This pericope describes the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. This is an example of ontology where the old is revealed by the New and the New is hidden in the Old.[1] This essay will explore some of the theological themes present in the text, reveal some of the meaning in Jesus’s own sacrifice on the cross and its relevance in the liturgy of the Mass.

This passage is late in Abraham’s life so a little background on him is important to put the passage into context. Abram, as he was previously known, was called out of obscurity in Haran to go on a journey into the unknown. God made three covenantal promises to him: to make Abram into a great nation, to make his name great and that he would be a blessing.[2]  Abram had faith that the Lord would keep His promise but had difficulty in understanding how if he had no son and heir. He strayed from God’s will by finding an alternative solution, sleeping with Sarai’s maidservant. After this episode God renews His covenant with Abram and renames him Abraham reiterating the same covenantal promises. Shortly after Abraham is visited by three men who promise that he and Sarah will have a son even though they’re both old. Isaac is born a year later and is the only son of Abraham and Sarah; he is Abraham’s hope and only beloved son through whom God’s promises will be fulfilled. [3]  The phrase “only begotten” is one word in Greek monogenes, a translation of the Hebrew word Yahid which means “one and only”. A rare word in scripture, yet it is used three times in Genesis 22 to describe Isaac.[4] This rare word is later used by Jesus to describe himself when talking to Nicodemus in the Gospel of John.[5] The author of John’s Gospel is revealing Jesus as a New Isaac.

Now God tells Abraham to take his only begotten son and go to the land of Moriah, to a mountain, and offer him as a sacrifice. It can conjure up images of Abraham overpowering his five-year-old son, tossing him cruelly onto the logs before dispatching him with a sacrificial knife. Biblical child abuse of the worst kind! However, reading the text more carefully we see the wood is carried by Isaac.[6]  Clearly Isaac is not five years old. We see an old man and Isaac who is a teenager or older. Therefore, when Isaac is bound and placed on the altar he must have cooperated in some way. Isaac as a young man capable of carrying heavy wood, sufficient to build a sacrificial fire, up a mountain surely could have easily overpowered his old mad father and saved his life. This Isaac freely accepted this death and entered willingly into the sacrifice. At the very least he trusted his father enough to be bound and placed on the wood to be sacrificed.[7] In Eucharistic Prayer one the priest cites this sacrifice, a holy sacrifice with a spotless victim, and asks the holy angels to bring our offering to God’s presence so that we, through receiving the body and blood of Jesus, are filled with every grace and blessing.[8]

When Isaac asks, “where is the lamb?” Abraham replies that God Himself will provide the Lamb for the sacrifice that day; the day will come however when God provides Himself as the sacrificial lamb.[9] Abraham’s prophecy is fulfilled right there as a ram found caught in a thicket. The deeper meaning will be fulfilled on the same spot some two thousand years later when Jesus would undergo the same sacrifice to save humanity from sin and death. God was saying “Are you willing to undergo the kind of sacrifice I will have to undergo?” Isaac and Abraham walk quietly and obediently up Mount Moriah, stand before God, and say “yes.”

God is so moved that he reaffirms His covenant promise to Abraham. “Your offspring will be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and shall possess the gate of your enemies and that through them all nations shall be blessed.”[10] The word offspring here can mean child or children. It can be singular or plural. The meaning could refer to all Abraham’s descendants or to one specific descendant. Blessing is to come to all the nations through Abraham’s descendants, Israel, and the greatest blessing through one descendent, Jesus Christ. Through this offspring will come the New Everlasting Covenant and God’s Holy Spirit which is the greatest blessing humanity can enjoy.[11]

The mountain Abraham and Isaac climb would later be called Mount Moriah, the location that Solomon chose to build the temple which itself was in sight of Calvary. It is the same mountain, or at least mountain range, where Jesus is crucified.[12] Jesus carries the wooden cross up the same mountain. Like Isaac, he freely accepts death. Jesus, however, is the lamb provided by God.

Jewish religious leaders considered the question “Why did the sacrifice of animals in the ancient temple cause God to forgive sins?”  Even the Old Testament says that, by itself, the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins.[13]  The Jewish tradition concluded that the sacrifices got their power from the near sacrifice of Isaac, from Abraham’s obedient consent to the death of his only begotten son and Isaac’s willingness to die out of obedience and love. These things have value in God’s eyes. Some Rabbis even taught that animal sacrifices were a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Isaac.[14] The Holy Mass re-presents the sacrifice of Jesus, the perfect lamb that God provided to rescue Isaac and in turn us so we can experience every grace and heavenly blessing.

In conclusion the sacrifice of Isaac foreshadows the sacrifice of Jesus. Isaac is Abraham’s only begotten son as Jesus is the Father’s only begotten son. Jesus willingly carries the wood up the same mountain as Isaac. God provides a ram to Abraham to save Isaac from a premature death, and later himself, Jesus, to save us all from death. Abraham is promised to become a great nation, to have a great name and that through his offspring all nations will be blessed. Abraham is the ancestor of Moses, King David, the ancient Israelite nation, and Jesus. Through the sacrifice of his offspring Jesus, we have all been blessed with purity before God and eternal life. As the sacrifice of Isaac was re-presented for the Jews during animal sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins so Jesus is re-presented for us at Holy Mass.

[1] Second Vatican Council. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum (18 November 1965). In A Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II, Vol. 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents. Northport, NY. 1975. 16

[2] John Bergsma, Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2012), 46

[3] Gen 16,1–18,15

[4] Bergsma, Bible Basics for Catholics, Pg 54-55

[5] John 3,16

[6] Gen 22,2-6

[7] Scott Hann, A Father who keeps His Promises (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 1998), Pg106-108

[8] Edward Sri, A Biblical Walk Through The Mass – Understanding What We Say and Do in the Liturgy (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2011), Pg118-119

[9] Hann, A Father who keeps His Promises, Pg109-110

[10] Gen 22,15-18

[11] Bergsma, Bible Basics for Catholics, Pg 57

[12] Hann, A Father who keeps His Promises, Pg108

[13] E.g., Is 1,11; Is 66,3; Ps 50,8-13

[14] Bergsma, Bible Basics for Catholics, Pg 59; Hann, Kinship by Covenant, Pg 124-125