The article of the month
Ram of God by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.
The command to sacrifice Isaac does not at first glance convey the most reassuring image of God. Even on a second, more careful inspection the situation remains concerning. Child sacrifice was—according to multiple ancient accounts and a common reading of the archaeological evidence—a disturbingly real practice in the world of the Bible. Behind this apparently widespread habit of ritual murder of boys and girls, notably in zones touched by Phoenician culture, lies a cult myth born close to home in Canaan: El, the father-god, offers up his only beloved son for immolation, handing him over to death, while his worshipers imitate their god with their own children. Read against this historical backdrop, one can get the disconcerting sense that, in Genesis 22, YHWH is acting like just another ancient Near Eastern deity.
It is precisely against this gruesome backdrop that the command to Abraham to stay his hand gains its uniquely powerful force, however. It is as though the Lord is saying, “I demand of you the very same radical form of absolute devotion that these false gods around you claim of their followers: the readiness to give me everything, to sacrifice your living first fruits and the very apple of your eye. Yet once I see that I am not honored less than those counterfeit gods, imposters like El and Molech and Chronos, I will reveal the great difference between us.”
Every firstborn belongs by right to God: the first fruits of the fields and all that opens the womb, of both man and beast (Ex 13:2, 12; 22:29; Nm 8:16-17). The firstborn of cows, sheep, and goats are sacrificed as a pleasing offering to YHWH (Nm 18:17). The firstborn male child, by contrast, must be “redeemed,” i.e., bought back from God at the price of a gift offered in substitution. This is the custom behind the offering of the two birds at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, for instance. The pagan cult of child immolation also seems to have known something like this substitution option—though, significantly, the substitution of another animal remained an option (often not exercised), not an outright command as in the Bible. God is categorically opposed to the abhorrent idea of offering children in sacrifice, “which,” he says, “I did not command, nor did it come into my mind” (Jer 7:31). To see things otherwise is a giant misperception.
In the story of Isaac, which clearly functions as a kind of narrative commentary on all this, the substitution of a ram for the child is prominent. God himself provides the saving victim. The hints of the Passover lamb—which redeemed Israel, collectively reckoned as YHWH’s own firstborn (Ex 4:22), just as the firstborn of Egypt were slain—were not missed by ancient interpreters. The scene with Isaac thus took on enormous significance as a primordial Paschal sacrifice, the merits of which were sufficient to save the entire people. Christian readers easily saw the still greater signs of Christ’s own sacrifice.
Cultic imitation of the gods, as it colored and drove the old pagan practice, takes on a new flavor when the true God’s behavior is ordered to redemption. Abraham must be ready to offer his beloved son, though in the end he will be spared because this is exactly what YHWH himself is ready to do. Abraham’s faith that Isaac would be restored, while not explicit in Genesis, thus belongs to the inevitable trajectory of the story. “He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead” (Heb 11:19). This is the lesson that God was already teaching, in the prophetic type of an ancient dress rehearsal. His own beloved son is at once both Isaac and the ram, Christ Jesus and his chosen people. Both will be spared, yet both must also be handed over in deadly earnest.
Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.