and I will grieve thee … therefore bind me very firmly.” Forthwith, he bound Isaac: can one bind a man thirty-seven years old without his consent? (LVI, 8)Immediately I realised that Isaac in this passage prefigures Christ, who also consented to die without resistance. And even though the foregoing interpretation of the text is not at all explicit in the Bible, I noticed that other elements of the story echo Christ’s sacrifice, like puzzle pieces that effortlessly fall into their right places. Isaac and Jesus both carry the wood by which they are to die up the mountain of sacrifice. Each one is the only, beloved son of his father. Both are to be sacrificed to a death that makes no sense in worldly terms.
Of course, this was by no means a novel discovery: from the earliest times, the Church has recognised in this passage a foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Christ. In the Book of Hebrews, Isaac is considered to have been figuratively raised from the dead; even the Jewish commentary cited above interprets the wood on Isaac’s back as the “stake” of his execution, sees a sign of resurrection in the fact that Abraham and Isaac took three days on the journey, and considers the ram as a foreshadowing of the Messiah. It is no coincidence that we hear the story of the Binding of Isaac proclaimed at the Easter Vigil every year.
In a recent post, I argued that the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture ought to be read together. Nowhere is this principle more relevant than in this particular passage, for the literal sense—that God asks Abraham to carry out a human sacrifice, only to halt him after he has consented to carry out the atrocious deed—makes little sense on its own. In Fear and Trembling, Søren Kiekegaard insists that the typical interpretation we often hear—that Abraham’s faith was was put on trial to test his loyalty to God—is hopelessly inadequate. Abraham, Kiekegaard reminds us, was quite willing to kill his son. How can we reduce that to a mere test of faith? Either he was a murderer, in which case he should be forgotten rather than revered, or there is much more to the story. Kirekegaard insists that our interpretative choice is binary:
Let us then either consign Abraham to oblivion, or let us learn to be dismayed by the tremendous paradox which constitutes the significance of Abraham’s life, that we may understand that our age, like every age, can be joyful if it has faith.Kierkegaard is not the only person to have written a whole book about Abraham and Isaac, and there is nothing much I can add to this unfathomable story. But let us briefly consider one aspect of the allegorical sense of the story.
If Isaac prefigures Christ, then surely Abraham is a symbol of God the Father. Recall that this story occurs at the very beginning of the period when God is preparing a people of his own from whom the Messiah will come. God the Father reveals to Abraham what it would mean for him to offer his only son as a sacrifice. He asks Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loves, and offer him. Significantly, the Hebrew verb for “love” is used for the first time in the whole Bible at this place (Gen. 22:2), as though the love of God can only adequately be compared to the love of a parent for his child. Through Abraham, God imbues in his People an experiential knowledge of the love he has for the future Saviour that will descend from Abraham and Isaac. Their story is, then, much more than a morality tale about the need for a strong faith: it is an echo of the love story that culminates in the cross and yet does not end in tragedy. The Bereshit Rabbah describes the climatic scene of the Genesis story thus:
[Abraham] stretched for his hand to take the knife while the tears streamed from his eyes, and these tears, prompted by a father’s compassion, dropped into Isaac’s eyes. Yet even so, his heart rejoiced to obey the will of his Creator.Only in faith can the terrible paradox of Abraham’s heart rejoicing at this moment even begun to be understood. It is a paradox that perhaps we can keep in mind during this Christmas season. For we worship a child who will be crucified; an infant whose infant neighbours are murdered by Herod and is yet to become the Prince of Peace.