Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14
What do we do with this text? It’s horrifying—that Abraham would plan to kill his son as an act of faith and that God would command it.
I confess as I was reading this text again, I kept going back to the Hebrew, wondering if perhaps we have been reading it wrong, if there is another way of translating verse 2. There isn’t. The text is surprisingly unambiguous. “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, that is, Isaac, and go (lek-leka) to the land of Moriah and offer him up there as a burnt offering.” I don’t which is worse—that God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, or that Abraham seemingly complies without protest.
Compounding the ethical problem is the practical one. Isaac is the long-awaited child of the promise and at this point, he is the only one left in Abraham’s household through whom God’s covenant promises could be realized. Lot chose to separate from Abraham and his family and strike out on his own. God said no to Abraham’s servant, Eliezer. Though with some protest, Abraham complied with God’s insistence that Ishmael be sent away. And now this. The final hope that Abraham and Sarah have for “a great name” is to be snuffed out at God’s command. To the human mind, this is incomprehensible. And no words I write are likely to lift the fog.
However, let me make some observations that might help us hold our horror in tension with what is really beautiful in this text.
A lot has happened between Genesis 12 when Abraham was first called out of Haran and this narrative here which functions as a book-end to the stories that focus on his life. From various clues in the text, it would seem that the narrator intends us to read Genesis 22 with this entire history in mind. For instance, “after these things” in verse 1 sets up the story against the backdrop of things that are recounted in previous chapters. The command in verse 2 to lek-leka, go to the place I will say to you has literary resonances with Genesis 12:1 where Abraham is also commanded by God to lek-leka. And in verse 3, the seemingly trivial detail of Abraham’s early rising connects this narrative with the preceding chapter when he sent Hagar and Ishmael away (Genesis 21:14). This story, then, is the climax of all of the events that have preceded it.
Throughout the narratives of Abraham’s life, the pressing question is that of progeny. How will Abraham produce a son when Sarah is barren? As readers, we are relieved when Sarah gives birth to Isaac and God affirms that this is the one through whom his promises will be realized.
This primary theme, however, is complimented and complicated by a sub-theme, that is, the wavering faith of Abraham. In Genesis 12:4, Abraham responds to God without hesitation, packing up and going to the land that God would show him. And in Genesis 15:6, Abraham believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness.
At other times, however, Abraham acts in ways that suggest doubt. Twice, out of fear, he tries to pass off his wife as his sister and Sarah ends up in the bedroom of the local ruler (Genesis 12:10-20, 20:1-18). So worried about producing an heir, he sleeps with a woman other than his wife (albeit at Sarah’s bidding). He laughs when God tells him that Sarah would bear a child and that she would become the mother of nations (Gen. 17:17). Throughout, there are indications that Abraham still doesn’t quite trust God to accomplish what he promised, or believe that God is a god of his word.
So God asks Abraham to demonstrate his faith by trusting God with his hopes, his future, his deepest longings, his only son whom he loves. Genesis 22:1 describes it as a test, signaling to the reader that God had no intention of going through with it. The messenger of the Lord stays Abraham’s hand, preventing him from killing his son. God never wanted child sacrifice after all. Rather, he wanted Abraham to face his own conflicted and divided loyalties.
The test serves its purpose and leaves an indelible mark on both God and Abraham. Abraham now knows, in the profoundest of ways, that life with God is a gift, and God’s blessing is freely bestowed. He need not do anything – God will provide—generously, bountifully, wondrously. All he has to do is look up him to see that God has been there all along, guiding his steps, directing his paths, and making a future for him.
But God now knows something too. God learns that Abraham fears him. This is the first time the narrator describes Abraham’s demeanor toward God in this way. Prior to this, the text depicts Abraham as listening to and obeying God. But in Genesis 21:12, God experiences from Abraham more—respect, awe, and a healthy dose of fear and trembling appropriate to a divine-human relationship.
Something changes between Abraham and God that day. Abraham learns to trust and fear God. And God proves that God can be trusted. In the history of God’s relationship with human beings, God would demonstrate this time and again. In the end, God’s commitment to fulfilling his promises to Abraham and bringing about his redemptive purposes would end up costing God dearly. For while Abraham’s son is spared, God would give his own son to up to death. This too was an act of provision on God’s part—a provision that would ultimately fulfill what God started in Abraham, that is, the restoration of blessing to the nations and to the world.
Because Christ died, our relationship with God has forever been changed. Whatever sin, whatever guilt, whatever brokenness we carry, Christ has dealt with and abolished it in the cross. This story invites us then, to a posture of fear and awe as well as profound gratitude for God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises and the redemption we have through him.