Thesis. God has promised Abraham to establish a new humanity through him and his seed, but first puts him to a great test, calling him to surrender his rights to that great blessing by calling him to sacrifice his only son. Abraham faithfully obeys and makes certain God’s promises. A substitute is provided for the sacrifice of his son and Abraham is shown to be a pleasing offering to the Lord in his faith.
Literary Outline. The literary flow of Genesis 22:1-19 can be organized as follows:
- Action begins (v. 1)
- Conflict generated (v. 2)
- Conflict escalates (vv. 3-9)
- Climax (v. 10)
- Resolution of conflict (vv. 11-13)
- Action ends (vv. 14-19)
Exposition. Here follows an exposition of the text (Genesis 22:1-19), according to the literary outline just prescribed.
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”
The phrase “[a]fter these things” is notably indefinite,1 breaking the ensuing narrative away from the immediately antecedent account of the treaty with Abimalech, and placing it squarely on a much more ‘macro’ level. Thus, we are forewarned by the narrator that what follows is going to be highly significant in the development of the entire Genesis account, transcending mere historical detail. But what history is being is developed?
At Babel,2 God destroyed the city of man. This story is immediately followed by a genealogy, showing that God is at work through human seed to accomplish his redemptive will. By the end of the chapter, we meet the couple Abram and Sarai, descendants of Shem, the blessed son of Noah.3 This Abram has been called out of his land by God to go and take hold of the (already inhabited) land of Canaan.4 The land will become the kingdom of God and will be filled with Abraham’s children. In Genesis 12:7, Abram receives the promise that this land will be taken by his offspring (implying that it will not be taken by Abram himself), thus the fulfillment of God’s promise can only take place through Abram’s seed. This would not normally be problematic except that Abram continues to be childless for most of his life. In order to create an heir, Sarai offers her maidservant to Abram as a vessel for his seed.5 Sure enough, a child is conceived and born,6 but ultimately both the maidservant (Hagar) and her child Ishmael are cast out of Abraham’s household.7 Fortunately (and miraculously), another child had been ensured by God through Sarai.8 When promised another heir, Abram became “Abraham” and Sarai became “Sarah”, augmenting in each case the meanings of their names, Abraham (meaning “Father of Multitudes”) and Sarah (meaning “Exalted Woman”). Each of these elements is highlighted within the Genesis narrative, indicating the fulfillment of the promises given to them. The child’s name is Isaac (“Laughter”). It is here where the significance of chapter 22 takes off.
When some semblance of stability and progress seems present, Yahweh9 takes things to the next level. He puts his servant to the test. The forthrightness of this point can only be intended to draw the audience to incline their ears. Clearly, something exciting and unique is about to occur, although we must remember that Abraham lacks this third-party insight. That there has not been an explicitly probative situation since Adam’s test in the garden ought to stir the thoughtful reader to wonder if this is a republication of those circumstances. And in many ways this is the case, but already we see a subtle difference between Adam and Abraham, Abraham is the willing servant, readily heeding the call of God (“Here am I!”) when Adam’s last moments of greatness were marked by hiding naked in the bushes in fear of judgment.10
He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
It has not been unacknowledged that child sacrifice was a present ANE reality,11 but the text prevents us from viewing this passage as any sort of clear commentary on the ethics of sacrificing one’s children. We cannot read this text as any sort of normative endorsement of the practice as Yahweh is clearly opposed to it.12 Neither can we see this text as a polemic against it since commanding the practice hardly makes for a compelling refutation. Indeed, the outrageousness of the request does make a theological point, perhaps, several of them. But contextually, the challenge of this test, both for Abraham and for the reader, has to be more than the pain of murdering one’s own child (though it is certainly not less than that, hence the pointedness of “your only son Isaac, whom you love”). The provision of seed is at stake, for as Bruce Waltke notes, ben (“son”) is used ten times in this entire passage and yahid (“only son”) is used thrice.13 The primary conflict is that this son, has been given as a blessing after years of waiting, and has been so given as essential to the fulfillment of all the promises entailed in the covenant that brought Abraham out of Ur to begin with – and now it appears that he must be given up. Yahweh’s renaming of Abram and his wife was supposed to indicate that Yahweh was finally making good on the promises made so long ago, and now it would seem that the LORD was going back on his word.
