Week of March 4, 2018
The Point: Trust God to meet our needs.
The Sacrifice of Isaac: Genesis 22:1-14.
 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”  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.”  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.  Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.  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.  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.” [ESV]
“Abraham’s Test [22:1-14]. There are many allusions in this chapter to the promises issued in previous events [e.g., 12:2-3; 13:14-16; 15:4-5; 16:10; 17:2,5-6,16,20; 18:18; 21:18]. By such a preponderance of back references, the author effectively brings forward all that has preceded. The impact is the elevation of this single event so as to make all of the past promises hang on Moriah’s test. The call at Haran requires the patriarch to leave his former circles of security; the orientation of the promises is toward the future, emphasizing the birth of an heir. Now the Lord requires Abraham to relinquish the future by offering Isaac as a sacrifice. Similar to Job’s trial, the patriarch chooses the Giver over the gift, relying on the Lord to make good on His promise. The Haran incident describes Abraham’s immediate obedience to the command Go [12:1] by the verbal echo, So Abram went [12:4]. In the matching story, the author captures the same allegiance by Abraham’s departure for Moriah early in the morning ; also his voluntary attitude is reflected by the repeated dialogue, Here I am [1,7,11]. Repetition of the family connection, son, only son, and father, heightens the pathos of the story. Isaac is in fact not the only son, but he is the only son who remains the potential heir; the patriarch expelled Ishmael, his firstborn, and now he faces sacrificing his only son. That God “tests” His people is not exceptional; it is a means for revealing their obedience, producing fear, and producing their well-being. In the present case, what is revealed is that the patriarch fears the Lord . The object of the test is Abraham’s proper response, which entails obedience and trust. There is a sure verbal linkage involving test and fear, where the two words occur together in only two passages: Abraham’s experience at Moriah [22:1,12] and Abraham’s descendants at another mount, Sinai [Ex. 20:20]. Abraham’s obedience is viewed as the archetype of God’s expectations for Israel’s loyalty to the Ten Commandments. Abraham resisted the human impulse to withhold his son for his own advantage, expressing a submissive spirit. The anthropomorphic portrayal of God (Now I know ) preserves the narrative tension of the account; by the test the Lord takes the road of “discovery” that leads to the climax of Abraham’s obedience [11-12]. The chilling description of the command, the march up the mountain, and the raised knife have their denouement in the angel’s intervention. The test is not born out of the necessity of divine knowledge but the requirement of human faith’s achievement. By presenting the challenge, the man could express his faith in a concrete way; now potential faith is realized, securing for the patriarch the promises God has all along ensured would come to pass. The phrase now I know conveyed a deepened relationship as God’s response to the obedient choice of Abraham, showing the Lord’s concern for Abraham. Nevertheless, the test has a double meaning, for the outcome of the matter reveals as much about God as it does about Abraham. Throughout the Abraham narrative, we learn about the Lord’s gracious election and preservation of Israel’s father. This episode, however, appears discordant with what we know of Israel’s deity. Legal texts condemn child sacrifice [Deut. 12:31; 18:10], especially the practice associated with the worship of Molech [Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5]. Later the practice appears in the Southern Kingdom but is eliminated by Josiah [2 Kings 23:10] and condemned by the prophets. The conflict, however, is only apparent; the author alerts the reader that the story is a test [22:1], and thus it must be evaluated provisionally. This divine request for human sacrifice is unique in Israel’s experience; the special circumstance of Abraham’s role as the father of the covenant requires a test without parallel. Christian tradition focuses on the fulfillment of the promises [Heb. 11:17-19; James 2:21-23] since Isaac alone could fulfill the promises, as God Himself stated [21:12], making it certain that the boy would somehow survive. Hence, the issue lay with the Lord, not Abraham, for he left it to God to resolve the theological and moral problems He Himself created.
