American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Several years ago I found myself in a somewhat unique situation. My wife and I had driven about 750 miles with the singular purpose of spending a little time with a close and respected female relative who was very close to death due to the ravages of cancer. Having experienced significant abuse by the organized church in the early years of their marriage, she and her late husband had raised their children outside of its influence. Their angst toward the church and the things of faith was no secret. My greatest desire for this visit was to find the words that would mend those many years of separation from God and bring her to the comfort of a sincere relationship with God that is found by faith alone. This is a peace that she had never known.
Her resistance to any conversation concerning the LORD was firm, though not rebellious to the Spirit of God. At one point in the conversation, which can only be described as ďstealth counselingĒ on my part, she stated, ďI cannot believe in a God that would tell Abraham to kill his only son.Ē Her misunderstanding of the context and content of Genesis, chapter 22 served as a barrier to her faith. The historical narrative that she referred to illustrates and illuminates the most significant testimony of the nature and reward of true faith in God that had yet taken place in the history of creation. Yet, somehow she had missed the fundamental message of the passage and in her understanding found only an unjust and abusive God who made a cruel and unrealistic demand on one who seems to have had sincere trust in Him.
If she was in a position to carry this misunderstanding all the way through her life and to the grave, it is likely that there are many who do not realize the true meaning, purpose, and contextual outcome of the historical event. The truth of the passage is quite the opposite of her belief. Though I was able to give a short explanation while beside her bed, I was not able to give a thorough explanation until I returned home and put my thoughts into writing. She received the letter a few weeks before she died.
Genesis 22:1. And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
Many may consider the narrative of the Akadeh, the binding of Isaac for the sacrifice, as an isolated story when in reality it is the culmination of virtually everything that has taken place in Abrahamís life from the point when He heard the voice of the LORD in Haran, when he received the command to leave his family and go to a place that God would show to Him. Faith was a rare commodity in the ancient near-east, and at the point of Godís promise to Abraham, a primary (if not unique) nexus of that faith had been passed down from Noah through a line that included at least ten generations where the father passed his faith down through at least a single son who would keep the faith alive.
The narrative of Genesis, Chapter 22 cannot be fully understood or its message applied apart from Abrahamís life experience. From the moment Abraham left Haran, his experience was shaped and informed by the promise that God had revealed to Abraham, a promise that was offered because of Abrahamís unique and sincere faith in Him. Because of that faith God could and would be able to make use of Abraham in His plan to reveal Himself and His purpose to the world. It was in the Adadeh that the LORD was able to bring together all of Abrahamís experiences and demonstrate to Abraham the sincerity of his faith and the scope of Godís purpose in his life.
Consequently, ďthese thingsĒ should be brought to mind as God again comes to Abraham with a purpose, and this one is to put Abraham to a test. However, the context of this test is all-important. It is not a test to help the LORD determine whether Abraham will pass or fail, and this is the basis of much of the misconception of the purpose of this event. The LORD already knows, not only the heart of Abraham, but He also knows exactly what will transpire when Abraham is put to this test. There is nothing here for the LORD to discover, for the purpose of this event is not to inform the LORD, but to encourage Abraham, that through this experience Abraham would come to know for certain the voracity of his own faith, and would be able to, from that day forward, look back on this experience with even greater confidence in his faith and in the LORD who has promised to provide for Him
Genesis 22:2. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
This call of the LORD to Abraham is very similar to the one he heard when he was directed to leave Haran. In the first call, Abraham was stepping out in faith by leaving the security of his larger family and his homeland. This time He is again told to take his son and separate himself from his larger family and go to a place that would be shown to him at a later time. However, the imperative includes the command that he would offer Isaac as a burnt sacrifice upon arrival.
This may be a point where our understanding of the heart of Abraham is important. If Abraham was a man of weaker faith, which may be true of all of us, he would be devastated by the revelation of Godís purpose. However, there are some subtleties that are worth noting. God did not tell Abraham to go to the mountain and kill his son. He told Abraham to go to the mountain and offer his son. Abraham could continue without being overcome by fear or grief because of the experiences he had to this point.
Some have argued that the passage presents a conflict in the nature of God. There is no doubt that child sacrifice is an abomination to the LORD. How could a Holy and Righteous God who is the very definition of Truth condone child sacrifice in this instance? An inadequate exegesis of this passage can cause us to come away with an accusation of a conflict in the nature of Godís Spirit. However, the writer of the narrative includes a very important word in the first verse of the chapter. Rendered as ďtemptĒ in the KJV or ďtestĒ in most other translations, we are informed that the events to follow are meant to put Abraham to a test, and by so doing, illustrate not the nature of God, but the nature of Abrahamís faith.
