Sacrifice of Isaac
“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."
Genesis chapter 22 is one of the strangest and most dramatic episodes in scripture. It is often called “the sacrifice of Isaac,” but that is a misnomer, because Isaac was not actually sacrificed. Thus, most scholars refer to this passage as “the Binding of Isaac.” In Hebrew, it is called the “Akedah (עקדה)” which is Hebrew for “binding.”
We usually imagine that Isaac was a young boy, but not so. According to Josephus, Isaac was twenty-five years old at the time of the sacrifice. Other authorities point out that the opening verse of chapter 23 says that his mother, Sarah, was 127 years old. She was ninety when Isaac was born. That would seem to indicate that Isaac was 37. But we do not know how much time passed between chapters 22 and 23. He may have been even older. In any case, Isaac was a fully grown man, strong enough to prevent the elderly Abraham from tying him up had he wanted to resist. But he did not resist. He went silently to the sacrifice like a lamb to slaughter.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me first tell the story. Verse 1 says that God wanted to test Abraham. Why should he want to test Abraham? Isn’t God God? Does he not already know everything there is to know about Abraham? Any testing of Abraham cannot be for God’s benefit. God is not trying to gain knowledge about Abraham. What then is the point of the test? Perhaps the point is to show us something about Abraham.
In v2. God 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."
Our reaction is how could God possibly have said that? Every word in this verse is a hammer blow to Abraham’s feelings as a parent and to his hopes as a man of God. Take your son and kill him. Take your only son, Isaac. Now you might object here that Abraham had another son, Ishmael, but Ishmael is gone at this point, and Isaac is all that Abraham has. Then the verse adds, “Isaac whom you love.” Abraham loved Isaac, and God says take him up to Mount Moriah and slaughter him like an animal. Offer him as a burnt offering.
By the way, Mount Moriah is traditionally identified as Mount Zion, as the place where Solomon would build the temple a thousound years later.
Now what did Abraham think about what God said? First of all Abraham was probably familiar with child sacrifice. It was the custom of the Semitic tribes of Canaan to offer their children to their gods. For example,, we read much later of the king of Moab sacrificing his son to the god Chemosh (2Kings 3:27). That was centuries later, but we know that the practice was old and widespread. Solomon even built a temple to Chemosh in Jerusalem. The idea is simple. If you want something from your gods, you must give your gods the best that you have, and the best that you have is your children. They thought that the way to get Gods attention was to offer human sacrifices. We now know better. We now know that nothing we do deserves God’s attention. God despises our sin so human sacrifices are useless. But God, through the sacrifice of his own son, accepts us anyway.
But the point is that Abraham knew about human sacrifice. But even so, how could he sacrifice Isaac? All the promises God ever made to Abraham were founded of the cornerstone of Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac.
Before he was born, his birth was prophesied and his name was given. Isaac was a miracle child born when both of his parents were well beyond the age of childbearing. Gen 17:19 “And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.”
Was God then a liar? God had said the covenant I have made with you, Abraham, will be continued through Isaac. Now God says, take Isaac up on the mountain and slit his throat. That does not make any sense all. Abraham might have said, “Wait a minute, God. You made me promises back in Ur in Mesopatamia. Have you forgotten about everything you ever said? How can I possibly believe in you when you act in such a contradictory fashion?”
Surely, Abraham thought all that and more, but still he believed and obeyed. We read beginning in vs 3 that Abraham “rose early in the morning,’ cut the wood for the offering, saddled his donkey, and set forth on three-day journey to the mountain. Upon arriving at Mount Moriah, he left his donkeys at the foot of the mountain, and had Isaac carry the wood up to the top of the mountain. If Mount Moriah is the temple Mount, we are not talking about a high mountain. It is more of a hill. In any case, Abraham and Isaac ascended to the top—Isaac carrying the wood, Abraham carrying smoldering embers for the fire and the rope and the knife.
In vs 7-8, we read, “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."
What did Abraham mean by saying God would provide a sacrifice? Did he hope that somehow God would even now provide another sacrifice, instead of Isaac? Or, was he just lying to Isaac to keep him calm? I suspect it was the last answer. You see, we know the outcome of this. Abraham does not. We have read the story. We know that Isaac is actually not going to be sacrificed. Abraham does not know that at all. As far as Abraham is concerned, he has received a command from God that contradicts all that he thought he knew about God, but, even so, he is going to carry out this command.
