The readings from Mark and Paul are relatively straightforward. Much more challenging is the first reading for this Sunday: the attempted sacrifice of Isaac. What read this at all? How do we make sense of it? Is it not simply immoral? Does it not contradict God’s promises to Abraham and show a terrible picture of God? Here are some all too brief indications of how to make some sense of this extraordinary reading.
1. All who write on this passage recognise its extraordinary power and fascination. The most well-known is perhaps Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Most notable in Genesis 22 is the suppression of emotion, in spite of the deeply disturbing content.
2. As a general principle, readings should be placed in the their context within the overall biblical narrative. Thus the links with Genesis 12 are clear — the foundational call of Abraham. In chapter 21, Abraham almost loses his other son, Ishmael, in a parallel story with a similarly positive outcome. Subsequently, in Genesis 23, Isaac’s mother, Rebekah, dies and in Genesis 24 Isaac himself sets off in search of a wife. The great Abraham cycle is coming to an end. Some kind of transition is being negotiated.
3. Traditionally, the background story has been understood as the setting aside of human sacrifice and its replacement by animal offerings. Not every commentator agrees with that.
4. There is another possible background. In ancient cultures, rites of passage are immensely significant. This applies especially to puberty, as one makes the transition from childhood to adulthood. In some ancient cultures, this rite took the form of a symbolic killing of the son. The purpose was to show that the son had now made the transition to adulthood and was to set out on his own journey of life. This would fit well here: Isaac never again lives with his parents, his mother dies and he goes in search of a wife.
5. Within the biblical form of this telling in Genesis 22, the great issue is the handing on of the blessing/promise as Abraham’s life comes to an end. Hence, the centrality of the repeated promise of blessing.
6. In the early church, the story was read as an allegory of Jesus’ Passion:
• Isaac = Jesus
• The only son = the Son of God
• Isaac carried the wood = Jesus carried the wood of the cross
• A ram replaced Isaac = Jesus is our passover lamb.
7. Finally, the Lectionary provides a contextualised reading and Christian reception:
• Transfiguration: mountain / only Son / Listen to him / risen from the dead
• Romans: God did not spare his own Son.
For a fuller treatment, click here: www.tarsus.ie/page-27/page-14. The prayer on page 2 of the notes may also help.
Gospel notes: audio
You may like to listen to the Gospel notes: soundcloud.com/user-679942596
Gospel notes: tablet/smart phone
The Gospel notes are also here in a format adapted for tablets/smartphones: www.tarsus.ie/page-18/page-37
The Lent programme in the Pro-Cathedral continues this Wednesday at 11.15. Mass is available beforehand at 10.30 and afterwards at 12.45. The flyer is included here: www.dublindiocese.ie/God-so-loved-the-world.pdf
The presentations on Wednesdays are not identical with the handouts. If you wish to see the presentations in PDF format, you can access them here: www.tarsus.ie/page-27/page-14
The diocese of Sidney has a really good app for Lent: itunes.apple.com/us/app/xt3-lent-calendar/id501585138?ls=1&mt=8
FOR YOUR DIARY
The Scripture Summer School in Clonliffe takes place again this year. The general topic will be prophets:
• Jessie Rogers will present on the prophets of the Old Testament
• Sean Goan on the NT Apocalypse as a work of prophecy
• Kieran O’Mahony on Jesus the prophet in the Gospel of Luke
The dates are: June 18-22, Monday morning to Friday midday.
With very best wishes,
Kieran O’Mahony, OSA