The son who was saved from being sacrificed

People of the Book – Isaac

In his brief but powerful book “Fear and Trembling,” Søren Kierkegaard explains how he became increasingly consumed with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Speaking of himself in the third person, the Danish philosopher recounts: “It was not the beautiful regions of the East, nor the earthly splendor of the Promised Land, he longed to see… What he yearned for was to accompany them on the three-day journey, when Abraham rode with grief before him and Isaac by his side. He wanted to be there at that moment when Abraham raised his eyes and saw in the distance the mountain in Moriah, the moment he left the asses behind and went on up the mountain alone with Isaac. For what occupied him was not the finely wrought fabric of imagination, but the shudder of thought.”

In Abraham’s willingness to trust and follow God completely even into the absurd, into sacrificing the son he had waited 70 years for and through whom God had promised him countless descendants, Kierkegaard sees the “monstrous paradox” of faith.

Whom did Isaac come to resent after that tragic encounter near the makeshift altar on Moriah? Abraham? God? Both? Neither? Was his heart blackened forever against his mother Sarah for not flinging herself upon Abraham to put an end to this madness? Did he look in the decades that followed with a suspicious eye on the one he had so trusted and who had, albeit briefly and for unknown interior motives, betrayed him? How were his personal experiences of love and heartbreak and filial devotion and confusion appropriated into his relationship with God? How were his theological imagination and vision of the Almighty formed by such defining moments? Perhaps more importantly, how are ours for us?

Isaac remains an important figure in the Christian tradition, for we see countless times Yahweh described as “the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob.” And the radicality of these demands on such a “knight of faith” is reiterated in the New Testament: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his brothers and sisters – yes even his own life – he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). Too often we smuggle sentimentality and rationalization into our spiritual lives, eviscerating these challenging words of their almost overwhelming meaning. But the story of Isaac demands more than this.

Such a paradox of faith, if accepted in all its vigor and power, includes not only trust and the “resting place for our restless hearts,” but also dimensions which are in the literal sense of the word “terrible” (agonizing, distressing, harrowing). Abraham does not doubt, he does not storm heaven with his prayers that his life may be otherwise, he does not minimize the trial he undergoes. He has faith, despite the cost. So too with Mary, for “No doubt the angel [that came to her] was a ministering spirit, but he was not an obliging one who went round to all the other girls in Israel and said ‘Do not despise Mary, something out of the ordinary is happening to her.’ The angel came only to Mary, and no one could understand her…isn’t it true here too that those whom God blesses he damns in the same breath?”

As Kierkegaard points out, this anguish is a dangerous affair for the squeamish, but yet such distress remains interwoven with a commitment to God that grounds and surpasses every other relationship in our life. It is not in relief of agony that these figures become great, but rather because of and through it. “What is it then to be God’s chosen?”

The sacrifice on Moriah did eventually take place and Abraham’s words. “God will provide the offering.” to his bewildered son did in fact come true.

For after Abraham proved willing to transcend every conceivable limit of personal and societal convention in his acquiescence to God’s demands, a ram caught in a nearby thicket was offered as a holocaust instead. In this blameless victim with brambles ensnaring its head, Christians have seen a foreshadowing type of Christ.

Meaning “laughter” in Hebrew (for Sarah was said to have laughed in her old age when told she’d conceive), Isaac is viewed by Jews and Christians as the heir to God’s covenant with Abraham. Muslims identify Ishmael, the older son of Abraham with his maid Hagar, as the more historically and theologically important half-brother.

Isaac marries Rebecca, and after a period of sterility reminiscent of his own parents, the couple gives birth to twins, Esau and Jacob. But those eyes which once took in the wild horrors unfolding around him on Moriah eventually grow tired and dim with age, and Isaac goes blind. His enterprising son Jacob, who is later to adopt the name Israel, takes advantage of this situation by tricking his father into giving him a blessing and larger inheritance (a rather tragic ordeal in such a primogenital society) by wearing his brother’s clothes and goatskins on his arms to imitate Esau’s woolly and rugged limbs. Years later, Esau does forgive his brother in a scene which Luke almost certainly used to model the Prodigal Son parable — for the Greek terms describing the Father’s actions mirror those of the forgiving elder brother in Hebrew: “he ran to him, embraced him, fell on his neck and kissed him” (Gen 33, Lk 15). The reconciled sons bury their father Isaac together, with his father Abraham in the field that was purchased from Ephron the Hittite facing the glorious oaks of Mamre, where Abraham had once entertained angels unawares.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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