“God put Abraham to the test.”
Why? That is the natural question to ask when we hear the first line of today’s readings. What, exactly, was God trying to show Abraham? And why did it require such extreme, seemingly cruel, measures?
Notice when God told Abraham to take Isaac to be offered as a holocaust, or sacrifice, he described the patriarch’s son as the one “you love.” We are mindful that Isaac represented the faithful promise of God to provide Abraham with an heir who “shall give rise to nations, and rulers of people shall issue from him” (Gn 17:16). So why would God then tell Abraham to sacrifice his son, who personified the covenantal blessings of offspring, land, influence, and, eventually, a nation?
The third-century theologian Origen suggested God described Isaac as beloved so that “by awaking memories of love the paternal right hand might be slowed in slaying his son and the total warfare of the flesh might fight against the faith of the soul.” In other words, God not only tested Abraham, he intentionally intensified the test by accentuating the great love of the father for his son. This reminder, Origen noted, “also produces hopelessness in the promises that were made.”
Rather than making sense of the test, this appears to make it even more irrational, even cold-blooded. Within Judaism, this story is known as the Akedah, or “binding,” the greatest test faced by Abraham. But, of course, if Abraham had no love for his son, the test would not have been so harrowing. After all, the sacrificing of children was hardly unusual within the ancient near Eastern world; in fact, it was a normal part of some pagan religions. The horror of the approaching sacrifice was not so much in the command to kill one’s son, argued Father Hans Urs von Balthasar, “rather, the horror lies in the fact that this son was miraculously given by God and destined to imitate and accomplish the divine promises.” It’s as if God turned his back on his promises, plunging Abraham into a darkness no mortal could hope to withstand alone.
And that, paradoxically, begins to shed a little light upon what is, without a doubt, one of the most perplexing narratives in Scripture. By stepping into the darkness of God’s will, Abraham cast himself into the light of God’s perfect mercy and love. The test was not meant to prove God can do whatever he desires, but that God desires to do whatever he can for man, who is the pinnacle of his creation. Yet God’s grace must be met by man’s faith; that is, God’s “Yes” to man must be accepted by man’s “yes” to God. “I know now,” said God’s messenger to Abraham, “how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.” That devotion refers specifically to a free and active obedience to God’s will. It is the emphatic “yes!” uttered and lived in faith.
With that in mind, we can better appreciate St. Paul’s explanation to the Christians in Rome that God “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all.” That gift is even more mysterious and confounding than what was asked of Abraham. And Jesus was not a bewildered young man, but the Incarnate Word who in free obedience accepted and carried out the will of his Father.
If the Father freely gave his Son for us, and the Son freely gave his life for us, what will we freely give to God?
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.