God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a burnt offering on a height that I will point out to you.”
Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, took with him his son Isaac, and two of his servants as well,
and with the wood that he had cut for the burnt offering, set out for the place of which God had told him.
On the third day Abraham got sight of the place from afar.
Then he said to his servants: “Both of you stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go on over yonder.
We will worship and then come back to you.”
Thereupon Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac’s shoulders,
while he himself carried the fire and the knife.
As the two walked on together, Isaac spoke to his father Abraham:
“Father!” he said.
“Yes, son,” he replied.
Isaac continued, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
“Son,” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.”
Then the two continued going forward.
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. Next he tied up his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD’s messenger called to him from heaven,
“Here I am,” he answered.
“Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger. “Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
As Abraham looked about, he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So he went and took the ram
and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. Abraham named the site Yahweh-yireh;
hence people now say, “On the mountain the LORD will see.”
Again the LORD’s messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said:
“I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing—all this because you obeyed my command.”
The octagonal Florentine baptistery, built in the 11th-12th centuries, has three sets of immense doors decorated in bronze panels with biblical scenes. The first set of east doors (now on the south side) was created in 1329 by Andrea Pisano. In 1401 the cloth merchants’ guild of Florence announced a competition for the bronze panel designs on the east doors of the baptistery (now on the north), depicting scenes from the New Testament and images of the Church Fathers. Several artists competed and the young Lorenzo Ghiberti won the commission. It took him 21 years to complete the project and the exquisite artistry of the doors secured his reputation along with a commission to create the new east doors with scenes from the Old Testament, now known as the Gates of Paradise.
The finalists in the competition for the doors, Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, sculpted images of the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Brunelleschi would later go on to design the dome of the Florence Cathedral. The video below describes the competition and the design of the pieces by each artist.
In this sculpture by Ghiberti, Abraham stands at the center with his knife nearly at the throat of his beloved son, the child of his promise from God. Although he appears to be poised in mid-motion, the corner of his cloak is flung up behind his arm, revealing the violence of his action. The angel arrives at the last second, flying in from the upper right, calling his name to prevent him from completing his act of sacrifice.
Who can comprehend Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac? At first glance it seems unfathomable. Nevertheless, the faith that God calls us to must contain this element of complete and total surrender to His will. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard discusses Abraham’s action in his work “Fear and Trembling.”
“Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation does an individual become conscious of his eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.”
Through his sacrifice, Abraham becomes the model of one who surrenders to the will of God. The Lord had already told Abraham that he would make of him a great nation, so in sacrificing the fruit of that very promise Abraham was showing his trust and hope that God would still fulfill his promise.
For Christians, the sacrifice of Isaac is also a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice of God’s son on the cross for humanity. We read that Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain, just as Christ carried the cross of his crucifixion up to Calvary. God himself undertook the very sacrifice of his son that he prevented Abraham from completing. The sacrifice of Jesus by God is done out of his love for humanity. This was a once and for all sacrifice that changed the destiny of humankind, making us all the beloved children of the promise.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son, confident that God’s promise would be fulfilled. What am I willing to sacrifice?