2nd Sunday of Lent, Genesis 22:1-2,9a,10-13,15-18
God put Abraham to the test. […] [And the angel said to Abraham] “I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
In the first reading of this Sunday’s Mass, the Church hears the account of the testing of Abraham. It is very clear from the sacred text: God puts Abraham to a true and real test. Yet, we firmly believe that God knows all things, past and present and future. If then the Creator knew Abraham’s faith and knew that he would not spare his own son but would be willing to offer him up in sacrifice, why did God need to test him?
Further, if God knows all things, why does he say (through his Angel), I know now, as though he had not known it before? Could it be that God learned something new on this day? Was the Almighty instructed by the action of his creature? Did the Most High require evidence to be convinced of the faith of his servant?
We shall see that something else is at work in this passage.
God knows all things, and he knew Abraham’s faith
Sacred Scripture clearly testifies that God knows all things: God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. (1 John 3:20)
God is Truth, and all that is exists only because he knows it. Thus, for God “not to know” is for the thing not only not to exist, but to be unable to exist. In this sense, only those things which cannot be known – i.e. concepts which are utterly meaningless and contrary to all reason, propositions which reject the principle of non-contradiction – are unknown to God. All else, all that has being or could possibly have being, is known to God.
Further, God does not need to look to creation in order to know a thing, rather his knowledge (and his love) is the cause of the existence of all things. Hence, because a thing does not exist without him knowing and loving it, there can be no sense whatsoever in which God looks to the world so as to grow in knowledge of that which he has created.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that God not only knew Abraham’s faith, but also knew that Abraham would be willing to offer his son Isaac upon the mountain. The Lord knows all that will ever be and, while still respecting human freedom (in a mysterious way), he infallibly knew all that Abraham would freely choose.
Hence, we can be certain that God did not test Abraham in order to discover whether he had true faith.
The Lord “tested” Abraham to make his faith known
Rather, it is certain that God tested Abraham so as to make the Patriarch’s faith known both to himself (Abraham) and to all the world. God put Abraham to the test as a way of manifesting to all people that he is truly the Father of believers.
It happens in Scripture that God is said to “know” something, in the sense that he “makes it to be known.” Likewise, God is said to “not know” something, insofar as he “does not make it to be known.” Thus it is that, in this passage, God tests Abraham – not as seeking knowledge, but as making truth to be known to others.
The Angel, speaking in the person of God, says, I know now how devoted you are to God. It is not as though it is only at this late moment, when Abraham has offered his son Isaac to God, that the Lord has come to know of Abraham’s faith – God was not learning something new here. Rather, it was at this moment that God (through his angelic messenger) has made Abraham’s faith to be known both to Abraham and to all.
Put simply, the testing of Abraham was not unto God’s benefit, but for the Patriarch’s sake and ours.
The sense in which Jesus did not know the day and hour of the Judgment
Jesus says, But of that day or hour no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father. (Mark 13:32)
It is a heresy to claim that Jesus (even in his humanity) did not know that day and the hour of the final judgment. The human intellect of Jesus was ignorant of no created thing, past, present, or future. To claim that our Lord did not know the time of the Second Coming is the heresy of “agnoeticism” and was condemned by Pope Gregory the Great, and further condemned by many other magisterial pronouncements.
For further on this point please see our earlier article [here]. Also, if any questions, “If Jesus knew, why didn’t he tell us?”, he may consider this article [here].
What is most enlightening, however, in our present context is the connection which St. Augustine makes between the “ignorance” of Jesus (in his humanity) about the Second Coming and the “ignorance” of God about the faith of Abraham: “Recall that in a similar way it was said to Abraham: Now I know that you fear God, in the sense that now I am taking you through a continuing journey to know yourself, because Abraham came to know himself only after he had been tried in adversity. […] Jesus was ‘ignorant’ in this sense, so to speak, among his disciples, of that which they were not yet able to know from him. He only said that which was seasonally fitting for them to know. Among those with mature wisdom he knew in a different way than among babes.” (De Trinitate 1.12.23)
Why did God put Abraham to the test? The literal sense
The literal sense is that meaning which is conveyed by the very words of the Sacred Text. Further, it is possible that this meaning was known both by Moses, who wrote Genesis, and also by Abraham – though, there are times when the literal sense is only partially known (or even not known at all) by the human beings involved. In this particular case, St. Paul tells us exactly what Abraham was thinking during this episode.
By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son; (To whom it was said: In Isaac shall thy seed be called.) Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him for a parable. (Hebrews 11:17-19)
The literal sense of the testing of Abraham is that the Patriarch had true faith in the resurrection. It is a matter of faith (by reason of the fact that it has been revealed in Scripture) that Abraham believed that, if he sacrificed his son Isaac, God would raise him from the dead back to (at least) natural life.
This was the faith which God was manifesting and making known to all people: Abraham’s explicit faith in the resurrection of the dead.
Why did God put Abraham to the test? The spiritual sense
While the spiritual sense is surely unknown to the human author who wrote Genesis (i.e. Moses), yet it was known and intended by the God who inspired the writing. Thus, if we ask why God put Abraham to the test, the spiritual sense offers just as valid an explanation as does the literal sense – for both the spiritual and literal sense were intended and known by the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul tells us that God gave Isaac back to Abraham for a parable (Hebrews 11:19) – and this refers to the spiritual sense, by which persons and events of the Old Testament foreshadow persons and event of the New Testament. Isaac is a sign, figure, and type of Christ. As Isaac was offered as a sacrifice but returned alive, so too would Christ be offered in the sacrifice of the Cross and yet return alive in the Resurrection. In this sense, the ram is also a type and figure of Christ, insofar as the ram was indeed slain as was too the Christ.
It is for this reason also that God put Abraham to the test: Not only to manifest Abraham’s faith, but also to prepare the way for the perfect sacrifice which would be effected when God the Father offered up his own beloved Son upon the mountain of Calvary on the altar of the Cross, and yet received him back alive through his glorious Resurrection from the dead.
And this is why Abraham said, “God will provide himself a victim for an holocaust, my son.” (Genesis 22:11) And our Savior said, “Abraham your father rejoiced that he might see my day: he saw it, and was glad.” (John 8:56)
For indeed, in prophetic foresight, Abraham knew something of the true and perfect sacrifice by which the Messiah would fulfill the promise of blessing for all peoples.