Whether you think that God’s demand for Abraham to sacrifice his only son is unreasonable or merely a test of his fidelity, or even as some argue, an outright rejection of human sacrifice, the account of Abraham’s interface with God is, like Noah’s account that we read last Sunday, a story of God’s covenant with humanity. Told within the context of the customs and etiology of the people of the Ancient Near East, the story contained the essential ingredients of ancient covenantal pacts. Ancient covenants are no bilateral contracts between equals, but more often than not, pacts between a superior and an inferior in which the superior imposes his will on the inferior, usually as an act of grace and generosity. Ancient covenants have these essential parts: historical prologue, terms, oath of fidelity, and imprecations—detailing the fate of any party to the covenant who violates its terms (McKenzie). In the covenant ritual, a sacrificial animal is divided into two parts between which each party passes, ensuring that their bodies come in contact with the blood, thus imprecating upon themselves the fate of the slaughtered animal should they violate the covenant. Most covenants would, materially speaking, favor significantly the inferior party whose only obligation was often to subject himself to the will of the superior. We see the aftermath of Abraham’s openness to subject himself to the desires of God—innumerable blessings to which Abraham and his descendants are exposed as reward for his fidelity. Among these blessings are: countless children, possession of the lands of their enemies, and the synergistic flow of blessings through identification with the patriarchy of Abraham.
Westerners, generally, have an impoverished idea of covenant. We understand contract better and are often tempted to view our covenantal relationship with God as a contract, with automatic “quid pro quo” content. Chief among the reasons the so-called “Nones” are abandoning the Christian faith is because the benefit expected for fidelity doesn’t immediately arrive. Raised as materialists by parents who experienced the Great Depression (during which they saw long-term savings disappear all of a sudden), many millennials cling to the immediate material effect of actions and promises, having no patience for long term effects and consequences. Based on the epicurean philosophy of planned obsolescence, our cars, buildings, computers, and accessories are currently not built to last. We battle daily with computer upgrades and obsolescence that consign them to the graveyard. You may have noticed that you can no longer find replacement ink for your six year old printer. Contrast that with the thinking that led the people who built this nation, this magnificent church, and many of the beautiful cathedrals of the renaissance, to erect structures that would outlast them and benefit their children’s children.
God’s rewards of the covenant are not paved with here and now effects, rather with enduring consequences built into our system. The blessings of the covenant do not lose their effects because they’ll rather go to our children instead of us. It was Abraham’s descendants—not Abraham himself—who experienced the bulk of the blessings promised. We’re not to peg our fidelity to the covenant on the guarantee that its good effects would come immediately and directly to us—a kind of: “I’ll worry about me and you worry about you.” Such would wipe completely an essential virtue that prepares us for the life of heaven, namely, the virtue of hope. It kills the element of sacrifice and altruism embedded in the Christian faith and becomes a hindrance to virtuous living.
Jesus demonstrates this to the privileged apostles, Peter, James, and John when on the mountain of transfiguration He opened to them a vision of the likeness of the glory of heaven. It was a kind of “fait accompli” assuring them that heaven is real and a goal to which they should give all in order to attain. The reward will certainly come our way if we keep faith and endure the trials of this life as preparation for the glory that is to be revealed. The three apostles bear human testimony that, yes, heaven is real and worth waiting for.