Understanding Abraham’s Offering of Isaac

After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

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So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

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But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place The LORD will provide; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

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And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”  (Genesis 22:1-18)

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From the Syriac Christian tradition, we find some commentary to give us insight into the biblical story of Abraham obeying God by being willing to sacrifice his own son’s life.  The commentary is based upon some poems from the Syriac Christian tradition which accepted an idea that Abraham was being tested by Satan in the same way that Job was tested by Satan.  In other words, God doesn’t test Abraham to discover Abraham’s heart since God knows Abraham’s heart.  God is revealing to Satan and all the angelic beings the faithfulness of the mere human, Abraham.  It keeps with a theme that ancient Jewish commentators accepted, which many Patristic writers agreed with and that one finds even in the Quran: namely, that some angels are jealous of God’s love and favor of human beings and the angelic hosts are trying to show to God his error in so favoring humans and even try to tempt us away from God to show God that His love for humanity is tragically mistaken.  The rebellion of Satan and his angels results from the angels not being willing to accept that the puny, fragile humans are superior to them in God’s view.

“There are two details which are largely confined to the Syriac exegetical tradition to which reference is made in the first of the two poems, and so require brief explanation here. In the Syriac version of Genesis 22:12 the voice from heaven states “Now I have made known . . .,’ instead of ‘Now I know . . .’. This is in fact already found in the Book of Jubilees from the third or second century BC, where the whole episode is seen as being initiated by Mastema (Satan), as in the opening of Job. Syriac authors were not aware of Jubilees’ scenario, but they (and the Rabbis) retained the understanding that God was making known Abraham’s faith to the angels who did not believe it would hold out under such extreme duress. This is specifically alluded to in stanza 38 of the dialogue.
A little later in the dialogue, in stanza 42, God tells Abraham to ‘look at the tree that was not planted; it has produced a fruit that was not conceived.’ The reference is to the ram caught in the thicket (Gen 22:13), but the miraculous origin of the tree and the fruit allude to a tradition that is first found in Ephrem’s commentary:
‘That the ram had not been there before is testified by Isaac’s question concerning the lamb; and that the tree had not been there before is assured by the wood on Isaac’s shoulders. The mountain burst forth with the tree, and the tree with the ram, so that, through the ram that was suspended on the tree and became the sacrifice instead of Abraham’s son, that day of His (John 8:56) might be depicted when He was suspended on the wood like the ram and tasted death on behalf of the whole world.

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[The Syriac commentators, like many ancient Christian commentators on the Scripture, loved to show the parallels between the Old and New Testaments.  They saw in the Abraham story many ways in which Christ was being prefigured in the biblical story.  They understood the ram caught in the tree to be a prefiguring of Christ being crucified on the cross.  They believed the ram’s appearance right at that moment was a miracle, not just a coincidental happening and so it prefigures the miraculous birth of Christ – a being comes into existence without the normal sexual reproduction.]

. . . The dialogue poem is, in fact, full of typological parallels between Isaac and Christ. Besides the one just mentioned, we find:
Abraham and Isaac :: the Father and His Word (stanzas 1, 49);
Barren Sarah’s birth of Isaac :: the virgin Mary’s birth of Christ (stanza 44);
Isaac carries the wood :: Christ carries the cross (stanzas 53-54);
The two young men :: the two thieves crucified with Christ (stanzas 10, 45);
Isaac ‘dies’ though alive :: Christ dies, though alive (stanza 44);
The sacrifice of Isaac :: the sacrifice of Christ (stanza 55);
The three days’ journey :: Christ’s three days in Sheol (stanza 34);
Sarah’s being comforted at Isaac’s return :: Mary’s being comforted at Christ’s resurrection (stanza 34);
The pyre :: the Holy Table (stanza 49).
What is remarkable about this list is the absence of any typological role given to the ram (apart from the oblique reference implied by stanzas 42 and 44). This contrasts with two other typological patterns to be found in early Christian literature: (1) the lamb/ram is a type for Christ (who is slain), whereas Isaac is a type for humanity (which is rescued); and (2) Isaac is a type for Christ’s divinity, untouched by death, whereas the lamb/ram is a type for his humanity, which suffers death.

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[Note that in the older Christian tradition the ram caught in the thicket was symbolic of Christ, while Isaac was symbolic  humanity needing to be saved from death.  Later tradition began to see Isaac as a type of Christ.  Below are some stanzas from one of the Syriac Poems in which we see some of the many parallels they saw between the Old Testament narrative of Abraham sacrificing Isaac and the Gospel story of the Messiah.

[Excerpted stanzas from The Poem]
1] … grant me that I may tell the tale
Of Abraham and Isaac who marked out between them
A type of the Father and the Son.

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6] Abraham: ‘… This is a hidden mystery,
Which those who love men cannot perceive.’
9] Abraham left the tent,
And Isaac mounted upon a donkey,
A type of the Son who rode the colt
As He entered Jerusalem.

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10] Abraham and Isaac travelled on the journey,
Taking with them two young men,
Just as Christ went up to the mountain,
Taking with him two stripped men.
13-14] Abraham…: ‘You, Lord, gave him to me, and now he is required by You;
Show me the place where I should sacrifice him.’
… ‘Blessed is the mystery which is being depicted in us!’
16] Abraham says, ‘There is the Lord
Who will provide the whole offering and the lamb,
And you will see it hanging by its horns
On a branch, without its having been conceived.’

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40] God: The death of your son is quite impotent
To deliver the Peoples from the curse:
My son shall come down, and He will be sacrificed
In the body He will put on from the womb.
42] God: You shall slaughter a lamb, and then descend.
Do not suppose that I have not accepted:
Look at the tree that was not planted,
It has produced a fruit that was not conceived.
44] The barren Sarah gave birth to a son
Who dies, though alive, being wrapped in a symbol.
Mary the virgin gave birth to a Son
Who dies though alive, being wrapped in glory.

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49] Abraham and Isaac his son were depicted
As a type of the Father and His Word,
And for the Church, the pyre became
The Holy Table, full of life.
50] The Son’s cross became a bridge
To the place of Life whereby the Peoples
Who have believed and do believe might cross over,
Since it was on our behalf that He tasted death.

(TREASURE-HOUSE OF MYSTERIES, pp 64-74)

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