GENESIS 12-21. THE CONTEXT
Abraham’s story begins with his call, when his name was Abram. God told Abram:
“Get out of your country,
and from your relatives, and from your father’s house,
to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation.
I will bless you and make your name great.
You will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and I will curse him who curses you.
All of the families of the earth
will be blessed in you.” (12:1-3).
God’s promise to make of Abram a great nation implies that Abram will have a legitimate heir.
Abram was 75 years old at the time of his departure from Haran (12:4). He was married to Sarai (later Sarah), but they had no children—and at their age they had no reason (except God’s promise that he would make of Abram a great nation) to believe that they would ever have a child.
Later, God said, “After these things the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward’.”
Abram said, “Lord Yahweh, what will you give me, since I go childless, and he who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” (15:1-2).
God responded, “This man will not be your heir, but he who will come out of your own body will be your heir.”
Yahweh brought him outside, and said, “Look now toward the sky, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” He said to Abram, “So shall your seed be” (15:4-5). This promise was very specific. Abram would have a child—a legitimate heir. Abram “He believed in Yahweh; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness.” (15:6).
But Sarai, in anguish because she had been unable to bear children for Abram, told him to go in to her slave-girl, Hagar, so that Hagar might bear a child for him (16:2). She had grown weary of waiting for God to keep his promise to Abram, and felt a need to take matters in her own hands. Abram did as asked, and Hagar conceived a child.
Hagar then began to look with contempt on Sarai, who responded by complaining bitterly to Abram (16:5). Abram gave Sarai permission to do as she would with Hagar. Sarai acted so harshly that Hagar ran away into the wilderness (16:6). An angel found her there and told her that she would bear a son who would have so many descendants that they could not be counted. The angel told her to name her son Ishmael (Hebrew: yismael—”God hears”). Abram was 86 years old when Ishmael was born (16:15).
In chapter 17, God made a covenant with Abram, reaffirming the promises that God made earlier. Abraham responded to this promise by falling down laughing (17:17). The motif of laughter repeats frequently in chapters 17-21.
In chapter, 18, God promised Abraham and Sarah (the names conferred by God on Abram and Sarai in 17:5, 15) that they would have a son, and Sarah laughed (Hebrew: sahaq—a word related to yishaq or Isaac, which means “He laughs”).
Chapter 19 tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and chapter 20 tells of Abraham’s shameful behavior at Gerar (20:2).
Chapter 21 tells the story of Isaac’s birth (21:1-7), the fulfillment of God’s promise of an heir and surely the happiest time of Abraham and Sarah’s lives. Then the story quickly turns sour when Sarah becomes angry with Ishmael and insists that Ishmael will not share the inheritance with Isaac (21:10). She puts pressure on Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael from their camp. Abraham is distressed at the prospect, but God tells him to do what Sarah asks (21:12-13), so he sends Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness with minimal provisions (21:14).
After running out of water, Hagar and Ishmael prepare to die (21:16), but an angel of the Lord intervenes to promise that God will make a great nation of Ishmael. Then God opens Hagar’s eyes to see a well, where she and Ishmael get water (21:19). Then we are told that God was with the boy, and he grew up and became an expert bowman—and that Hagar (an Egyptian woman) got a bride from Egypt for Ishmael (21:20-21).
Then Abraham made a covenant with Abimelech. Abraham gave Abimelech seven ewes. When Abimelech accepted them, he acknowledged that Abraham had dug a well at Beer-Sheba. “Abraham lived as a foreigner in the land of the Philistines many days. ” (21:34).
PARALLELS WITH THE STORY OF ABRAM’S CALL (12:1-9)
In chapter 12, God called Abram, saying “Get out of (Hebrew: lek leka)your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (12:1-9).
• In chapter 12, God told Abram to leave those things that were central to Abram’s identity and security—his country, his kindred, and his father’s house—and to “go” (lek leka) to a land that God would show him. In chapter 22, God calls Abraham to take “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” (a threefold parallel to “your country and your relatives and your father’s house”) and “go” (lek leka) to the land of Moriah.
• In both cases, Abraham obeyed exactly. In chapter 12, “Abram went, as Yahweh had spoken to him” (12:4). In chapter 22, Abraham “rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son” (22:3).
