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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: Faithfulness and obedience

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The Sacrifice of Abraham by Andrea del Sarto, C. 1485-1530. Photo: Jean Louis Mazieres/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED
The Sacrifice of Abraham by Andrea del Sarto, C. 1485-1530. Photo: Jean Louis Mazieres/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED

It was known as The Nuremberg Defence. Following the Second World War, an International Military Tribunal was established by the principal Allied powers, tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the most heinous of the Nazi “crimes against humanity”. The so-called ‘Nuremberg Trials’ convicted nineteen officials for their roles in planning and carrying out these atrocities. Among them were: Luftwaffe chief and Nazi politician, Herman Göring; propagandist and deputy führer, Rudolf Hess; and Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer. Apart from disputing the authority of the tribunal, the most common excuse of the accused was ‘I was just following orders’—the Nuremberg Defence.

Our first reading tells the harrowing story of Abraham deceiving and then binding his son Isaac with a view to slitting his throat and offering him as a holocaust (Gen 22:1-18). Hearing that story must have appalled every Jew: not just because killing the innocent, especially a child, one’s own child, is an appalling aim; not just because the Torah absolutely prohibited human and especially child sacrifice; not even because it tends to discredit the father of the three great ‘Abrahamic’ religions. What was most distressing was that, given that all Jews descend from Isaac, such a sacrifice would have amounted to the elimination of the Jewish people.

Were Abraham brought before the Nuremberg tribunal, he might have pleaded ‘I was just obeying orders.’ To which the prosecutor would have responded, “You’re delusional! No God worth believing in could command such a thing. It’s against reason and common humanity, against the law natural and divine. You sought to kill an innocent man—and with him the whole Jewish people!”

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Abraham’s barrister might have objected that Isaac was spared at the last moment: there was no murder, no war-crime. But the prosecutor would have pressed: that last minute change of course doesn’t diminish what Abraham intended to do; he attempted murder and so was a dangerous person. He might escape execution, but a long custodial sentence was in order! As for the God who gave the command…

Could God really ask someone to do such a thing? Could a good person obey such a command? Or did Abraham have his wires crossed and get the divine instructions wrong? Was he less the faithful patriarch and more the fanatic psychopath? Part of the answer is surely that the Book of Genesis is not a piece of international law or even a parenting manual: it’s a theological narrative. There are many behaviours in these stories that no-one would condone, and the characters in these narratives sometimes attribute to God things that are clearly human inventions. So, when it comes to Bible stories: handle with care.

How best to handle this story with care? Well, it’s clear that Abraham was only being tested, that God was never going to let it happen, that Isaac was never really in danger. The moral of the story is not about filicidal or genocidal intentions: it’s about faithfulness and obedience. So, St Augustine said Abraham couldn’t have believed that God desired Isaac’s death: it’s contrary to all Abraham knew, Augustine knew, we know about God. Abraham only went through the motions of sacrificing his son, Augustine thought, all the while confident that God would save the boy from death or restore his life immediately thereafter.[i] Abraham is the gold standard, not of violence but of trust in God. Jews, Christians and Muslims all celebrate him as “our father in faith”.[ii] Father Abraham must be judged “NOT GUILTY”.

But still the story would be puzzling, were it not for readings like today’s Epistle and Gospel. The account of the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-10) settles once and for all who Jesus really is. The disciples have their say. Moses and Elijah—the Law and the Prophets—testify too. Jesus speaks without words, allowing His divine glory to be seen. And finally, God the Father declares Him “My beloved Son”. Now we realise Jesus is the new Isaac. God was never going to let the original Isaac be sacrificed; Abraham hinted at this when (in a verse strangely left out of our lectionary selection) he told his boy that God would provide what was needed for the sacrifice (Gen 22:8). It would be God’s Son not Abraham’s.

In our epistle today Paul chimes in: “God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all” (Rom 8:31-34). Abraham had said “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering” and throughout the New Testament Jesus is identified as the Lamb of God, the new Pasch, slain to take away the sins of the world but risen and now victorious on the throne of God.[iii]

The Father’s command to us today is ‘Listen to Him’, listen to Jesus, my Son, my Lamb. Jesus speaks to us in a privileged way in the Sacred Scriptures. When we read them prayerfully, with the mind of the Church, they help us better understand the history of salvation. The third century exegete Origen argued, against those who questioned God’s actions in the Old Testament, that we need to read them in light of our faith in Christ, His Cross and Resurrection.[iv] Or as St Augustine put it so cleverly: in the Old Testament the New is concealed and in the New Testament the Old is revealed.[v] Read in Christ’s Easter light, the story of Abraham and Isaac is no longer the tale of a capricious God demanding the unspeakable from a fanatical subordinate, but something much more profound and more beautiful. It is the foreshadowing of the true sacrifice, that of a loving Father God who would give His all, even His only Son, to redeem us; and that of a Beloved Son who gave Himself up freely for our sake. To receive His transfiguring grace, all you need do is open your heart, mind, ears and ‘Listen to Him.’

[i] Augustine, City of God, Book XVI, c. 32 in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, translated by Philip Schaff. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.XVI.32.html

[ii] In Jewish tradition, Abraham is called Avraham Avinu (אברהם אבינו), “our father Abraham”: Gen 12:2; 15:5; 22:16-18; Isa 41:8; cf. Mt 3:9; Lk 1:55,73; 13:16; 19:9; Jn 8:33-58; cf. Acts 3:13,25 etc. Amongst Christians: Mt 8:12; Lk 20:37-38; Rom 4:16; Gal 3:29; St Augustine,  In Joan. Ev. 108; Eucharistic Prayer I. For Muslims, Ibrāhīm is a prophet, the first Muslim and mentioned in 35 chapters of the Quran. Abraham as father of all nations: Gen 17:4-6,16.

[iii] Jesus as the Lamb of God: Jn 1:29,36; cf. Acts 8:32. Jesus identified with the Passover Lamb: Mk ch. 14; Lk ch. 22; 1Cor 5:7; 1Pet 1:19; Rev 12:11. Jesus as the Lamb enthroned victorious in heaven: Rev 5:1-13; 6:1,16; 7:9-17; 8:1; 13:8; 14:1,4; 15:3; 17:14; 19:7,9; 21:9,14,22-27.

[iv] See Peter W. Martens, Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford University Press, 2012); Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen (Ignatius Press, 2007).

[v] St Augustine, De Spiritu et Littera c. 27.

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