In the Episcopal Church we have four Bible readings each Sunday. Typically there’s an Old Testament Reading, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles, and a Gospel lesson, in that order, though occasionally there’s some variation on that pattern. Today’s Old Testament reading was the story of Abraham and Isaac, as found in Genesis 22. The pastor chose instead to preach a sermon about the Gospel reading, which was the passage from Matthew where Jesus says “Whoever gives a cup of water to one of these little ones will not lose his reward.” Perhaps this is not too surprising, given that the Matthew passage fits into warm and fuzzy, feel-good theology much better than the Genesis one.
The story of Abraham almost-but-not-quite sacrificing Isaac should not be brushed aside, though. It remains one of the most famous and talked-about tales from Genesis, probably third behind the Creation and Noah’s Ark. That picture of a man almost-but-not-quite plunging a knife into his only son has a way of gripping the mind. As with with any Bible story, this one has been subject to multiple interpretations over the years.
The Straightforward Interpretation: God wanted to test Abraham’s faith, so he told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Once Abraham had made an altar, stacked wood on it, bound Isaac, put him on the altar, and taken the knife in hand, God was satisfied that Abraham was faithful to His commands, at which point he called off the sacrifice. This is probably the oldest interpretation and may be still common among the Orthodox Jews and perhaps some of the more rigid Calvinist-style Christians. It would make atheists shout with glee and would make most people in a modern-day Episcopal Church feel rather queasy.
The Symbolic Lesson about Sin: Isaac, like any human born under original sin, deserved death for his sins, and hence it would have been just if the sacrifice had gone forward. It was only God’s mercy in providing a ram as a substitute that saved him. The symbolism is clear enough. This interpretation may not jive with most modern folk much better than the last one, however. We don’t like hearing about sacrifice very much these days, nor about original sin and the need for redemption. If we can skip the sin and sacrifice and get straight to the redemption, that tends to make us happier. However, if original sin is in fact a fact, it would be worthy to remember it more, as denying it can accomplish nothing.
The Prophecy Interpretation: Isaac serves as a type of Christ. First, he carries the wood up to the altar for his own sacrifice, just as Christ carried the cross. Second, only Abraham and Isaac were aware that a scarifice was taking place while the servants were left in the dark, just as only Christ and God the Father knew what was taking place on Calvary. The two episodes diverge at the final moment, when Abraham is not required to actually sacrifice his son, while God the Father does sacrifice Christ. This interpretation is a godsend (ahem) for those who would like to elide around thorny questions such as whether the event actually took place and how we should feel about it. However, if we are to believe that the Old Testament prefigures and ‘makes the way straight’ for the New Testament then it is an interpretation well worth considering.
A Different Interpretation: I first heard this on an internet message board and I’m still not quite sure what I think about. The basic thesis is that even as Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac he was aware that God wouldn’t actually order him to do it. Consequently he remained alert, listening for God’s voice, even as he took up the knife, and heard God’s word interceding to prevent the event. Thus it becomes God’s way of saying: “If you ever hear someone asking for a human sacrifice, or think you hear someone asking for it, or get any inkling that somebody desires a human sacrifice, it’s not me!”