God puts Abraham through an excruciating test. Years after He advised Abraham to send Ishmael – his first son – away, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only remaining son, Isaac. The son of promise who was 25 years in coming and who Sarah miraculously bore to Abraham in their old age is to be killed on an altar to the One who promised him. The test is surprising and brutal, and in the end shows not only Abraham’s faith but how excruciating the ultimate sacrifice will be that brings redemption to the world.
There is no way to know how much time elapses between the end of Chapter 21 and the events of Chapter 22. The chapter simply starts with the statement, after these things, referring to the events with Abimelech after the exile of Ishmael. The story will show Isaac to be old enough to carry a decent amount of wood up a mountain, so the assumption is that enough years have elapsed for him to at least be a teen (more on this later). But the date and place of this story are apparently not important enough for Moses to identify them, so to spend much time estimating is probably not worthwhile.
As is typical in Genesis, the story is both summarized in verse 1 – God tested Abraham – and begun with virtually no setup and no explanation. We do not know why God decides at this point to test Abraham’s faith or if anything precipitates His actions. The text simply says that God calls to Abraham and Abraham answers with a willing, “Here I am.”
God says, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love…” Note the progression. Isaac is not just your son, he’s your only son; and he’s not just your only son, he’s the son whom you love. This is similar to God’s call of Abraham when He told him to leave his home and travel to Canaan – “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house” (12:1). He was not just leaving his country; he was leaving his relatives and his father’s house. In both cases God acknowledges the extent of the faith He requires.
God goes on to say that Abraham is to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. This comes completely out of the blue. Everything up to now in the story of Abraham has pointed to the birth of Isaac as the son of promise – the first member of the great nation that God will make of Abraham’s descendants. Isaac is the miracle baby. He is a walking example of God’s glory. His very existence shows God to be transcendent. He was born when he was born to bring praise to God. And yet God now says He wants him killed.
The command ends very similarly to God’s first call of Abraham. In Ur God called Abraham and did not tell him where he was going (…to the land which I will show you – 12:1). Here He tells Abraham to go to Moriah and to one of the mountains of which I will tell you. In both cases God asks Abraham to trust Him – here both in location and ultimate outcome. Both responses require an enormous amount of faith, although obviously in this one the stakes are much higher.
The text says nothing about Abraham’s response or if he replies to God at all. It is completely unlike his response when God told him about Isaac’s birth the year before he was born (17:15-21). There Abraham did not believe – he doubled over laughing – and was also somewhat obstinate in wanting Ishmael to stand before God as the son of promise. Abraham’s response here also contrasts with his repeated entreaties to spare Sodom for the sake of Lot (18:22-33). In that case he wouldn’t quit until God met his demands. Here he apparently says nothing at all or at least nothing that is worth recording. Amazingly, he accepts the excruciating command and simply prepares to obey (and what is also amazing is that the text says nothing about him being distressed, as he was when Sarah demanded he send away Hagar and Ishmael (21:11) – although in that instance he did not question God either).
It is worth thinking through what is at stake here and all that Abraham has to consider. God has very clearly identified Isaac as the son of promise and the one through whom Abraham’s seed will bless the world. God made Abraham send Ishmael away just so that Isaac could be raised as the sole heir (and it is likely no coincidence that this story follows the story of Ishmael’s exile – Abraham has already lost one son and now God seems to be asking for him to lose another). If Isaac is the chosen son, then God has to have some plan here. Isaac can’t die and stay dead or it will directly contradict God’s promises. Nothing God has said over the last several decades can work without Isaac. The author of Hebrews will later say that Abraham expects God to raise Isaac from the dead (Heb 11:17-19). He likely thinks this because it is the only way that God’s command makes sense. He can’t kill Isaac and fulfill the covenant.
Nevertheless, Abraham would certainly have a right to be confused. How can God want him to kill the promised son? What is the point of making a covenant and then commanding an action that seems to directly contradict it?
This is one of the many elements of faith in the story. God has asked him to do something completely unreasonable and contradictory. Yet he proceeds and obeys. Faith is the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1). Faith enters in when God asks us to trust Him when there is NO empirical reason to do so. God says to Abraham, “I want you to sacrifice your childless son who is the heir through whom your descendants will be named. I know that makes no sense, and makes the covenant I just entered into with you impossible to fulfill, but just trust Me.” This is what it means to walk by faith and not by sight.
