Catholic Parish of Warkworth and Puhoi


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Peter van Breemen S.J.

The Test of Abraham's Faith

Abraham's test was particularly severe. The three days that Abraham spent on his way to the place of sacrifice were without doubt the most agonizing days of his life. This God in whom he had placed his trust was only a very newly found friend; Abraham did not yet know him well. He had been reared in the paganism of Mesopotamia, where human sacrifice was not uncommon, and it could well be that this new God of his, whose name he did not even know, was not so very different from the gods of his early years. In Hebrew thought a name assumes tremendous importance, but it was not until the time of Moses that God revealed his name to men. Until that time he was simply "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac;" he was still the unknown God, and Abraham in this, his moment of supreme trial, had no one to whom he could turn for guidance. In matters of faith he is the pioneer, and the only thing he really knows is that this unknown God is reliable. Perhaps this is the essence of faith: to be convinced of the reliability of God.

For the moment, however, Abraham is all but bewildered, filled with terrible emotions, the dismay that a father experiences at the deathbed of a beloved son. In Abraham's case the suffering was intensified by the knowledge that he could avoid it merely by disobeying the command of his new God. It is alleged that during the Second World War the son of a well known German physicist was active in the Resistance Movement, and eventually he was captured by the Nazis, who offered to the father the release of the son on condition that the father would make a public statement of loyalty to the Nazi regime. The father's response was like Abraham's: he would not go against his conscience even to save the life of his son.

As Abraham journeys with Isaac to the mount of sacrifice, his suffering is increased with every step. Isaac as yet knows nothing of the impending tragedy. In the loaded silence of their journey there ensued the little dialogue, terse, uncomplicated by explanations or conjectures. Isaac spoke to his father Abraham: "Father," he said, and with immense tenderness Abraham replied, "Yes, my son." Then came the question of the boy who had grown uneasy, sensing that something was amiss: "Look," he said, "here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham replied, "My son, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering." What conflicts are implied in this answer! Let us not say too glibly that these words are an expression of trust in God; they are that, of course, but it is so easy to underestimate the depth of this answer. It is easy to miss the anguish hidden in its brevity. Abraham does not yet know how the horrible event is going to end. We do—and that is the tremendous difference. Abraham, who really wants to do what God asks, loves his son dearly. Ironically, his love for God has grown because of this son who was God's gift to him, and now it is precisely this very gift which God is asking of him. Abraham is completely confused. "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering" is a cry of despair, like the weeping of a man who can no longer hold back his team. It is a cry of confidence also, but a confidence at once painful and very arduous.

"Then the two of them went on together." At this point neither knew what was to come. Faith does not mean that we know all the answers; it does mean that we are not afraid of the questions, that we have the courage to let the questions really be asked. Any repression of this kind is always a lack of faith. Faith implies that we have the strength and the courage to carry on even when we do not know the answers, but are just stimulated by. a vague surmise that question and riddle are not the only realities. To be really confused and not to know where we are going, even to experience serious doubt can very well be part of faith; as a matter of fact, it is trials of this kind which are so often found in biblical faith. In this respect the psalms are instructive for us: they never repress anything; they express all, bringing to God their difficul-ties, their loss of confidence, their doubts. All this is very healthy; it is the only way to cope with existential questions, but even as we lay them before God we know that we may not receive answers immediately. Faith is an attitude acquired only slowly, gradually, through many crises and darknesses.

We know how Abraham's ordeal ended, how Yahweh does not want human sacrifices as did the gods of the neighboring people. We even understand that the whole point of the story is to bring home to us that God does not want us to die, but to live and to thrive, and that a putting to the test of my faith may be the means whereby true knowledge of God deepens. God is never a threat. Abraham's crisis brings this truth out clearly and helps us to understand that even in what may seem an unbelievably difficult demand God is never menacing us. Such is not his way. God wants us to grow and prosper and be happy.

When Abraham descends from the mountain with his son, both he and Isaac have changed; something has happened on that hilltop. Bonhoeffer says they have turned 360 degress; that is, as far as one can see, they are still in the same position. Nothing seems to have changed. But there has been change. Like a tree which has been turned full circle in the ground, Abraham's roots have been cut loose, and he has returned a new man. An outsider, looking upon him as he came down the hill, would have seen no difference, but he is truly different; an inner transformation has taken place. This is the work of faith. For the man of faith, God is truly the ultimate, and therefore, he is a God who keeps him always on the move.

There is a final point to the story of Abraham: what happened to Abraham and Isaac is very clearly a fore-shadowing of the New Testament: "Abraham was confident that God had the power even to raise the dead; and so, figuratively speaking, he was given back Isaac from the dead" (Heb 11:19). "Figuratively speaking" points to someone who really did come back from the dead. Jesus is the fulfillment of Abraham's story. The story of Abraham is one of many examples of this fulfillment in Christ. We cannot understand the point of the Abraham story unless we keep in mind Christ risen from the dead. The Jesus who comes from Golgotha, like Abraham and Isaac, has turned 360 degrees. He is the same Jesus, and yet is completely different: the risen Lord. Isaac and Jesus, in a unique way, are both only sons. Both have been born in a miraculous way; both have themselves carried the wood for their sacrifice; both are sacrificed on top of a hill: Golgotha and Moriah, at a distance of a ten-minutes' walk from one another; and both have survived the ordeal. Isaac, of course, is merely a foreshadowing. In Jesus we have the full reality, so Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of Abraham's faith (see John 8:56-58). In Christ we can fully see how true it is that God wants us to live. That is the message of the new covenant-God wants us to live not just for sixty or eighty or a hundred years, not just for a lifetime, but forever. That shows the earnestness of God's longing for our life and happiness. The realization of this is what faith is all about.

Called By Name, 1976

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