What Troubles Me About Abraham

In today’s first Mass reading, God instructs Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac and offer him up as a burnt offering.

Leave aside for a moment God asking this of Abraham.  It is Abraham’s response that I always wonder about.

Four chapters earlier in Genesis, when God tells Abraham of his plan to destroy the Sodom and Gomorrah because of the extreme sinfulness of the people there, Abraham goes into full advocacy mode.  He challenges God not to “sweep away the innocent with the guilty,” and proceeds to haggle with God. Will you spare the city if you find 50 innocent people there? Great, then will you spare it if you find 45? Terrific, what about 40? Wonderful, do I hear 30? Abraham doesn’t cease his argument until God agrees that if there are ten innocent people in the cities, the cities will not be destroyed.

Abraham puts his all into an argument with God aimed at saving a depraved city, a guilty people.  Yet here, when God instructs Abraham to offer up his son Isaac – the son he loves more than anything and who presumably is innocent of any wrongdoing, Abraham just says Right-O and proceeds to follow the instructions he has been given.  Not a word of protest.  Not any request for explanation.  No effort at persuasion.

How do we explain the difference in Abraham’s behavior? Is it that he knew he was being tested when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac? Did he feel some greater responsibility toward an entire population of people than toward his son? Is there something in how God spoke to him in one instance that is different from the other? Is there something else? And, if Abraham’s behavior in the two situations can not be reconciled, which of them are we to take as the better reaction? Just a few questions to ponder today, along with Caravaggio’s depiction of the scene.

Sacrifice of Isaac



5 thoughts on “What Troubles Me About Abraham

  1. Susan, great question… If I were to render an opinion I would go with “test.” God certainly tests, but never tempts. Although, there’s a degree of truth in all the possibilities you presented. Hmmmmm?

  2. I heard a wonderful reflection once about the Abraham/Isaac story that really offered me something that helped me understand it differently. The speaker said that Abraham had to “look beyond the “gift” (Isaac) to the “Giver” (God) in responding to the request. Somehow that seemed Ignatian to me!

  3. In the Catechism, it says that Abraham is our Father in Faith because of his faith in God. I think this story shows us what faith is; a complete unwavering love and trust in God. God bestowed this gift onto him and promised that a great nation would come out of his bloodline so you would think that he would have pleaded for his son’s life. He could have pointed out the promises that God gave him but he does not. Instead he showed his love and trust in God by being willing to sacrifice the thing that he loved so much, his son. I think he trusted God so much that he knew that in the end everything would end up alright. Also I think that he learned how merciful God would be when he asked God all those questions so he knew in the end that God would also be merciful in this situation which could be seen in his comment about how God would provide the sacrifice.

  4. Maybe both incidents show Abraham’s complete trust in God. In the first, he trusted God enough to negotiate with God, in the second, he trusted God enough to understand that something good would result.

  5. This is the story of self-sacrifice, trusting it and learning its true meaning in God. For if we do as we are asked, as Abraham learns, it’s ultimately where we end up with God in the world, knowing that seeming loss is gain in God, when we allow God to transform death or the near death experience in us into life with him.
    What we offer at the altar that seems like loss to us, is multiplied by God into gain when we inherit the world from him by leaving the stinginess of our singular mind of I, me, mine and moving into our generous plural mind of we, us, our, through which we can even offer up that which is most precious to us, entrusting it to God so he can show us his truth. And so we go out into the world again, renewed through our encounter with God, as this new mind, so we can be that in the world, aligned now to God as his life in the world.

    Then he said to his servants: “‘Both of you stay here with the donkey,
    while the boy and I go on over yonder.
    We will worship and then come back to you.’

    Because Abraham knew in the deepest part of him that God would never ask this of him, and he trusted God to show him how by walking towards the impossible demand and not shirking it.
    By now, as Abraham has grown towards God inside an ever increasing trust gained through personal experience, he knows that God is life and is never associated with death. And this is where he confirms it finally, by allowing God to show him. For how can we ever know unless we experience tis within our self.
    Abraham knew upfront that he and Isaac would return to the servants after he illustrated his trust and belief in God in his willingness to not withhold his most beloved son that God has asked of him. In the same way that Hannah can hand over her deeply longed for Samuel as the one dedicated to God, entrusting him to God, so Abraham offers the same thing through Isaac. And then we see the most obvious one of all looking right back at us.

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