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Abraham & Isaac

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.


Sacred scripture—no matter the tradition—usually counsels its readers to become more self-aware, generous and respectful toward humanity by means of teaching some form of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Yet, the cultural and historical details of certain scriptural narratives often feature nuances which lead to a great deal of discomfort and/or interpretive hurdles in terms of deriving a “modern” lesson for current application.


The other day, the story of Hagar came up in a reading from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament in The Bible. Hagar is one of Sarah’s handmaids, an Egyptian slave-girl.  At Sarah’s suggestion, Hagar is used by Abraham to produce a male heir (this is prior to Sarah’s own unexpectedly late conception and birthing of her only son, Isaac).

For most modern audiences, there are aspects of this story which are highly problematic, especially in cultures where respect for an individual’s life, sense of personal choice and the sanctity of one’s volition with regard to the body are given priority. Still, in rereading the excerpt, what strikes me the most is that Hagar’s relationship with God is equal to that of Abraham’s and Sarah’s.

God does not forsake Hagar eventhough her worth and life, in the society of that time, are of little to no consequence or value. She and her body may be a means to Sarah’s and Abraham’s end, yet her relationship with God is equal–in terms of protection and guidance.

God listens to Hagar. God talks to Hagar. God reveals to Hagar her unique place in the grand plan. And, ultimately, Grace places an umbrella of protection over Hagar and her son, Ishmael, after they are cast out into the desert.

What I have learned is this: Even as the sands of a social circumstance may become like quicksand and threaten to swallow a person up, Grace is the one surety, toward which we may turn and upon which we may rely.

So, remember to get quiet, open your heart and listen, because cultivating a connection with the Light provides protection and support.