Today’s reading from Genesis relates the account of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham’s faithfulness to God’s command, and God’s reprieve of Isaac and substitution of another sacrifice. This account is so powerful that it evokes many interpretations. Some readers focus on the passage’s probable original use as a warning to the Hebrews against the ancient practice of child sacrifice. Other readers are simply overwhelmed with shock by the idea that God would command the death of a child, even if the child is eventually spared. Still others see this primarily as a symbolic foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus as a substitute for human sin.
This is much too rich a passage to yield any single interpretation, but one approach that might be useful is to focus on Abraham’s trust in God. In being commanded to offer Isaac, the child of promise, Abraham is – in a way that is somewhat different from our contemporary understanding – being called to offer up his own life. Abraham is being called to offer up his future, and his past. His existence, and the reason for his existence. All his hope. Given the improbability of Isaac’s birth, Abraham has no alternative meaning. He has no backup plan.
God calls Abraham to risk everything he has – and ever might have – in trust that there is a Divine meaning. As the selection from Hebrews makes more clear, this is the essence and definition of faith in God. This possibility of giving our life to God’s meaning and purpose is the same call we all receive. Faith consists of placing all our hope in the God who does the impossible act of redeeming our existence.