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.