(First, a note on hermeneutics. I make no attempt here to claim authorial intent; in fact, far from authorial intent, I think that any Christianization of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac cannot be what the author(s) intended. Rather, this should be read in Nephi’s spirit of likening the scriptures–that is, reapproriating old scriptures for a new context. Afterall, isn’t any theological use of scripture an excercise in doing just that?)
For most Latter-day Saints, and I suppose for much of the Christian world, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac is viewed as analogy and example prefiguring the death of Christ–just as God would ache with the sacrifice of his beloved Son, so would Abraham suffer the pain of envision the sacrifice of his own beloved child. Furthermore, there is a moral attached to this story: that we, like Abraham, must be willing to make difficult sacrifices to show our devotion to God. While this story may certainly evoke the emotions that God or any loving parent may feel at the prospect of their child suffering or dying, and it may give us the courage to do that which is difficult, I think perhaps that we as Christians misunderstand what this story ought to teach us, and perhaps do so in a way opposite of how we ought to appropriate it in our own lives.
The sacrifice of burnt offerings plays a significant role throughout much of the Old Testament, but unfortunately we too often have a gross misunderstanding of what these sacrifices entailed. Sacrifices were not the killing of animals to appease God. Neither were they killed as a proxy for our sinful selves. (In fact, the only animal that sins were symbolically transferred to, the scape goat, was explicitly not killed.) Rather these sacrifices were viewed as symbolic meals shared with God, where the death of the animal was simply a necessary step in meal preparation. (Try throwing a whole, living steer onto your barbecue and you’ll understand why.) Through the burning of these meals on the altar (certain grains were permitted if one could not afford meat) the food would rise through the smoke and be taken to God. The remaining meat would be cooked and eaten by the person offering the sacrificial meal (or by the priest acting as proxy in his stead).
To understand the significance of such a sacrificial meal, we need to only look at our own gatherings with friends and families. What is almost always there? Food. Family dinners, meet-and-greats, linger-longers, much-and-mingles, business lunches, and dates–they are almost always done over food. Far from being just the consumption of food for nutrition and colories, meals for virtually all of human history have been social activities where friends and families come together. And, of course, if the meal is intended to build relationships, you will want to make it impressive. Want to impress your date? You don’t take them to McDonald’s; you take them to somewhere stylish, expensive, and/or hip. And Denny’s will not work for the business client you are trying to get.
The social roles that meals play become even clearer when we go back to times and cultures where food would often be scarce. In such situations, food–especially good food–becomes a commodity that you only share with close friends and family. This is why Jesus’s own parables often involved feasts and meals. To be invited to a meal meant that you were accepted and that a relationship with you was either had or desired by those hosting the meal. This was the purpose of a sacrifice. It was not about killing the animal, it was about offering a meal to God with the hope that it was accepted. Or , in other words, it was about seeking or reaffirming a relationship with God with the hope that the desire for a relationship was reciprocated. And to show that you are serious about this relationship, you invite God to the best meal you can offer: the choice of your flock.
In light of this understanding of sacrifice, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac should seem troubling now. Assuming that Abraham was not planning on serving up a rack of his son’s ribs with some A-1 sauce and buttered rolls, this sacrifice would not have been a meal shared with the divine but would have been the killing of his son to appease God. While I said earlier that sacrifices were always portrayed as meals shared with God, there is key story in Abraham’s own life where another killing was attempted as a sign of devotion to the divine: the near murder of Abraham by his own father and the priests of Elkenah.
There is no doubt that Abraham was a righteous man, but he was a just a man. And like the rest of us he almost certainly struggled with understanding the will of God. Could his belief that God desired him to sacrifice his own son have been the result of his own mistaken misappropriation of religious customs of his day? As related in the Book of Abraham, the sacrifice of men, women, and children were ways in which those around him would attempt to please their gods. Just as we are all influenced by our culture, it is easy to imagine that Abraham, while desiring to please God and do His will, mistakingly believed that a sacrifice of his own son was precisely the way to prove his devotion.
