In perhaps one of the most recognized passages of Scripture, the near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-19 is both a transfixing, yet unsettling pericope. The story appears in the “patriarchal history” (12-50) at the center of Genesis following “primeval history” (1-11). While the primeval history is short, its construct introduces crucial Biblical themes and symbolism that help us better comprehend why Abraham is such a prominent patriarch in the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, the harrowing depiction of Abraham’s idiosyncratic relation to God emphasizes the need for robust obedience if we are to fully accept the message of faith in God’s provision – specifically when it comes to His promises.
To fully grasp the significance of Abraham’s unique test, one must consider the context of the proceeding scriptures that have ultimately led towards this pivotal moment. As we examine these readings, it is important to note Genesis is the first book of the Bible and the first of five (Pentateuch) written by Moses. In Genesis 12:1-3 God clearly outlines His covenant with Abraham essentially promising him (1) land, (2) descendants, and (3) blessing. God confirms this covenant (Genesis 15:1) and Abraham openly confesses his concern about not having a biological son to be his heir. At the bequest of his wife, Sarah, Abraham has a son with Hagar, her maid, but he is not the son of promise (Genesis 16). In this relation, Ishmael is born. God again appears to Abraham (Genesis 18:10) revealing Sarah would indeed give him a son. Finally, in Genesis 21:1-2, after twenty-five years of waiting, Abraham rejoices in the birth of Promise – his son, Isaac.
After overcoming the contretemps of his wife’s barrenness, Abraham found a renewed sense of purpose in the ability to solidify Israel’s place in history by producing descendants, beginning with his own son, Isaac. Abraham’s love for his child is palpable. Nevertheless, God commands him to take Isaac to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering.
Despite the anguish Abraham undoubtedly must have experienced in response to God’s command, he displays the utmost compliance, demonstrates unremitting obedience, and appears seemingly unemotional. As God’s devoted servant, Abraham journeys three days to reach the mountain site. Contextually, Abraham’s previous displays of unwavering faith in the passages prior to Genesis 22:1-19 illustrates he possesses the psychological and spiritual fortitude necessary to complete the grisly deed. His eerie silence is broken only by Isaac’s perceptive hunch when he questions his father as to the location of the sacrificial offering.
Abraham’s response is both sensitive and evasive, telling his son “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.” (v.8)
Even though he brought two of his young men with him, Abraham himself carries the dangerous essentials needed for sacrifice including both a torch and a knife. Although Isaac is with him, and perhaps could have assisted in carrying these items, Abraham appears resolved to complete his task single-handedly. Then, Abraham builds the altar, places the firewood, binds his son’s hands, and places him atop. Isaac permits these actions, despite having the physical ability to easily run away from the elderly Abraham. Isaac instead also exhibits extreme obedience, allowing his father to continue his task without question or complaint. The conflict of the scripture climaxes as Abraham takes hold of the slaughtering knife.
As he is about to kill his beloved son, the Angel of the Lord intervenes: “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22:11, 12) Abraham had proved he was willing to complete the sacrifice, for as much as he loved Isaac, his devotion to God was greater. Richly rewarded by hearing God’s own declaration of his righteousness, Abraham sees a ram stuck in a bed of thorns to be used as a replacement offering to God. He sacrifices the ram; however, he does not rejoice. By remaining apathetic, Abraham’s stoic nature proves his faith that God indeed would provide. The Angel reestablished the Abrahamic covenant, focusing on how Isaac was just “one” seed amongst a universal blessing that would surely multiply.
The irony in this pericope is the proposed objective appears to be producing a “fear of the Lord.” However, upon further reflection, I believe Genesis 22 suggests that God was not actually testing Abraham’s faithfulness, but providing a scenario for Abraham to see God Himself was faithful. The text shows absolutely no hesitation on Abraham’s behalf, who appeared frighteningly composed throughout the entire ordeal. He knew God would remain faithful to His promise of his descendants being “as numerous as the stars” and the “sand on the seashore” (22:17). Abraham knew God was everlasting before the test, and now he could believe it in a more intimate way.