The Test [22:1-6]. The first movement in the story establishes the nature of the command to sacrifice Isaac as a test [1-2]. The trek from Beersheba to the Moriah region occurs across three days, resulting in the father and boy at the foot of the sacrificial mount [3-6]. The passage emphasizes the obedience of Abraham and the trusting compliance of his son, who is unaware of what will befall him. God tested Abraham  prepares the reader for the exceptional request to follow. The identity of the sacrifice is described with heart-rending precision, your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love . Ishmael is also his son, but Isaac alone remains the apparent heir, the beloved. Whom you love is not to imply Abraham did not love Ishmael, but his love is explicitly stated to emphasize the precious possession Isaac is in the eyes of the old man. The test is as severe as is thinkable; no test could be any more probing of the patriarch’s loyalty, for even the taking of his own life would not pass the trial since the future promise lay with the boy. The place for the sacrifice is vaguely cited, the land of Moriah. Jewish tradition associated the temple mount, Mount Moriah [2 Chron. 3:1], with the place of Abraham’s sacrifice. The exhortation, offer him there as a burnt offering is the language of tabernacle sacrifice. Early in the morning  occurs in settings of urgency in the Abraham narrative [19:27; 20:8; 21:14]. This remark indicates the patriarch’s prompt obedience as in the prior divine instructions regarding Ishmael [21:14]. Abraham’s only words are absolute compliance and a confidence in the Lord’s final provision. His testimony to the servants, we will come again to you , conveys his reliance on God to make good on His prior promise, through Isaac shall your offspring be named [21:12]. The provisions of servants, donkey, and prepared wood for the trip indicate Abraham’s wealth, yet none of these can substitute for his most precious possession. Abraham’s instructions to the servants reveal the patriarch’s ultimate trust in God’s provision (I and the boy will … come again to you); his faith is therefore a testimonial to the servants as well as to the boy. That Abraham’s actions were unusual is shown by the specific instructions required for the servants. If apparent to Isaac that the sacrificial beast is absent , then it is apparent to the servants as well when Abraham divulges his purpose to worship. Now Isaac becomes both the beast of burden, carrying the wood , and the sacrificial lamb. The passage continues its emphasis on Abraham’s complete obedience by repeating the language took, recalling the initial directive take you son . The boy bearing the wood portends the burnt offering, and Abraham taking the source of the fire and the knife identifies the offerer. The passage captures the poignant significance of Abraham’s carrying the fire and knife by the added depiction in his hand. So they went both of them together [6,8] presents another touching depiction of the offerer and his gift to the Lord. The passage shows that there was ample occasion across the three days and during the scaling of the mount for Abraham to ponder retreat, but he steadfastly moved forward.
Abraham and Isaac Together [22:7-8]. At this acute point in the story, the boy speaks his only recorded words, raising the obvious question of a lamb, which ironically bears on his own unknown role . My father and my son  underscore the trust that such familial relations possess; Isaac’s reliance is not misplaced. In a profound twist of outcome, his father’s unreserved dependence on God’s promissory word, though it ostensibly means the loss of Isaac, assures the boy’s future blessing as pledged for Abraham’s generations. Abraham’s answer is not evasion but his honest openness to God’s operations . God emphasizes the source of the sacrifice. Provide is the key word of the account, used in the offering of the ram  and the naming of the sacred site . In Levitical sacrifice the offerer himself provided the animal. Here, however, Abraham reverses the means, showing that God’s command made the matter His own responsibility. Strikingly, the patriarch’s words convey a theological profundity that has its immediate reality in the unexpected ram . 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.