Another angle is what this says about God’s place in Abraham’s life. What does God ask for? He asks for what Abraham values most. He asks for Sarah’s most precious possession and the greatest thing that ever happened to her. God shows with this request that He must be first – nothing can be before Him. If Isaac is what is most valuable to Abraham, then God will remove him so nothing is more valuable than God. He will make sure that Abraham hasn’t confused the importance of the gift with the Giver. The most precious person to Abraham is Isaac; therefore God demands him for Himself. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me (Matt 10:37).
Just as he did when God told him to send Hagar and Ishmael away (21:14), Abraham obeys promptly. He arises early in the morning and prepares to travel to Moriah and sacrifice Isaac (the location of the mountain in Moriah is not definite – tradition holds it to be the same place where Solomon will later build the temple in Jerusalem – II Chron 3:1 – and the current Temple Mount which holds so much importance for both Islam and Judaism). He loads up a donkey, splits some wood (interesting that he does this himself rather than ordering someone else to do it – also interesting that he’s in the physical shape to do it), brings two servants along with Isaac, and starts out on the journey.
On the third day of travel (probably some significance to it being the third day), Abraham sees the mountain they are to offer the sacrifice on (presumably God somehow lets him know which one it is). He tells the two servants to wait with the donkey and he and the boy will go on and worship. His parting words to the servants are very telling – “…and we will worship and return to you.” He seems to express his faith in God’s provision. He does not say he alone will return, but that WE will return. He doesn’t know exactly how things are going to progress, but he apparently believes he will come back with Isaac.
He takes the wood that was probably on the donkey and loads it on Isaac (interesting to compare this to the cross being placed on Jesus). He then takes the fire and the knife and the two of them walk on together without the servants.
As mentioned above, there is no way to know how old Isaac is here. He apparently is old enough to carry a significant amount of wood – enough to burn a human body – up a mountain. He obviously is older than he was when Ishmael left and yet likely not past the age of 37 – the age he will be when Sarah dies (23:1). Some Jewish traditions hold that he is in fact 37 and that this event is such a shock to Sarah that it kills her. Josephus states that Isaac is 25. The bottom line is that he is likely old enough that he could make things very tough on his elderly father if he decides he doesn’t want to go through with this once he realizes what is happening.
And he realizes it soon after they leave the servants. Isaac knows they are going to the mountain to offer a sacrifice to God. He sees they have wood and the means to make a fire but notices they don’t have a lamb. He therefore asks Abraham, “…where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Since they are on the third day of travel he has to know something is different with this trip – it is likely that Abraham hasn’t exactly been full of fun on the way.
Abraham answers in a way that expresses faith but doesn’t quite spell everything out. He says, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” He doesn’t know how things are going to turn out and he likely doesn’t want to come right out and say, “YOU are the offering.” However, he knows God WILL in fact provide one way or another. He has faith that God will keep His covenant, whether that means Isaac dies and is raised or that God provides in another way.
Just like with Abraham, there is nothing in the text about how Isaac responds once he understands the situation. Josephus says he responds as follows (and there is no way to know if this is accurate) – “I would not be worthy to be born at first if I should reject the determination of God and my father, and should not resign myself up readily to both their pleasures. It would be unjust if I did not obey, even if my father alone had so resolved.” Whether he says this or not, it is evident that he goes along with Abraham without causing a problem. Isaac is an enormous credit to his father.
When they reach the mountain Abraham builds an altar and arranges the wood for the offering. He then binds Isaac and lays him on the altar. It is hard to know how the logistics of this work if in fact Isaac is either a man or close to it, but he almost certainly has to cooperate with Abraham as Abraham makes these preparations.
As soon as everything is ready, Abraham takes his knife and stretches out his hand to kill Isaac. It is here we have to pause. What can be worse than this? Even if Abraham thinks God will raise Isaac after he kills him, he still has to go through the agony of the actual act. He has to plunge a knife into his son and watch him die. How does a father ever recover from killing his son?