And yet, the sacrifice of Isaac is explicitly what God intervened and stopped. As Abraham stood, knife in hand, on a mount he would later call Jehovah-jireh, there is an act of saving grace. Like Christ stopping Saul on the road to Damascus, the angel stopping Alma and the sons of Mosiah from “murder[ing] many . . . children” (Alma 36:14), the Christmas star stopping the murderous Nephites, and the risen Christ stopping the murderous Nephites once again, an angel steps in and saves Abraham from sacrificing his son on the altar of ungodly worship.
Abraham’s desire was righteous, but his application of that desire was grossly misdirected. This is not the sacrifice that God desires. He does not ask us to kill and harm those we ought to love. No, he asks us to love those he loves. Just as he loves us. “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him.” The sacrifice of Isaac is rejected by God, and thus he is not representative of Christ. No, he is representative of all those who are sacrificed by good-intentioned but woefully misguided persons–sacrifices rejected by God. It is at this intercession that the symbol of Christ emerges. As Abraham lowers his shaking hand, relieved at the harm he was set to inflict on the person he loved, there is a ram caught in a thicket.
Earlier that day, as Abraham and Isaac began the trek up the mountain, Isaac inquired his father concerning their lacking an animal for their sacrificial meal. Abraham lied to his son about his intents, telling him that “God will provide himself a lamb.” Little did he know at the time that God would be doing just that. God did, in fact, provide a meal for them, but this meal was also different from those generally prescribed throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Whereas sacrifices would normally involve a person providing the best of their flock with the hope of assuring their relationship with God, on the place that would be called Jehovah-jireh (meaning: in the mount of the Lord it will be provided) God provided Abraham with the animal for their meal.
Are we, like Abraham, appropriating the religious beliefs and practices of our broader culture as we desire to please God? Are we sacrificing those that we love and ought to love on mistaken altars of worship? Abraham, in his desire to prove his devotion to God, was willing to kill his son. Unfortunately, we hear too often of fathers and mothers who, like Abraham, sacrifice their LGBT children by kicking them out of their homes. We hear of friends and siblings who cut off communication with those who lose faith. We see self-appointed defenders of the faith demonize those who should be friends. Progressives and liberals, too, are shattering the community and demonizing others in their efforts to prove devotion to their righteous causes. Actual and future families are attacked to prove devotion to an idea of The Family. In the past and still today, we have sacrificed the hopes and desires of our black brothers and sisters, of our interracial couples, of those who differ from us politically. We have kicked and pushed scholars our of our communities, and we have trampled those we think naive under our intellectual feet. Like Abraham we have begun to believe that true devotion is proven in the willingness to harm others. Like Abraham, we have been wrong. And just as God provided Abraham with the sacrifice that he truly desires, God has again shown us how we ought to express our desire for relationship with the divine.
Cut to the Last Supper, three or four days before the first Easter. On this night Jesus breaks apart the meal that he and his disciples are eating. “Take, eat; this is my body. . . . Drink ye all of it, for this is my blood.” On this night Jesus again turns the sacrificial meal around. Like the ram, this meal is provided by God; like the ram, it is God seeking relationship with us rather than the other way around; but unlike the ram, this time God is offering himself as the sacrifical meal. There is more though: the sacrificial meal is not necessarily one shared between God and a person, but it is rather God as the sacrifical meal shared among disciples. In essence, to have a relationship with God one must have a relationship with others. Or in other words, God is worshipped through the relationship with others. While they ate this meal together Jesus taught, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” He then prays: “As thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us. . . . that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.”
On this Easter weekend, perhaps we need to set aside the sacrificial tendences of false worship and work harder to love one another. Perhaps we need to strive harder to come together as one, rather than cut up the body of Christ anew to prove our devotion. Perhaps we need to be a little less like Abraham with the righteous courage to sacrifice others, and more like God with the loving desire to sit down and have a meal together.