Genesis 22:1–14 is part of the lectionary readings for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, which is June 28th. In chapter 20, we see Abraham repeating a sin he had committed earlier (12:10–20). Specifically, after moving into the Negev (southern Israel), Abraham again identified Sarah as his sister in order to protect himself.
Abimelech, the king of Gerar, took Sarah into his harem. Before long, God warned Abimelech to return Sarah to Abraham.
For a second time, Abraham found himself reprimanded by a pagan king for lying. Yet, then Abimelech gave Abraham such material benefits as sheep, cattle, and slaves, along with clearing Sarah’s name (reputation). The stage was now set for the long-awaited birth of Abraham and Sarah’s son.
As promised, Abraham and Sarah did have a son of their own. Chapter 21 reveals that Sarah, at the age of 90, gave birth to a boy whom her husband named Isaac.
Abraham, who was 100 years old, circumcised Isaac in obedience to the Lord’s command (vv. 1–5; see 17:9–14). Later, at the feast celebrating Isaac’s weaning, Sarah caught Ishmael mocking Isaac. This prompted Sarah to insist that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael (21:6–10).
God assured Abraham that He would make Ishmael into a great nation. Essentially, this was saying that Abraham could send his older son away in good conscience (vv. 11–13).
An examination of chapter 22 reveals that the Lord often tests the faith of His followers. Though He does not tempt us to do evil (Jas 1:13), He does allow trials to come into our lives for myriad reasons, including to prove the authenticity of our faith (1 Pet 1:6–7).
In our present text, we discover how God tested the faith of Abraham to see whether he would be obedient. Specifically, the Lord required the patriarch to demonstrate unmitigated confidence in the promises of the covenant (Gen 12:1–3; 15:1–6; 17:1–2).
Abraham’s test could hardly have been more acute. It began with God summoning the patriarch by name, who then responded as the Lord’s ready and attentive servant (22:1).
The Creator began His instructions to Abraham by emphasizing the unique and valued place Isaac occupied in the patriarch’s life. For example, Isaac was the person upon whom all the divine promises rested (17:17–19).
Noteworthy is the narrowing of the description recorded in 22:2. It began somewhat broadly with the reference to Isaac as Abraham’s son. Then the narrator added that Isaac was Abraham’s sole offspring through Sarah. Furthermore, Isaac was the object of Abraham’s deep and abiding affection.
The Lord directed Abraham to take his beloved son with him to the land of Moriah. At this time, the patriarch was living in Beersheba, at the southernmost point of the promised land (21:33–34).
Genesis 22:2 does not state the precise location of the “region of Moriah,” but verse 4 says that the patriarch traveled three days to get there. This is about how long it would have taken him to go from Beersheba to the vicinity of what is now Jerusalem, a distance of about 45 miles.
According to 2 Chronicles 3:1, Solomon built the temple on Mount Moriah. So, the spot (approximately, at least) where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son became the sacred place where for centuries his descendants would offer animals.
Also, nearby was the hallowed locale where the Messiah would become the all-sufficient sacrifice for humankind’s iniquities (Heb 13:11–14). In short, at the mount of Moriah, the Father spared Abraham’s son, but not His own (Isa 53:4–6).
Even though Abraham loved Isaac, God still called upon the patriarch to present his son as a “burnt offering” (Gen. 22:2) on a soon-to-be disclosed mountain. In later Israelite history, a burnt offering involved the sacrifice of a bull, ram, or male bird (that is, a dove or young pigeon) to the Lord.
The burnt offering was significant for several reasons. It was a voluntary act of worship and atoned for the participant’s unintentional sins. The burnt offering was also an expression of total devotion to the Lord.
The biblical text gives no indication that God told Abraham anything more beyond the initial command. Only the reader knows that the Lord meant this act as a test.
We can only imagine how viscerally objectionable God’s directive to Abraham must have felt. The command must have also seemed inconsistent with everything the Lord had promised the patriarch. How could he, in good conscience, slay the one through whom, according to God’s own declaration, the promises of the covenant would be fulfilled?
Nonetheless, the directive from the Lord was clear. Though Abraham did not know what was ahead for him, he chose to obey God and take Isaac to the region of Moriah to offer the boy as a sacrifice. Contrast the patriarch’s obedience with the rebellious way Jonah reacted centuries later to God’s lesser-egregious command to journey to Nineveh to proclaim a judgment oracle against its pagan residents (Jonah 1:3).
Admittedly, the divine command to sacrifice Isaac is one of the most difficult passages in Scripture for contemporary readers to understand. Some interpreters have tried to soften the horror by claiming that this account merely shows how ancient peoples finally moved beyond human sacrifice and learned to placate God by offering up livestock.
