After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 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.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.
New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. USCCB approved http://www.usccb.org/bible/approved-translations
The story we have from Genesis today, the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, is nothing if not a challenge to us 21st century would-be believers. Perhaps the most famous thinker to take on the problem this story conveys was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In his book Fear and Trembling, he praised Abraham’s obedience to God, arguing that, since it was God who decided the difference between good and evil, God could even suspend ethics.
When I read this for the first time I found it nothing less than shocking. And although I’ve learned much from Kierkegaard, I think he misses a key point in his praise of obedience over ethics. It’s this: earlier in the passage, after Isaac has asked where the sheep for the burnt offering is to be found, Abraham answers saying, “son, God himself will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” It’s easy to miss these lines in the drama of imagining the knife poised over the boy, but if we notice them (and even though it took thousands of years) we can see that God has provided—still does provide—another offering: God’s very self in Jesus.
When I am tempted to offer sacrifice to God, it’s then that I must remember this great reversal: we Christians do not worship a God who demands sacrifice, no, we worship a God who sacrifices God’s very self out of love for us. If we (and Kierkegaard) can remember this, the story of Abraham and Isaac takes on a much different—though no less shocking—meaning.
—Fr. Patrick “Paddy” Gilger, SJ, was ordained on June 15, 2013, and is serving as Associate Pastor of St. John’s Parish, Creighton University, Omaha. Click here for an Ignatian News Network video on ordination featuring Fr. Gilger.
O God our Creator, from your provident hand we have received our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You have called us as your people and given us the right and the duty to worship you, the only true God, and your Son, Jesus Christ. Through the power and working of your Holy Spirit, you call us to live out our faith in the midst of the world, bringing the light and the saving truth of the Gospel to every corner of society.
We ask you to bless us in our vigilance for the gift of religious liberty. Give us the strength of mind and heart to readily defend our freedoms when they are threatened; give us courage in making our voices heard on behalf of the rights of your Church and the freedom of conscience of all people of faith.
Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father, a clear and united voice to all your sons and daughters gathered in your Church in this decisive hour in the history of our nation, so that, with every trial withstood and every danger overcome—for the sake of our children, our grandchildren, and all who come after us—this great land will always be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Catholic Bishops, Prayer for Liberty