Abraham is unique among all God’s prophets because he, and he alone, was subjected to the awesome test of submitting to the Divine will by his willingness to sacrifice his own son. By passing this test, Abraham becomes the archetypal “Man of Faith” for pious believers among not just one; but three different religious faiths.
Most religious thought has focused on Abraham, the Friend of God, as the “Man of Faith” and not on the question of why no other prophets have been tested in this manner.
Abraham was not the only one in his era to believe in monotheism. And there were many religious leaders, both long before and long after the time of Abraham, who thought that their God could and did demand of a believer that he or she sacrifice a child.
Abraham’s action, and God’s refusal to allow the child to be killed, explicitly taught all future believers in the three religions of Abraham, that human sacrifice was an abomination to God, and must be avoided.
There is, I believe, also an implicit teaching in Abraham’s action, that forms a major feature of each of the three religions that revere Abraham as the genesis of their own faith.
In order to understand how Abraham’s offering of his son is an archetype for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, one has to understand the insight of monotheism.
For the majority of human history the overwhelming majority of human beings have been polytheists. Polytheists do not see harmony in the natural and social world around them.
Polytheists see conflicts and strife throughout the world; and rationally conclude that the spiritual world is the same. Animals and humans have families, so it is reasonable to think that the gods also have families. Different gods clash and produce conflicts both in heaven and on earth.
How does a monotheist explain the clash of natural forces like floods, famines and earthquakes? Even more important, how do monotheists explain why, if there is only one God, weren’t humans created to do God’s will instinctively.
Why can thousands of bees live in a hive, and millions of termites live in a mound, all working in harmony, without fighting among themselves; while even several dozen humans can’t seem to live in a small village without disagreements and strife?
The answer is that God wanted to create a species of self conscious individuals who could think and feel for themselves. “Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation, but He allows whom He wills to stray and He guides whom He wills. (Qur’an 16:93)
The traditional commentary Tafsir Ibn Kathir says this means, “If Allah had willed, He would have made all of Humanity one Nation. This is like the verse: “Had your Lord willed, all of those on earth would have believed together.” (10:99), meaning He could have created harmony among them, and there would not be any differences, conflicts or hatred between them.
This would seem to indicate that hatred between human as nations, religions and individuals will always exist. This is nor correct. “And if your Lord had so willed, He would surely, have made mankind one Ummah [nation or community], and they will never cease to disagree. Except him on whom your Lord has bestowed His mercy, and for that did He create them.” (11:118-119)
Although God made Homo Sapiens to be a species of self conscious individuals who could think and feel for themselves, with God’s help/mercy humans can learn to live in harmony and peace with others.
But God pays a price for our freedom to choose evil as well as good. God sees the evil that humans do, and since God cares, it hurts. God must self-restrain from micromanaging human society and life.
According to the rabbis God created the possibility of human repentance even before creating the universe, because God knew self conscious human individuals, who could think and feel for themselves, would do both good and evil.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 15th century Egyptian born Kabbalist mystic, called this process of Divine Self restraint Tsimtsum. As a result of Tsimtsum, when the universe was created it was fractured, and this is why nature and human society are so often lacking in fairness and mercy.
Thus, God will not make everything good all by Himself, and we cannot make everything good all by ourselves, but together we can make as God will.
For Jews, this joint venture results in submitting to the Torah covenant between God and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.
For Christians, this results in believing in Jesus, the son who is willing to be sacrificed, who connects Christian believers with God’s grace.
For Muslims, this results in submitting to the will of Allah as delivered by Prophet Muhammad.
For Jews and Christians the place of Abraham’s sacrifice offering was Jerusalem where Solomon would build God’ sanctuary for offerings, and where Jesus would offer to sacrifice his life.
For Muslims, the place of Abraham’s sacrifice was Makka, where Abraham and his son would rebuild the Ka’ba.
God helps the people of each of the three monotheistic religions through the way He has offered them. All of these ways can lead those who sincerely follow them to Allah:
“To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation, but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” (5:48)
The Qur’an calls Prophet Abraham a community or a nation: “Abraham was a nation/community [Ummah]; dutiful to God, a monotheist [hanif], not one of the polytheists.” (16:120) If Prophet Abraham is an Ummah then fighting between the descendants of Prophets Ishmael and Isaac is a civil war and should always be avoided.
If all Arabs and Jews can live up to the ideal that ‘the descendants of Abraham’s sons should never make war against each other’ is the will of God; we will help fulfill the 2700 year old vision of Prophet Isaiah: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)