Thursday of Week 13 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 22:1-19

Today we read of an extraordinary test that Abraham was asked to go through by God. It is to be understood as a test and not a temptation. God never tempts his people to wrong, but things are allowed to happen to confirm our faith or prove a commitment we have made.

We have seen how several times God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great people. And now he is asked to offer his only legitimate son – the only link with that promised future – as a holocaust to God. It just did not make any sense at all.

But Abraham had committed himself by covenant to be obedient to the Lord and had consecrated his son Isaac to the Lord by circumcision. The Lord put his servant’s faith and loyalty to the supreme test, thereby instructing Abraham, Isaac and their descendants as to the kind of total consecration the Lord’s covenant requires. The test also foreshadowed the perfect consecration in sacrifice that another offspring of Abraham would undergo in order to wholly consecrate Abraham and his spiritual descendants (i.e. all of us) to God and to fulfil the covenant promises.

There is a parallel here with the story of Hagar and Ishmael which we read yesterday:

  • A journey into the wilderness
  • An encounter with an angel
  • Divine consolation and re-assurance
  • A miracle at the site
  • The naming of the site
  • Abraham is told to take “his only son, Isaac, whom you love” and to offer him as a burnt offering (holocaust) on a mountain in the land of Moriah. The location of Moriah is not known for certain, but it has been identified with the hill on which the Jerusalem temple was later built and later tradition accepted this identification. We see Abraham accepting God’s injunction without a word of protest. This is clearly intended to be another example of his tremendous faith and trust in God’s word.

    Rising early in the morning, he saddled his donkey and took Isaac together with two of his young men. And, before setting out, he also cut some wood for the sacrifice. It was on the third day of travelling that Abraham saw the place of sacrifice in the distance. He told the young men to remain behind with the donkey, while Abraham and Isaac went to the mountain to worship. After that, they would return (i.e. Abraham would return with the burnt remains of his son).

    He then laid the wood for the sacrifice on the shoulders of his son, while he himself carried the fire (a torch for kindling the offering) and the knife and then they proceeded to the place of sacrifice. As they walked, Isaac spoke to his father.

    We have the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the offering?

    Abraham replied that God himself would provide the sacrificial lamb.

    On reaching the place of sacrifice, Abraham built an altar and put the wood on it. He bound his son and laid him on the altar on top of the wood (Isaac seems strangely submissive to all of this!). The future Lamb of God would be sacrificed on wood also.

    Just as Abraham raised his knife to kill his son, an angel from heaven called him by name. Speaking in the name of God he said:

    Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.

    Abraham then saw a ram caught in a nearby thicket by its horns. He took the ram and sacrificed it instead of his son. And Abraham called the place “The Lord will provide”, a reference to the answer Abraham gave to his son earlier on about providing a lamb for the sacrifice. It became a proverbial saying:

    On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.

    This saying was particularly meaningful if the “mount” was to be identified with the hill of Zion on which the Temple was later built.

    There then comes a solemn blessing from the Lord: Because Abraham was ready to sacrifice his only son, he will be especially blessed:

    Your offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the grains of sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the gate of their enemies and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessings for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.

    The “gates of your enemies” is the first clear indication that Israel’s inheritance of Canaan will involve war with the local people and the capturing of cities. To capture the city gates was tantamount to taking the whole town or city. Abraham then returned to where he had left the young men and they went to Beer-sheba where Abraham lived.

    There are some remarkable foreshadowings in this story of Jesus’ later experience:

  • As Abraham offered up his only son, so God the Father too will offer up his only Son to be sacrificed.
  • Isaac carrying the wood for the holocaust on his shoulders prefigures Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary.
  • And when Isaac asks where is the sheep for the holocaust, Abraham answers: “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.” Jesus, too, would be the sheep of the sacrifice, he will be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
  • There is one big difference, however. In the end, God spared the life of Isaac once he knew of Abraham’s fidelity; but God, who loves the world so much, did not spare his own Son, who was both Priest and Victim.

    Some commentators also see in the story the basis of the ritual prescription for the redemption, the ‘buying back’ of the first-born of Israel. The first fruits of flocks and herds and animals were usually offered in sacrifice. Humans, however, were not to be sacrificed, but bought back, ‘redeemed’.

    Commentators also see in the last minute preventing of Abraham killing his son, strong opposition by the Israelites to the child-sacrifice which was common among neighbouring peoples. But above all, in this incident it is Abraham’s faith which reaches its climax.

    Once again we, too, can reflect on the extent of our faith and trust in God. Are we ready to give God anything he asks for, knowing that whatever he asks is for our good? In my life now, what would I find it most difficult to give up if God asked me?

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