Notes on Genesis (x)
‘Take now your beloved son Isaac…and offer him there as a whole burnt offering’ (Gen 22:2)
The story of the ‘testing’ of Abraham by God has elicited a great deal of comment. Some of it occurs in the New Testament, where Abraham, in his preparedness to sacrifice his son, was seen to demonstrate implicit faith in the resurrection (Heb 11:17-19) and to have been justified by works (Jas 2:21). But Patristic commentary takes another tack, according to which the ‘beloved son’ (I think this is the first mention of love in Genesis) represents Christ (note the recurrence of the expression at Matt 3:17), and Abraham, in his willingness to sacrifice him (Gen 22:3), the Father. The third day on which Abraham saw Mt Moriah (22:4) stands for the day of the resurrection, and the mountain itself Calvary; Isaac carrying the wood (22:6) Christ carrying the Cross; the ram that was substituted for Isaac (22:13) Christ seen as the sacrificial Lamb of God. So the tradition of reflection on this narrative is able to connect its disparate elements with a single, central part of the New Testament, and furnishes an excellent example of the basic principle of allegorical interpretation: rather than being purely random, it interprets things of some importance in the light of other things of greater importance.
Having said this, the very difficult literal sense remains. This is a frightening story. Jewish commentators refer to ‘a terrible intensity, a story which is so stark as to be almost unbearable’ (Everett Fox); ‘[t]he abrupt beginning and stark, emotion-fraught development of this troubling story have led many critics to celebrate it as one of the peaks of ancient narrative.’ (Robert Alter)
The passage occurs precisely half way through Genesis. Its positioning may be of no importance, given that Genesis seems to have been the work of more than one author, and even of it was the work of a single author there need have been no significance in the placement of the passage right in the middle. But the restatement of the promise of Gen. 15:5 in far stronger terms that immediately follows it (22:17f) suggests that it is a turning point. And the tradition of interpreting Isaac as Christ authorizes Augustine’s comment on the statement that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in Abraham’s seed: ‘His seed is Christ.’