Abraham and Isaac: A Test of Faith

ZA Blog on September 4th, 2018. Tagged under ,,,,,.

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In Genesis 22, God tests Abraham’s obedience by asking him to sacrifice Isaac, his only son.

To modern readers, this passage and this test feels like a nightmare. Why would God ask Abraham to do that? And why would Abraham be willing to go through with it?

Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III explores this challenging passage in his online course on the book of Genesis. The following analysis is adapted from his course.

But first, let’s look at the passage itself.

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Abraham is tested

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba. —Genesis 22:1–19

The cost of obedience

At the beginning of the Abraham narrative, God commanded Abraham to leave his native country and to go, by faith, to the land that God would show him, offering him rewards if he obeyed. But this time, there are no rewards listed on the condition of obedience, and the demand is ever so much more difficult.

The narrator begins by announcing God’s intention to test Abraham yet one more time (v. 1). God calls his name and Abraham quickly responds, “Here I am.” After this brief introduction, God delivers his demand: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (v. 2).

Notice how God highlights the cost to Abraham by the multiple descriptions of his special relationship with Isaac. As if he would need a reminder, he refers to Isaac as “his son,” but then goes on to call him the patriarch’s “only son,” and finally the child that he “loves so much.”

He is to take him to the region of Moriah, a place near the future site of Jerusalem (see below for the significance of this name). He is to take him to a specific mountain in Moriah that God will choose and show to Abraham. Once there, he is to sacrifice the boy as a burnt offering.

Was human sacrifice normal?

The burnt offering (ola) is later described as one of the most fundamental types of animal sacrifice (Leviticus 1). It is distinctive in that the animal so offered is slaughtered and then completely burned. God was commanding Abraham to offer his own son as a human sacrifice.

We know that human sacrifice was practiced in the broader ancient Near East (2 Kings 3:26–27), but it does not seem to be a regular ritual practice anywhere. It was a special sacrifice used in emergency situations to get a god’s help.

We’re not sure what Abraham knew or didn’t know about the practice of human sacrifice or even what practices were current at his exact time period. It is virtually certain, though, that this would have been the first occasion that God placed such a demand on his follower. Abraham would not have known whether this God desired human sacrifice or not.

How old was Isaac?

We don’t know how much time passed since the events in Genesis 21, and so scholars can only speculate Isaac’s age.

It is unclear how old he is, though he had to be old enough to carry the wood and notice the absence of the sacrificial animal. He could be as young as six or seven, though many interpreters through the ages have seen him to be an adolescent or young adult—which leads to further speculation about his role and understanding of the sacrifice.

Just by virtue of the fact that he could carry the wood means that Isaac would have been able to put up resistance to his aged father’s attempt to sacrifice him. Of course, if he were a young adult, then the old man would not have stood a chance. Thus, through the ages, interpreters have suggested that Isaac himself came to participate in this act of obedience by his independent decision. Again, we cannot be certain since the text itself does not make it clear.

Did Abraham know God would provide a substitute?

We can speculate endlessly about what went through Abraham’s mind that night. Perhaps he was angry, depressed, confused, or some combination of these emotions. The narrator does not tell us. What he does emphasize is Abraham’s ready obedience as he moves straight from the divine command to Abraham’s preparations for the journey.

He wastes no time, setting off early in the morning with not only Isaac but also two servants. In terms of supplies we hear only that Abraham brought the wood from his home base in the Philistine territory of Gerar.

“We will come back to you”

The journey from Gerar to Moriah took three days. When he saw the place, he instructed his servants to stay with the donkeys as he and Isaac traveled alone to the location of sacrifice. It is striking that Abraham informed the servants that he and Isaac “will worship and then we will come back to you” (v. 5).

What was going through Abraham’s mind when he says this to his servants? In typical fashion, the narrator reports the statement without commenting or evaluating it. Is he misleading the servants out of embarrassment, saving explanations until later? Considering the nature of the master-servant relationship at the time, it seems unlikely that Abraham would owe them such an explanation. A better understanding, though it is not certain, leads us to detect a note of hope in Abraham’s voice as he tells them that both he and Isaac will return to them.

“God himself will provide the lamb”

The same type of ambiguity attends to the interchange between Isaac and Abraham as they make the final ascent up the mountain. Isaac has a question for his father, “The fire and wood are here . . . but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (v. 8). What are we to make of this? Could it be that Abraham was deflecting Isaac’s question to spare both him and his son the emotional trauma till the bitter end? It is possible, though it is hard to think of Abraham muttering to himself, “and it’s you my son.”

Again, we cannot be certain, but I believe we are justified in seeing in Abraham’s statement a measure of hope, hope that God would indeed provide a substitute for his son. However, it is important to the integrity of the story to recognize that Abraham was determined to obey God no matter what the cost. Hope was one thing, but submission to the will of God by his obedience was Abraham’s primary goal (vv. 9–11).