The Sacrifice to the Lord [22:9-19]. The arrangement of the final section consists of two sacrificial offerings, the Isaac offering [9-10] and ram offering [13-14], with two heavenly messages interspersed [11-12; 15-18]. The final verse describes the party’s return and Abraham’s residency in Beersheba . The Isaac “offering” is a metaphorical picture of the boy’s sacrifice. Although the Lord stops the patriarch short of killing Isaac literally , the father’s action is reckoned by God as in effect a burnt offering given . After the ram sacrifice, the second message is the apex of the chapter, distinguished as an oath (by myself I have sworn ), indicating the divine confirmation of the patriarchal promises. Christian readers will remember the baptism and transfiguration of Christ during which the heavenly voice confirms the sonship and ministry of Jesus [Matt. 3:17]. Reference to the place  brings the reader to the appointed site for worship; which God had told him reiterates the calculated obedience of Abraham. This location is a divinely ordained, sacred space; that the place [3,4,9,14] is the mount of the Lord  speaks prototypically of the Sinai setting [Num. 10:33], where the tabernacle’s altar of burnt offering is erected [Ex. 40:29]. That Abraham built an altar fits his practice, recalling entry into the land at the start of his faith pilgrimage [12:7-8]. This custom also foreshadows Moses, who erects an altar for burnt sacrifice [Ex. 17:5; 24:4]. The almost matter-of-fact description of Abraham’s preparation of the sacrifice is broken by the emotive identity of the sacrifice, his son. Mention of the wood arranged on the altar not only gives a graphic picture for the reader but also contributes to the portrayal of Isaac as a willing victim who must have recognized at this point that he was the intended offering. Isaac, the stronger and swifter of the two, submits without struggle to the old man’s binding to the altar. Is it to ensure that the lad will not escape if his heart weakens in the face of the knife? Or is the binding rather Abraham’s assurance that the thrust of the knife will fall certain to kill mercifully the motionless victim? The delay required to bind Isaac may reflect the father’s wish to postpone the painful end of the ordeal. Verse 10 describes the patriarch’s final steps in reaching for the knife; the two verses detailing the event are told in “slow motion” so the reader can experience with the father the anguish of the prolonged moment. The angel speaks from heaven  as in the deliverance of Hagar and Ishmael [21:17]. The repetitive Abraham, Abraham! marks this as the turning point of the story; now that the test has accomplished its purpose, the story line reverses the threat to the boy. The urgency of the interdiction is magnified by its inclusiveness: Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him . The angel’s explanation Now I know is an admission that the ordeal was a test, a discovery of Abraham’s depth of loyalty. Fear God describes the man’s obedience and trust motivated by his love of God. The causal clause, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me, presents the test’s evidence of the patriarch’s devotion. The term withheld occurs twice, extolling the virtue of Abraham’s obedience [12,16] that results in the repeated promise of many descendants . By releasing his only son he gains a multitude of offspring, even as his name conveys. The death of the discovered ram instead of his son  epitomizes the idea of substitutionary atonement, which characterized the Levitical system. Verses 13-14 mirror the earlier dialogue of father and son concerning the sacrificial victim [7-8]. The timely presence of the entangled ram answers the boy’s earlier perplexity, Where is the lamb? . Abraham interprets the appearance of the animal according to his response in verse 8, God will provide, in naming the place The Lord will provide . The opportune moment of the suddenly seen substitute implies the obvious – the Lord is responsible for the appearance of the surprising ram.” [Matthews, pp. 283-300].
Questions for Discussion:
- Why did God test Abraham? Why does God test His people? Matthews writes: “the patriarch chooses the Giver over the gift, relying on the Lord to make good on His promise.” Isn’t that the desired result of every test that God sends to us? Before we can follow Abraham’s example, we must know both the Giver and His promises. What are you doing to grow in your knowledge of these two things?
- God’s test of Abraham consisted of three commands: go, take, offer. How did Abraham respond to these commands? Put yourself in the place of Abraham. What fears, doubts, hopes, etc., would be going through your mind? What do you think sustained Abraham on the three day journey [see Heb. 11:17-19]?
- What do we learn about the relationship between faith and works in this passage [see James 2:21-24]? Which comes first? What role does works play in our faith? What effect did this testing have upon Abraham’s faith?
Genesis, Volume 2, James Boice, Baker.
Genesis, Volume 2, Kenneth Mathews, NAC, Broadman.
Genesis, Bruce Waltke, Zondervan.