• Both cases picture Abraham worshiping. In chapter 12, Abram built an altar at the oak of Moreh in Shechem and another altar east of Bethel (12:7-8). In chapter 22, Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac on an altar at Moriah (22:2, 9-10).
• In both cases, God promises blessings to Abraham. In chapter 12, God promised to make of Abram a great nation, to make him great, to bless him, and to bless all the families of the earth through him. In chapter 22, God doesn’t promise rewards at the beginning of the story, but in the end says,
“I have sworn by myself, says Yahweh,
because you have done this thing,
and have not withheld your son, your only son,
that I will bless you greatly,
and I will multiply your seed greatly
like the stars of the heavens,
and like the sand which is on the seashore.
Your seed will possess the gate of his enemies.
In your seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed,
because you have obeyed my voice” (22:16-18).
A PARALLEL WITH CHAPTER 21
In chapter 21, Abraham lost his firstborn son when Sarah became concerned with the inheritance. Now, in chapter 22, Abraham is faced with the loss of his remaining son when God tells him to sacrifice Isaac.
THE STRUCTURE OF THIS STORY
I found two different ways of looking at the structure of this story. The first is from Towner, who offers a structure for verses 1-19 (page 185). While he doesn’t label his structure as a chiasm, it appears to be one so I have reordered it as a chiasm as follows (I quote Towner’s words in this chiasm):
A. The Test: sacrifice son 1-2
B. Rising action, 3-6
C. “God will provide,” 7-8
D. Preparations, 9-10
E. Theophany and new orders, 11-12
D’. New preparations: the ram, 13
C’. “The Lord will provide,” 14
B’. Falling action, 15-18
A’. Test completed, 19
In a chiasm, A parallels A’, B parallels B’, etc. The chiasm focuses attention on the center element, in this case E, verses 11-12. In Towner’s structure, the heart of the story is the angel’s call, “Abraham, Abraham! … Don’t lay your hand on the boy, neither do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
GENESIS 22:1-2. GOD TESTED ABRAHAM
1It happened after these things, that God (Hebrew: elohim) tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” He said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go (Hebrew: lek leka) into the land of Moriah. Offer him there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.”
“It happened after these things” (v. 1a). What things? The last incident reported in chapter 21 was Abraham’s encounter with Abimelech—but the real purpose of “after these things” is to create a transition—a way to introduce a new story. The period of time between the last story and the new story is indefinite. It could be a few days or a few years.
“that God (elohim) tested(nissa) Abraham” (v. 1b). With the exception of verses 11 and 14, which use Yahweh, this passage uses Elohim throughout to refer to God.
This is one of a number of accounts in the Old Testament where God tests people. He will also test the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 15:25; 16:4). Testing “indicates an attempt to prove the quality of someone or something” (Richards, 593).
The scriptures also include stories of the devil tempting people. The difference between testing and tempting is that the tester hopes for the tested person to succeed, but the tempter hopes for the person to fail. We can be sure that God wants Abraham to pass this test with flying colors—which, as we will see, he will do handily.
“and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ and he said, ‘Here I am”” (v. 1c). When God called Abram in chapter 12, he simply said, “Go from your country…to the land I will show you” (12:1). But here, in chapter 22, he first calls Abraham’s name, perhaps signaling the gravity of what he is about to demand.
“Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac” (v. 2a). This speaks of Isaac as Abraham’s only son. We hear echoes of this phrase in the New Testament, where Jesus says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).
In truth, Abraham has another son, Ishmael, but at Sarah’s instigation he drove Hagar and Ishmael out of his camp into the wilderness (21:8 ff.), so that his relationship with them has been severed.
There is a lovely progression in this threefold statement:
• “Your son” is the most general of the three phrases.
• “Your only son” is much more personal, and attests to the special relationship between Abraham and Isaac.
• “Whom you love” is the first of the phrases to deal with Abraham’s feelings. It addresses the fact that Isaac is more to Abraham than the means to carry on the family name. Abraham loves Isaac—loves him more than life itself.
The question that Abraham will now have to answer is whether he loves Isaac more than he loves God.
As noted above, there is a similar progression from the general to the specific in chapter 12, where God calls Abram to leave:
• His country
• His kindred and
• His father’s house (12:1).
