Abraham’s Sacrifice

Modern Biblical critics often have trouble accepting the long tradition within the Church of belief in the multiple “spiritual” senses of the text. This does not mean that Scripture can have any meaning one desires.  The various “spiritual” senses – allegorical, moral, and anagogical – must be firmly grounded in the literal. But the lessons we learn from the “spiritual” senses, especially those we understand in light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, will transcend what could have been known by the original authors.

As the Creator, God can “write” in human history, through human events.  He can signify with things and not merely with words. For this reason, God can pre-figure Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross with His command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. We recognize in retrospect that what God was in the end not willing to ask of Abraham – the sacrifice of his own son – is something He Himself would sacrifice for us.  And for this reason, the reading about the “sacrifice” of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18) is included among the selections for the Easter Vigil liturgy.

What the human author had in mind when he included the story in the Scriptures is hard to know.  But in an age when human sacrifice to the gods was common, this author, inspired by the Spirit, likely wished to clarify that human sacrifice of that sort was not what the Lord wanted. God desires an internal change of heart, not an external sacrifice in a quid pro quo, whereby we sacrifice something of ours so that in return, God will give us something we want. You don’t buy God’s favor by sacrificing a bull or a goat.

So too, if we are tempted to turn our Mass attendance and pious observances into a similar quid pro quo with God – I do X, or sacrifice Y, so God will reward me with Z  – then we should consider ourselves chastened by Christ’s anger at His Father’s Temple being turned into a marketplace. We do not buy God’s favor, especially since everything we have has been given to us by Him. This is another of the lessons we should learn from the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son shows his understanding that everything He has belongs ultimately to God.


But it also tells us something about faith and God’s promise, although perhaps not the lesson some commentators have thought they found there.  In the 16th century, Martin Luther praised Abraham for his uncritical obedience to God – for the “blind faith” he showed by his refusal to question whether it was right to kill Isaac. In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant took the opposite view, arguing that Abraham should have reasoned that such an evidently immoral command could not have come from God. For Luther, divine authority trumps any claim on behalf of reason or morality, whereas for Kant there can be nothing higher than the moral law. This debate continues to this day.

But perhaps this isn’t what the story is meant to teach us. A classic “moral” reading of the text might go something like this: Are there not times when we are so sure we know God’s will, when we seem so clearly to be carrying out God’s designs, and then something bad and unexpected happens? We don’t get the job we thought was perfect or we lose the relationship we were so sure God had in mind for us. A parent dies. A pandemic covers the world.  “How is this part of God’s providence?” we wonder.  We find corruption and abuse in the Church. “How is this part of God’s promise?”

So too, Isaac is clearly the gift of the promise God had made to Abraham. So how can sacrificing Him be reasonable?  Job’s words would have been best:  “The Lord has given; the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”  We are not owners; we are stewards. At any moment, the owner of the vineyard might come back and ask for the harvest, or demand the talents he loaned us – with interest.  We wonder:  “Why now?”  We ask, as did Kant: “Wouldn’t the story make more sense if . . .?”  But it isn’t our story. It’s God’s story. And it’s not unreasonable to believe that He understands more than we do.

It is clear throughout the Gospels that Jesus is not the Messiah people were expecting.  Even the great Saint Peter said to God incarnate (not understanding the irrationality of telling the God of All Creation what He should do): “You can’t go into Jerusalem and sacrifice yourself on the Cross. That wouldn’t make sense. You must go on to ever greater victories in the way I understand victory.”  But this is not what God has in mind.

Is it irrational to believe there may be a greater Wisdom at work in the world than one’s own?  Or would it be irrational to assume there can’t be?

We would still be faced with the question of whether the possessor of this greater Wisdom is beneficent. But if I came to recognize that this Creator God loved mankind so much that He was willing to sacrifice His only Son for us, then my willingness to bring my will into accordance with His would not merely be a matter of “blind faith” and unquestioning obedience. It could be the result of a not entirely irrational understanding of the ultimate power and wisdom of God, on the one hand, and an entirely sensible response to the love God has shown by His willingness to sacrifice His Son, on the other.

We needn’t understand God’s purpose to believe that He has one. Indeed, it is precisely when our expectations of what we thought He had in mind are most at odds with what we assumed God’s will would be that we most need to recall that He is God. And we are not.


*Image: The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio, c. 1603 [Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.