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
Nevertheless, our hero is faithful. That is, Abraham sets out immediately to carry out his dark mission. The text is interestingly silent about the psychology of Abraham (and others for that matter). In fact, the characters are generally silent. The sparseness of the dialogue during travel and preparation leaves the reader with a lingering, unattended discomfort.14 We see Abraham chopping the wood, but surely this is a mere ‘going through the motions’. Surely he wouldn’t be planning on following this strange and difficult command. When Abraham or his son speaks, we gain very little insight into their psyche.15 Rather, the speech serves only to intensify the drama. “Stay here with the donkey…” does not tell us that Abraham is a very practical sort of person, responsibly remembering that the donkey will need tending to. Neither is the point that Abraham is secretive, private individual. Really, all the narrator is telling us is that Abraham and Isaac went off to the worship site on their own and that the servants were left behind. “My father!” does not mean that Isaac was a very clingy sort of child. It only means that Isaac did not completely understand what was happening and expressed that fact.16
“The place of which God had told him” is on a mountain in Moriah. Peter Leithart suggests that there is some redemptive-historical significance to that location as it is the future site of Solomon’s temple.17 Depending on one’s view of revelation, this point can enter into one’s exegesis of the text. I allow for it. The altar that Abraham is building here lays the ground for the (eventual) full blossoming of the Kingdom.
There is an interesting parallel made between Yahweh and Abraham and Abraham and Isaac. Whereas in verse 1 Yahweh calls out, “Abraham!” (which is “Father!”) and Abraham responds immediately “Here I am!” in verse 7 Isaac calls out “My father!” and Abraham responds immediately “Here I am!” Another parallel will occur again in verse 11 when the “angel of Yahweh” calls out “Abraham, Abraham!” and again Abraham replies without hesitation “Here I am!” Abraham is continuously present and ready to do the will of the Father.
There may be a trace of Trinitarian doctrine here. In verse 1, Abraham is submissive to the will of the Father (Yahweh). In verse 7, Isaac is submissive to the will of the father (Father Abraham). Indeed, Isaac may lose his life in the process, but Abraham, too, has the entire substance of his life at stake (the covenant). Either way, both proceed by every word of the (F)ather. Thus, Abraham images the Son to the Father and Isaac images the (S)on to the (F)ather.
But this is certainly posed with a question mark, which is (of course) entirely appropriate to text since we, the reader, are left with equal uncertainty regarding the fate of our hero. Will he really go through with it? On the one hand, we don’t want to see the death of the heir to every promise and blessing, but on the other hand, we don’t want to see “Adam” fail the test again.18
Isaac’s question is met with ambiguity.19 Indeed, the promise of God that he will provide a blessed heir is met with the same ambiguity (in requiring that heir to be killed) and with equal certainty (faith) as Abraham’s “God will provide.” The testimony of Hebrews confirms this certainty, saying that Abraham was so certain of God’s promise that if God let Isaac die, he believed he would raise him back to life.20 But surely none of this eases the tension for the reader. Rather, Abraham’s reply only raises the suspense to its highest point:
Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.
The text reaches its climax here. “Slaughter” is a sacrificial term,21 clearly drawn upon in Leviticus 1 (“kill” in the ESV), and used here to emphasize the ritual nature of what is about to transpire. Wenham notes that “reached out his hand” often indicates a crucial moment or breaking point within a narrative, and this certainly qualifies.22 Here, not only will a father slay his innocent and only son, but he will, in so doing, cut off his entire line, the once new hope of a restored adam – and according to the will of God.
But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And 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.
Again, the father is called upon by name and readily presents himself. Sarna asserts that the repetitious “Abraham, Abraham!” “connotes both urgency and a special relationship between the one addressed and the One who calls.”23 This urgency assures us that the LORD has no desire whatsoever for the blood of Isaac. And there can be no doubt as to whether or not some special relationship is present between Yahweh and his faithful servant. The repetition of name is mimicked in the call of Moses, Samuel, and Saul (Paul).24
“The angel of the LORD” provides for some interesting reflection. There are a host of questions surrounding the identity of the person speaking: Is he Yahweh? An angel? Yahweh manifest as an angel? If it is an angel, then why is he not apparent (as most angels are)? An unnecessary amount of suggestions could be offered here, but it will suffice to note that there is at least ‘proximal identity’25 between Yahweh and his angel. The angel speaks with a tone of authority that only Yahweh could offer. Indeed, if the angel commanded Abraham under the pretense of anything besides an agent of Yahweh, then the angel would be contradicting the very words of God. The angel speaks of Isaac as if the offering was to be made to himself. This would make no sense unless there was some conflation of persons between Yahweh and his angel.
Regardless, the silence is broken abruptly by Word and blessing in reward for faithfulness. The messenger communicates that Abraham passed the test because he “fear[s] God,” seeing that he has not withheld Isaac. The ‘fear of God’ is an object of some interest, especially since it corresponds to some degree to the Federal Vision debates currently lagging on within American Reformed churches. There is a firm consensus among commentators that the ‘fear of God’ is not primarily to be understood as an inward directedness or spirit, the mysterium tremendum. Rather, the ‘fear’ is actually one manifestly so. That is, for one to be a ‘God-fearer’ is to obey.26 Waltke goes so far to say that “Abraham’s faith was not in words but in deeds.”27 Even the angel claims that it was the act under scrutiny. Still, it would be saying too much to say that good works were the only thing in view. Indeed, God judges the heart.28 What this passage indicates is that the normative scheme for comprehending the desires of the heart is the fruit of such a desire. Thus, biblically, we can hold together Hebrews 11:17-19 and James 2:21 without undue tension in the idea of ‘faithfulness’ – or fullness of faith. Suspending questions of ordo salutis, we see that Abraham was rewarded for faithfulness.