“and go into the land of Moriah“ (v. 2b). We aren’t certain about the location of “the land of Moriah”. The only other time that name appears in the Bible, Solomon is building the temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 3:1), so the land of Moriah might be what will later be the temple mount in Jerusalem. Some “Jews believe the altar of burnt offering in the Temple at Jerusalem was situated on the exact site of the altar on which Abraham intended to sacrifice Isaac” (Lockyer, 727). While that is not certain, it is consistent with the length of time that Abraham travels to get to Moriah from Beer-sheba. It is also consistent with the next part of this verse where God tells Abraham to offer Isaac “on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
The last we saw of Abraham, he was in Beer-sheba (21:33), about 45 miles (70 km) southwest of Jerusalem. The direct route between Beer-sheba and Jerusalem is mountainous. If Moriah is Jerusalem, Abraham would probably elect to travel due north on easy terrain before entering the mountains west of Jerusalem. It would be a several day journey (v. 4 says three days) made more difficult by the burden of carrying firewood for the sacrifice (v. 3). The last leg of the journey would require going up a mountain to an elevation of 2500 feet (800 meters) with Isaac carrying the firewood on his back.
“Offer him there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of” (v. 2c). There is only one other mention in the book of Genesis of a burnt offering. Noah earlier offered a burnt offering upon leaving the ark after the flood (8:20). We will not hear of burnt offerings again until the Exodus (Exodus 10:25; 18:12; 20:24; etc.).
The Mosaic Law gives specific guidance regarding burnt offerings. Their purposes are (1) to raise a pleasing odor to the Lord and (2) to provide atonement to the one making the offering. The animal is to be burned until consumed. The priest is to dispose of the ashes in a clean place outside the camp (Leviticus 6:1-11).
In that time and place, people thought of mountains as appropriate places to encounter God. In this instance, God promises to point out the right mountain for the sacrifice.
Our text doesn’t mention Abraham’s reaction on hearing this requirement, but it must take his breath away. Not only does he love Isaac, but God has promised to give Abraham descendants through Isaac (21:12). Nothing is more precious to Abraham than this son of his old age—and that is the key to understanding the requirement that God has placed on him. God is requiring that Abraham render to God the most precious offering he can give. The test (v. 1b) is to see whether Abraham, who loves Isaac, loves God even more.
GENESIS 22:3-5. WE WILL WORSHIP AND COME BACK TO YOU
3Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which God had told him. 4On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place far off. 5Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go yonder. We will worship, and come back to you.”
“Abraham rose early in the morning” (v. 3a). Abraham’s rising early in the morning demonstrates his determination to carry out God’s commandment. He doesn’t hesitate or drag his feet or complain or beg. He has been given his orders, so he starts marching. God is in charge, and Abraham is an obedient servant.
Abraham complied in this same fashion earlier when he “rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child (Ishmael), and sent her away” (21:14). In that instance, he was also obeying God’s command (21:12). However, in that instance, God reassured Abraham that he would make a nation of Ishmael (21:13), but that ” For from Isaac will your seed be called. ” (21:12). But now God has given the command to sacrifice Isaac and offers no further reassurance. How will God carry out his promises to Abraham? Abraham can only wonder.
“saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him” (v. 3b). The two young men are Abraham’s servants or hired hands. It seems odd that Abraham would saddle the donkey personally, given the presence of servants, but his action might signal his determination to carry out his mission—or Abraham might feel a need to keep his hands and mind busy rather than standing idly while his servants do the work. Busy hands can sometimes keep one’s mind from dwelling on terrible possibilities.
“and Isaac his son “ (v. 3c). Last, but very definitely not least! Abraham could easily dispense with his servants, his donkey, and his other possessions, but his son Isaac is his heart and soul.
“he split the wood for the burnt offering” (v. 3d). Again, it seems odd that Abraham would cut the wood personally instead of having the servants do it, but he might see this as a sacred obligation that he must perform personally—or, again, he might need to keep his hands and mind busy lest he dwell too much on what lies ahead.
“and rose up,And set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him” (v. 3e). This is the bottom line! Abraham gets up early, makes necessary preparations and very deliberately sets out to go where God has commanded him to go. His obedience is impeccable.
“On the third day” (v. 4a). If this is the morning of the third day, it represents between two and three days of travel, but if it is late in the day it represents three full days on the road.
