WISDOM FROM THE BEGINNING – PART V – SECTION I
ISAAC – GIFT AND SACRIFICE
I. Chapters 21 through 23 of Genesis describe the beginning of the transfer of the Covenant from Abraham to Isaac, as God's promises now go beyond the individual Abraham to his people.
A. The section begins
with both joy and conflict as Isaac is finally born to receive the promises,
but his birth leads to the exile of Hagar and Ishmael.
A. Twenty-five years after the call of Abraham, and about seventeen years after God's first clear promise of a great people descending from Abraham, Isaac is born to Sarah.
1. Abraham names
him Isaac, which means "he laughs." The name is fitting on
several levels. First, it is a reminder of Abraham's and Sarah's
initial laughter at God's promise of a son; God wants to remind them
of the call to believe him. Second, as verse 6 indicates, it is
a sign of the joy he brings to Sarah and to all people who will celebrate
his birth and the promise he carries on. Third, however, there
is a poignant contrast with the sacrifices that will have to be offered;
the laughter will be balanced by tears.
1. The text says
she saw Ishmael playing with Isaac, or possibly mocking or making fun
or Isaac. If he was playing with Isaac, her worry is that they
are acting as equals, which she does not want. Even more, if he
was making fun on Isaac, she may be worried that he, as the stronger
one, will displace Isaac. It would appear that Abraham loves both
2. And so, Sarah,
not even using the name of Hagar and Ishmael, demands that Abraham send
1. God tells
Abraham that he can allow what Sarah wants (although there is no indication
that it is really what God wanted), and promises to bless and guide
Ishmael so that he becomes a great nation. Abraham's blessings
would flow through Isaac, but are not limited to him.
C. The text then describes Hagar, and by extension Ishmael, who is now about 17 or 18, very sympathetically.
1. Although about
17, Ishmael is still very dependant upon Hagar. He is, at least
metaphorically, carried by Hagar and is described as a child.
- When Abraham
dies, Ishmael returns to help bury him. See Gen. 25:9. There
is a strong natural virtue to Ishmael. Here as elsewhere, the
Bible does not neatly describe the Chosen People as good, and others
as lesser. God's blessings are bestowed without our merit, although
we seek to merit them.
A. The scene
begins with Abraham still in the region of Gerar, possibly a little
to the south near Beer-sheba, where Hagar and Ishmael were. Abimelech,
seeing the birth of Isaac, as well as the likely prosperity of Abraham,
easily concludes that Abraham is favored by God (or perhaps he believes
the gods) and thus that good relations would be important. He
thus asks Abraham to deal loyally with him, possibly fearing that he
would take over. Given the deceit over Sarah, he understandably
wants a promise of honest dealing.
B. Abraham quickly agrees to the good relations, although apparently does not include his descendants. He also brings up the issue of a disputed well.
- In itself the well is a minor issue, but the issue is more than that. Abraham wants to have rights to the land, and by establishing his rights to the well, he is setting that precedent.
IV. In Chapter 22, the situation dramatically changes as Abraham is given his final, and most shocking test, that of offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice.
A. The text introduces a new section some time later as a test God will put to Abraham. This event is the first called expressly described as a test.
else in the Pentateuch does God test individuals. He does test
His Chosen People, who generally fail. See Ex. 15:25, 16:4; Duet.
8:2, 16, 13:4. This test is most analogous to that of Job.
In fact, on non-canonical Jewish commentary presents Satan as challenging
God to see how much Abraham will offer. See Leon Kaas, The
Beginning of Wisdom 338 f.n. 43.
B. God suddenly calls upon Abraham, who is apparently at peace. Abraham immediately answers, "Here I am." He will give that response two more times, when Isaac asks him about the sacrifice, and when God tells him to refrain from it. That response of Abraham frames the entire episode, testing Abraham's love of God when it seems to conflict with the love of his son.
- The response
"here I am" is a classic one of a readiness to deliver God's judgment.
See 1 Sam. 3:16; Is. 6:8.
1. Abraham does
not try to argue with God about the request. Unlike the situation
with Sodom and Gomorrah, the issue is one of faith, not justice.
2. The test is
so terrible that Abraham apparently wants to get it over with quickly.
1. Abraham leaves
his two servants behind, apparently because they will be shocked or
perhaps try to stop the sacrifice.
2. Isaac asks, with puzzlement and perhaps fear, where Abraham will get the sacrifice.
says to his son, like he said to God, "Here I am." The two
poles are tugging on him.
- Isaac mentions
the fire and wood, but not the knife, a fact that may indicate his anxiety.
cannot bear to tell his son the truth yet. And so he couches his
answer in words that may be technically true, but are deceptive.
