Abraham and Isaac (Bible study)

I think that God is loving, so some stories in the Bible make me do a double-take—“God said what?!”

God-said-whatThe book of Genesis tells a story like that. God said to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Abraham complies, takes Isaac and binds him on the altar, but at the last second the angel of the Lord intervenes and stops Abraham from killing his son (Genesis 22).

I imagine you might react like me—“Wait… What?!… No way! God would never ask for that—would He?” To be fair, part of the point of the story is that Abraham trusted God enough to do something that seemed like it would destroy everything for which he had worked, hoped and prayed. If God had asked for something less extreme, it wouldn’t have been a test of his faith. At least we can say that God never really intended that Isaac should actually be sacrificed. Still, that leaves us wondering whether God was lying to Abraham, and whether we should have such complete faith in a God who asks us to make such extreme sacrifices.

The Bible says that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8). True Christianity tells that, in reality, God cannot turn away from us or even look at us with a frown” (56). Still, we see people—even the innocent—suffering. Since earliest times people have assumed that God punishes us for displeasing Him, but the teachings of the New Church invite us to look more deeply at the Bible.

From earliest times people knew from prophecy that Divine Love would take on a human manifestation in the world, and that this Human would take on our challenges and give everything, even His life, to help us overcome evil. Eventually, though, this belief was twisted into the horrible idea that God could somehow be pleased with sacrificial murder of His Son, or with human sacrifice in general. That terrible belief was widespread in Abraham’s time, and Abraham could not grasp sacrifice in any other terms.

On a literal level, the Bible shows Abraham believing that God really wanted him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Yet elsewhere the Bible states that God did not desire nor command that kind of sacrifice. “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire…burnt offering and sin offering You have not required” (Psalm 40:6).

On a deeper level this story is telling us symbolically what love is like. Genuine love is sacrificial. We should never sacrifice our children though we may sacrifice for our children and help them learn to sacrifice compassionately for others. A mother may go hungry herself to give food to her starving child. A soldier may give his life to protect his country and a fireman may give his life to rescue people from a burning building. A person in love may overlook and forgive a thousand little injuries and failings, because love is compassionate and is willing to suffer in order to protect and provide for loved ones. “Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

The Rev. John Odhner is an Assistant to the Pastor at the Bryn Athyn Church (www.brynathynchurch.org).


Full issue


“You are not made happy by the true things you believe from your faith, but by the goodness which comes from your faith.”

Arcana Coelestia 4984

Sacrificing the First Born Son

Sacrificing the First Born Son

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto – February 27, 2011


And Abraham built an altar then and placed wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. (Genesis 22:9,10)

Who among us would take a knife and kill a child to prove the strength of our religious belief? Which of us has enough trust in the Lord to follow Him even though the path seems at the time to be more difficult than we can bear? This powerful and frightening story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at the apparent command of his God not only speaks to one man’s trust in his God, but it is also a prophecy of God’s own sacrifice and victory over death on the cross. 

While Abram was a young man living in Ur of the Chaldees, God spoke to him and commanded him to take Sarai, his wife, and leave his ancestral home to search for his future and fortune in the land of Canaan. Abram travelled for many years, travelling through Canaan to Egypt, and then back to live among the Canaanites, trading and dealing with everyone he met on the way. Thanks to Jehovah’s help, he was extremely successful in his dealings, and soon possessed huge flocks and herds. Abram was a rich, powerful man, who only lacked a son, an heir to receive all this wealth. Sarai was barren, and yet God had made a covenant with Abram that if he would follow God’s commandments, then He would make a great nation of Abram’s descendants. 

However, as Abram and Sarai approached their old age, this promise must have seemed hollow to them, and so they resolved to take matters into their own hands. In order to produce an heir, Sarai gave Hagar her handmaiden to Abram. Since Hagar was Sarai’s property, anything owned or produced by Hagar belonged to Sarai – including any children. Therefore, Abram’s children by Hagar would be the legal heirs to his fortune. So, Hagar was given to Abram, and Ishmael was eventually born and received as Abram’s son and heir.

Later, when Abram was 99 and Ishmael was 13, the Lord returned to Abram to renew the promise of the great nation which would spring from Abram if he would follow the Lord’s commandments. He also then revealed the news which shocked Abraham – that this nation would not descend from Hagar’s son Ishmael, but from another son yet to be born to Sarah! As a sign and confirmation of this promise, the Lord changed Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai’s name to Sarah.

In Abraham’s 100th year, as God has promised, Sarah bore him a son, Isaac. Isaac’s birth put Ishmael and Hagar in a difficult situation, and we can see the measure of Abraham’s desire to have Isaac be a sole, legitimate heir by the fact that he sent Ishmael and Hagar into the desert to fend for themselves or die. And then, with Ishmael gone, the Lord tested Abraham’s trust and faith by apparently asking him to take his only remaining son, the son he had longed for all his life, and make a ritual human sacrifice.

We realize, of course, that the real intent of this command regards the story of the Lord’s glorification which is being revealed in the internal sense of the story, that God could never actually command anyone to kill their son as a gift of faith to make Him happy, as a purification rite, or as blood atonement. God is not a murderer.