But the people of that day and age were less time-conscious than we are today. The author may have chosen the phrase “on the third day” for its symbolism. This phrase “is often used is often used in the Torah to refer to some ominous event…. On the third day may be the Hebrew equivalent of ‘at the eleventh hour'” (Hamilton, 107).
In any event, Abraham has had a good deal of time to contemplate the awful task that awaits him. He has had more than enough time to remember how he wanted a son—and God’s promises—and his laughter when God told him that he would have a son in his old age—and the baby’s birth—and the years of careful nurture that he has invested in his son. He has had time to remember the boy making mistakes—and growing. Most of all, he has had time to remember the bond that he and Isaac have forged over the years—the trust that Isaac has shown—the way that Isaac has tried to follow in his father’s footsteps—the way Isaac has honored Abraham by trying to do what Abraham wants.
“Abraham lifted up (wayyissa) his eyes and saw the place far off” (v. 4b). We will see this word wayyissa again in verse 13, where Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. The first time he lifts up his eyes, he sees only the terrible place where his son will die. The second time he lifts up his eyes, he will see the provision that God has made for Isaac’s salvation.
“Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go yonder” (v. 5a). Abraham addresses these words to the two men who have accompanied him on this journey. The text has given us no indication why Abraham took them along on the journey. Whatever their purpose, he clearly doesn’t want them with him when he sacrifices Isaac. They would be horrified. They might try to interfere.
“we will worship”(histahawa) (v. 5b). Histahawa can mean “bow down, prostrate oneself, or pay homage,” so it does not necessarily suggest sacrifice. However, Abraham and his party have been carrying firewood since they began the journey, and Abraham will carry fire and a knife when he and Isaac go up the mountain. These elements make it clear to everyone that the worship that Abraham envisions involves sacrifice.
“and come back to you” (v. 5c). It is impossible to know for sure what Abraham means here. If he offers Isaac as a burnt offering, Isaac will be consumed by the fire. Abraham could bring Isaac’s ashes on the return trip, but there will be no body to bury. Perhaps this is Abraham’s way of reassuring his servants that there is nothing unusual about this day and that they can expect the return journey to be uneventful.
Or perhaps Abraham is remembering God’s promise to give him descendants through Isaac and anticipates that God will give him a way out of this terrible situation. However, as we will see, he never complains or hesitates. He continues to obey until the angel stops him from slaying his son.
GENESIS 22:6-8. GOD WILL PROVIDE THE LAMB
6Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. He took in his hand the fire and the knife (Hebrew: maakelet). They both went together. 7Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and said, “My father?” He said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they both went together.
“Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son” (v. 6a). We aren’t given a reason why Abraham leaves the donkey with the servants (v. 5) and has Isaac carry the wood. The sacrifice is to take place on a mountain (v. 2), so it seems likely that Abraham and Isaac must do some strenuous hiking to get to the sacrificial site. The fact that Abraham burdens Isaac with the firewood tells us that Isaac is no small child, but has grown into a strong youth or young man. Given Abraham’s advanced age, Isaac is surely the stronger and more nimble of the two.
“he took in his hand the fire and the knife” (maakelet) (v. 6b). A maakelet is a large knife, suitable for butchering large animals.
“They both went on together” (v. 6c). If this is the mountain that will later be the temple mount, their journey up the mountain will take considerable time. Abraham is elderly and Isaac is burdened with firewood, so they will have to take rest breaks along the way. All the while, Abraham must be torn inside as he contemplates Isaac’s trust and the treachery that Isaac will soon encounter at Abraham’s hands.
“Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son'” (v. 7a). There is respect and affection in both sides of this exchange—and trust on Isaac’s part.
“(Isaac) said, ‘Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?'” (v. 7b). It seemed odd that Abraham would bring firewood from home on this three day journey. Now Isaac asks why they have no lamb for the burnt offering. It would seem to have made more sense to bring a lamb from Abraham’s flocks on the journey and to find firewood near the destination. A lamb intended for God needs to be a fine specimen. How can they expect to find a Grade-A, first-rate lamb on this mountain?
Does Isaac sense that something serious is amiss here? Does it occur to him that he might be the sacrificial lamb? We have no way of knowing. We know only that he continues the journey without complaint.
“God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (v. 8a). As Abraham understands it, God has already provided the lamb—Isaac. If Abraham hopes that God will somehow spare Isaac, that hope does not affect his actions. He never hesitates—never questions—never balks when it comes to carrying out God’s command.
