|The Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt|
George C. Scott played Abraham. We saw him welcome Isaac with joy and, as he grows, explain the genealogy of the family which was carved on a wooden stick.
And then God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham interprets that in light of the practice of the pagan societies of his day who offered their children to their gods. He believes God wants him to slay the boy on the altar of sacrifice where animals were offered. Biblical scholar, Fr. Lawrence Boadt, in his book Reading the Old Testament, describes the scene this way:
I remember the scene vividly. Abraham goes into the mountains alone and struggles to accept what he believes is God's will - to kill the son he awaited for so long, the son who represents God's promise to give him descendants like the stars in the sky. He anguishes with groans and cries, every fiber of his being resisting the sacrifice. Fr. Boadt goes on:
In all things Abraham proves devoted to God's commands. but the ultimate test comes when God seems (my emphasis) to demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac back to him in chapter 22 [of Genesis]. This is the high point of the Abraham story, and the authors maintain a high sense of drama and artistic skill in narrating the horrifying moment. Abraham is weighed down so greatly that he cannot bear to tell Isaac the truth, and Isaac in turn is so trusting in his father that he never suspects what is happening. The boy asks naturally curious questions, and the grieving Abraham can barely answer. He preserves the privacy of the terrible last moments by sending the servants off. Just when all seems lost, God stops his hand and provides an animal to sacrifice instead.
This story often shocks modern readers. They wonder how God could ask a thing like that....But [the biblical authors] wanted to make a point for all later Israel. It was not uncommon in the ancient world for parents to sacrifice a son in times of great need or illness to try to appease the gods. The Bible records several examples, ranging from Jephthah in the book of Judges (chapter 11) down to Manasseh in the seventh century [BC] (2 Kgs 21). All of these are looked upon with horror, and the story of Isaac certainly shows how Yahweh forbade any human sacrifice -- he did not want human flesh but would accept animals as an offering instead, although he most wanted faith and trust....Abraham becomes the example for all Christians who believe in God's promise.But what happens when God does not prevent the sacrifice of a child? Death is an evil, one that entered the world through sin. It is always evil. But it is especially difficult to accept when it is out of the order of things. Parents should not bury their children. It's out of the order of things; but it happens. That's when accepting God's permissive will becomes crucial.
The Catholic Spirit explains it this way:
We need to understand the difference between God’s “perfect will” and God’s “permissive will.”
God’s perfect will is when God directly wills a thing to happen or not to happen. This is always immediately and ultimately for the good.
God’s permissive will is when God allows a thing to happen. This is not necessarily immediately a good. In fact, God often allows evil things to happen. He does this for a couple reasons (that we know of).
First, God allows evil things to happen in order to preserve the gift of free will that he has given us.
|"Let this cup pass me by."|
Agony in the Garden by Matthias Stomer
Second, God allows evil because he knows that he can bring about a greater good.
At this point, it is important to note that God does not cause evil to bring about a good. (That would be evil and impossible for an all-good God to do.)
Rather, God allows something to happen that is contrary to his will because he knows he can use this for an even greater good.
If this is true, it follows that we can trustingly submit to everything that happens to us as falling under God’s will. Either it is a good that he directly willed or it is an evil that he allowed to happen, and he can bring about a good through this.I'm convinced that embracing the will of God, especially when it inflicts metaphorical nails and scourges and a spear thrust to the heart, ultimately brings the peace that passes understanding.
But to get there we may have to walk over broken glass -- with Abraham -- and finally with Jesus and His mother Mary. It's not easy, and we can beg with Christ, "Let this cup pass me by." In the end, however, the only way to peace, even with gritted teeth and every fiber of our being resisting, is to cry out, "Not my will, but Thine be done."
[For another article about Abraham's sacrifice and its meaning go here.]