We must digress for a moment and look carefully at this concept of blood atonement which is central to understanding of the doctrine of Redemption before going on with the story of Abraham’s temptation. Atonement is said to be “a harmonious relationship between God and Man, effected by Christ.” The traditional Christian theology behind this definition states that atonement is necessary because of the disruption of harmony that occurred in the Garden of Eden. The basic idea is that originally God and Mankind were in harmony, but mankind sinned and the harmony was destroyed, so atonement is the process whereby the harmony is restored. The Hebrew use of the term includes the idea of covering up, or wiping away. Passover is a good example of atonement, where a lamb was killed, and its blood placed on the doors of the houses as a sign of salvation.

The word sacrifice means “to make holy by killing:” and so we begin to see the whole concept of the Lamb of God in both the Hebrew and Christian Churches. The innocent being, made holy by ritual death, who washes away sins with the blood shed in death. This doctrine is the source of the doctrine that says that God gave His firstborn son as a sacrifice to wash away all sin in the world and restore the harmony that was lost when man first sinned in the garden of Eden, and that by His death Jesus imputes His righteousness to us through our faith alone.

Abraham apparently believed (and was encouraged in that belief by the religious rituals of the Canaanite people all around him) that God had to see Isaac’s blood to be happy. Many believe that Jehovah had to see Christ’s blood in order to be happy, to allow humans to be saved. Does the one make any more sense than the other?

In the New Church, we view the temptation of the cross in an entirely different light. Rather than ransoming off or appeasing an angry Jehovah, or wiping away all sin, past, present, and future, the Lord has, through His death on the cross, redeemed us, provided for us to be free to do what we want with our own lives. He did this by conquering the hells; by breaking their hold on man; by allowing His human body to die on the cross instead of coming down and miraculously healing and converting everyone in the world. He brought the whole spiritual world into order and restored spiritual equilibrium, which in turn restored to us our spiritual freedom. This is the atonement, the Redemption:  That we are neither born in sin, nor are we born in good, but that because of order in the spiritual world we are free to make of our lives whatever we wish, we are free to take any course in life we desire, as long as we are willing to accept the consequences.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is really the story of the Lord fighting the temptation of whether or not to let go of His human body. It represents the final temptation of the Lord while he was in the world, the temptation of the cross, for in this series Abraham represents the soul or Jehovah, while Isaac represents the body or Jesus.

Returning to the literal story, we find that Abraham travelled for three days to the place of sacrifice (See GEN 22:4), which, since the number “three” stands for what is complete, means that the preparation was complete and the next stage could begin. When Isaac asks his father, “where is the lamb for the burnt offering” (GEN 22:7), it represents a kind of rhetorical question that the Lord might have asked Himself:  “Where are those of the human race who are to be saved?” which is answered by Abraham when he says, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (GEN 22:8). This means the Divine Human will provide those who are to be sanctified.

Abraham placed wood on the altar, bound his son Isaac, and placed him on the wood. Then he reached out to take the knife and slay his son. This represents that the Lord was willing to take on the most grievous temptations so that He could conquer in them, expelling from Himself anything of a merely human nature until nothing remained except that which was from the Divine (See AC 2816).

The knife represents the truths of faith, which tells us that the Lord’s temptations were as to the truth of faith only. He could receive temptations regarding matters of rational thought in the human nature He assumed from Mary, but He was never tempted as to any love; for the Lord’s loves were all from the Divine, and therefore could not be tempted because they could not be approached or challenged by any spirit (See AC 2817).

The words, “to slay his son” (GEN 22:10), are a prophecy of the passion of the cross, the death of the physical body, and the final expulsion of all that which was merely human. These words signify the Lord’s most grievous and inmost temptations. We are told that Abraham did not actually slay Isaac because it was an abomination to sacrifice sons; but it was represented in the letter of the Word as far as it could be, that is, as to the intent and the attempt, although not as to the very act itself. In fact, we are told that the practice of human sacrifice among the Gentiles originated with their belief that the Lord would come into the world, endure temptations, and finally suffer death. They believed that by sacrificing their sons, they were both purified, and returned to harmony with God. It was because Abraham and his descendants were inclined to human sacrifice that the Lord instituted the rituals of animal sacrifice in their place (See AC 2828).

This story centres on trust. In the natural or historical sense, God had made a covenant with Abraham, had promised to make him a great nation. Now, God asked him to sacrifice his only son, a son miraculously born in his old age as a sign of his trust in God’s Providence. Abraham responded by binding his son, and taking the knife in hand to slay him.

In the inmost sense, also called the “Glorification Series”, the Lord Himself entered into His final combat of temptation where He knew that if He was to win, He must actually seem to lose, He must prevent the natural desires of the body to protect itself, no matter what, from disrupting His Divine purposes. It would not have been a temptation for Him if there was not some doubt in His mind that He might fail. He too had to trust that He had prepared Himself properly for this final combat.

