The moving story of the sacrifice of Isaac is rich in significance. The book of Genesis tells us that God told Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac to him, on Mount Moriah. Abraham set out to do just that, taking the boy Isaac up the mountain and building an altar for the sacrifice. Only at the last minute – as Abraham was wielding the knife – did God intervene to stop the death – by speaking directly to him from heaven.
God had previously promised Abraham that through his son Isaac a great nation would be born (Genesis 17:1-8, 19). Abraham had such trust in God that he believed that he would still somehow fulfil this promise, even if Isaac had to die. (Hebrews 11:17-19). This great faith is celebrated in the New Testament, which says that by being prepared to sacrifice Isaac, his faith had passed the test (James 2:21).
The story also works on another level. As St John Paul II explained: “The sacrifice of Isaac anticipates that of Christ: the Father did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for the world’s salvation. He who withheld Abraham’s arm when he was at the point of immolating Isaac, did not hesitate to sacrifice his own Son for our redemption. Abraham’s sacrifice thus emphasizes the fact that human sacrifices must never be performed anywhere, since the only true and perfect sacrifice is that of the only-begotten and eternal Son of the living God.”
The sculpture is found on the altar frontal of the Jesuit church in Farm Street, Mayfair. It was originally designed by Augustus Welby Pugin. The front of the altar also features three other Old Testament figures who offered sacrifice in anticipation of the sacrifice of Christ – Abel, Noah and Melchizedek. In this dramatic scene, poor Isaac is blindfolded while Abraham is distracted from killing his son by the voice from heaven.
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Where to find this work of art
Farm Street Church, London
Read the relevant passage