In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul likens different spiritual teachings to different types of food when he says to them “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it”. In this regard, the story of Abraham and Isaac is definitely ‘solid food’, the sort that only belongs to those who are willing and able to chew.
The standard interpretation of the account is that Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac foreshadowed God’s sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ. While not disputing that basic interpretation, the early Christians also believed in what some might call an alternative interpretation, which shall be further explained below. (See S. G. Hall, “Melito of Sardis: On Pascha and Fragments”, Fragment 9)
The alternative interpretation finds it root in the fact that although Abraham bound up his son Isaac and placed him upon the altar he was not actually sacrificed. The account says that after the Angel of the Lord told Abraham not to sacrifice his son, “Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” (Genesis 22:13). This sacrificial ram was seen as a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which in turn made Isaac, the one for whom Jesus was offered, into the symbol of Adam, or all humanity.
Understanding the story in this light gives new meaning to certain words which are found earlier in the account. The account begins this way: “After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah” (Genesis 22:1-2). If Isaac is seen as the symbol of humanity, and Abraham the symbol for God, then by the phrase “Isaac, whom you love” we see expressed God’s reason for saving man, because God loves him. Also notice in the account that the ram that symbolizes Christ was found “caught in a thicket” which of course was understood to be a reference of how Christ was fastened to the cross.
While both interpretations are valid, I prefer this one. This interpretation shifts the entire story rather to being about God’s love for man as symbolized by Abraham’s love for his son Isaac, and about God’s plan for the salvation of man as symbolized by Christ the ram being caught in the thicket of the cross and then being sacrificed on behalf of all.
Naysayers of course will challenge this account, just as they do the rest of the scriptures, by saying that it was unnecessary for Isaac to be sacrificed at all, and thus they will miss the entire point of the matter. Jesus Christ is not a lamb, nor is God a nomadic tribesman who lived in Canaan five millenniums ago. These are simply placeholders, or tokens, which we “see through a mirror darkly” as Saint Paul puts it to the Corinthians. They are intended to raise our minds gently and slowly, like the opening of a flower, to the light of God’s mysteries hidden in Christ. They are bread crumbs upon the trail, which God has lovingly left for us to ponder, and ponder indeed we do, as we chew upon this solid food.