“The church fathers viewed Abraham’s answer a theological foreshadow of Christ’s sacrifice. The Christian reader today sees the additional irony that God supplies his own Son for the sins of the world, whereas Abraham’s son escapes unharmed” (Mathews, 293).
“So they both went together” (v. 8b). See the comments on verse 6b above.
GENESIS 22:9-10. HE LAID ISAAC ON THE ALTAR
9They came to the place which God had told him of. Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, on the wood. 10Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to kill his son.
“They came to the place which God had told him of. Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order” (v. 9a). Abram built an altar long ago, when he first entered Canaan, at the oak of Moreh in Shechem in response to God’s promise to give Abram’s offspring that land (12:7). Now he builds an altar to sacrifice the offspring through whom God has promised to carry out that promise. The details of building an altar and laying the wood give us a sense of Abraham’s determination. He continues to press on—laying the foundation for the sacrifice of his son step by step—never hesitating or complaining or begging for relief.
“bound Isaac his son” (v. 9b). This causes us to ask how an old man managed to bind his young strong son. If Abraham had stood behind his son and knocked him unconscious, the author surely would have told us that. It seems more likely that Isaac, who has been trusting and compliant throughout this story, permits Abraham to bind him. Whether he understands that Abraham intends to kill him is open to question.
“and laid him on the altar, on the wood.” (v. 9c). Abraham continues his step-by-step obedience. If Isaac didn’t understand what was happening when Abraham bound him, it must be clear to him now.
“Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” (v. 10). Abraham takes this next-to-final step with no apparent hesitation. It is hard to imagine how he could do this. The author of Hebrews explains it by saying:
“By faith, Abraham, being tested, offered up Isaac.
Yes, he who had gladly received the promises
was offering up his one and only son;
even he to whom it was said, “In Isaac will your seed be called;”
concluding that God is able to raise up even from the dead.
Figuratively speaking, he also did receive him back from the dead.” (Hebrews 11:17-19).
GENESIS 22:11-14. DON’T LAY YOUR HAND ON THE BOY
11The angel (Hebrew: malak—angel or messenger) of Yahweh called to him out of the sky, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” He said, “Here I am.” 12He said, “Don’t lay your hand on the boy, neither do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”13Abraham lifted up his eyes (Hebrew: wayyissa), and looked, and saw that behind him was a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering instead of his son. 14Abraham called the name of that place Yahweh Will Provide. As it is said to this day, “On Yahweh’s mountain, it will be provided.”
“The angel (malak—angel or messenger) of Yahweh called to him out of the sky” (v. 11a). In times past, God has spoken directly to Abraham. This time, God sends an angel or messenger to speak from heaven—to stay Abraham’s hand.
Verses 11 and 14 refer to God as Yahweh. Otherwise, Elohim is used throughout this passage.
“Abraham, Abraham!” (v. 11b). When God spoke to Abraham in the past, he has usually done so without addressing him by name (12:1, 7; 15:13, 18; 17:1, 5, etc.). On one occasion, he addressed him as “Abram” (15:1) and on another occasion he addressed him as “Abraham” (22:1). But here the angel says Abraham’s name twice for emphasis—”Abraham, Abraham!” There is a sense of urgency here. The angel must get Abraham’s attention before Abraham carries through his intent to kill Isaac.
“Here I am’” (v. 11c). This is the frequent response of the faithful to a call from the Lord. Abraham has already responded this way (22:1). Jacob will do the same (31:11; 46:2)—and Moses (Exodus 3:4)—and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4, 6, 8, 16). Isaiah will respond with the similar phrase, “Here am I” (Isaiah 6:8)—and Mary will do the same (Luke 1:38).
“Don’t lay your hand on the boy neither do anything to him” (v. 12a). Earlier Abraham “reached out his hand” to take the knife (v. 10). Now the angel tells him not to “lay your hand on the boy”—cancelling the commandment to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering.
“for now I know that you fear God” (v. 12b). Sometimes people fear God because they fear retribution for their sins, but “fear God” in this context means something entirely different —reverence and faith that prompts obedience.
- Fear of the Lord is serving the Lord and the Lord only (Deuteronomy 6:13).
- It is observing God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 28:58).
- Fear of the Lord is “the beginning of knowledge,” in the sense that the person who fears God will be open to instruction by God (Proverbs 1:7).
