The Catholic Thing
The Key That Fits the Lock, Part Ten Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 05 December 2012

There are two things to remember about Abraham, as he stands upon Mount Moriah, knife in hand. Abraham is a receiver of gifts. And Abraham is obedient.

It is important to establish the correct relationship between the two. A son who obeys his father in order to receive gifts is obeying, but imperfectly. He heeds his father’s words, but not his heart. The son who obeys out of love needs no gifts in return; the love he shares with his father is itself the gift he prizes best.

When Abraham rescues his nephew Lot and the King of Sodom from the King of Shinar and his allies, the King of Sodom offers to give Abraham all the plunder, in exchange for the hostages. But Abraham declines: “I have lift up mine hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take from a thread even unto a shoe latchet, and that I will not take anything which is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich.” (Gen. 14:22-23) 

All things in heaven and earth belong to God, and He is righteous. It is hard to imagine an Achilles declining to take at least a horse or two, and a fair maiden, and a well-cast helmet.

Yet only a moment before, Abraham gladly accepted a very great gift: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.” (14:18-20) 

Note the difference. The King of Sodom is in no position to dicker with Abraham, yet Abraham will not take even a shoelace from him. But the mysterious Melchizedek – the name means “righteous king” – from the mysterious Salem – the name means “peace” – offers to God a sacrifice of bread and wine, and Abraham accepts the tenth of his goods, at one with Melchizedek in their worship of the Lord. The Lord is the true possessor, and therefore the giver.

So too when the Lord appears to Abraham in the plains of Mamre: three young men who sometimes speak in the plural and sometimes in the singular. No surprise that the Fathers should see here a revelation of the Trinity, and their meal with Abraham a foreshadowing of the Eucharist.

Angels of the Lord appear to Lot in Sodom, but it is the Lord Himself here. And after Abraham has prepared bread and meat for them, and a comfortable place in the shade of a tree, they declare that by this time next year Sarah will have borne a son.

      Abraham Sacrificing Isaac by Laurent de La Hyre (1650)

The good Sarah, bustling about the cookery and, like many a woman before and since, eavesdropping, bursts out into laughter: “After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (18:12) How can this be?  She and Abraham no longer play that sport! But she does conceive, and she and Abraham turn their embarrassed laughter into praise, naming their son Yitzhak (Isaac; the name suggests laughter): “And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all who hear will laugh with me.” (21:6)

Now it is this son of his old age who bears the promise, who is a pure gift whose very name rings with joy, that the Lord commands Abraham to sacrifice. In Hebrew, the possessive adjective is marked by a suffix attached to the noun, so that the loving communion of Abraham and Isaac is compressed into the very form of the words, impossible to translate into English: “thy son, thine only son.” (22:2) So too in the beautiful and terrible conversation between the boy and the man:

          And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
          And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering. (22:7-8)

The sacred author does not tell us of Abraham’s anguish. Words cannot suffice. Only the boy breaks the silence, and then Abraham replies so as to set Isaac, for a while, at ease. Yet Abraham may be speaking more truly than he knows.

Abraham says that God will provide. That is the key. God provides. It was no sacral quid pro quo that brought Abraham out of Ur. Abraham has done nothing to merit God’s choice. Isaac himself is a free gift of God. The form of the test may strike us as cruel, but it is the cruelty of calculation, of self-interested brokering, that is rejected.

God’s command is that Abraham should give all to Him, reserving nothing for himself – which is what perfect love does. But “God will provide himself a lamb,” meaning that God’s is the initial sacrifice of love.

“Lay not thine hand upon the lad,” cries the angel, using the affectionate Hebrew term for a youth. (22:12) What will be sacrificed instead? The ram with its horns caught in the thickets: not the Abraham-lamb, but the God-lamb. Abraham rejoices, and calls the place Yahweh-yireh: the Lord will see, the Lord will provide. The rhyme suggests identity: seeing and providing are proper to the Lord. And what the Lord provides is love.

An unknown Anglo-Saxon poet expressed the point most strikingly. Wudu baer sunu, meaning either “the son bore the wood” or “the wood bore the son.”  The grammar is deliberately ambiguous. For the Son, the only Son of the Father, the Son in whom the Father delights, would carry the wood of the cross up the bitter mountain, would Himself be the unblemished ram, would be Melchizedek and Isaac, priest and king and sacrifice.

Anthony Esolen
is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Michael, December 05, 2012
Mr. Esolen:

I had an experience during RCIA regarding this very passage. A thirty something couple with an infant/toddler child were entering together and she made the comment to the effect that she hoped God would never require something like this of her, apparently suggesting that if God tried to come between her and her child, it would create a crisis for her in which God might not win out. It got me to thinking about the passage, because I sympathized with her or perhaps my perception of her comment having children myself. Certainly this is helpful in understanding Abraham's crisis as well. However, I have often wondered, as the Bible makes very clear that immolating children or child sacrifice in the ancient world was common (imperial Rome exposing infants to the elements/wildlife, child sacrifice to pagan gods, etc.), whether in Ur, out of which Abraham was called, such a practice was current or widespread. This time of trial for Abraham , as he may have believed the god of Ur was calling him, would explain his reluctance to sacrifice (as Isaac was given to he and Sarah at such an old age, and since they had been trying to have children for so long, and the expectation that this would be required regarding a known practice). God's test then still holds this tension in the foreground, continues to demonstrate Abraham's faithfulness, continues to serve as a foreshadowing of God's sacrifice of His son in Our Lord and Savior, AND demonstrates to Abraham in a very tangible way that the god that was worshipped in Ur in such manner is NOT the God who has called Abraham out of Ur to the Promised Land, and clearly abhors such adoration. This would help explain Abraham's willingness on the one hand, having been conditioned by living in a culture with such practice, and God's being able to demonstrate His LOVE and MERCY in showing that he does not require such sacrifice because He will make just such a sacrifice for all of mankind Himself. Thoughts/comments?
written by Mr. Levy, December 05, 2012
Michael: I am not aware of child sacrifice taking place in Ur - perhaps it did - but it certainly took place in Canaan, and I think you are absolutely correct that G-d was showing that, while He demands utmost devotion, He is just and merciful, not wicked and cruel like, say, Moloch.

