God’s Test of Abraham

Today’s first Mass reading is one I always have difficulty with (and I know I’m not alone in this): the passage in Genesis where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  God says to Abraham “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.”

Rabbi Marc Gelman has an interesting interpretation of this passage.  He suggests that one can only understand what happens in this episode by considering what preceded it – not subtly hinted by the fact that Genesis 22:1 says “And so it was that after these things, God tested Abraham.”

“These things” refers to Abraham’s response to Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar when Hagar became pregnant. Abraham allows Sarah to mistreat Hagar, causing Hagar to flee into the desert. Rabbi Gelman observes that “God saw how Abraham was willing to abandon Hagar and his future son just because his favored wife was jealous of her new standing in the family. God saw that Abraham was morally blind.” Although Hagar returns and gives birth to Ishmael, after Sara gives birth to Isaac, Sara demands that Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out, a demand Abraham complies with.

Abraham is troubled at what he does, but God tells him, “through Isaac shall your seed be named, and I will also transform the son of the slave woman into a nation, for he is also your seed.”

Rabbi Gelman says this:

So Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael, but did he do it because he believed that God would protect both his wives and both his sons, or because this was a good way to get rid of an unwanted wife and unwanted child? There was only one way to know for certain. God would have to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to see if Abraham truly believed in both promises.

If Abraham believed that Ishmael would survive the desert, he would believe that Isaac would survive Mt. Moriah. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael, his least loved son, left God no other choice but to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his best loved son. The story is not about a morally insensitive God, but about a morally insensitive servant of God.

“After these things,” God had no misgivings about choosing Abraham.

“After these things,” Abraham could be the father of two nations because he had learned at last what it meant to be the father of two sons.

“After these things,” Abraham was free.

You can read Rabbi Gelman’s full comment on the passage here.

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