- It is often the result of seeing God’s power in action (Exodus 14:31).
- Fear of the Lord requires righteousness (Acts 10:22), faithful service to God, and rejection of false gods (Joshua 24:14).
- Fear of the Lord insures God’s mercy (Luke 1:50), and results in spiritual prosperity (Acts 9:31).
- “Yahweh’s eye is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his loving kindness; ” (Psalm 33:18), so those who fear the Lord can sing:
“Our soul has waited for Yahweh.
He is our help and our shield.
For our heart rejoices in him,
because we have trusted in his holy name.
Let your loving kindness be on us, Yahweh,
since we have hoped in you.” (Psalm 33:20-22).
“Abraham lifted up his eyes (wayyissa), and looked, and saw that behind him was a ram caught in the thicket by his horns.” (v. 13a). We last saw this word wayyissa in verse 4, where Abraham lifted up his eyes to see the place where Isaac would die. Now he lifts up his eyes to see the provision that God has made to save Isaac’s life.
Earlier, Isaac asked, “where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (v. 7) and Abraham responded, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (v. 8). Now God does just that—except that the sheep is not a lamb (a young sheep) but a ram (a mature male sheep). Sheep are known to be docile creatures, but rams less so.
This ram has its horns caught in a thicket, so Abraham can easily capture it.
“Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering instead of his son” (v. 13b). In most sacrificial offerings, the one making the sacrifice provides the sacrificial animal. Here God provides the animal.
In most sacrificial offerings, the death of the animal substitutes for the death of the person who offers the sacrifice. Here the offering substitutes for Isaac’s death.
“Abraham called the name of that place Yahweh Will Provide. As it is said to this day, ‘On Yahweh’s mountain, it will be provided'” (v. 14). Abraham earlier said, “God will provide himself the lamb” (v. 8). Now he names this place “Yahweh will provide.” “The name does not draw any attention to Abraham’s role in the story…. The reader will come away from this story more impressed with God’s faithfulness than with Abraham’s compliance” (Hamilton, 113-114). When this account was written, the name remained, “Yahweh will provide.”
GENESIS 22:15-18. BECAUSE YOU HAVE NOT WITHHELD YOUR SON
15The angel of Yahweh called to Abraham a second time out of the sky, 16and said, “I have sworn by myself, says Yahweh, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son,17that I will bless you greatly, and I will multiply your seed greatly like the stars of the heavens, and like the sand which is on the seashore. Your seed will possess the gate of his enemies. 18In your seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
Unfortunately, the reading for Proper 8 does not include verses 15-18 (although the reading for Easter Vigil does include them). These verses tell of God’s joyful response to Abraham’s faithfulness—and God’s joyful reaffirming and expanding on his earlier promises to Abraham “because you have obeyed my voice” (v. 18). The story is incomplete without these verses. Consider adding them to your treatment of this passage.
“The angel of Yahweh called to Abraham a second time out of the sky” (v. 15).This second call from heaven emphasizes the importance of what has happened and the message that the angel now has to bring to Abraham.
“I have sworn by myself, says Yahweh” (v. 16a). The angel is still speaking, but quotes the Lord’s words. The Lord swears “by myself”—an unusual oath (see also Isaiah 45:23; Jeremiah 22:5; 49:13) and one that is especially binding.
“because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son” (v. 16b). “Because” is an important word here. The Lord is about to bestow promises of blessings on Abraham, and the reason he is about to do so is “because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son.” Abraham has obeyed God as faithfully as any person could obey. He has withheld nothing from God—not even the precious son of his old age—the son through whom God had promised to give Abraham descendents—the son who would give rise to nations (12:2; 17:16).
This says clearly that our obedience is important to God. God has gone to great lengths, even to the giving of his own son as a sacrificial offering (John 3:16), to make it possible for the disobedient to be saved. However, God reserves special blessings for the obedient. We might gain salvation in spite of our disobedience—that, really, is our only hope, because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). However, we have forfeited certain blessings because of our disobedience, but have reason to hope that we can gain other blessings through our obedience.
“I will bless you greatly, and I will multiply your seed greatly like the stars of the heavens” (v. 17a). God has made many promises of blessing to Abraham (12:2-3; 14:19; 17:16, 20; 24:1, 35), but these promises surpass the others. City dwellers today can hardly appreciate the plentitude of the stars of heaven, because there is so much light and smoke in our skies that we see only the brightest stars. But a man like Abraham, living as a nomad under primitive skies, would often see the skies awash with stars on a crystal clear night.