We too must trust the Lord’s Providence and put our “sons” on the altar to slay them. We too must prepare ourselves for the battles of our lives and trust in our own ability to succeed.

Now, what do we mean by putting our “sons” on the altar? There are many different false ideas that we hold as dear as children, ideas that we might feel we’d rather die ourselves than give up. These false ideas are associated with the loves of self and the world. Under closer examination, many of these “sons” may be traditions or concepts learned in childhood that we have never really carefully examined, but just accepted as part of our world view. While many traditions and customs are perfectly fine, others have elements of the love of self and the world lurking within – “our” this, or “we always” do that.

After all, how else can we justify our selfish behaviour except with false ideas? We feel and believe that life is our own, to do with as we please. When we believe that life is our own, we take our own counsel in the place of the counsel provided in the Word. We think that we know what is best for ourselves, that anything that benefits us is what we really need. When we believe that life is our own we cannot focus on eternal goals, but become mostly interested in short-term benefits and end up doing those things that will provide the most pleasure and satisfaction right now, and let eternity worry about itself.

But life is most emphatically not our own. It is a continuously and eternally inflowing gift from God, and since life is not our own, even though He made it so that it feels to us as if it is our own, we have an obligation to the Giver to use it in the ways He intended.

Like the Lord, we must take our only son, our belief that life is our own, bind it, place it on the altar of worship towards the Lord in His Divine Human, reach out and take the knife of truth in our own hands, and kill the false son because that is what our God has asked us to do. To do so takes tremendous courage and trust in the Lord. If we can truly trust in the Lord, in the Word, and in our own strength to do the Lord’s will, we will be victorious in our temptations. The false son of the belief that life is our own can become the true son, the true idea when we acknowledge that life is from the Lord, and that He gives us the ability to feel it as our own as his special gift. The Lord stays our hand, for we have shown trust in Him, and gives us our son back, and much else besides.

When the Lord faced the temptation of the cross, He did not falter. He laid down His life for us, showing us that we had nothing to fear from death. He allowed His body to die, even though He had power to prevent it, so that He could conquer the hells that sought to bind Him and all mankind to the loves of the self and the world through the senses of the body. He broke the power of hell to bind men, and so redeemed us by giving us the freedom to choose for ourselves what our destiny would be. We can follow his example, and lay down not our physical bodies, but instead sacrifice our lusts for evil and the false idea that life is our own to do with as we please. Then we can be truly free, and become worthy of the kingdom of heaven.

“But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me’” (Genesis 22:11,12). AMEN

First Lesson: John 3:9-21

Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” {10} Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? {11} “Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. {12} “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? {13} “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. {14} “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, {15} “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. {16} “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. {17} “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. {18} “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. {19} “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. {20} “For everyone practising evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. {21} “But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”

Second Lesson: AC 2776:2,3

[2] It is generally believed at the present day that the burnt offerings and sacrifices were signs of the Lord’s passion, and that by His passion the Lord atoned for the iniquities of all. Indeed it is believed that He drew away those iniquities on to Himself, and thus bore them Himself, so that those who believe are made righteous and are saved, if only they think, even in the last hour prior to death, that the Lord suffered on their behalf, no matter how they may have lived throughout the whole course of their lives. But such beliefs are mistaken. The passion of the Cross was the utmost degree of temptation endured by the Lord, by means of which He fully united the Human to the Divine and the Divine to the Human, and by doing this glorified Himself. That union itself is the means by which people possessing faith in Him that is grounded in charity are able to be saved. For the Supreme Divine Itself was no longer able to reach the human race which had removed itself so far away from the celestial things of love, and from the spiritual things of faith, that people did not even recognize them any more, let alone perceive them. Consequently to enable the Supreme Divine to come down to all such as this, the Lord came into the world and united the Human to the Divine within Himself. This union could not have been effected except by means of the very severe conflicts brought about by temptations and by means of victories in these, and at length by means of the final temptation, which was that of the Cross.

[3] As a result of this the Lord is able from the Divine Human to enlighten human minds, even those that are quite remote from the celestial things of love, provided that faith grounded in charity is present in them. For in the next life the Lord appears to celestial angels as the Sun, and to spiritual angels as the Moon, 1053, 1521, 1529, 1530, 2441, 2495 – all the light of heaven flowing from Him. The light of heaven is such that when it enlightens the eyes of spirits and angels it also at the same time enlightens their understanding. This ability to enlighten the understanding also exists inherently within that light, so that the amount of internal light, that is, of understanding, which anyone possesses in heaven is the same as the amount of external light he has. This shows the way in which the light of heaven is different from the light of the world. It is the Lord’s Divine Human that enlightens both the eyes and the understanding of those who are spiritual, but this could never be done unless the Lord had united the Human Essence to the Divine Essence. And unless He had united them neither men in the world, nor indeed any spiritual angel in heaven, would any longer have possessed any ability to understand or to perceive that which is good or true. Nor thus would they have possessed any blessedness and happiness at all, nor consequently any salvation at all. From this it becomes clear that the human race could not have been saved unless the Lord had assumed the Human and glorified it.

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