CNS Bible Blog: Abraham and Isaac, surrender and salvation

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

It may seem very strange to both casual and longtime readers of Scripture that after all God had done with Abraham, the Lord would need to test him yet again (Genesis Chapter 22). Has Abraham not done enough in proving trust and loyalty in the midst of doubt and anguish?

And this is not an ordinary test, but one that struck Abraham at the heart. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, the one whom he loved, yes, Isaac. As you can well imagine, there have been a flurry of interpretations about this test. They range from it being a critique against child sacrifice, to the need for complete obedience, to a call for freedom, and to the challenge of passing the torch of faith on from one generation to the next.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

It is not an easy story to read. It has even been called a “text of terror.” And yet, like so many texts of Scripture, even the most difficult ones may uncover for us a powerful and liberating truth.

There are a few simple observations to be made about the story which can help uncover the meaning of its captivating gaze.

The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac needs to be compared and contrasted with the original call of Abram in Genesis Chapter 12. There God calls Abram to leave his land, his family and his country to go to another unknown land. God promises to Abram many descendants, land to be inherited by them, and all the nations of the earth will consider themselves blessed through Abram.

“Get up and go” is a unique phrase used there. Interestingly, also in our story that same rare phrase appears, “Take your son and get up and go to the land of Moriah to a mountain that I will tell you and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Moreover in the call of Abram we see God speaking to Abram for the first time. In our story, it is the last time God speaks to Abraham. And this is significant. Something in the life of Abraham has reached its zenith.

In the call of Abram, God asks him to leave his past, his familiar land, and even his father in order that something new may take place and be created. In the call, God asks Abram to die to his past so that a new future can be born.

A panel depicting Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac appears in a mural in the parish of St. John Nepomucene Church in Bohemia, N.Y. (CNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

A panel depicting Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac appears in a mural in the parish of St. John Nepomucene Church in Bohemia, N.Y. (CNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

In the end, God asks Abraham to die to his future so that the future, his son Isaac, may become the inheritor of the triple promises. In the sacrifice of Isaac, we can recognize the need for every parent to “let their children go” to follow their own path in life. This is my reading of the test of Abraham. God has begun something new in Abraham which required his unwavering faith at the beginning and now at the end requires his complete surrender. When God saw that Abraham had “surrendered” his son Isaac, both Abraham and his son Isaac were saved.

With Abraham’s successfully passing the test, the promises of descendants, land and blessing are made once again. Sarah his wife dies, and Abraham is left with the task of finding a wife for his son Isaac. Though Isaac is not even mentioned at the end of the story in Genesis 22, almost as if to say, “He really has died to Abraham,” the stories that follow concentrate on Isaac becoming the inheritor of the promises.

Church teachings in your pocket

VATICAN CITY — The U.S.-based Apostolate for Family Consecration is offering bishops attending the world synod on sacred Scripture a free MP3 video player preloaded with commentaries on church teaching.

a logo from the Apostolate for Family Consecration

A logo from the Apostolate for Family Consecration.

The black, pocket-sized video player has more than 45 hours of Cardinal Francis Arinze giving colorful commentaries on Scripture, catechetics, and Vatican II teachings. The Nigerian-born cardinal is prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

The gift is part of an wider initiative the international lay movement is promoting during the monthlong synod. They have invited synod bishops to attend a one-and-a-half-hour presentation Oct. 8-10 to hear and ask questions about the movement’s catechetical materials and formation programs.

Apostolate members came to Rome after visiting Hong Kong and Myanmar, where they spoke with church leaders about offering catechetical training to local Catholics and bringing their materials into local dioceses so as to help families bring Scripture into their daily lives.

If you feel left out because you are not a synod bishop, not to worry: many of the apostolate’s materials are available for free online, and videos and audios are easy to download onto your own MP3 player at the apostolate’s Web site,