So they went up to the top of the mountain and there Abraham constructed an altar, just some stones with the wood laid on the stones. Then he took Isaac and he bound him and laid him on the wood.
Now as I mentioned earlier, Isaac is a grown man and Abraham is an old guy. There is no way Abraham could have bound Isaac had Isaac been unwilling, but apparently Isaac understands now that he is the sacrifice, and he is willing to be the sacrifice.
Then, we come to the crucial moment. Abraham has his knife at the throat of his son. He is about to make the final stroke when an Angel appears. “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’" (11-12). Isaac is saved. Afterwards, Abraham discovers a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns, and Abraham offers up the ram as a burnt offering instead of his son. Then the angel reaffirms the covenant that God had made with Abraham.
That is what happened in Genesis 22, but what are we to make of it? If we apply the NT as a commentary on Genesis, we see immediately that Isaac represents Jesus. The birth of the babe of Bethlehem was prophesied, and his name was given before he was born. He carried the wood of his cross to the place of sacrifice, and he went willingly to be the sacrifice for the sins of humankind.
Now ultimately Isaac is a flawed symbol of Christ. Isaac is a sinner just like you and me, so his sacrifice cannot save anyone. That is why, in the end, God does not let Abraham go through with it. The slaughter of Isaac would serve no purpose. So what then is the point of this chapter in Genesis?
The chapter is not about Isaac. The chapter is about Abraham. V1 tells us that this is the testing of Abraham. What is God testing? God is testing Abraham’s faith. Yes, God already knew about Abraham, everything about Abraham, but we do not know. So the purpose of the chapter is to show us some things about faith and how faith works in real life.
Consider Abraham’s situation before the chapter begins. He thinks he has everything worked out with God. God had made a covenant with him, a deal. God has called him to go to Canaan, promised him that the land would belong to his descendants through the child of promise, through Isaac. And Abraham believed God. In the NT, Abraham is held up to us as the example of faith. Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” So Abraham was a man of faith, but we do not realize what that means until we examine Genesis 22.
Søren Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855) was a nineteenth century Danish philosopher and theologian. He was a Christian who was totally turned off to the Danish Church, which is very political and very formal, and, Kierkegaard would say, was lacking in spirituality and in any real religious feeling.
His best known book was Fear and Trembling, published in 1843. This book is Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the Binding of Isaac as told in Genesis 22. To Kiekegaard, Abraham is a “knight of faith.” Most people have what we might call ordinary religion. Ordinary religion is not much religion. They go to church. They learn the words to say. They are present for the sacraments. But none of this really impacts their lives. They believe but not very much. Abraham shows us what real belief is. Abraham believes when belief contradicts all logic and reason. Isaac was the child of promise. Abraham is going to sacrifice Isaac, but he still believes that God is going to keep his promises.
Think about that. It makes no sense at all. In Hebrews chapter 11, we read, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Heb 11:17-19 ESV ). In these verses Hebrews summarizes Genesis 22, and then offers a little commentary. Abraham believed that God would keep his promises, even if he had to raise Isaac from the dead. And Hebrews notes that figuratively speaking God did raise Isaac from the dead, in preventing him from being sacrificed.
Kierkegaard said that Abraham trust the absurd. It was absurd to suppose that Abraham could kill Isaac and still have descendants that would inherit Canaan. But Abraham believed the absurd. He believed beyond logic and reason. He believed when the situation proclaimed that belief was ridiculous.
Kierkegaard called this a leap of faith and he maintained that it is only by such a leap that we are ever going to get to God. We cannot get to God by logic or reason or science. Now some Christians do not realize this. Christians write books all the time trying to prove God and trying to prove the Bible. Of course, if you can prove God, you do not need to have faith in God, but the fact is we cannot prove God. There are a number of arguments that believers use to prove that the universe had a creator. None of the arguments are convincing to an unbeliever.
Even we, if we depend upon the evidence of events, have problems believing. Sometimes when everything is going our way, we say, yes there is a God, but other times things make no sense and we say, How could God possibly allow this to happen?
We need the example of Abraham. Our faith should not depend upon events. Our faith should not depend upon evidence. We believe anyway. No matter what the situation, God is going to work things out, whether we understand it or not. That is a leap of faith. That is real faith. That is the kind of faith Abraham had. That is the kind of faith we desperately need.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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