I take Abraham's statement to Isaac - "G-d will provide the sacrifice" - as indicating his understanding in advance that G-d would not actually require him to kill his son.

All this said, however, Abraham was willing to proceed until G-d stopped him, which was at the last possible moment. The knife was raised. Indeed, Abraham even hastened to perform the commandment of G-d (he arose early in the morning, not delaying to start the journey). Abraham's trust in G-d was so great that he would commit an act that appeared to him monstrous - and a breach of G-d's prior covenants - if G-d so commanded. He trusted G-d's eyes above his own, G-d's justice above his own, G-d's mercy above his own.
written by Stanley Anderson, December 05, 2012
A common understanding (at least as everyone I know, including myself, would say) is that Isaac, being Abraham's only son to be sacrificed, parallels very clearly Christ as the Father's only son who would be sacrificed. And I don't at all want to deny or subvert that understanding. But I have long wondered if there might be an additional "picture" here: Might Isaac also be a picture of fallen mankind carrying his burden of sin (the wood), deserving of death in something of the manner CS Lewis describes of Edmund's plight with the White Witch in "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe"? In this picture, the Ram who is sacrificed in place of Isaac more closely parallels both Aslan's substitution for Edmund's forfeiture and Christ's sacrifice for our sins. Again, only a "wonderment" to ponder, not a hard and fast "belief" on my part, though I think it may have some merit, not sure.
written by Rick, December 05, 2012
"I take Abraham's statement to Isaac - "G-d will provide the sacrifice" - as indicating his understanding in advance that G-d would not actually require him to kill his son."

Yes, I agree...or at least that if God did require the sacrifice, Isaac would somehow be restored to him.

Remember: God had already promised Abraham, before requiring this sacrifice, that through Isaac Abraham would be the father of many.

Abraham believed that promise. He knew that God would be faithful. He obeyed God's commands to prepare to sacrifice Isaac, knowing that in some manner Isaac would be restored to him, and would live to father children. God's promise required it.

Abraham's act of sacrifice is really an act of faith in the restoration of Isaac...and a type of the Christian's faith in the Resurrection.

written by Robert Hill, December 05, 2012
Abraham sets before all the good example that we must — no matter what — always trust God. His will, not ours, be done!
written by Mr. Levy, December 05, 2012

Yes, and building on that point, Abraham's act was one of BELIEF in G-d as a JUST being. The same act by an idol-worshiper would have been one of mere OBEDIENCE to a POWERFUL being. In this way, the story teaches another distinction between the new faith embodied by Abraham and the submission to false gods embodied by other peoples.

This lesson is repeated in other parts of Scripture, as various persons (such as Pharaoh) repeatedly ask the wrong question, seeking to know whether G-d is more powerful than other gods, but not whether G-d is more just.
written by Dan Buckley, December 05, 2012
No, no! Abraham did not receive a tithe from Melchisedek. It was Abraham who gave the tithe to Melchisedek. The Holy Spirit said so- Heb, 7:4-10.
written by Gian, December 05, 2012
Knox too has Abram tiithing to Melchizedek:
18 Melchisedech, too, was there, the king of Salem. And he, priest as he was of the most high God, brought out bread and wine with him, 19 and gave him this benediction, On Abram be the blessing of the most high God, maker of heaven and earth, 20 and blessed be that most high God, whose protection has brought thy enemies into thy power. To him, Abram gave tithes of all he had won.
The reverse does not make sense too-Melchizedek was priest, not Abram.
written by Tony Esolen, December 05, 2012
I'd better check my pronouns, I see!

Michael: I think you are exactly right. Canaan was full of child-sacrificing; most fertility religions feature it. They were still sacrificing babies in Carthage in the time of Hannibal. The Romans were repelled by it. They did not sacrifice children, though they and the Greeks "exposed" malformed children (sometimes), and, alas, unwanted girls, the idea being that the gods would take them back, or would provide for them somehow. They were not entirely easy in their minds about it, or at least the best among them weren't; see how Sophocles treats the exposure of baby Oedipus. There is human sacrifice of war-prisoners in the Iliad, but it is not necessarily approved, and by the time Virgil reworks the scene in the Aeneid, it is meant to worry us mightily.

It does require action, not words, to get things through the thick heads of human beings. How could Abraham have believed it if God had said, "I do not like human sacrifices"? For gods also tell lies ... And the Babylonian gods Abraham would have known were ill disposed towards human beings, most of them; the flood came because the people down there were making too much noise and disturbing some of the divinities in their naptime ...

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