Yet, the Bible is not an anthropology textbook. The point of this account is how the Lord calls us to radical trust and commitment. For instance, we note that real faith has an element of anguish to it. Abraham certainly would have felt this intense distress.
Despite any qualms, the patriarch showed his trust in God by trudging up the mountain with Isaac. It was early in the morning when Abraham got up, saddled his donkey, and chopped the wood needed for the burnt offering.
In addition to Isaac, the patriarch took two young bondservants with him on the three-day journey (Gen 22:3). During this time, Abraham had the opportunity to reconsider his options and change his mind. Yet, he remained committed to the task the Lord had directed the patriarch to perform.
On the third day of the trek, Abraham caught sight in the distance of the place for the intended sacrifice (v. 4). He instructed his two bondservants to stay where they were and look after the donkey used for carrying supplies. The patriarch explained that in the interim, he and his son would travel further, spend some time in worship, and return to the servants (v. 5).
Here we see Abraham displaying confidence in God. Even though the patriarch intended on obeying the Lord, Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead (Heb 11:17–19).
Abraham carried some coals in a clay pot to ignite a fire and a knife to slaughter the offering. The patriarch also had his son carry the wood for his own sacrifice (Gen 22:6). This is remarkably like Jesus, who would carry His own cross on the way to His crucifixion (John 19:17).
We should not think of Isaac as a little child at the time of this incident. The Hebrew noun translated “boy” (Gen 22:12) can refer to a male old enough to serve in the military (1 Chron 12:28). Most likely, Isaac was in his late teens or early twenties when his father took him to be sacrificed on Mount Moriah, especially since the patriarch’s son was able to carry the heavy pile of wood by himself up to the appointed place.
Perhaps at first there was silence as Abraham and his beloved son made their way to the appointed place (Gen 22:6). Then Isaac broke the silence by commenting on the one item that was missing to complete the intended sacrifice.
Isaac asked his father about the “lamb” (v. 7) that was traditionally used for a “burnt offering.” Abraham explained to Isaac that God would provide the lamb. Of course, the patriarch did not know how the Lord would do this, only that in some inexplicable way He would supply the necessary substitute.
For the moment, Abraham’s confident response must have encouraged his son as they made the rest of the journey together (v. 8). Both knew that their trust in God would not be disappointed. The attention of the father and son was focused on the Lord’s character, especially the truth that He is the great provider, even when His people seemed to have exhausted their last bit of hope.
Centuries later, Jesus told a group of His peers that Abraham rejoiced as he looked forward to the time of the Messiah’s coming (John 8:56). Through the patriarch, the Father gave the world an early glimpse into what He would one day do through His Son, who is the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36; see Heb 7:27; 10:14; 1 Pet 3:18).
Abraham knew of no other option than to proceed with the sacrifice of his son. When the two came to the divinely designated spot, the patriarch built a crude altar out of uncut rocks and dirt.
Then, Abraham arranged on the altar the wood that Isaac hauled up the mountain. Next, Abraham tied up the young man—the patriarch’s cherished son—and placed him on top of the wood (Gen 22:9).
The underlying Hebrew verb rendered “bound,” aqad, is the basis for the major theme in rabbinic Judaism and synagogue liturgy known as the Akedah (or “binding”). The idea is that later, when God’s people offered sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple, He recalled Abraham’s binding of Isaac, for whom the Lord provided a suitable substitute.
Isaac’s heart must have skipped a beat or two as he saw his father take the sharpened knife in his hand to slit his son’s throat (v. 10). Isaac was fully aware of what was about to happen. From all appearances, he quietly and willingly went along with the sacrifice.
Isaac’s obedience to his father as he prepared the offering reveals Isaac’s confidence in God. Like Isaac’s father, the young man believed that the Lord’s promises would be fulfilled through him, regardless of what happened. Unquestionably, this was Isaac’s finest hour.
With no time to spare, the Lord’s angel called down from heaven to stop Abraham from slaying his son. The heavenly emissary referred to the patriarch twice by name to signal the urgency of the situation, and Abraham answered as the Lord’s humble, willing servant (v. 11).
Abraham had made the decision to go through with the sacrifice, just as God had directed. In this way, the patriarch demonstrated that he was characterized by unwavering obedience. Because he had passed the divinely-appointed test, it was unnecessary for him to slaughter Isaac (v. 12).
