I’ve been told that I’m flirting with heresy if I claim that the account of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is a symbolic, not a historical, truth. Is this true? If so, how are we to understand God’s command to break one of his own laws (especially considering that Cain was presumed guilty of murder without any previous divine command)?
There is no apparent reason from Scripture to believe that God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was symbolic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in fact, appears to presume its historical reality:
Christian hope takes up and fulfills the hope of the chosen people which has its origin and model in the hope of Abraham, who was blessed abundantly by the promises of God fulfilled in Isaac, and who was purified by the test of the sacrifice. “Hoping against hope, he believed, and thus became the father of many nations” (CCC 1819).
We must be careful not to confuse the sacrificial offering asked by God of Abraham with a presumed divine command to murder Isaac. Indeed, a similar confusion has led some Christian theologians to argue erroneously that Jesus committed self-murder by offering his life for the salvation of all mankind.
Sacrifice is the legitimate renunciation of a particular good – in this case, the great good of life itself – by those with legitimate authority either to offer it (in the case of Jesus’ self-sacrifice) or to request it (in the case of God, in his test of Abraham). Murder, on the other hand, is the illegitimate killing of a human being, either by the self or by another. This is the context in which we may understand that God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, not to murder him
(cf. Gen. 22:2).
Salvation Is from the Jews** by Roy Schoeman