Just as he is about to strike Isaac, the angel of the Lord calls to him from heaven and says, “Abraham! Abraham! Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
Abraham has passed the test. He did not just express faith, he showed it. He was willing to give up what is most valuable to him. He showed that nothing is worth more in his life than God. Nothing is too precious for God. God has everything and is preeminent in his life. He proved this beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Abraham’s actions illustrate what James will later say about faith. It means nothing without works. James will point to this event in Abraham’s life (James 2:21-23) as an example of justification through working faith. It is one thing to express faith in God; it is another to sacrifice everything for Him as a result. If Abraham refuses to give up Isaac, any expression of faith by him is meaningless. Either he kills Isaac or he shows his faith to be already dead.
It is interesting to think through God’s response and to think through the purpose of testing overall. Does God need this test to see Abraham’s faith? Does God not know how Abraham will respond or whether he will really sacrifice Isaac? Obviously the answer to both questions is ‘no’. God is not anxiously waiting to see how Abraham will respond. So why test Abraham? Perhaps the testing itself strengthens his faith. Abraham acts out his faith by following God’s brutal commands and in so doing ultimately strengthens it. He now knows what it means to place God at the center – that it requires the death of anything that vies with God for preeminence.
After Abraham listens to God and takes back his knife, he notices a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. He takes the ram and offers it in Isaac’s place. He then names the place The Lord Will Provide. God provides just as Abraham told Isaac He would. The author mentions that to this day (in the author’s time), it is said, “In the mount of the Lord it will be provided,” presumably meaning that God will provide the atoning sacrifice for sin on the temple mount.
God calls to Abraham a second time and tells him that since he has done this (to obey is better than sacrifice – I Sam 15:22), God now swears by Himself (since He could swear by no one greater – Heb 6:13) that He will fulfill the terms of the covenant and greatly bless Abraham and greatly multiply his descendants and bless the world through them. He adds another element to the covenant not mentioned before – that Abraham’s descendants will have victory over their enemies (the Hebrew in verse 17 allows for seed to be either singular or plural, so it could read – as it does in the ESV – your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies – presumably referring to David or the Messiah). Abraham’s obedience thus not only blesses him but blesses his descendants in perpetuity (Israel will forever owe its security in the midst of its enemies at least in part to the obedience of its patriarch).
Outside of the added promise that Abraham’s seed will have success against their enemies, it is hard to know exactly how to understand this. God already told Abraham these same things on more than one occasion. He did not say them all at once as He does here, but He promised them before without condition. He also justified Abraham already based on his earlier belief (15:6). So why does He say here – as if it is a new development – that He will keep the terms of the covenant that He already promised to keep?
Perhaps the answer is in the justification passage. Abraham believed God but here he proves that belief. He shows his faith is truly in God and God alone. And that proven faith justifies Abraham. Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone (James 2:21-24).
After hearing God’s promise, Abraham and Isaac travel back to the servants and then back to their home in Beersheba (where Abraham was in his dealings with Abimelech – 21:33-34). It is probably not a stretch to assume the trip back is significantly more lighthearted and easy than the trip out.
The chapter ends with a message to Abraham about his brother and his brother’s kids. Nahor – Abraham’s brother – is still in Haran where the family moved from Ur – 11:31. Nahor married his niece, Milcah. The message Abraham gets is that Milcah has borne eight sons to Nahor (and he has four additional sons by his concubine). What is most interesting – beyond the fact that two of the sons are named Uz and Buz (best names for brothers in the Bible) – is that Nahor has a granddaughter named Rebekah. We need to remember that name for future reference.
While this story seems brutal and the thought of God demanding human sacrifice seems hard to reconcile, we cannot miss what it points to. God does not ask Abraham to do anything He will not do Himself. The story seems awful until we realize that it is a picture of how God will redeem the world. He will give His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (Jn 3:16).
The story is not a perfect type of what is to come, however. It varies from God’s future redemption in one HUGE way. Unlike with Abraham and Isaac, there will be no ram to substitute for God’s Son on the altar. God’s Son IS the ram who will substitute for everyone else. God asks Abraham for the ultimate sacrifice but knows He will not actually require it. On the contrary, He WILL require it of Himself.
That means that Genesis 22 is really a gospel story. It is a picture – thousands of years before it happens – of how God will fulfill the covenant with Abraham. It is a demonstration of just how in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (18).