The Story of Salvation; Abraham and Isaac 


By Charles Johnston:

My last article in this series focused on the life of Abraham (that post can be found Here), and this post could’ve been included as part of Abraham’s story, but it was running long and so I’m making this its own post.

(See Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 145-147 for a detailed treatment on the faith of Abraham)

Abraham and Hagar 

Several times in Genesis, Abraham is promised an heir by God. Abraham is told he’ll have a son, and that son will have descendants more numerous than sand on the sea shore.

After years of waiting, Abraham and Sarah decide to take God’s timing into their own hands, and Abraham has a son with Sarah’s slave, Hagar.

“Now Sar’ai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar; and Sar’ai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my maid; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sar’ai. So, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, Sar’ai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. And Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ish’mael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ish’mael to Abram.” (Genesis 16:1-3,15-16)

Sarah and Abraham jumped the gun, so to speak, and decided that God must’ve meant He was going to give Abraham a son through Hagar. But what they failed to realize, and hindsight is always 20/20, was that God could give them a son at anytime, but was waiting until it was beyond a natural possibility for Sarah to bear a child.

By going with what they thought was right, rather than waiting on God, they set up their descendants for lots of strife. Ishmael is not the son of promise to Abraham, but God makes him a great nation anyway, and his descendants become the Ishmaelites and later called Arabs.

Birth of Isaac 

“The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.” (Genesis 21:1-5)

Sarah was around 90 years old by the time Isaac was born, having a baby this late in life proved that it was of a miraculous nature. St. Paul points this out in his letter to the Galations, he says that God allowed the birth of Ishmael through a slave and Isaac through a free woman, as an allegory to being slave to the law and being free through grace.

“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia;she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” (Galations 4:22-26)

Testing of Abraham 

After the birth of Isaac, God tests Abraham’s faith. Twice before, Abraham had lied when asked if Sarah was his wife, and he also took matters into his own hands with Hagar. He wasn’t without fault, but he was a righteous man, as St. Paul said, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Why did God test Abraham, after years of being a faithful servant? Sometimes nothing strengthens your faith as much as having it tested. Many Christian refugees from places like Syria and Iraq, or Christians that survived gulags in communist countries, will tell you that their faith wasn’t as strong going into their hardship as it was on the other side of it.

A faith tested is a faith strengthened. Remember what Jesus said in the gospel of John;

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  (John 12:24)

He was speaking of His own death and resurrection, but the words applied to His disciples, and even to us too, that we must die to ourselves. And any parent will tell you that their children are more precious to them than even their own lives, so what better way to test, and strengthen, someone’s faith and trust in God than through his child that he waited 100 years for.

The test

The testing of Abraham takes place over the entire 22nd chapter of Genesis, I’d like to take it a few verses at a time:

“After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, ” Here am I.” (Genesis 22:1)

When God calls out to Abraham he answers “here I am.” That’s the same way Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah answered God when He called them. It shows a willingness to do God’s will.

When God calls you, do you answer “here I am”? Or do you try to ignore God or even run away like Jonah? I myself ran from God when He called me to commit myself to joining His Church, and submitting my life to its authority. I fought and fought, but God is relentless, and just this year I was received into full communion with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. And I couldn’t be happier. Submitting to the will of God is the epitome of freedom, when living in His will you’re more free than when you run away!

I pray that the next time God calls out to me, or to you, we’ll answer with an enthusiastic “here I am.”

He said, “Take your son, your only-begotten son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori’ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off.Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.”

(Genesis 22:2-5)

Abraham had seen God do great things, not the least of which was allowing a 100 year old man and his 90 year old wife have a healthy baby. That itself is amazing, so when God says to take his “only begotten son” (sound familiar?) and sacrifice him as a burnt offering he complies without hesitation.

Why is that? Near eastern people were known to sacrifice children to their pagan Gods, so maybe this didn’t seem like an outlandish request. Or maybe Abraham was terrified of such a powerful God that he complied with this horrific command out of blind fear.

But these aren’t reasons that motivated Abraham to obey God. He had a promise from El Elyel (God most high, as Melchizedek had called Him) that He would establish and everlasting covenant through his son Isaac. He even told his servants that they’d be returning after worshiping,  because once again “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. (Genesis 17:19)

Remember that Abraham is considered a model of faith, and he knew God would keep His word to him. He knew that if God made this promise, then even a fiery death wouldn’t stop Him from keeping it. Maybe Abraham thought God wouldn’t make him go through with it; or mayber he thought that even if he did, God would raise Isaac up.

Notice how it says “on the third day,” as with Jonah being in the fish for three days, so was this seemingly death sentence over Isaac for three days, that’s why the writer of Hebrews says it was a symbol. A symbol of the resurrection of God’s only Son after three days!

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only-begotten son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence he did receive him back and this was a symbol.” (Hebrews 11:17-19)

What a testament to his faith, that he’d take his son and sacrifice him knowing that whatever the outcome, God had made a promise and his God is a God that keeps His word!

