Abraham: A Key Figure in the Bible
One of the central figures in the Old Testament is Abraham the Patriarch*. His entire story is told in the book of Genesis, but the impact of this man of faith echoes throughout the rest of the Bible. Outside of the book of Genesis, Abraham is mentioned fifty-four times in the rest of the Old Testament, and he is mentioned seventy-two times in the New Testament.
One of the stories that most people know about Abraham is when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac. In that account, we find an early foreshadowing of the incredible gift of the eternal Father which is the sacrifice of His Son. But perhaps it would be good to provide some background before talking about the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.
The Call of Abraham and the Lack of an Heir
At the young age of seventy-five, God called Abraham to leave his native land of Ur of the Chaldeans and to go where He asked Abraham to go. Along the way to the land that would eventually be called the Promised Land, God told Abraham that from him would come a great nation. Abraham believed in the Lord and followed Him.
However, ten years later, Abraham and his wife Sarah did not have a son. How could Abraham be the father of a great nation if he could not even be the father of his own son?
Abraham and Sarah began to think that perhaps the son would not come through Sarah. It was a practice of the day that a woman could give her servant to her husband. The child who was born could then be claimed by the wife. Accordingly, Sarah gave her servant Hagar to Abraham and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael.
God did make a great nation out of Ishmael, but he was not the promised son. The son was to come from Abraham and Sarah.
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The Promise of a Son
Instead, God came to Abraham thirteen years later and told him that it was indeed through Sarah that Abraham would have a son. Abraham laughed at the idea that, he, who was a hundred years old, and Sarah, who was ninety years old would have a son. (Gn 17:17) Nonetheless, Abraham believed God.
At the same time that the Lord had renewed His promise to Abraham, He called for Abraham to practice circumcision as a sign of the covenant that He was making with Abraham. That day, Abraham had all of the males, including thirteen-year-old Ishmael, circumcised.
And, not long after that, as God promised, Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac whose name appropriately means laughter. Now Abraham had an heir through which God's promises could be fulfilled.
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Asked to Sacrifice His Son
Years later, when Isaac was a young man, the Lord called to Abraham again and said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." (Gn 22:1-2) This must have been astounding to Abraham. After all these years of waiting for a son, a son that God had promised, now, he was to sacrifice that only son, a son he deeply loved. What could this possibly mean? How could this be correct?
Yet, although Abraham had boldly bargained with God regarding saving the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, Scripture records that Abraham simply set about doing what God asked him to do. There is no written evidence of Abraham even asking God any questions.
Instead, Abraham got up early in the morning and set out on his journey with Isaac and two servants. They brought an ass along with the wood for the sacrifice.
On the third day of their journey, Abraham asked the two servants to remain with the ass as Isaac and he would continue. Isaac carried the wood, and Abraham brought the knife and the materials for starting a fire. Isaac asked Abraham the obvious question of what was going to be sacrificed. Abraham answered that the Lord would provide the lamb for the burnt offering. (Gn 22:8)
When they came to the place, Abraham built an altar, put the wood on top, bound Isaac, and laid him on top of the altar.
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The Faith of Abraham and Isaac
From the story, we know that Isaac was not a young boy. He was strong enough to carry the wood. In other words, he could have resisted his elderly father. He must have cooperated with what was happening. Both Abraham and Isaac were willing to make the sacrifice.
What faith they must have had! They were willing to follow through with the sacrifice simply at the word given to them from God. As indicated in Hebrews, Abraham believed that if he sacrificed his son, God could raise him from the dead. (Hb 11:19)
Before he slew his son, an angel called to Abraham to stop, and a ram was provided for the sacrifice. Abraham's faith had been tested, and the Lord has found that Abraham was faithful.
In Biblical terminology, a type is an event or person that foreshadows a greater event or person which will occur in the future. Although independent events, they have important similarities which make the connection from the earlier event to the later event. The parallels to the sacrifice of Jesus show that this sacrifice by Abraham was a type for the perfect sacrifice made once for all for our salvation.
Abraham offered his beloved son, as the eternal Father offered His beloved Son. Isaac, the son, submitted to the father's will as Jesus submitted to the eternal Father's will. Isaac carried the wood for his sacrifice as Jesus carried the wooden cross for His sacrifice. For Abraham, God provided the sacrifice, and, in Jesus, God provided the perfect sacrifice.
Through this early type in Abraham, we are helped in understanding the depth of the love God has for us in the eternal Father's gift to us of His eternal Son that we might not be condemned but instead be saved and enjoy the gift of eternal life.
Old Testament Saints
* When we talk about holy men and women in the Old Testament we generally do not refer to them as saints, e.g. St. Abraham. However, that does not mean that they are not saints.
Saints are men and women who lived lives of heroic virtue and whom the Church honors as holy men and women through the Church's ordinary universal teaching authority or through a solemn declaration of canonization. The recognition by the Church of someone being a saint means that the man or woman is now in Heaven and that he or she can be invoked for intercession and considered as an example to Christians on earth.
The men and women of the Bible who are considered saints are recognized by the ordinary universal teaching authority of the Church.
Although it is not as common today to refer to Old Testament figures as St. Abraham, for example, that has not always been the case. There are many examples over the centuries in which Old Testament Biblical saints are given the title "St."
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