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The Binding of Isaac: Perfect Trust in a Good Father

Genesis 22:

1 Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test and said to him: Abraham! “Here I am!” he replied. 2 Then God said: Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you. 3 Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac, and after cutting the wood for the burnt offering, set out for the place of which God had told him.

4 On the third day Abraham caught sight of the place from a distance. 5 Abraham said to his servants: “Stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go on over there. We will worship and then come back to you.” 6 So Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two walked on together, 7 Isaac spoke to his father Abraham. “Father!” he said. “Here I am,” he replied. Isaac continued, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” 8 “My son,” Abraham answered, “God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” Then the two walked on together.

9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. Next he bound his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar. 10 Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!” “Here I am,” he answered. 12 “Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the angel. “Do not do the least thing to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you did not withhold from me your son, your only one.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 Abraham named that place Yahweh-yireh; hence people today say, “On the mountain the Lord will provide.”

15 A second time the angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven 16 and said: “I swear by my very self—oracle of the Lord—that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your son, your only one, 17 I will bless you and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants will take possession of the gates of their enemies, 18 and in your descendants all the nations of the earth will find blessing, because you obeyed my command.”

This is perhaps one of- if not the- most widely misunderstood passages of the Old Testament. Many people are familiar with this story from the book of Genesis, commonly known as the “binding of Isaac” or “God's test of Abraham.” At God's request, Abraham takes his only son Isaac up the mountain in order to offer him as a sacrifice before the Lord. Many who hear this passage are often confused why a supposedly good and loving God would ask such a brutal task of Abraham. Even if He plans to stop the sacrifice, it still seems like a cruel and cold hearted test. Yet, for the Hebrew audience this reading expresses a deep and powerful love. For the Christian, too, this prefigures the greatest act of love to be revealed in Christ.

For the Jews, the binding of Isaac shows a number of ways by which they are meant to respond to God. Abraham has gotten his son Isaac only by miraculous intervention. He loves his son dearly and gives thanks for him. So when he is asked to make a sacrifice of this beloved son, Abraham remembers that his son is a gift from God. He cannot be jealous of this gift, but must be willing to give it up. Abraham's actions demonstrate his true trust in God's goodness. If he doubted that God was good, he would have reason to believe that this request was evil. But Abraham does not show this doubt in any way. Rather, by faithfully obeying the request, we see how firmly he trusted in God's goodness. He trusted not only that something good was to come from this instruction, but that the order itself must be good in some way.

For Isaac's part, too, he demonstrates a reflection of his father's virtues. Though the scripture doesn't tell us this outright, we can understand that he is a willing sacrifice. Isaac is young, strong enough to carry the load of wood up the mountain for Abraham, who is elderly. When it comes time for him to be bound as the sacrifice, it would easy for him to overpower his father and flee. Yet, he does not do this. He does not protest, but trusts his father's instruction. Isaac knows that his father loves him. He is willing to be humble and obedient even to the point of death relying on this relationship of love.

What is God's response to this profound trust and obedience? By staying the hand of Abraham, He proves that it was not the death of Isaac which He desired, but Abraham's virtuous response. In place of Isaac, God provides a ram for the sacrifice. In the last line of the reading, God reveals that because of their faith and obedience, their descendants will be greatly blessed.

In our modern sense of morality, we may not be immediately satisfied with this resolution. It still seems like an unreasonable test to ask a man to slay his son to prove his devotion. Perhaps it seems more like the tactic of a mob boss than a loving God. When we read the scriptures, though, we often have to look at the context of the whole in order to understand them. Though the book of Genesis was composed centuries before the time of Jesus, it does in fact directly point to Him. God uses his relationship with Abraham and Isaac to prefigure how He will offer Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, for man's sins. Just as Abraham trusted in God enough to be willing to offer his son, God the Father loves man enough to allow His Son to die on the cross. Isaac, by his humble obedience even to death prefigures Jesus' own obedience to the will of the Father.

In this way, Isaac acts as a foil- a foreshadowing character- of Jesus Christ. He is repeatedly referred to as "your son, your only son," alluding to Jesus who is the only Son of God. Isaac is also tasked with carrying the wood for the sacrifice, which he does at the will of his father. It is easy to imagine that this may have been a difficult journey, prefiguring the road to Calvary on which Jesus carried the wood of the cross. As mentioned above, Isaac had the power to reject this task. Jesus, being all powerful God, likewise could have ended his passion at any time, fleeing from the difficult trial. And yet, both faithful sons obey the will of their fathers. At the time the tradition of this story was handed down through the Jewish people, it was very likely not read in anticipation of any future figure. Yet, Jesus uses the figure of Isaac to prefigure His own passion.

How does this relate to our lives today? Are we ever asked to sacrifice our sons to God? Well, yes, actually! Not in a bloody way of making a holocaust, certainly; and not by heavenly demand very often, I don't think. Yet parents regularly are asked to offer up their children in the context of the Church.

When a son answers a vocational call to the priesthood or monastic life; or when a daughter to a convent or religious order, there is a real aspect of sacrifice for the parents. Many loving and faithful mothers and fathers are shocked by a child's vocational call. It is not unusual for them to speak discouragingly at first or even just to struggle privately with the decision. In a real way, the parents of a religious sacrifice a lot. They may not be blessed with grandchildren; they may miss their child often; they give up control over their child's life. Yet, like holy Abraham, the proper response is a trusting one. When we answer God in loving trust, He responds in abundant blessing. That doesn't make the sacrifice easier, but it does promise that the difficulty is not wasted.

Otherwise, in the place of a child, we can consider what other attachments God calls us to entrust to Him. Do we consider any thing too precious that we withhold it from God? For instance, do we act in any of our relationships as dissociated from our faith lives? Do we create environments or schedule time periods where we set aside the moral guidelines of the commandments or precepts of our Christian faith? These can be things we are meant to offer back to God, trusting in His goodness and faithfulness.

And so, I would encourage all who hear this reading to consider their own dispositions. Do you trust God? Do you believe that He can use even our difficulties for our good? Are you willing to support your own children in their vocational journey, whatever it may be? If you discover upon reflection that there is some resistance, acknowledge that. Take it to your prayer. Consider the Our Father, and in particular the words, "thy will be done."

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