Abraham’s obedience did not take God by surprise, yet (apparently) the test was necessary to mature and develop the patriarch’s spiritual character. He had shown that he genuinely feared the Lord. In the Old Testament, to fear God meant to wholeheartedly revere Him and follow Him in absolute obedience (Gen 20:11; 42:18; Job 1:1; Isa 11:2).
The Lord’s test of Abraham also provided a way for God to show the world how He would make salvation possible through the patriarch’s greatest descendant, the Lord Jesus. At the divinely appointed time, He would sacrifice His life on the cross as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
After the Lord’s angel told Abraham to stop the sacrifice, he saw a ram caught by its horns in some nearby bushes. Consequently, the patriarch offered the ram on the altar in place of Isaac (Gen 22:13).
Before the sacrifice, Abraham promised his son that God would provide an animal for the offering (v. 8). And the patriarch was correct.
So afterward, Abraham called the place of the sacrifice Yahweh–yireh, which approximately means, “the Lord provides” (v. 14; more literally, “Yahweh will see”). This statement redemptively foreshadowed what would later come, when the Father provided His Son as a sacrifice for our sins.
Just as the ram took the place of Isaac, so too the Lord Jesus took our place on the cross. Also, when we receive by grace the pardon the Father freely offers as a consequence of His Son’s sacrificial death made at Calvary, our sins are forgiven and we are declared righteous (2 Cor 5:21).
Abraham’s obedience demonstrated his confidence in God’s covenant promises. The Lord’s angel again called to the patriarch from heaven with a resounding confirmation of those promises (vv. 15–16).
The emissary declared that numerous descendants would come from the patriarch, that they would one day conquer their enemies, and that through these descendants, God’s blessing would extend to the entire world (vv. 17–18; see Heb 6:13–18).
Clearly, the Lord was pleased with Abraham’s obedience. With his son safe and with the reaffirmation of the covenant ringing in his ears, the patriarch must have been overjoyed, especially as he reunited with his bondservants and returned to Beersheba (Gen 22:19).
The Lord may be leading us along paths that seem illogical to us. With our limited perspective, we cannot see God’s purpose in what He sends our way any more than Abraham could understand why the Creator would summon him to sacrifice his son.
Nevertheless, we can trust the Lord completely, for we know He deeply cares for us. Also, someday we will be able to look back and see all He has accomplished in our lives.
The preceding truth is found in 1 Corinthians 13:12. Paul said that presently believers knew God only partially. Yet, the apostle looked forward to a time when the redeemed would know God fully.
Paul, of course, was not suggesting that human beings would ever have knowledge equaling that of the Creator. When we are suffering or confused, we can remember that God knows us fully and cares about us.
In contrast, when we are tempted to sin, we can recall that God knows us fully and won’t overlook our sin. Remembering that God fully knows us is always good for our spiritual welfare.
Key ideas to contemplate
God’s decision to test Abraham is the underlying reason for an episode in the patriarch’s life that otherwise seems illogical and even cruel by contemporary Western moral standards. Abraham was told to take his only son to be offered on an altar.
At first, the patriarch had no idea the Lord was going to stop him. Why would Abraham heed God’s directive? Also, why would the Lord command the patriarch to sacrifice Isaac?
God may never ask of us what He asked of Abraham. Even so, as His faithful children, we will endure testing of some kind.
The trials we go through in life might also seem illogical and unfair. Like Job, we might be overwhelmed by everything happening at once—for example, a parent dies, a loved one abandons us, and a money crisis occurs, all in a few months.
It is natural to wonder why God allows us to undergo such times of testing. From Deuteronomy 13:3, we learn that He may want to separate us from other things that have taken His place in our lives, such as money, a career, our home, or even our family.
Jesus emphasized the preceding truth in Matthew 22:37, when He urged us to love God with every aspect of our being. We also discover from James 1:3–4 that the more hardships we endure, the stronger we may become and the more we may be able to help others in their times of distress.
Often, the why of our testing is less important than how we react to it. Our response should be similar to the obedient manner in which Abraham dealt with his test from God.
The patriarch simply trusted that whatever the Lord commanded was the right thing to do—no matter what. Also, Abraham was convinced that God would provide for His bondservant, regardless of what occurred.
Both Abraham and Isaac knew that because they trusted God, they would not be disappointed. Trusting the Lord is always the wisest response we can make, even when we don’t understand what is happening to us or why. We can do so, for we know that He is the eternal light in the world of darkness that surrounds us.
Short bio: Dan completed his doctoral studies at North-West University. He is widely published and has a particular interest in intertextuality between the testaments, Biblical ethics and spiritual care in professional settings. Dan has extensive experience in tertiary education and a passion for scholarly excellence.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the South African Theological Seminary.