The Sublime Climax: Genesis 22

The forth great pillar of the Abrahamic Covenant is chapter 22. Genesis 12 and 15 center on land; Genesis 17 and 22 focus on seed. On these four pillars the whole of redemptive history rests. No story can be more exquisite in plot and brevity than what we have before us; it is magnificent, it is sublime!

God tests Abraham. Where there is faith there is always testing; faith’s beauty can only be displayed by trial. God calls out “Abraham,” and he answers with the profoundly simple “hinnēnî” (“Here I am,” So Isaiah 6:8). God takes aim at the most precious thing to Abraham, his son of promise, beginning with the general “take your son” then to “your only son,” to “whom you love,” finally to the heart of his heart’s target, “Isaac.” God demands the unthinkable, the unreasonable, and the most terrible. Is his God just another manifestation of the pagan deities that demand human sacrifice? The narrative does not allow us into Abraham’s thoughts; there are no questions, only action. They begin the 3 day long journey with two servants and a donkey carrying the wood; three days of what we all know must have been filled with deep interior struggle, dark and frantic thoughts, solitude and silence. This is sublime!

Abraham leaves behind the two servants with the cryptic remark “I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you” (v. 5). He loads the wood on the boy’s back, the wood for his own sacrifice, and Abraham leads the way up the mountain with torch and knife. Isaac breaks the silence with “my father,” and Abraham he responds “hinnēnî.” Isaac is confused; where was the lamb? His father assures him that God would provide. Then the darkly beautiful phrase “So they went on both of them together.” This is sublime!

The altar is set, the boy lays bound upon the wood, and the knife is lifted. There is no doubt, in spite of what Abraham told the servants and Isaac, that he was ready to plunge the knife into his son. The “angel of the Lord” (a Theophany?) watches this drama unfold, and at the last second cries out “Abraham, Abraham”! He responds with a third “hinnēnî” making a triple utterance in the narrative. God, who transcends time, knows all along Abraham’s heart and what he would do. However, God never allows his omniscience get in the way of His wonder; He experiences the sublimity of the moment with Abraham, “Now I know that you fear God …” A ram is provided, the sacrifice is made, and the story ends with the divine oath that Abraham’s seed will indeed be multiplied.

The narrator concludes this sublime drama with a critical statement “… as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (v. 14). Whatever the ancient readers took from this story, they understood by this saying that this dramatic episode rises above a mere historical event to something higher. The land of Moriah (v.2) symbolizes Eden, the Mount of God. Abraham is a first man like Adam. However, unlike Adam, Abraham responded to his test with faith, that pre-fall, original attitude for which humanity was made to have to relate with God. This moment is a reversal of the fall. Through Abraham there will be a race that will fill the earth with person with like faith; he succeeds where Adam failed.

One might be repulsed at the fact that God would ask Abraham to do such a terrible thing. However, God never asks what He Himself is unwilling to do. It is Godlike to sacrifice that which is most precious. There can be no sublimity without sacrifice, and what would the world be without sublimity? God in fact is most sublime, for he performs Himself what he spared Abraham. The Jews identified the land of Moriah with its mount with the Zion, the Temple Mount (II Chron. 3:1). Christ came to judge the Temple establishment for failing to produce the seed of faith their ancestor Abraham displayed on that same mount. He in his own flesh becomes the New Cosmic Temple which in three days is destroyed yet resurrected, from which comes a whole new race of men and women with Abraham’s faith that spreads out over the earth like sand on the seashore. This is sublime!

2 Responses to “The Sublime Climax: Genesis 22”

  1. Father John,

    Could you expand on your statement ” there can be no sublimity without sacrifice, and what would the world be without sublimity ?”

    Thank you.


    • Thanks Joe, for this question. What I mean by this statement is that we must possess something of ultimate value that we can sacrifice out of love. If we did not possess this, then we could not sacrifice it, and everything on earth would be level, mundane, common. This ultimate value is our life. When we read stories that thrill us, there is always someone who makes the ultimate sacrifice, which is one’s life, or in the Abraham story, the life of his son who was dearer than his own life. This makes the story sublime. I argue that life is only worth living if it is lived on a sublime, heroic level of being willing, like Christ, to lay your life down for love of God and man. This is the dark beauty of death; it makes this sublime sacrifice possible.

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