Perhaps the greatest irony of scripture is the fact that when the Old Testament prophets spoke, their predictions, which may seem obvious from a post-resurrection perspective, flew far over their listeners’ heads.
How could they have known what it would come to mean? What could they say but “the Lord works in mysterious ways?”
In particular, said the Temple of B’Nai Israel’s Marc Perler, one particularly puzzled-over piece of scripture is the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Known to Jews as “The Binding of Isaac,” this part of Genesis is an example of trust and sacrifice. For Christians, it’s a nod to centuries ahead, to the cross.
On the mountain
At the time of Abraham, Perler said, human sacrifices were not unheard of, but for the most part, the practice had come to focus on animal or material offerings, like grain. In addition, he noted that burnt offerings, like the one Abraham makes preparations for with Isaac, are more intentional than raw sacrifices.
“Societies made offerings for all types of reasons – appeasement, to forestall evil times – but in any case, the sacrifice doesn’t mean anything unless what’s offered has meaning to you,” he said. “What higher sacrifice could there be than a son?”
The Rev. Chad Bowen, pastor of Brewer United Methodist Church in Shannon, said this was even more true considering that before Isaac was born, Abraham’s wife Sarah couldn’t have children.
“So for Abraham, he must choose between trusting God and idolizing a promise in the form of Isaac,” Bowen said. “God even says, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.’”
Bowen and Perlar said many subtleties come into play over the following verses. For instance, it seems in various places Abraham hopes that God doesn’t intend to follow through. For instance, when Abraham and Isaac arrive at Mount Moriah with the two servants, Abraham tells them to wait while he and Isaac make the sacrifice on the mountain.
“Abraham says, ‘We will worship and then we will return to you,’ plural,” Bowen said. “And by this time, Isaac is definitely old enough to fend off Abraham if he wants to. Abraham didn’t know the whole plan, but he knew the Lord is the most important thing, the reason why Isaac came to be at all.”
In either case, Perler said, Abraham was willing to follow through, and his example for the Jewish people was just that, a testament of willingness.
“I read it that God never intended to follow through,” Perler said. “But for Abraham, it sealed the deal of faith, of confidence in God. I mean, he meant business. He bound Isaac to the altar. The question becomes, if God is omnipotent, what use does he have as a sacrifice?”
“Even if God knew Abraham would pass the test, there’s something about doing it that is valuable,” Bowen said.
In the garden
Of course, the parallel between Isaac’s story and Jesus’ isn’t perfect. Jesus knows full well what’s ahead of him, while Isaac is assumedly unaware. But the willingness exemplified by Abraham is familiar to that of Christ, Bowen said.
“The moment in the garden is really powerful. Jesus is sweating blood, but still submits,” Bowen said. “Christ’s sacrifice draws us into a relationship with God that wasn’t possible before. Through his sacrifice, we are able to be remade in Christ’s image, and are able to live and love in similar ways.”
Father Lincoln Dall, priest at St. James Catholic Church, said it's easy to get hung up on the slaying component of a sacrifice, but death is only a part of it.
“Part of the Passover ceremony is to sacrifice a lamb, but the Jews don’t consider the sacrifice complete until the meat is eaten,” Dall said. “For Christians, Jesus is the now the lamb, and emblematic of a new covenant under him. It can be hard to understand why God would be willing to sacrifice his son, but Jesus submitted, saying, ‘If it is your will, I accept it.’”
Whether they be sacrifices of the physical, spiritual, or intellectual, Perler said, sacrifices put the religious on the spot to walk the walk, instead of just talking the talk.
“Think of the prophets. For the most part, they gave up everything,” Perlar said. “What is it worth to ‘sacrifice’ within our comfort zone? What’s giving a dollar to someone with hundreds in their pocket? Sacrifices are tests of our faith. Do we pay lip service, or are we truly devoted?”
Bowen pointed to various sacrifices in scripture, and said far more page space is given to what happens after the death of the sacrifice.
“There are just a few words on the killing, but much more instruction on how to treat the blood. It’s a fine distinction, but death is the beginning,” Bowen said. “Crops, livestock, these were things people put their lives into and depended on for livelihood. Christ’s sacrifice is on-going. He’s not just dying, he’s offering life.”