February 25, 2018
Since the days of movies there have been sword and sandal flicks about Moses and David and any number of minor characters from the Old Testament. Abraham? Not so much. And this is really too bad because, Abraham is the ancestor of all the Jews and, as the liturgy calls him, our father in the faith.
As far as we know, Abraham is the first-ever monotheist, the first to shed the burden of a pantheon. So unimaginable was that concept in the ancient world that monotheism was to remain the defining dogma of the Jews alone until the middle of the fourth century (in the West) and of the seventh century in the Middle East. Even today, polytheism is the religious flavor of huge segments of the world. Even the Jews could not imagine how he could have come to this notion apart from divine intervention – a revelation, a covenant. It is to this covenant that the Liturgy for the second Sunday of Lent directs our attention; and in a most striking way.
If the covenant with Noah was irenic and universal the covenant with Abraham was absolutely lavish, even if more focused in the choice of a single partner – a land to live on, children to inherit it and a role as the bearer of blessings to every people who would accept the meaning of life in a world of one God only. As if to underline the divinity of the source of this revelation, we are told the story of the binding of Isaac. Scholars tell us that this is not a story about the bloody-mindedness of the God of Israel. But it is a reminder to Abraham and all who read it that the work of God does not depend in any way upon anything that he has ever done before. He can make a covenant with Abraham and remain the keeper of that covenant even if the promised son and heir is taken away!
There is nothing particularly odd about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son – this was pretty common behavior amongst his neighbors. But the graciousness and mercy of the one God who rejects the idea of human sacrifice is utterly novel!
This is the facet of the covenant with Abraham that Paul will seize on to explain how it is that the work of the God of Israel can become something for the gentiles to hope in, even though they have not previously believed in that one God.
Other Christian writers have seen in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac a kind of per-figurement of God’s willingness to sacrifice his Son; or, in the replacement of Isaac with a ram, a “type” of the Lamb of God.
In these days, I cannot help wondering what idol is worshipped in a country where children are sacrificed so that their parents can maintain constitutional rights to freedom of choice or to bear arms. How can it be unclear that freedom must also mean the right and the – sometimes – obligation to forego a right or its exercise lest it become just a new form of enslavement for someone else?
Really and truly and worriedly yours,