The substance of Abraham’s reward was the renewal of the covenant already made several times before,29 but most immediately he was blessed with the provision of a ram to offer in the place of Isaac thus preserving the seed of promise and accomplishing at least one other lasting end: the casting of a type of Christ, with respect to the substitutionary nature of the ram.30
We read that after the announcement of vindication, Abraham “lifted up his eyes.” This is a rather interesting repetition as we read earlier that Abraham “lifted up his eyes” to see Mount Moriah. Ascent is undoubtedly a recurring theme in this passage.31 Not only does Abraham “lift up his eyes” twice,32 but the narrator says that Abraham is called to a mountain,33 and that he “rose” and “arose.”34 Much more, if Peter Leithart is correct, then Isaac is called to be an “ascension offering” rather than a “burnt offering.”35 (This is why Abraham is said to have “offered up” the ram.)36 And so we see this ‘going up’ present throughout the narrative.
In A House for My Name, Leithart makes an incredibly astute and significant observation regarding the nature of the sacrifice being requested of Abraham. It is easily assumed that the fire involved in certain priestly rituals is representative of hellfire and damnation. Fire after all does have such connotations in common experience and so to make such a connection is hardly a leap, but Leithart feels that it is yet misguided. Rather, he points out that the word used for burning on an altar literally means “turn into smoke.” The wage of sin (which is death) takes place well before the burning. Thus, the burning is less a judgment brought upon an already judged creature and more a transformation of it into an aroma pleasing unto the LORD. The smoke, he asserts, forms a cloud over the offering, symbolizing his pleased presence. Thus, in an offering, God is actually eating a covenant meal with his people.37
These two observations (that God desired ascension and that the ascension is not essentially judgment) significantly shift the dynamic of this entire passage, but how this is so will be discussed below.
So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.
Abraham has been proven to be correct in his conviction that YHWH will provide a lamb and thus honors both the LORD and his altar-mountain aptly naming the location “YHWH will provide.” The name is adapted, as well, as a popular saying, highlighting both what Abraham saw as the most significant question answered, and consequently what the story was traditionally thought to teach.
As mentioned above, Abraham is blessed for his faithfulness by the continuation (renewal) of the covenant made with him first in Ur. Unique to this recapitulation is the surety assigned to it. For the first time, YHWH is insistent that this is going to happen. He has sworn by himself (there is none higher) to magnify the seed of Abraham (“dynasty” as it were) and to extend the influence of that seed to “all nations” (“dominion”) because Abraham has proven himself faithful. Abraham did not view his inheritance as something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.
The narrative wraps up quickly and tightly. Abraham and Isaac rejoin their servants, the narrator strangely silent about the events which just transpired. The episode on the mountain, as far as we can tell, is unmentioned. Rather, there is a “back to the usual business” air about things, as if something of cosmic significance didn’t just happen. We read only that the Abraham and his household moved to Beersheba.
Praxis. There is a certain range and openness about this text that lend it to a variety of significances. This is not to say that every application is (or has been) valid. For example, it would be a mistake to view this passage as a call to humanity to act with a “teleological suspension of the ethical” (as it were) as the model for Christian belief. This would be mistaken because there is no indication that the characters considered their actions, responsibilities, or intentions to be unethical, only difficult. Additionally, the intention of this narrative is historical as much as it is ethical and serves really to bolster hope in God’s promise more than to offer moral paradigms to its audience.
It should be obvious from everything noted above that the challenge for Abraham was less the pain of killing his child (though that is unquestionably there) and more a dilemma of God’s promise of seed. The death of Isaac symbolized a forfeiting of every good hope that Abraham had built his life upon. What we find though is a faith in God’s own faithfulness that is so sure, it can only work itself out in fear and trembling. To be sure, the passage speaks admirably of Abraham’s obedience, and to that end we should view Abraham’s behavior as exemplary.
Abraham’s perfect obedience foreshadows the more perfect obedience of his true seed, Christ.38 Thus, the most explicit way that we are respond to this passage is to cling to its fulfillment in Jesus as our own “more sure” certainty of blessing.