Then there is the matter of the location of the sacrifice. Mount Moriah has been associated, by Christian and Jewish scholars, as Mt Zion in Jerusalem. There is a stone on top of the Temple Mount, that Jews claim was the location of the binding of Isaac (Muslims also make this claim, but in their version it is Ishmael that is bound and Isaac is the one put out with his mother). “Then Solomon began to build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Mori’ah, where the LORD had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had appointed, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jeb’usite.” (2 Chronicles 3:1)

“And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.” (Genesis 22:6)

Abraham laid the wood on his son to carry it up the mountain. Customs surrounding a sacrifice dictated that the things (usually a lamb) being sacrificed didn’t carry the means by which they’d be sacrificed. The only two examples of them doing so was Isaac and Jesus, both carried the wood on which they be killed, both carried this wood up a mountain in Jerusalem, one on mount Moriah and the other on the hill of Calvary.

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. (Genesis 22:7-8)

Once again, Abraham exhibits his heroic level of faith in God. He knew that God would provide, he just didn’t know how.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. (Genesis 22:9)

The Bible doesn’t say how old Isaac is, we know he’s old enough to talk and walk so that would indicate at least a few years old, but he also carried all the firewood up a mountain so that would say he’d have to be a little older than that. Jewish tradition says that he was a grown man, and early Christian writers agreed with this assessment.

What we can gather from the text is that Isaac was bound willingly, it doesn’t say he was knocked out or in any way incapacitated, yet he allowed his father to bind him to the altar. He was willing to go peacefully to his death, the same way that Jesus voluntarily gave Himself up and allowed the soldiers to nail Him to the cross.

Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only-begotten son, from me.” (Genesis 22:10-12)

At the last moment, there was a divine stay of execution for Isaac, and Abraham must’ve breathed a sigh of relief. Saint Paul quotes the Greek translation (the Septuagint) of Genesis 22:12 in Romans 8:32, when talking about God the Father giving up His only Son for us.

And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place The LORD will provide;as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” (Genesis 22:13-14)

On that mountain, approximately 2000 years later, the Lord provided the perfect sacrifice for our sins, once and for all. So Abraham calling this place “YHWH yireh” is very prophetic.

CCC 608: After agreeing to baptize him along with the sinners, John the Baptist looked at Jesus and pointed him out as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. By doing so, he reveals that Jesus is at the same time the suffering Servant who silently allows himself to be led to the slaughter and who bears the sin of the multitudes, and also the Paschal Lamb, the symbol of Israel’s redemption at the first Passover. Christ’s whole life expresses his mission: “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Abraham passed the test, and God rewards him

Abraham passes through this testing of his faith, by leaning heavily on it. Because Abraham had seen God do great things, he knew that God had a plan for him and that it was only for his benifit.

 And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ” By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only-begotten son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:15-18)

Because of his faithfulness, God reaffirms  His promises regarding Abraham’s descendants. And He gives a reason why He is reaffirming these promises; “because you have obeyed my voice.”

Some of the parrellels between Isaac on Mount Moriah and Jesus on Calvary 

I just wanted to list a few of the parrellels here, because they were made for a reason. Maybe it was so Jews at the time of Christ (who would’ve been well versed in this story and could most likely recite it from memory) could see the close typology of Christ and Isaac, and thus believe Him as the Messiah, or maybe for another reason. Whatever the case, they’ve always fascinated me. 

  1. God calls Isaac Abraham’s “only begotten son” (he had another son but by this time he had been disinherited) Genesis 22:2
  2. He is to take him to what would later become Jerusalem (Mt Moriah) Genesis 22:2
  3. Isaac carried the wood, upon which he will be killed, up the mountain just like Jesus carried His own cross. Genesis 22:6
  4. When asked where is the sacrificial lamb, Abraham replies prophetically that God will provide the lamb. Jesus is called the Lamb by John the Baptist and 28 times in the book of Revelation. Genesis 22:8
  5. Isaac willing cooperated in the will of his earthly, and by extension his Heavenly Father, by allowing himself to be bound to the altar. Genesis 22:9
  6. On the the third day, Isaac was recued from death. Although he didn’t die and come back like Jesus, it is still a sign of the time Jesus spent in the tomb. Genesis 22:4

Pray to have faith like Abraham 

We may never be submitted to a test, of the magnitude that Abraham faced, we will still face tests and trials in this life. People that tell you that the Christian life is full of sunshine and rainbows are either lying, or are themselves mislead. Jesus promised us that we would face trials, just look at His Apostles and see the martyrs deaths that they submitted themselves to.

While Jesus promised us trials and tribulations, but He also promised us the final victory, because He has overcome the world;

“In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b)

Faith is a gift from God (CCC 153), and like all gifts that God gives, faith can be giving in larger or smaller increments. We must pray for an increase in faith, just like the father of the child healed by Christ in Mark 9:24, we must be willing to say “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!”
(For all articles in this series, Click here )

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