Abraham passes the test, and Isaac lives

When they reached the place on the unnamed mountain in the Moriah region, Abraham built an altar, as he had done many times in the past. The altar would have been dirt or more likely undressed stones. He then placed the wood for the fire on top of it. Then he bound Isaac on the altar on top of the wood.

Verse 10 makes it clear that Abraham intended, though he far from desired, to go through with the sacrifice: “Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.”

When his actions indicated his intent, the angel of the Lord called out his name from heaven. The angel of the Lord is often identified with God himself. The double repetition (“Abraham! Abraham!”) shows urgency, which of course is fitting for the occasion. For the second time, Abraham responds to the heavenly voice with a “Here I am!” (hinneni), making himself available to the angel and his new instructions. He is not to kill Isaac, and then the angel tells Abraham that the earlier command was a test.

Abraham passed the test, demonstrating that he feared God. The phrase “fear God” and the related “fear of the Lord” describe a proper relationship with God. One who fears God knows their proper place in the cosmos. This fear does not make one run away, but does reveal an attitude that is willing to submit and obey. Indeed, it “expresses the idea of covenantal service.”

In the case of Abraham, his willingness to sacrifice his son, the one who represented the future to him, shows that he is willing to obey God even at great personal cost. It is this Abraham who amazes Johannes de Silento, Søren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author, who exclaims:

“There was the one who relied on himself and gained everything, and the one who, secure in his own strength, sacrificed everything, but the one who believed God was greater than everybody. There was the one who was great by his wisdom, and the one who was great by his hope, and the one who was great by his love, but Abraham was greater than everybody—great by that power whose strength is powerlessness, great by that wisdom whose secret is folly, great by that hope whose form is madness, great by that love which is hatred of oneself.”

A substitute sacrifice

At that moment, Abraham saw a ram caught by its horn in the thicket. He apparently took the “coincidence” as a sign that God was indeed providing a substitute sacrifice. Notice God does not direct him to offer the animal, though the divine intention can be discerned through the coincidence.

This event then gave a new name to the place. The NIV and many other translations render the name Yahweh-yireh as “The Lord will provide,” though this rendering is not a common translation of the verb raah. A more obvious translation of the phrase would be “The Lord will see” (see NAB). Either version makes sense in the context.

God had indeed seen Abraham’s great act of faith. But, and perhaps the stronger argument is here, the naming may be the way to definitively but indirectly teach that God had indeed provided the substitute sacrifice.

Abraham’s complete obedience led to blessing

Abraham has shown himself faithful. Again, the main theme of the Abraham story is his journey of faith. How does he respond to threats and obstacles to the fulfillment of the promises found at 12:1–3? Much of the time the answer is not positive. He manipulates and acts out of fear. But here at the end, during his most difficult test, he succeeds. He demonstrates the kind of trust that will make him an example of faith in the New Testament.

But here there is a further dimension to God’s determined affirmation that he will fulfill the promises given at the beginning of the Abraham story. Genesis 15:6 emphasized the importance of Abraham’s faith. Now God remarks that the promises will be fulfilled because Abraham has demonstrated his faith through obedience (“because you have obeyed me,” 22:18).

The angel’s explanation of God’s promises to Abraham is rooted in their original expression in 12:1–3; see also 15:12–16; 17:3–8. God will bless Abraham and all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

The blessing on the nations will flow from Abraham’s “offspring” or more literally “seed” (22:18). In 12:1–3, God had promised that Abraham’s descendants would become a great nation.

Does God test our faith, too?

The thought that God tests his people is horrifying to say the least. Will God test us like he tested Abraham? Or is this unique to Abraham’s experience?

We can say without a shadow of a doubt that God would not test us in the same way that he tested Abraham. If someone thinks that God is telling them to kill their child, or anyone for that matter, they are wrong. It is not God who is asking them to do it.

He has made it clear that he does not want human sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2–5; Deuteronomy 18:9–12; Micah 6:6–8), and God would not instruct a person to do something that he has clearly forbidden. Deuteronomy 19:10 explicitly forbids the killing of the innocent.

That said, while God would never test anyone again in the same way that he tested Abraham, we know from other passages of Scripture that he does on occasion test his people to expose the quality of their faith.

The ultimate sacrifice

So if God doesn’t demand human sacrifice, which was likely considered the ultimate sacrifice in other ancient near eastern traditions, what is the ultimate sacrifice? In one of the most moving and memorable passages of the Old Testament, the prophet Micah both asks and answers the question:

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.” —Micah 6:6–8

The sacrifice that God wants from us is not our children, but our heart and our obedience.

Learn more in Tremper Longman’s online course on the book of Genesis ›