Reflections on the Sacrifice of Issac

In time for Holy Week, a reflection on the Old Testament story, the Sacrifice of Issac, inspired by Meditations on Vatican Art, Mark Haydu.

Sacrifice of Isaac, Attributed to Ludovico Carracci, 1555-1619, Vatican Museums

I have never really reflected on the first commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me.” Reading Strange Gods, by Elizabeth Scalia, has opened my awareness of how this commandment, and the breaking of this commandment is part of every moment of our lives, since the worship of God (pray without ceasing) is part of every moment of our lives.

I’ll bet that, if you are a Christian, no matter how faithful you are there are Bible stories that perplex you. This morning I attempted to pray using Meditations on Vatican Art by Mark Haydu. Today’s meditation focused on The Sacrifice of Issac by Carracci. This is the story that I continue to approach with confusion. I could accept it with faith, but it never fully made sense.

Here the pieces came together. Inspired by Greydanus’ review and reflections on the controversial movie Noah, I came to a appreciate in a deeper way the development of our understanding of God. God revealed himself gradually to the Israelite people. Noah, as portrayed in the movie, did not always understand God and how to carry out his will. But he was righteous in that he did all he could to fulfill God’s will, even if it is was a mistaken interpretation.

God asks Abraham to show he will not put his progeny before God. What are all one’s accumulations, in this time and culture, if you cannot pass it on through an inheritance? Abraham is nothing without a proper heir, yet God asks Abraham to show that God has primacy in his life. Is he willing to sacrifice his only son, his own hope for a future, a possible idol? Perhaps it is an idol of self because it would be the carrying on his glory into a next generation.

Second, perhaps God asks Abraham to sacrifice the idol of prosperity. But not prosperity in the sense of accumulated things, rather the idol that we make of God when we look to God to be our personal candy machine. I will love you if you give me this, if you provide for me the things I believe I need to have. This is a strong American ethic, if I understand correctly, a common Protestant ethic (I’m not an expert on that) and comes from a strong Jewish ethic. That devotion will be rewarded, in some measure, in this life. God asks Abraham to cut that away and be faithful to God as God, not the God who gave him all he ever wanted. Will he love God when even that is stripped away? The same question was put to Job.

But God is faithful to himself. God never changes even though he reveals himself gradually to us. Isn’t it common, when we first experience conversion, giving our heart to Christ, to have an overwhelming sense of joy? It is only later when the spiritual honeymoon has settled that we encounter the cross again, strengthened by what God gave us. Even though he did shower joy in this life on us, that is a gradual revelation of his constant goodness. He never was the candy store even though we might have interpreted it that way.

So even though God asks Abraham to kill his only son, he stops him. God does not want parents to kill their children. He stays Abraham’s hand, though the word of an angel. He put Abraham to the test.

We will be put to the test. Our children will stray. Are we willing to face God as the one true God, putting aside idols we may have accumulated in our chapel? Facing God with empty hands, will we remember our children are “on loan”? What a terrible place that is, to have to learn that lesson, and we must learn it again and again. Every parent faces this cross, gradually or acutely.

God wants us to do all we can to protect our children. Yet, the reminder that “God works all things for those who love him” reminds me that he will take the terrible situations we face as parents as opportunities to affirm our devotion to God and that we should have no strange gods before him.