In one of the most traditional interpretations of the Abraham and Isaac story, in which Abraham believes he has been commanded by God to make a burnt offering of his young son, Isaac, only to be stopped at the last moment and guided to offer up a ram in Isaac’s stead, the primary moral generally derived is that we must be prepared to lay everything down in sacrifice, at God’s request, before we will ever experience God’s Grace, blessings or “rewards.”
Yet, Grace—or God—is not the force testing us daily; it is worldly living which tests us daily, as does the dialogue between our own internal Light, that which is of God’s Grace residing in our hearts, and our more worldly inclined minds. For most of us, these are the sources of our most pernicious struggles and the genuine “tests” which occur every day.
I would like to offer an alternate and more metaphorical, interpretive reading of this ancient text.
In this metaphorical reading, Abraham represents the intellect of a devout, if not somewhat overly zealous worshipper of God. Abraham actively seeks to become closer to God’s Grace or know God through the limiting confines of his own mind and to honor God by means of following the ritual acts of sacrificial worship to which he has become accustomed—burnt offerings. Isaac, in contrast, is Abraham’s very heart and happiness—the Light, which when properly attended to, is full of ebullient laughter, joy and potential. It is Isaac’s natural love which brings God’s Grace closer to Abraham than any other person or force in Abraham’s life.
Abraham begins his trek to do what he perceives to be God’s bidding, to offer Isaac’s life up, in the same blind and disconnected way in which we often manage, through our convoluted reasoning, to separate ourselves from the Light within our own hearts. Separation from the heart’s Light is often caused by the mind’s ability to overthink situations, by an excessively rigid adherence to societal norms or by our own inappropriate reactions to what we perceive to be “the best” course of behavior at a given time.
As Abraham and Isaac come closer to the moment when the burnt offering is to be made, Isaac (the heart) asks the Abraham (the mind) where the offering is. The zealous and ungrounded mind reassures the innocent and confused heart that God will provide. And, this is where, I would argue, Grace makes Its appearance in the text—as a struggling ram whose horns are caught in a thicket. In this interpretive reading, God’s Grace is consistantly attempting to intervene on our behalf to bring each of us back into our own awareness of the sacred nature of life, the Light and the inherent joy residing in everything around us—to the extent that Grace is willing to sacrifice Itself so that we may continue to honor, embrace and affirm the very relationships which sustain us—whether those relationships are internal or external in nature.
So, what does this interpretation mean in relationship to the sacrifice-reward paradigm set up in the original text in the following, concluding passage? “…for because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, from me, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall inherit the lands of your enemies; and by your ‘seed’ [which can also mean ‘teaching’ in Aramaic] shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because you have obeyed my voice.”
Given the metaphorical nature of this interpretation, I read this portion of the text as a request by Grace for us to surrender our hearts fully to the Light. The “sacrifice” we make in doing this, more than anything, usually involves some sort of disconnect with whatever current, societal norms go against affirming life. And, once an individual’s whole-hearted relationship with Grace has been established, the reward of inheriting the “lands of your enemies” involves the winning over of others’ hearts. Thus, in this interpretive rendering, there is—eventually—no Other or Enemy.
For me, the Abraham and Isaac story asks each of us to cultivate our very personal and internal relationship with the heart’s Light and joy, as well as requesting that we do not turn away from our potential for developing a carefully and fully attuned heart (the one, true gift from God) by becoming overzealous in the areas of our lives and minds that would cause us to forget the sacred quality of our own life, family ties, relationship to community, one another’s hearts and nature’s fragile web.