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.