The troubling story that appears in the first reading this Sunday is traditionally called the “Binding of Isaac.” Having received his long-hoped-for son, Abraham now receives instructions from God to offer the boy as a whole-burnt offering. At the very last minute God intervenes, but not before its becomes clear to Isaac—and the horrified reader—that Abraham is ready to go through with the ritual. Although Isaac goes free and Abraham is rewarded for his fidelity, no one feels good about the incident. Rabbinic tradition connects Sarah’s death, related in the next chapter, to her shock at the event, and other ancient nonbiblical traditions claim that Isaac spoke forever after with a stutter.
‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.’ Mk 9:7
How can you recommit yourself to God’s call?
How can your obedience to God free someone else from death?
Even the best biblical scholars today struggle to explain this narrative’s original meaning. It may have had something to do with the prohibition of child-sacrifice in ancient Israel, although legislation in Exodus and Deuteronomy was probably more effective in that regard. It may have been a parable about Abraham’s passionate fidelity to God; but if so, it made ancient commentators question the goodness of a God who would demand such a thing. Given certain features of its grammar, a few scholars have even wondered if this account was originally a scribal training exercise and never meant to be sacred Scripture. The “Binding of Isaac” raises more questions than it answers.
But scholars do know how this story was understood in Jesus’ day, and that understanding is key to an interpretation of this Sunday’s Gospel. Jewish traditions of the first century A.D. emphasized a detail that is utterly lacking in the Bible. Isaac, they relate, was a willing victim. He knew what God had demanded of his father, and he offered himself for the success of the covenant. Isaac emerges from these accounts a martyr, a hero. Some of these stories even claimed that Isaac died on the altar, but that God raised him and returned him to his father.
These nonbiblical traditions were widespread because the Jewish people in Jesus’ day had only recently emerged from a time of persecution. Stories of good Jews sacrificing themselves for their nation were popular, and the “Binding of Isaac” became such a story. Even if Jesus and his disciples knew the biblical narrative by heart, they would have also known a version in which Isaac achieved lasting fame by giving himself freely for Israel.
Mark wrote his account of the transfiguration in this light. Jesus is Isaac, offering himself freely for the good of all. The transfiguration thus fulfills Isaac’s example and foreshadows the cross. The transfiguration also prefigures the resurrection. The events in today’s Gospel passage symbolize the perfect obedience that led to Jesus’ glory and the salvation of all.
For Isaac, obedience brought forth a nation. For Jesus, self-offering led to glory. This glory was not, as many might think, an efflorescence of pride or a magnification of ego. Instead it was an obscure life and dishonorable death that somehow freed others to live and die in grace. Just so, we must offer ourselves for the good of others. If our quiet acts of transformation this Lent help even one other person feel the love of God, then we have learned to live out the mystery of the Transfiguration.