First of all, Abraham had good reason to trust in Godís promises. It may have taken until Abraham was 100 years old for him to be ready to trust in Godís promises, but it was at this age that God fulfilled the promise that he would bear a son. Abraham saw the miracle and understood without question that Isaac was the product of a promise of God.
Second, God promised that a great and mighty nation would be formed from the offspring of Isaac. If God was true to his promise, Isaac would not die on that mountain. However, for Abraham to continue in his obedience to the LORD it was necessary that his faith had reached this point of confidence in God. Abraham would demonstrate that confidence by his obedience.
Genesis 22:3. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
There is no indication of resistance or delay on Abrahamís part. On the very next morning following his hearing of the LORDís command he took Isaac, to other young men, and the materials for the offering and started out for the mountains on a journey that would take him three days.
There would be a plentiful supply of wood on the mountain, yet Abraham took the time to prepare the wood for the sacrifice and carry it with them on the journey. This emphasizes the importance of this preparation. The word rendered ďclaveĒ refers to the preparation of the wood. Abraham did not simply gather firewood to take with him. He took the time to select the wood he would use and to shape it for its purpose. This carries the idea that he spent time in its choice and in chopping it into appropriately sized portions. This process would certainly give Abraham an opportunity to be thinking about the purpose of this wood. Would it be used to take the life of his own, promised son? Or, would God put in place some process by which the sacrifice would take place but his sonís life would be spared? An affirmative answer to the first question would be in conflict with everything that he knows and understands about God. (The same conflict that many of us may have experienced when trying to understand this passage.) However, an affirmative answer to the second question would be in agreement with everything that Abraham knows and understands about God. Consequently, he could come away from the work with confidence that God would demonstrate his mercy and grace as He continues in the fulfillment of His promise. Carrying the wood along the journey would be a continual reminder of Abrahamís hope in the mercy of God.
Genesis 22:4-5. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 5And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
After the three days of travel, Abraham saw the mountain in front of him and knew that this was the place that the LORD had spoken of. Described as a ďlad,Ē Isaac is probably approaching the age of adulthood, similar to the age of Ishmael when Isaac was born. By referring to Isaac as Abrahamís ďonly sonĒ we are reminded that Ishmael was rejected by Abraham and Sarah, forever lost to the family. In what would be a parallel event, without the LORDís intervention on the mountain, Isaac would also be forever lost to the family. This reminds us of the difference between Godís blessing of Ishmael and Isaac: whereas both would father a great nation, it would be through Isaac that the blessings of faith would continue. We can also surmise the age of Isaac by his ability to travel the three days and still bear the load of wood as he and Abraham climb the mountain.
We may note here another indication of Abrahamís confidence in the provision of God. He did not tell his servants, ďI will return.Ē It is clear that he told him that both he and Isaac would return. Even has he had been given three days to consider the import of this event, and even as he sees the mountain where the sacrifice is to take place, Abraham is still confident that Isaac will return with Him. He would have no idea at this point of how the LORD would both demand the sacrifice and preserve His promises through Isaac. Still he trusted God.
At this point, Abraham included the two young men in the experience. It is evident by the language that Abraham had not spoken of the purpose of the journey to either Isaac or the young men. However, prior to his leaving for the mountain Abraham began the preparation of a burnt sacrifice. He took the wood that they were carrying, lit a fire that he could carry with him, and explained to the young men that he and Isaac would go up the mountain to offer the worship of sacrifice. However, they had no animal for the sacrifice. While they were gone, the two young men would be dealing with the answer to this question, as would Isaac.
Genesis 22:6-7. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. 7And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
We might note that the only things that Abraham brought with him were the implements of the burnt offering: the wood, the fire, and the knife that would be used to first kill the sacrifice and drain its blood. As they climbed up the slope of the mountain this was quite evident to Isaac who, at this point, had no idea that the LORD had instructed his father to offer him as the sacrifice. So, his question is quite reasonable? ďFather, we have the wood, the fire, and the knife. Where is the lamb?Ē If there was any time that we might think of turning around, this is probably it. There is no evidence of a lamb anywhere, and no effort to locate one had taken place. Would he tell Isaac that the LORD had instructed him to offer his son? Abrahamís answer would be one of truth, the one confident truth that he knew in the deep recesses of his heart:
Genesis 22:8. And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
Herein is revealed the true context of this entire narrative. God knew that He would provide a sacrifice for Abraham, and Abraham was confident that God would do so. Perhaps Abraham expected to see an animal somewhere along the slope, and likely he was looking around for it. He never believed for a moment that Isaac would die on that mountain. Abrahamís answer was simple, direct, and truthful: God will provide the sacrifice.
