Mountains were sacred in the world that Israel inhabited. Remote and seldom visited, encircled by clouds, thunder, and rain, they were perfect homes of the majestic gods. The first reading, from Genesis, and the third, from the Gospel of Mark, show them to be places where the Lord encounters humans. A mountain is an apt site for Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. The story never fails to shock readers in contrast to the positively-viewed Transfiguration.

But if we consider the context of Abraham’s sacrifice, we can see that it too has a positive side, and teaches a valuable lesson. The very first verse in chapter 22, “God tested Abraham,” shifts attention from God to Abraham and reduces the dramatic tension. Moreover, God’s command to give up his son echoes the earlier command to Abraham in chapter 12 to give up his homeland. The final chapters repeat words from the opening chapters, “Go to the land” in both 12:1 and 22:2. The parallel between the opening and closing of the story shows that one must surrender one’s most precious things – a homeland, a beloved son – in order to receive them back enriched from the Lord. The theme of giving up one’s son appears twice more in Genesis: Judah is asked to give up his only son Selah to Tamar in chapter 38, and Jacob in chapter 43 is asked to give up his only remaining Rachel son Benjamin by allowing him to go to Egypt. In all these instances, the father receives his son back enriching his family. Christians will be reminded of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave [up] his only Son.” In short, one must read Genesis 22 with appreciation of its symbolism and its function in the large narrative.

The Gospel of Mark shows another scene on a mountain also with a shadow side, for the glorious Transfiguration also is preceded and followed by Jesus’s prediction of his coming passion and death in Jerusalem. It is an interesting that in the Book of Chronicles’ retelling of Abraham’s sacrifice, the mountain of Abraham’s sacrifice is identified as Jerusalem, a place of sacrificial offering.

What do these mountain appearances of the Lord teach us today? They display to us the sovereignty of God who makes a total claim on Abraham’s life, and a total claim on the three disciples. In the Transfiguration, Jesus enables his followers to make their own the story of Israel symbolized by Moses and Elijah.