While Abraham is our father in faith, his story is one that is relatable. In leaving his homeland, Abraham received a new land, great blessing, and an heir even in his old age, Abraham had followed God with impressive trust. However, not unlike our experiences of faith, Abraham was not without failures and misunderstandings of God’s will. Despite this, Abraham comes to the ultimate test in Genesis 22.
After Isaac had grown, Abraham is instructed to take his son, go to the mountains of Moriah, and sacrifice him there. Abraham rises early, takes Isaac, two servants, and a donkey on a three day journey to the place God commands. Then Abraham places the wood for the sacrifice on his son Isaac who carries it up the mountain. When Isaac asks where the animal for the sacrifice is, Abraham prophecies that God will provide Himself the lamb. Once they reach the top, Abraham builds the altar, ties up his son, and draws his knife to sacrifice Isaac. At that moment, an angel stops Abraham and praises his faith because he had not withheld his son, his only son. Abraham then spies a ram caught in the thicket by its horns which he sacrifices as a replacement for his son. God then reaffirms his promise of many descendants to Abraham and also states that they shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves.
While this may be one of the stranger stories of the Bible, we see veiled in it God revealing His plan for those who have faith in Him. Many times Catholics can read this story and agree that it takes great faith to sacrifice your son to God, but can also leave confused or with the wrong impression of who God is because of His ask. If we delve deeper and view the story in the time period and with the scope of both the New and the Old Testaments, the story of God is revealed to us.
We must first address the question: How could a man of such faith consent to the sacrifice of his offspring? During this time, sacrifice of offspring was not uncommon in the land of Canaan. In fact, it continued to show up for hundreds of years after Abraham which resulted in his descendants losing their homeland for a time. So the ask would not be as strange as it might seem to us today. Abraham had only to look around and see that ‘gods’ of other regions were receiving this very sacrifice.
But why is it acceptable for God to ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? God was using this moment to reveal Himself as different from the other ‘gods.’ Throughout the whole story, God is taking the narrative of what ancient sinners thought a ‘god’ desired and uses Abraham’s test to reveal something about Himself that humankind could never have understood without aid. He is revealing that the sacrifice necessary for reparation of sins will be taken on by HIS only son, not Abraham’s. The sacrifice of punishment will be transformed into a sacrifice of love. The sacrifice of death will turn into a passage to life. In giving His Son, God is desiring mercy not sacrifice which is completely counter to narrative the time period to what ‘gods’ were.
The typology is rich in this passage. Isaac is a type of Jesus. The mountains of Moriah are the same range in which you find Jerusalem, where Jesus would be crucified. Isaac, the only son of Abraham, had wood for the sacrifice placed on him by his father to carry up the mountain. In the same way Jesus, the only Son of God, bears the wood of the cross up mount calvary for His sacrifice for sinners.
It is common to think that Isaac was just a young boy when this happened, and many artistic depictions of this event furthered this narrative. However, it is said that Isaac carried the wood to build an entire altar on his back up a mountain. It would seem this is a task not for a boy, but a full grown man which is what Jesus was at His sacrifice.
Isaac being able to carry the wood up the mountain also shows us that Isaac became a willing participant to his father’s sacrifice. A man who could carry the wood for the altar up a mountain could easily overpower his elderly father. Yet, Abraham is able to bind Isaac up, denoting his willing participation in the plan of the father, just like Jesus in His paschal sacrifice.
Another beautiful detail of this story is when Isaac asks where the animal for the sacrifice is and Abraham prophecies that God will provide Himself the lamb. At the end of the story, a lamb is conspicuously missing. It is actually a ram that is sacrificed. Yet, God does provide Himself as the lamb. Jesus fulfills Abraham’s prophecy hundreds of years later when He is the Lamb of God who is sacrificed in that very mountain range.
Finally, when God tells Abraham that his descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, He is talking about the Church who are Abraham’s children in faith. This is the very same Church that Jesus tells Peter that will be built upon him and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. The very same Church that has made disciples of all nations. The very same Church that participates in the sacrifice of God’s only Son every single day throughout the world. God’s testing of Abraham was not a cruel test. It was a beautifully crafted revelation of who He is: A God of Mercy and Love.