Sure we’ve taken turns picking our character in the story of the prodigal son, but what about the father and son story in today’s first reading? (Here’s a link to this Second Sunday of Lent’s readings: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/030115.cfm)
I’m sure you’ve heard the homily that points out the significance and prefiguring of Isaac as Christ –the Father sacrificing his only Son to confirm a covenant. But you know, we don’t know too much about Isaac other than this story. We learn in the next few chapters in Genesis how a wife was found for him (Rebekah), and we see the story of his sons, Jacob and Esau, play out, but other than the fact that we know he related more to (or favored more) his son Esau over Jacob and that the Lord blessed him and made his work and possessions very profitable, we never see any “character development” as it were, in Isaac in the bible. He’s mainly a connector between Abraham and Jacob.
And yet he plays such an important role to our faith. It is because Abraham loves him and trusts God enough to sacrifice him, incredibly dear as he is, that God finds Abraham faithful enough to enact His promises. If there is no Isaac, there is no fulfillment of the promise.
It is a strange thing to be the one sacrificed, given away, by someone else so that they can be more faithful to God. I think that’s about as much as I can relate to Isaac. What can you do except calmly lay down your life and let them give you away?
But even though Isaac isn’t given much time in the limelight in the pages of scripture, we still hear the accolade in later generations of “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He’s still held up as one of the men with whom God made a covenant with His chosen people. There is nothing that Isaac does, or could ever do, to be deserving of being the one through whom God fulfills His promises.
I wonder if Isaac had any anxieties himself about being the one through whom God would carry out his plan. Did he have any struggles that his life wasn’t something amazing and noteworthy, that he wasn’t having an abundance of children either when he was supposed to be the fulfillment of this promise? And why did God let Rebekah in on the plan of letting Jacob inherit the blessing and birthright over Esau and not Isaac?
And then there is Abraham. It is probably all too easy to identify with Abraham, who is called into lots of sticky situations with no idea of where God is leading him or proof that God will fulfill His promises other than faith. A life of continual trials and tests and waiting on the Lord sounds a lot like mine if you ask me.
But something about this story struck me differently this time around. Before, I think, I would have been a little exasperated with God and questioned, “Haven’t you tested him enough? You’ve already given him Isaac, whom he waited so long for to begin with, why threaten to take him away now? That seems like an awfully mean trick…. And p.s., it’s a good thing Sarah didn’t find out about this until after the fact, if at all. Just sayin.’ It’s one thing for a father to give up his son, but it’s another thing for a mother to let go of her child.”
But this time, reading the whole passage through, Gen 22:1-18, and not skipping the parts that the lectionary leaves out, it was easier to see the story as a marker of Abraham’s faith journey and development as a person. Before he and Isaac reach the mountain, Isaac asks him about the sheep for the sacrifice, wondering where they are. Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust” (v8).
After the angel intervenes (spoiler alert) and instructs Abraham to sacrifice a wild ram nearby instead of Isaac, Abraham names the site “Yahweh-yireh,” meaning “the Lord will see,” or “the Lord will see to it,” referring to his earlier comments to Isaac that Lord would see to it that a proper sacrifice was provided.
To me these details show just how far Abraham has come on his faith journey. Even though he couldn’t see how God would still provide a nation of descendants through Isaac if Abraham killed him, he still knew and trusted God enough to obey his commands without questioning or hesitating. He is confident in his decision to do something that looks a lot like shooting himself in the foot (or heart) and trust that God will still make things right.
But Abraham was called to be the father of nations, to be the father of our faith. Who he was, not just what he did, was extremely important. If he is our preeminent father and leader of the faith, why would God not model him after Himself and call him to the same kind of faith and love and hope that God IS?
It is only after Abraham has become this person that God bestows these promises irrevocably. It is only after this experience that Abraham is ready to be a father of nations.
I know we don’t typically use this passage to examine ourselves, but I think it’s still a good marker of where we are in our own journey.
So who are you in this story?