How many stars are there? Even with all the technology available to us today, no one can count the stars reliably. Each time we improve our technology, we see stars that nobody has ever seen before. There seems to be no limit to the number of stars—and the same is true of the grains of sand on the seashore. That is the meaning of God’s metaphor—that Abraham’s offspring will be so numerous as to defy counting. The word infinite would stretch the metaphor, because only God is infinite—but Abraham’s offspring will be just one notch this side of infinite.
“Your seed will possess the gate of his enemies” (v. 17b). This is a promise that Abraham’s offspring will not only be numerous, but powerful as well.
“In your seed will all the nations (goy—nations or Gentiles) of the earth be blessed” (v. 18a). Earlier God promised to bless “all the families of the earth” through Abraham (12:3). Now he uses the word goy, which can mean Gentiles.
In the New Testament, we will see where that takes us. The Jewish people had come to think of themselves as uniquely privileged to be God’s people, as indeed they were. However, Jesus came to open the door more widely so that all people might have access to the grace of God. Magi from the East (Gentiles) will come to worship Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12). Jesus will tell his disciples, “This Good News of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world for a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)—and “Go, and make disciples of all nations” (ethnos) (Matthew 28:19)—and “The Good News must first be preached to all the nations” (ethnos) (Mark 13:10)—and “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations (ethnos), beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).
“because you have obeyed my voice” (v. 18b; see comments on v. 16b). Once again we hear that God will shower these blessings on Abraham because of Abraham’s obedience. Later, speaking to Isaac, God will repeat the promises (26:4) and will again say that he will render these blessings “because Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my requirements, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” (26:5).
Many people find this story offensive because it portrays God as commanding child sacrifice. However, it is not a story about child sacrifice, but is rather a story about obedience to God—about faith. “In fact, many interpreters have taken this story to be the Elohist’s way of announcing the abolition of human sacrifice in Israel” (Towner, 184).
When God gives the law to Moses, he will make it clear that child sacrifice is not permissible (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10). While he will require the gift of the firstborn (Exodus 22:29), he will make it clear that parents are to redeem the firstborn male’s life with the life of a sheep (Exodus 13:13; 34:20).
Also, the angel’s voice that stays Abraham’s hand and the ram that God provided for the sacrifice make it clear that Isaac was never in any danger. Abraham didn’t know that, of course, and that is what made it the ultimate test of his faith. Nothing was more precious to Abraham than his son, Isaac. The test was whether Abraham would give God the one thing nearest and dearest to his heart. He passed that test with flying colors.
When we deal with this text, rather than asking whether we would be willing to sacrifice our child to God, we ought to be asking two questions:
1. What is the most important thing in life to us?
2. What would we do if God asked us to sacrifice that important thing—or if we found that precious thing suddenly snatched from us? Christians today don’t sacrifice their children, but they do sometimes experience the death of a beloved son or daughter. It is difficult to imagine anything more devastating.
A question that this text should lead us to consider is what we would do if we were to experience a truly devastating loss—whether of a job or health or the death of a loved one. Will our faith sustain us in times like that? Will we sustain our faith in times like that? Almost all of us will sustain some sort of serious loss at some point in our lives, so this is hardly an academic question. It might be helpful to the people in our care to raise this issue in ordinary times to help them to prepare for the truly difficult times.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bowie, Walter Russell and Simpson, Cuthbert A., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1
Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995)
Hartley, John E., New International Biblical Commentary: Genesis (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000)
Hoezee, Scott, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Genesis, Vol. 1 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary, Genesis 11:27-50:26, Vol. 1b (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005)
Newsome, James D., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1987)
Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS, LEXICONS & ATLASES:
Aharoni, Yohanan and Avi-Yonah, Michael, The Macmillan Bible Atlas (New York: Macmillan, 1993)
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Lockyer, Herbert, Sr. (ed.), Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986)
May, Herbert G. (ed.), Oxford Bible Atlas (Third Edition) (New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Pfeiffer, Charles F., Baker’s Bible Atlas (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003)
Rasmussen, Carl G., Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989.
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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Copyright 2008, 2018, Richard Niell Donovan