Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14
There is a Yiddish folk tale that goes something like this: Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?1
Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said, “If you want to command death, do it yourself.”
The story named by Christians “the sacrifice of Isaac” and by Jews “the akedah” (the “binding” of Isaac) has engendered heated debate over the centuries. Is it a story of an abusive God, a misguided Abraham, religious violence at its worst? Or is it a story of faith and obedience?
Trying to get around the difficulties, many argue that it is simply an etiological tale about the shift from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. This seems likely. It is certainly the case that other biblical texts expressly forbid child sacrifice (e.g. Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 7:30-34; Ezekiel 20:31). The practice is known in the cultures surrounding Israel and may have been practiced in Israel as well (hence the prophetic condemnation of it).
There is more here, though, than such a history-of-religions interpretation allows. The akedah is a foundational story for Judaism and Christianity in ways that are too complex to trace in this short essay.2 Even before the canon was closed, the akedah became associated with worship at the Jerusalem Temple. In 2 Chronicles 3:1, the mountain of the Temple is called “Mount Moriah,” the mountain of the akedah. (In fact, “Moriah” appears in the Bible only in these two passages.) Hence, the sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac becomes the foundational act for all the Temple sacrifices that follow.
For Christianity, the sacrifice of the beloved son has obvious resonance with Jesus’ death. That’s why Genesis 22 is appointed as one of the readings for the Easter Vigil (and sometimes as one of the readings on Good Friday). In addition, the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son became for early Christians one of the greatest examples of his faith: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac … He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead” (Hebrews 11:17, 19). In the history of Christian interpretation, Genesis 22 has continued to be understood as a story of faith against all odds, and as a foreshadowing of God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ.
Despite this rich history of interpretation, well-meaning people through the centuries, horrified by this story, have attempted to negate it in various ways. And it is true that it can be a dangerous text, especially in an era of religious extremism. Anyone who preaches this story must emphatically say that God does not demand child sacrifice; indeed, that God abhors it (as evidenced by the prophets).
Still, there is a theological depth in this story that should not be passed over. The narrative has gripped the religious imagination of Jew and Christian alike for thousands of years.3 It is worth looking at its details.
The story begins, “After these things God tested Abraham” (22:1). And what do “these things” include? God’s call to Abraham to go to a land he has never seen; God’s promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation; the long years of Sarah’s barrenness; the birth of Ishmael; and at long last, the impossible birth of the boy they call “Laughter.”
Then Abraham, at Sarah’s insistence, casts out his first son, Ishmael, with great sorrow (see last week’s commentary). And now, God demands a most horrible thing: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go4 to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you” (22:2). The rabbis imagine the scene:
God said, “Take your son.” And Abraham said, “I have two sons.” He answered him, “Your only son.” He said to him, “Each is the only son of his mother.” God said, “The one whom you love.” Abraham replied, “Is there any limit to a father’s love?” God answered, “Isaac.”
The Hebrew prose of this story is beautiful and succinct. Abraham does what God demands, and sets out with his son. Abraham doesn’t say much. Isaac says even less, and one is left to imagine what they are thinking and feeling. The narrator uses repetition to heighten the poignancy: “The two of them walked on together,” as the father and son walk together in silence on the third day (22:6). Together in purpose, together in love. The narrator continually emphasizes the relationship between the two, as if we need to be reminded: “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac.” “Isaac said to Abraham his father, “My father!” and he said, “Here I am, my son” (22:7).
“Here I am” — in Hebrew hineni. It’s the same word Abraham used to answer God’s call in verse 1: “Here I am.” Abraham is attentive to God, and equally attentive to his beloved son. Here I am.
And Isaac says, “See, we have fire, and wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And Abraham, heart torn in two, says, “God will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And, again, “The two of them walked on together” (22:7-8). Whether Isaac knew what was going to happen is a matter that the rabbis debated. Perhaps he did not, which makes Abraham’s pain all that much more acute. Perhaps he did, which makes Isaac, too, an example of great faith and obedience. The two of them walk on together, father and son, the son carrying the wood for his own sacrifice. The first century rabbis, with no connection to Christianity but with ample experience of Roman executions, said of this detail: “Isaac carries the wood for the sacrifice like one who carries his own cross.”
They reach the place of sacrifice, and Abraham builds an altar. Again, as if we need to be reminded, the narrator emphasizes the relationship between father and son. “He bound his son Isaac … Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son” (22:9-10).
At that moment, the LORD calls to him with great urgency, “Abraham, Abraham!” And Abraham replies for the third and final time in the story, hineni, “Here I am.” One can imagine that his tone now is one of unspeakable relief and hope.
The LORD speaks, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (22:12).
“Now I know.” This story does not subscribe to later notions of God’s perfect omniscience. This is a genuine test, and Abraham is free to decide what he will do. God neither knows nor pre-ordains how Abraham will respond. Reading this story with a hermeneutic of generosity, one could argue that God imposes this one-time test on Abraham because God has risked everything on this one man, and God needs to know if he is faithful.5
Abraham and his descendants are the means by which God has chosen to bless the whole world (Genesis 12:3). And Abraham has not always proven up to the task (the wife-sister charade, Hagar and Ishmael). Now God needs to know whether Abraham is willing to give up the thing most precious to him in all the world for the sake of being faithful to the God who gave him that gift in the first place. And Abraham passes this most excruciating of tests: “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Then, as Abraham had told Isaac, God provides; God provides a ram to take the place of the beloved son. “So Abraham called that place ‘The LORD will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided’” (22:14).
There is a word-play here and in verse 8 that is worth noting. The Hebrew word (ra’ah) translated “provide” is literally the word for “seeing.” So the last phrase can be translated, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided” or “On the mount of the LORD he shall be seen.” Given the association of Mt. Moriah with the Temple Mount, both translations speak truth about God’s presence and God’s providence.
Well, much more could be said, of course. This is a very difficult story; there’s no getting around it, and I’m sure that my reading of it won’t be satisfactory to everyone who comes to this site. Still, I hope it’s clear that when one is willing to plumb the depths of this story and to read it with care and with generosity, there are theological riches here.
The story of the akedah makes a claim on us: All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place. The story of the akedah assures us that God will provide, that God will be present. And, of course, as generations of Christian interpreters have seen, it foreshadows the story that forms the foundation of Christian faith – the story of the death and resurrection of the beloved son,6 son of Abraham, son of David, Son of God. For all these reasons and more, this is a story worth preaching.
1 Commentary first published on this site on June 29, 2014.
3 The akedah is a motif in many modern Israeli poems. See, for instance, the poems at http://ktiva.blogspot.com/2006/11/poetry-of-akedah.html (accessed 5/4/14).
5 This is the argument of Ellen Davis in her book Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cowley, 2001) 50-64.
6 To use the title of Jon Levenson’s book (above).