Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac

Sometimes I get stuck on a piece of Scripture like a popcorn kernel lodged inconveniently in my teeth. One such passage is Genesis 22:1-14, or better known as “that crazy story about Abraham wanting to kill his son Isaac.” I’ve struggled for years on this one, even more so since I became a father myself, and I still don’t have it quite figured out.

But this week I found help in the most unexpected places.

Let me first say that I’m committed to interfaith dialogue. While I am squarely Christian myself, I find that dialogue between various points-of-view in a civil and respectful way is of great benefit to me. Maybe it is the Religion Major in me. I am the spiritual director for a program called TAP (Thompson-Pound Art Program) which is a summer day art camp for children of all religions, socio-economic backgrounds, and cultures. The idea is that if we can teach children how to live in peace through relationship-building now, perhaps they will be less likely to hate and fear one another as adults.

TAP is one of the most important things I do. I don’t lose my Christianity in building relationships with people of other faiths. Instead, I learn to honor my Christianity more through these relationships. People think that interfaith dialogue is another way to say, “All the religions are the same, right?” but that’s not how I view this dialogue. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are decidedly not the same, however we do share many common traits. It’s in the learning of these differences and similarities that we come to understand our positions better, which leads me to back to Abraham.

All week, I had been chewing on Genesis 22:1-14, like I do every three years it rears it’s bizarre and troublesome head. One helpful Christian commentator, an Old Testament scholar, mentioned briefly that perhaps our struggle with this passage is because of our assumptions of how old the characters are in the story. We know that Abraham is very old at this point, and while the passage does call Isaac “boy,” we don’t really know if he was a 5-year-old or a 17-year-old boy. I’ve always pictured a child about 7 or 8 years-old, but that’s strictly my assumption because the text is not clear. If Abraham was old and perhaps feeble, and Isaac was a bit more sturdy and strong, perhaps Isaac could have easily stopped Abraham, but chose not to do so. Interesting.

Later that evening, the TAP leadership gathered for a celebration at a local Mexican restaurant. I got to sit next to a Muslim couple with whom I have enjoyed working the past 5 or 6 years. The husband is from Iran originally, and always comes to present to the children about how Muslims pray. He graciously shows us his prayer rug and the many positions Muslims use to honor God. I have a deep and abiding respect for this man. So I asked him, knowing that in Islam, the story is about Abraham sacrificing his firstborn son Ishmael, not Isaac, “How do Muslims view God and Abraham in light of that story?”

Submission to the will of God is a big deal in Islam, so this story is critical to their understanding of obedience. I have not read a translation of this story from the Qu’ran, only from my friend’s interpretation, so take my retelling with a grain of salt. In the story, which is very similar to the one in Genesis, Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Ishmael. Yet, Ishmael is clearly an older child and he willingly offers himself to be the sacrifice for Abraham. Yet, in God’s mercy, Abraham cannot perform the sacrifice because his blade won’t cut. Eventually, the blade is dropped and cuts a stone in half, which reveals a lamb to be slaughtered. Both Abraham and Ishmael are revered for their submission to God’s will, and God is worshipped for his mercy.

Perhaps this version isn’t too far from our Judeo-Christian version, but the fact that Ishmael would be willing to be sacrificed rather than forced into it by Abraham is remarkable. My main issue with the Genesis version is God demanding the sacrifice to begin with and Abraham being so willing to comply. But if Isaac chose to¬†sacrifice himself, then at least for me, that helps the story make a little more sense. The connection to Jesus then makes a bit more sense as well, if perhaps he gained his inspiration of being a willing sacrifice from Isaac. I wouldn’t have made that connection if it hadn’t been for my Muslim friend. It doesn’t explain everything, but it certainly helps.

If only we could all gain such wisdom from those who differ from us.

One last plug for TAP. The picture above is of my son Tai, a Christian, and his friend Daniel, a Jew, performing the Hindu rite of Raksha Bandhan, which celebrates the love and duty between brothers and sisters in the exchange of bracelets, called rahkis. A Christian and a Jew doing a Hindu ritual. Amazing.

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