|Mount Moriah as it is today|
When I was about nine or ten, I piously set out to try and read the entire Bible. I spent late nights with a flashlight in my bedroom closet carefully reading from the very beginning. Instead of being an exercise in piety, it turned out to be quite a traumatic event.
The sex and violence of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, peaked my young curiosity but also shocked me to the core. I was young and innocent and the stories I read seemed dirty and terrible. I was amazed that this holy book was full of people who did such terrible things. Needless to say, I eventually gave up the project.
As I grew older, I continued to approach Scripture, and God, with distrust. My family had multiple discussions about various Old Testament stories at the dinner table and I would inevitably end up pounding my fist on the table and yelling, “If this is the kind of God you want me to believe then forget it!”
On my recent trip to the Holy Land, God held out His hand to me and invited me to explore Scripture with greater depth and an ever more trusting heart. Our leader, Tim Gray, infused each teaching on our trip with explanation of Scripture, to help us understand the God of salvation history. One day that particularly helped me to reevaluate my immature evaluations of some Scripture stories was the day we made our way up Mount Moriah.
Mount Moriah, which is also known as the Temple Mount, because it is the location of the ruins of the Jewish Temple, is a place central to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith. In the Jewish Talmud, the area of Mount Moriah is said to be the center of the world, the place near where Adam was created by God, where Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending a ladder and where the first Temple was built by Solomon. Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended from Mount Moriah, and interestingly, Muslims used to face Mount Moriah in prayer before Muhammad instructed them to change to Mecca. And Christians of course, share the same pivotal events with Judaism until the split of Christianity and Judaism a number of years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
One event that took place on Mount Moriah that is important to all three major religions is when God asks Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him, (Muslims, however, believe it was Ishmael that Abraham almost sacrificed, not Isaac). The story of Abraham and Isaac has always baffled me, and filled me with questions. I think this story has that effect on many people. As one non-practicing Jewish friend said to me when he found out I was converting to Christianity, “But what about God asking Abraham to kill his son – what is up with that?!?” I remember thinking, “Ya, what is up with that?” However, after my conversion, I am able to live with questions like these, knowing God will answer them in His own time.
Mount Moriah now includes the ruins of the Jewish Temple, destroyed in 70AD. In the spot where many believe used to be the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple is a Muslim mosque built around the Foundation Stone, the stone where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. It was here that Tim began to explain to us the significance of the story of Abraham for our faith.
When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, it is impossible to have an understanding of this request outside of the context of the entire story of Abraham. God reaches out to Abraham, telling him that his descendents will be more numerous than the stars. Abraham, after not conceiving with his wife Sarah, takes a concubine Hagar at his wife’s insistence and she conceives a son Ishmael. As Tim points out in his book, Walking with God, oftentimes the Old Testament does not explicitly condemn the actions of its major players but rather indicates when immoral action has taken place in more subtle ways. After Abraham takes Hagar as his concubine, God is silent for seventeen years, indicating His displeasure at the lack of trust on Abraham’s part.
God finally makes Himself felt again in Abraham’s life and makes another covenant with him, this time explicitly telling him that his son will come from his wife Sarah, even though she is very old. As a sign of this covenant, Abraham must circumcise himself and his descendents. This circumcision is a sign of this covenant with God but also Abraham’s punishment for his sin of the flesh.
After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, she convinces Abraham to send his concubine Hagar and his other son Ishmael into the desert. Abraham sends them away with little provisions, although he knew they would most likely die. So, when God tells Abraham to bring his “son Isaac, your only one, whom you love” to the mountain, God is telling Abraham that He has seen Abraham basically killing his son Ishmael and that it will not go unpunished. Abraham, knowing he has done what is evil in God’s eyes, accepts the punishment of God without complaint.
Abraham, a man who has grown to have a great faith, believes that God will keep His covenant and give him many descendants through his son Isaac. As Hebrews 11:19 tells us, Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead if he so chose. By this point in Abraham’s life, he is well aware of the justice and mercy of God and he knows that whatever God asks is just and right, even if it is difficult to understand.
Popular culture imagines Isaac as a young, innocent child who did not know what was going on as his father leads him to his death but early rabbinic literature portrays him as a young man who willingly and knowingly went with his father to obey God’s command. This is not certain, but we do know that Isaac was old enough and strong enough to carry the wood for the sacrifice and it seems he did not fight against his father, who could have been easily overpowered in his old age.
On the way up the hill, Isaac asks his father where the lamb is for sacrifice, and Abraham responds that God will provide a lamb. In the end, at the moment when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, a ram appears. That’s right, a ram, not a lamb. Abraham sacrifices the ram to God and calls the place YHWH yireh in Hebrew, meaning literally “God will see to it.” Abraham uses the future tense because he recognizes that God has provided a ram, but the lamb of God is still to come. Isaac’s question, “Where is the lamb?” will continue to echo throughout time until the arrival of Jesus.
Many years later King Solomon will build a Temple on this same mountain, where every morning and evening a lamb will be sacrificed to God, a reminder that He has yet to provide a lamb for the final atoning sacrifice for all sin. God, seeing that justice demands a sacrifice for the many sins of humanity, sends his own Beloved Son to be this sacrificial lamb out of His great love for us. John the Baptist will recognize this lamb when he says to his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” at seeing Jesus walk by. Jesus, the only, loved Son of the Father, (as Isaac was for Abraham), will die a stone’s throw from Mount Moriah at the very hour when lambs were sacrificed in the Temple. As Scripture tells us, not a bone was broken in Jesus’ body, as the bones of sacrificial lambs could not be broken.
In the death of Jesus for our sins and in the story of Abraham and Isaac, God shows us that love and justice cannot be divorced from each other. There must be atonement for our sins, because God is just. So, God sends His own Son to die in our place, because God is love. Sometimes, in our modern culture, we have a tendency to focus on what we think is God’s love (which is more often our excuses for doing what we want) and to forget about God’s justice. This is often behind excuses for not going to mass on Sunday, for not attending confession and for generally not living lives focused on God. “Oh, God will forgive me,” we say nonchalantly. However, God shows us in the story of Abraham that none of our actions are without consequences, natural or divine. Our God is a merciful God, but that does not mean He cannot deny the very reality of who He is – both Truth and Love.
If God was all love and mercy and no justice, there would have been no need for the death of His Son.
So, where does this leave us?
The incident of Abraham and Isaac is still not resolved completely in my mind and it most likely is not in yours either. I don’t think it is a story that can be neatly resolved and tucked away. But that may be just what God wants. St. John of the Cross calls God, the "God beyond all knowing." And maybe that is important to remember in maintaining a healthy fear of God, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11.
How should we fear God?
I think Abraham gives us a good example of someone who falls repeatedly but keeps getting up, trying his best to please God. Fear of God should not be a pathetic trembling before a slave master but a sincere desire to please our Father who always knows better than we do.
Dear God, help us to understand that your will for us is always best even if we do not understand. Help us to follow your will out of love and a healthy fear that motivates us to do what God wills in our life.