Drawing upon the “ascension” motif we should see our whole life in faith as one of “ascent.” God has produced a substitute to atone for our own sins and sinfulness and has thus paved the way for us to offer own bodies as “living sacrifices,”39 pleasing God40 as the aroma of Christ.41
1 Hamilton 2000, p. 100.
2 Genesis 11.
3 Genesis 9:26.
4 Genesis 12.
5 Genesis 16:1-2.
6 Genesis 16:4.
7 Genesis 21:8-14.
8 Genesis 17:15-21.
9 Of course, this verse speaks only of Elohim here. He is not named Yahweh until verse 11. Some critics have taken this to indicate the integration of (at least) two traditions (E and J, obviously). (Speiser 1964, p. 166; Von Rad 1961, p. 233) Yet this brings little if anything to bear on our textus receptus. (Hamilton 1995, p. 99) So, we will use the revealed name of Elohim, Yahweh.
10 Genesis 3:8-10.
11 Hamilton 2000, pp. 104-105.
12 Leviticus 18:21.
13 Waltke 2001, p. 302.
14 Hamilton 2000, p. 107; Von Rad 1961, p. 235; Wenham 1994, p. 106.
15 Contra the various “exordiums” that appear in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (1983, pp. 9-14).
16 Of course, while he does not understand why his father was doing what he was doing, he does seem to realize what his father is doing, hence his question which acknowledges that a sacrifice is being prepared. This, by the way, is (rightfully) used by various commentators to make the point that Isaac is certainly aged a bit. Waltke 2001, p. 303; Hamilton 2000, pp. 108-109; Von Rad 1961, pp. 235-236; Sarna 1989, p. 150.
17 2 Chronicles 3:1. Leithart 2000, p. 66. Hamilton substantiates this claim (2000, p.103).
18 Von Rad points out that this is not Abraham’s first test (1961, p. 234). He sees testing as a recurring motif in the life of Abraham, citing chapters 12, 15, and 18. I can grant that, but as Von Rad notes, there is a certain distinctness to this new test. It is a perfection of all the previous challenges with maximum risk and (implicitly) maximum glory available. Thus, it is in this test that Abraham is most clearly a new Adam.
19 Sarna 1989, p. 152; Von Rad 1961, p. 236; Wenham 1994, pp. 108-109.
20 Hebrews 11:17-19.
21 Wenham 1994, p. 109.
22 Wenham 1994, p. 109; Hamilton 2000, p. 111.
23 Sarna 1989, p. 153. cf. Waltke 2001, p. 308; Hamilton 2000, pp. 111-112.
24 Exodus 3:4, 1 Samuel 3:4, and Acts 9:4 (respectively).
25 My own terminology.
26 Wenham 1994, p. 110; Von Rad 1961, p. 236; Speiser 1964, p. 163; Waltke 2001, p. 308. Interestingly, the commentator who most nearly holds that an inner disposition is in view is Jewish (Sarna 1989, p. 153).
28 Psalm 51.
29 Genesis 22:15-19.
30 Waltke 2001, pp. 310-311.
31 Wenham 1994, p. 107; Hamilton 2000, p. 107.
32 Genesis 22:4, 13.
33 Genesis 22:2.
34 Genesis 22:3, 19.
35 Genesis 22: 2, 6, 7, 8, 13. Leithart argues that the Hebrew word used here (olah) is improperly translated as “burnt offering.” He comments that the word so translated:
means neither “whole” [as it is often translated] nor “burnt” nor “offering.” Instead, the word means “to go up” or “ascend,” and this offering should be called an “ascension offering.” (Leithart 2001, pp. 92-93)
36 Genesis 22:13.
37 Leithart 2001, p. 91.
38 Galatians 3:16.
39 Romans 12:1.
40 Hebrews 13:15-16.
41 2 Corinthians 2:14-17.
- Carson, D.A.; T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, and Graeme Goldsworthy, eds. “Abraham”, “Genesis”, and “Seed”. The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Exploring the Unity and Diversity of Scripture. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000).
- Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50. Vol. 2. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) pp. 97-117.
- Jordan, James B. Primeval Saints: Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis. (Moscow: Canon, 2001) pp. 61-73.
- Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling – Repetition. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. (Princeton: Princeton University, 1983) pp. 1-123.
- Leithart, Peter J. A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament. (Moscow: Canon, 2000) pp. 58-66, 87-95.
- Sarna, Nahum M. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis – Bereshith. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989) pp. 150-154.
- Speiser, E.A. The Anchor Bible: Genesis. (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1964) pp. 161-166.
- Von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis: A Commentary. Trans. John H. Marks. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961) pp. 232-240.
- Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) pp. 301-311.
- Wenham, Gordon J. Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50. Vol. 2. (Dallas: Word Books, 1994) pp. 96-118.
- Williamson, Paul R. Abraham, Israel and the Nations: The Patriarchal Promise and its Covenantal Development in Genesis. (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000) pp. 234-253.