Abridged from a work by: Rev. Msgr. Donald C. Hamburger
Model Three: Abraham and Isaac – Genesis 11:26 & 22:1-19 – Prehistory
The psalmist sang of Abraham who probably wandered this world about the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C. “The princes of the peoples are assembled with the people of Abraham’s God. The rulers of the earth belong to God, to God who reigns over all.” (Psalm 47).
The Messenger: As we read the story of Abraham and Isaac, we are impressed by the similarities to the story of Jesus, the Son of God, the son of Mary, even before His birth! As Mary, the virgin wife of Joseph, received word from the archangel, Gabriel, so did Sara, the barren wife of Abraham, overhear the joyful news given by God’s messenger to Abraham: “I will surely return to you at this time next year and Sara your wife shall have a son.” (Gen 18:10) And they called him Isaac.
Joy: The root of the name, Isaac, contains the idea of ‘laughter,’ ‘joy,’ ‘pleasure.’ In my later years, one of my favorite Christmas hymns has become, “Joy to the World!” Both these babies brought joy into their family circles and it was extended down though the centuries.
The Test: Surely, Abraham is one of the most severely tested of all God’s human creatures. At an age when both Abraham and his wife were beyond their child bearing years, God promised offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky. Then after Isaac was born and grew to adolescence, God asked Abraham to take him out to a mountain and sacrifice him. This surely seems to be a contradiction. How can God ask this of him? Abraham tries to solve the puzzle by thinking Ishmael will be the son who will give him numerous progeny, but God corrected him. Then after God did keep his promise by letting Sara bear a son, Isaac, God asks Abraham to take him to the mountain and sacrifice him. What a test! How can this be?
Both the Blessed Virgin Mary and Abraham exemplify the ideal trust that God wants us to have in Him. They show what it is to be a “Servant of God.” In Isaiah we shall see reference made to the Redeemer as the “Suffering Servant of God,” Jesus, the perfect Exemplar. Read Psalm 21 in its entirety.
Indeed it was this very promise of numerous offspring that made the test that Abraham was given so great. I think it is next to that given Mary at the time of the annunciation. Mary countered Gabriel’s proposal with her promise to God: “How can this be since I know not man?” (Luke 1:34) Perhaps this was Mary’s way of testing the messenger; for if he were from God would he not know of this promise she had made? Her reply to Gabriel’s answer makes it seem plausible! “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee; and therefore the Holy One to be born shall be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:38) Mary’s reply as given in some translations is a nice play on words: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word.” John’s prologue in a way pays respect to Mary, the Seat of Wisdom: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. And we saw His glory – glory as of the only begotten of the Father – full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
The Resurrection: Mary’s Son, Jesus, arose from the dead according to the scriptures: The firstborn from the dead.
To further illustrate Abraham’s closeness to God, let me tell you that there are some scholars who see a precursory faith in the ‘resurrection’; for Abraham’s acquiescence to God’s request for the sacrifice of his only son Isaac was miraculous then but even now, many years later, it may even be more so. These scholars believe that Abraham might have reasoned thus: ‘Could not the God who gave Isaac to us in such a marvelous way, also raise him from the dead if I obediently sacrifice him?’ Therefore, God could still carry out His promise of prodigious progeny – as numerous as the stars in the heavens! Abraham might have been given the gift of grace to see that the same God, who is the author of life, is also the one who can raise the dead to life. At any rate, I like to see in Abraham a man of faith second only to Mary; Spouse of the Holy Spirit and Mother in His humanity of the Only Begotten of the Father.
Consider the portent for my theme, “The Lamb of God,” in the similarities at the time of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham and that of Jesus on the wood of the cross in His time!
Numerous Offspring: Abraham’s offspring, Isaac, was to carry out the promise given to his father through the blessing given to his mother, Sara: “I will bless her, and will also give you a so by her . . . and she shall be the mother of nations; kings of peoples shall descend from her.”
Mary’s Son, however, was destined to become the King of kings and Lord of all – whose followers became even more numerous, because they include all of Abraham’s offspring and all true believers. Paul later writes to the Galatians: “Therefore the man of faith shall be blessed with faithful Abraham.” (Gal. 3:9) And in the same chapter he concludes: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are the offspring of Abraham, heirs according to promise.” (Gal. 3:29)
Preferred Animals: In our consideration of the Lamb of God theme, we will come to see that the early followers of the True and Only God came to realize somehow that the “Lamb” was a preferred animal of sacrifice. Perhaps it was because the lamb was, to them, so lovable, as we see expressed by the prophet Nathan in the story to David (Cf. 2 Sam. 12:1-5). This would make the sacrifice more poignant. Or, maybe it was because the lamb was easily acquired from the sheep which these nomadic people kept for food, for clothing, and for tent making.
First offered by Abel centuries before, now it has become the expected sacrifice as shown by Isaac’s question, “But where is the lamb?” and Abraham’s answer, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the holocaust, my son.”
Substitute Animal: Now we are introduced to their discovery of a substitute animal. In this story of Abraham and Isaac, the “absence” of a bloody sacrifice (when God’s messenger stopped Abraham’s descending knife) was replaced by Abraham’s substitution of the ram caught in the bush!
Later, we will see that God Himself assigns a “scapegoat sacrifice” (Lev. 16:20-22) and today the Jews still celebrate a feast when it is used: their great feast of the atonement, Yom Kippur.
The sacredness in which the Hebrews held the blood of animals easily leads one to perceive the connection which the children of Abraham gave to substituting the blood sacrifice of an animal in place of a sinner – a vicarious victim.
This substitute animal is found in the rich analog of the sacrifice of Abraham. Although ready and willing to obey God’s command, Abraham was accepted in spirit and then given a substitute animal which was caught in the bushes. These two elements, the shedding of blood and the use of a substitute animal, are important to keep in mind as we continue with the unfolding revelation by God to man of His choice of the way He wanted us to do things.
Just as Abel’s sacrifice has received “pride of place” by being used for centuries in the Canon of the Mass, even now, as it has been incorporated into the text of Eucharistic Prayer #1, so too has both Abraham’s sacrifice and his faith been enshrined therein:
“Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith . . .”
The new Catechism tells us (#72) that “God chose Abraham and made a covenant with him and his descendants.” Here there was not only the shedding of blood to ratify the covenant but it was human blood of the male children in circumcision.
First, consider that John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God at the beginning of His public life. Second, when Jesus wished to give the Apostles at the Last Supper a “new covenant,” He provided His Precious Blood by using His Divine Power as the act we now know as “transubstantiation.” Third, Jesus in a bloody death was truly the Lamb furnished by God in the Sacrifice of Redemption, thus carrying out the promise made to Adam and Eve at the beginning (Gen. 3:15).
God advanced His revelation of the Lamb of God theme in this “model.” Now we move on to the time of Moses in the next “model.”
Epilogue: Thus Abraham is like to Abel “whose heart was right.” And fulfills Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians for worthy reception of the Lamb: “Let a man prove himself . . . for he who eats and drinks unworthily . . . eats and drinks judgment to himself.” (I Cor. 11:29)