Genesis 22:9a. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order,
Just as Abraham knew when he saw the mountain that this was the place of sacrifice, he knew when he had reached the place on the mountain where the sacrifice was to take place. Still, there was no animal for the sacrifice. Godís command to Abraham was to offer Isaac. It may be extremely important to repeat at this point the confidence that Abraham has in Godís promise. Having been given no substitutionary sacrifice, Abraham commenced its preparation.
Abraham clearly understood the context and purpose of blood sacrifice: the death of the animal served as a substitution for the death that the one bringing the sacrifice truly deserves. God has revealed Himself as a Holy and Perfect God, and He cannot and does not condone any portion of sinful behavior. Sin separates man from God, and unless God provides some means of forgiveness mankind is entirely without hope. Because of our uncompromised bent to sin, we all deserve death. Even as faithful as Abraham is, his is not a sinless life, and some of the record of his life is preserved to illustrate this fact. Abraham also deserves separation from an Holy God. However, Godís plan is that a substitution would be provided, a blood sacrifice that would serve to remind us that the death is indeed a substitution. The blood of the one sacrificed is being shed instead of our own, shed on our behalf that our sins could be forgiven.
At this point in the Akadeh, there was still no animal substitute. Surely, Abraham was looking around for one. He still believed without any doubt that God would be true to His promise to preserve the life of Isaac so that through him a mighty nation would be formed.
Genesis 9b-10. and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. 10And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
This is probably one of the most graphic images that we find in the Old Testament. Abraham is poised to sacrifice his only son as an atonement for his own sins.
What is going through the mind of Isaac at this time? As a boy, he likely lacked the wisdom to fully understand what was happening. His father had just promised him that the LORD would provide a lamb. Yet, Abraham had never given Isaac any reason to distrust him. There is no indication that Isaac resisted the bonds, nor resisted being laid upon the wood. Did he have enough confidence in his own fatherís promise that Abraham had in God the Fatherís promise?
What was going through the mind of Abraham at this time? I have often visualized Abraham lifting the knife over his son ready to plunge it into him. The language simply states that Abraham reached out and grasped the knife. Abraham was being true to his obedience to the LORD, going through every step of the sacrifice, even to the point of taking the knife into his hand, and even at this point he still saw no lamb. How is this story going to end? At this point Abraham must have been desperate to know the answer. Here he is seconds away from killing his son.
How can we understand the faith of Abraham? A simple illustration might help. There is a common plot in many television and movie dramas that involves the work of a protagonist (the good guy) in his effort to diffuse a time bomb that is threatening his life and the lives of others. The bomb represents the power of imminent death. Of course, to keep the drama going, these bombs always seem to have a clock that ticks down in an ever-agonizing slow rate so that we can witness the impending and increasing danger. Still, as dramatic as the music, images, and plot becomes, we all know that the protagonist is not going to die: that at the end of the show or movie, the good guys will be preserved. We know that the next chapter in the story has already been written, and we will be watching it next week. Though our heart may be beating rapidly, and the drama may be intense, we have a deep-down confidence that somehow, at the last second, the bomb will be diffused.
Abraham knew, even as the time of death relentlessly approached, that His son would be preserved because he knew the next chapter in the story was already written.
Genesis 22:11. And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
It might be interesting to note that the phrase ďHere am IĒ has occurred only three times so far in the book of Genesis. The first is in verse one of this chapter when the LORD calls Abraham, and Abraham responds with those words. The second occurrence is in verse seven when Isaac calls upon Abraham, and Abraham responds with these words. Finally the third time, the LORD calls upon Abraham through the voice of a messenger, and he responds with those words.
However, the angel did not simply call Abrahamís name. There is an urgency in the wording as his name is repeated twice. It is as though the LORD knows that Abrahamís faith is so firm that if he is not stopped, he will indeed take the knife to his own son, again with the belief that somehow his sonís life would be miraculously preserved. It is definitely time for an immediate intervention.
