What We Can Learn from the Sacrifice of Isaac

This is adapted from a final I turned in yesterday which examined the difference between obeying the letter and spirit of the law in a number of contexts. The term “telos” means “purpose or end,” so when I refer to the “teleological role of the law,” I’m referring to the function which the law has. That is, the law exists for a reason, and we should work to understand what that reason is.

In Genesis 22:1-19, we are told that (Gen 22:1) “God tested Abraham,” by telling him (Gen 22:2), “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
The request is a surprising one, in that God had previously promised Abraham in Gen. 17:19, “your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.” Fulfillment of this command would seeming violate, not only basic moral and ethical conduct, but also God’s own promise.

Nevertheless, the next morning, Abraham, Isaac, and two servants travelled towards Moriah. “On the third day,” (Gen 22:4), Abraham instructed the servants (Gen. 22:5), “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” When Isaac notices that his father does not have an animal sacrifice, he asks about it, to which Abraham replies (Gen. 22:8), “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Together, the two arrived at Moriah, at which point (Gen 22:9b-13):

Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

This Old Testament passage is of great significance to both Jewish and Christian believers and thinkers. Two sets of responses to the passage are particularly instructive in thinking about the teleological role of the law, since as a direct command from God, the order to kill Isaac constitutes “law” of some kind. The first is the New Testament exegesis of the passage.

The most explicit and extensive New Testament analysis of the passage comes in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which says that (Hebrews 11:17-19):

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him [Gen. 21:12], “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.

Other passages of the Old and New Testament also signal the importance of this as a mere test of faith, including Genesis 22:1 itself. The important part of God’s command to Abraham, then, is teleological. Abraham is not literally expected to comply with the law, and is in fact forbidden from doing so when he attempts to. But God’s “legislative intent” is something beyond what is grasped by mere textual literalism.

This interpretation is part of a deeper strain of teleological interpretation of Old Testament law by Christian thinkers. This passage is understood as a foreshadowing of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. For example, Isaac is described as Abraham’s only son [despite having another biological son, Ishmael], which seems to foreshadow Jesus as the Father’s only begotten, or “one and only” Son (John 3:16). Abraham says that “God Himself will provide the Lamb,” and Christ is described by John the Baptist as (John 1:29) “the Lamb of God,” and by St. Thomas as God Himself (John 20:28). Even the reference to “the third day” is understood as Christological as well, reflecting the length from the Death to Resurrection of Christ.

Since Abraham tells the servants that “we” will return, and since he trusts God to carry through His promise to provide a covenant through Isaac, Abraham is trusting that contrary to all the available data, Isaac will somehow be both slain and alive to come down the mountain. This contradiction permits of no real solution short of a physical resurrection of Isaac, a fact which Christians pointed to as an early Christological prefigurement. Finally, as the passage from Hebrews indicated, the fact that Isaac seemed to be dead yet was figuratively brought back to life was seen as a prefigurement of the actual Death and Resurrection of Christ. From the perspective of jurisprudence, the significance is heavily teleological. Isaac need not actually die, and the Law need not actually be performed to be fulfilled, because the purpose of the Law is something other than literal fulfillment.

1 Comment

  1. Hmm. I would also observe that this — and passing over the firstborn in Egypt — is also explicitly repudiating the sacrifice of children.

    Given that it was sacrificing children to Moloch that brought on the Babylonian captivity, perhaps it was to underscore it.

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