Cherry-picking, prior to me taking philosophy courses, was a term I associated with a fun fruit activity aimed at selecting delectable berries from an orchard on a warm summer afternoon. I have since learned that words contain a slew of meaning and context is everything in determining the meaning and authorial intention of a particular passage in a fiction or non-fiction work. The same may be said about cherry-picking evidence to build up the Scriptures or to tear them down. Between the erroneous stances of biblical fundamentalism [taking everything literally to be true] and modernism which jettisons truth from the Scriptures is the middle ground of the Catholic interpretation of the Bible.
Each of my previous works in the Why Catholic Must Have Bible A.D.D. series I stress the importance of reading the Old Testament and the New Testament as a whole instead of fragmenting and pitting passages against one another. The Old Testament prepares the way for the New Testament and the New Testament perfects the Old Testament. Today I want to tackle a commonly misunderstood and difficult text to reconcile with the Christian faith—Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac. I will look at contextual evidence within the book of Genesis in the chapters leading up to this troublesome event, evidence from the New Testament, and interpretations from Catholic Church Tradition on how to understanding the meaning of Genesis 22:1-19.
Before I begin with my analysis I will briefly outline Genesis 22:1-19 [traditionally referred to as the Akedah or binding of Isaac]. Genesis 22 starts with God testing Abraham. He charges the patriarch to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and “offer him there as a burnt offering”. Interestingly Abraham does not argue with God’s command [I will explain why I think this in the case in my analysis soon]! Arriving at the sacrificial site on the mountain Abraham raises his dagger and is just about ready to slay Isaac as an offering when the angel of the Lord intervenes. God saves the day by sending a ram caught in a thicket to be the substitute sacrifice in place of Isaac. Countless unbelievers find this passage deeply troubling and even Christians themselves struggle with reconciling Abraham’s faith with his willingness to kill his son. I too wrestled with the binding of Isaac until I discovered the following information.
1. Contextual Clues in the Chapters Leading Up to the Binding of Isaac: Randomly opening up the Old Testament and reading Genesis 18 really opened my eyes to the mysterious test God gave Abraham four chapters later.
a. Promise Not Meant to be Broken: Chapter 18 begins with a son [Isaac] being promised to Abraham and Sarah. This was a miraculous birth due to the elderly status of the couple. Sarah was thought to be barren so she laughed at the claim delivered by the angels. Because of this, the baby name was Isaac whose name means “laughter”. God does not make promises only to break them. Viewing the test of Abraham in light of the birth of Isaac is evidence that Isaac’s life was never in jeopardy.
b. Abraham tests God: The second half of chapter 18 sets the stage for God’s test of Abraham. Less than a chapter before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham fervently appeals to God to spare the sinful city of Sodom. Almost defiantly Abraham questions God, “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there were fifty righteous people in the city; would you really sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike! Far be it from you! Should not the judge of all the world do what is just?” (Genesis 18:23-25). God replies, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city I will spare the whole place for their sake” (Genesis 18:26). Abraham continues his interrogation of God with the same question substituting a smaller number of people from 45, 40, 30, 20, and eventually a mere 10 hypothetical righteous people. God answer remains the same. Despite the vengeful power of God his mercy always accompanies his judgment!
c. God’s test not arbitrary: Re-reading Genesis 22:1-19 I now see that God’s test to Abraham is not simply a game that he is playing with his son Isaac. Our faith is increased through testing but God already hinted at the outcome of the binding of Isaac through his merciful response to Abraham’s interrogation in Genesis 18.
2. Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross: Reading the binding of Isaac within the greater context of Genesis helps us understand the purpose of the event but the fullness of this test is not revealed until the Crucifixion of Jesus on the Cross. Cardinal Jean Danielou in his masterful work From Shadows to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers, spends a chapters on the binding of Isaac viewed through a typological purview. The early church interpreted the akedah of Isaac as a prefiguration of Jesus’ death on the cross.
a. Ram as Sacrifice: The ram caught in the briar thicket is a type of sacrifice that foreshadows Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb. According to St. Augustine, “What does this [ram caught in thorns] prefigure, if not that Jesus, before being sacrificed, was crowned with thorns?” (From Shadows to Reality p. 127).
b. Way of the Cross: Isaac like Jesus both carry the wood [of the cross] on the journey to the sacrificial site [which was both on a mountain!].
c. Miraculous births and innocent victims: Another connection I noticed between Isaac and Jesus is their conception is considered miraculous. Sarah laughed at the absurdity of being pregnant since she was considered too old and barren to conceive. Mary was on the other side of the spectrum. As a young woman she conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit and was likewise surprised by the angel’s news (see Luke 1:34).
3. Tradition of the Catholic Church: The early Church Fathers viewed the New Testament events as fulfilling the Old Testament type. According to St. Athanasius, “When Abraham offered his son her adored the Son of God, and when he was forbidden to offer Isaac, he saw in the lamb Christ who was offered to God” (From Shadows to Reality p. 129). Theodoret also recognized the reality hidden in Genesis 22 when he said, “All these were shadows of the economy of our salvation. The Father offered his well-beloved Son for the world. Isaac typified the divinity; the ram the humanity: even the length of time is the same in both cases, three days and three nights” (From Shadows to Reality p. 130). Cardinal Danielou states that specifically the birth and sacrifice of Isaac foreshadow the fullness of the Incarnation in the New Testament ((From Shadows to Reality p 121).
I have only been satisfied with the meaning of the Akedah of Isaac when viewed in light of the interpretative key of Jesus’ sacrificial death. Noticing Abraham’s testing of God in Genesis 18 and the mercy of God helped me better understand that God does not make promises simply to break them. I hope that you have found this topic enlightening and I encourage you to continue to question seemingly problematic texts and seek guidance from the Holy Spirit and the tradition of the Catholic Church!