The response to the call of the angel would immediately halt the progress. It would stop the clock. It would diffuse the bomb. There would be no reason to continue if he is interrupted by the LORD. The sincerity of Abrahamís faith and trust in God has been thoroughly vindicated. God knew that Abraham would take this drama to this point, and Abraham knew that God would somehow intervene. God was not changed at this point, but Abraham certainly was. If his confidence in his trust in God could in any way be yet strengthened, it is now. God knew of the sincerity of Abrahamís faith, and now Abraham knows it also.
By the wayÖ so does Isaac. One can be assured that Isaac would remember this moment for the rest of his life. His was a unique perspective from which to understand the depth and power of his fatherís faith, and he would carry that lesson for the remainder of his days.
Genesis 22:12-13. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. 13And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
Abraham believed that God would provide a lamb, and He did. Actually he provided a ram, an adult male. The traditional sacrifice for a family is a lamb, and it was a lamb that Abraham was expecting. A ram was typically use to represent a substitutionary sacrifice for a nation. This serves as a reminder that there is a greater meaning behind the purpose of this sacrifice. Everything that had taken place in Abrahamís life had prepared him for this moment, the moment when Godís promise would be sealed. God promised that He would provide Abraham with a son, and now God has brought Isaac from childhood into adulthood with a dramatic demonstration of faith and its reward. The future of Israel started at this point in time, when Isaac became a man.
Genesis 22:14. And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen.
Abraham believed that God would provide for his need at the altar of sacrifice, and provide he did. Therefore, as a continual reminder to both his family and the nation that would come from that altar he named it Jehovah Jireh, ďGod provides.Ē When Abraham came down from that mountain, he could share the details of what took place with two very curious young men who awaited their return. He would share the story, with Isaac as the witness, to his family and his servants. The nation that would come from Isaac would never forget the story and the altar on the mountain where the event took place. They would never forget the faith of Abraham and Godís provision of the vicarious sacrifice.
God is a rewarder of those who seek Him. We may often consider that reward as the blessings that come from His promises. However, we are reminded by Abrahamís experience on the mountain that Godís greatest blessing involves another sacrifice that took place about 1600 years later on that mountain when Jesus Christ, like Isaac, willingly took his place on an altar of sacrifice. However, where the ram served as the substitution for Abraham and his family after Isaac was removed from the altar, Jesus Christ stayed on the Cross of Calvary as the sacrifice that would serve as the One substitute for all those who place their faith and trust in God. Godís promise to Abraham is still the same promise made to all of the people He has created: He offers forgiveness of sin for all who place their faith and trust in Him. However, the necessary price for sin is death,  eternal separation from God. The LORD put the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament in place to serve as an illustration of this truth: God would provide the sacrifice for us. Just as the LORD provided a ram for Isaac and Abraham, He provided Himself, YAHWEH incarnate, as the sacrifice that through the work of the Cross all people could find forgiveness.
My gravely ill aunt received that letter, and it was read to her several times by her daughter. In it I was able to comment on the experience of Abraham and Isaac on that mountain and their tremendous demonstration of sincere faith in God. If Abraham had doubts concerning the voracity of Godís promises, he did not show it. He clearly believed that God would provide the sacrifice, even to the point of picking up the knife with which to sacrifice his own son. I explained how his in an example for all of us, as God has promised to bless those who place their trust in Him. Blessing is no so much a collection of the good things we experience in life, as it is the receipt from God of the resources that we need to receive those good things. God promises us a foundation of love, peace, and joy that informs all of our experience; all we need to do is trust in God, and in Him alone.
I had no idea if our visit to her home or the sending of that letter made any difference in her life until I had the honor of officiating her funeral a few weeks later. At one point in the program when I invited testimonies from people who were there, her brother stood and announced that two weeks prior to her death she had given her heart and life to the LORD.
Jesus died on the Cross of Calvary so that people like her, like you, and like me can be given the gift of an eternal relationship with the God of Creation. Our faith may not be as amazing as that of Abraham, but Jesus taught that even the faith as small as a ďmustard seedĒ is saving faith. We can be encouraged to know that salvation a free gift, given by God, given solely as a response to our faith in Him, not by any mixture or requirement of works.
Let us always remember that wonderful Gift that God has offered to us all.
 Genesis 12:1.
 The sequence of ancestors include Noah, Shem, Arphaxad, Canaan, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, and Terah, Abrahamís father. The period of time from Noah to Abraham is held by many to be about 400 years.
 Verse 8.
 Hebrews 11:6.
 Romans 6:23.
 Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6.
 Ephesians 2:9.