He calls the sacrifice the "sheep," anticipating the Passover Lamb
slaughtered to free the Chosen People from Egypt and the man of whom
Isaiah speaks who will save His people by being led like a lamb to the
slaughter. See Ex. 12:21-28; Is. 53:7. Abraham may also
have been trying to propose a solution to God.
is calling for his son to trust in God, which is exactly what Abraham
is struggling with.
- Once again,
Abraham says, "Here I am," the response that begins and ends the
- The angel speaks
of Isaac as "the boy," indicating a universality to his image.
- The angel commends
Abraham as a "God-fearing man." The idea here is of one who
recognizes the awesomeness and wonder of God before which we sense a
vast otherness above us. See Leon Kaas, The Beginning of Wisdom
344-45. Later the Bible would describe this fear of the Lord as
the beginning of wisdom, and paradoxically the delight and strength
of the soul. See Ps. 111:10. Prov. 1:7, 9:10; Sir. 1:9-12.
In his classic, The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto uses a similar
idea of the numinous, a sense of a complete and overwhelming otherness
that is above us and all our thing, as at the essence of every religion.
See also Lewis, The Problem of Pain 5-8.
- The angel is
described simply as a messenger. But it is clear that no one else
could deliver this message. In Greek, the term aggelos is used
to mean both messenger and angel.
1. It is not
clear whether God called for this sacrifice; it certainly seemed natural
to Abraham to conclude the test with a thanksgiving sacrifice.
Beginning with the Exodus, the Chosen People were to sacrifice a sheep
or two doves for each of their first-born. See Ex. 13:14-16; Luke
2. The ram may
also have symbolized strength, or the father rather than the son.
Abraham is in a sense, willing to sacrifice his strength and fatherhood
1. First, the
angel renews the promises of the covenant, promising vast descendants
with images from the earth (as many as the sands on a seashore) and
the heavens (as numerous as the stars.)
2. There is an
additional promise of victory over enemies, taking their gates.
This promise also implies that there will be enemies arrayed against
Israel. There will be future sacrifices of sons in war.
1. When they
went up the mountain, the text stressed the fact that Abraham and Isaac
2. When Abraham
returns, he meets the young men who travelled with him and goes back
with them. However, there is no mention of Isaac. It is
possible that he stayed behind now, his own man. He may also have
gone back with Abraham, but the relationship does not now seem to be
3. This greater
distancing may be a good, although difficult, development. For
Isaac must learn to depend upon God more than his father. All
parents must eventually accept that their children are no longer dependant
upon them, but now must choose their own faith.
- The text
also does not say what either Abraham or Isaac thought after the event.
We are meant to put ourselves in their place.
1. At one level,
it is true that God is the author of life and can take it. And,
if Abraham did believe God would raise Isaac from the dead, we can understand
more of what he was thinking. But the action was still a terrible
one, especially because God does not expressly tell Abraham that He
will raise Isaac.
2. On a basic
level, it is an image of the willingness to subordinate all loves to
God. Jesus will later speak of a love of God must be so much greater
than love of family that it will seem like hatred of family to many.
See Matt 10:37; Luke 14:25.
3. At another level, God is actually using the event to forbid child sacrifice forever, making it clear that he does not wish for such a thing. Over and again, the Old Testament figures would denounce that pagan practice. See, e.g., Lev. 18:21; Duet. 12:31; 2 Kings 16:3, 21:6; Jer. 7:31.
- That practice
may seem like only a bad memory. But today, child sacrifice takes
place in abortions, and in a more metaphorical but very real way when
people offer their children to the gods of the world by encouraging,
almost forcing them to pursue wealth, position, popularity and the like
above all things. See Leon Kaas, The Beginning of Wisdom 349.
- There is
also the notion that all parents should offer their children to God,
not in death, but in vocations, willing that they follow God's call
no matter how difficult for them or the family.
4. On a related
point, there is the notion that the sacrifices of faith are not violent
as those of paganism or the world are, but they are as difficult.
Abraham is not called physically to sacrifice his son, but all people
of faith are warned that equally difficult sacrifices may be called
for. The Letter to the Hebrews thus presents Abraham's willingness
to offer Isaac as a model of all faith.
5. Isaac also becomes an image for Jesus Christ. For He was also the only-begotten Son of a Father, through whom the great and final covenant was to be fulfilled. And the Father sent Him to be sacrificed at about the same place where Isaac was to be sacrificed. Like Isaac, he carried the wood of His sacrifice up the Mount and, like Isaac consented in the sacrifice. But this time, the sacrifice took place. When we wonder what it was like for Abraham and Isaac, we get a first hint of what it was like at Calvary. See Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises 109.