Commentary on Genesis 22

Last updated: August 9, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” 6And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

9When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 12He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

15And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.

20Now after these things it was told to Abraham, “Behold, Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor: 21Uz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, 22Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.” 23(Bethuel fathered Rebekah.) These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. 24Moreover, his concubine, whose name was Reumah, bore Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah.

Notes

1 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”

After these things” indicates an indefinite connection with the preceding chapter. Isaac had just been weaned in chapter 21, but here he can carry firewood (v 6) and has enough knowledge of the world to ask a question about the sacrifice (v 7).

The Hebrew literally reads “the God tested Abraham” (the definite article is used in verses 3 and 9 too). “The affixing of the article in these three instances may be the narrator’s way of emphasizing that it was God, Abraham’s God, who was speaking to Abraham. What he was hearing came from no other source nor from his own imagination.”1

The narrator makes it clear that God tested Abraham so the reader is never under the illusion that God requires human sacrifice. It also moves our attention from Isaac to Abraham. Isaac will not be slaughtered but how will Abraham respond to this test?

2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

The divine command Take is followed by the particle -na’, which is normally translated something like “please” or “I beg you.” It might seem strange to some modern readers for God to say to Abraham “Take, please, your son” or “Take, I beg you, your son.” For this reason some have assigned to -na’ here a strengthening function instead of the usual precative meaning. But I observed in my discussion of Gen. 13:14 that -na’, which occurs more than sixty times in Genesis, is used only five times in the entire OT when God speaks to a person. Each time God asks the individual to do something staggering, something that defies rational explanation or understanding. Here then is an inkling at least that God is fully aware of the magnitude of his test for Abraham.2

This verse parallels 12:1. “Go to the land of Moriah . . . on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” parallels “Go to the land I will show you.” The Hebrew phrase lekh lekha (“go forth”) is not used again in the Bible. In both cases the ultimate destination is withheld. “Your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” parallels “your country, your people and your father’s household.” Once again the enormity of God’s request is emphasized. Isaac is the “only son” in the sense that he is the only potential heir to the promises. Further underlining the intensity of the divine test, is the fact that a burnt offering (‘ola) was fully consumed by fire (Leviticus 1:9). Not even a proper burial would be possible.

Abraham has already sent Ishmael away and now it appears that he will lose Isaac too. Note the many parallels between chapters 21 and 22:3

  • God orders Ishmael’s expulsion (21:12-13) // God orders Isaac’s sacrifice (22:2)
  • Food and water taken (21:14) // Sacrificial material taken (22:3)
  • Journey (21:14) // Journey (22:4-8)
  • Ishmael about to die (21:16) // Isaac about to die (22:10)
  • Angel of God calls from heaven (21:17) // Angel of the LORD calls from heaven (22:11)
  • Do not fear” (21:17) // “fear God” (22:12)
  • God has heard” (21:17) // “You have obeyed (heard) my voice” (22:18)
  • I shall make into a great nation” (21:18) // “Your descendants will be like stars, sand,” etc. (22:17)
  • God opens her eyes and she sees well (21:19) // Abraham raises his eyes and sees ram (22:13)
  • She gives the lad a drink (21:19) // He sacrifices ram instead of son (22:14)

The land of Moriah cannot be identified with certainty.4 2 Chronicles 3:1, which makes no mention of Abraham, identifies Mount Moriah as the site of the Jerusalem Temple. Jerusalem is about fifty miles from Beersheba so the distance could be traveled in three days (v 4).5 Kenneth Matthews notes that it is possible that Genesis has in mind a mountain range called Moriah while the Chronicler has in mind a specific mountain.6 It may also be that these two locations refer to entirely different places.

3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.

Considering the fact that Abraham interceded for the lives of the evil inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:16-33), it is surprising that he does not plead for the life of his son. Friedman offers a couple of suggestions. He notes that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son but was not commanded to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Throughout Genesis, Abraham is portrayed as obedient to God’s commands. A second suggestion is that the discussion which took place over Sodom and Gomorrah made Abraham believe it to be futile to argue with a just and omniscient God.7

Note that by now God had told Abraham where to go. This instruction has not been recorded in the narrative.

4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.

The three day journey would have given Abraham time to consider what he was doing. His resolve did not weaken. This was an act of faith and not an impulsive or emotional decision.

5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.”

Why does Abraham say he and his son will come back? Does he have extraordinary faith that Isaac will be spared or does he want to keep what he is about to do hidden from Isaac and the others?

6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.

There is irony in Isaac carrying the instruments of his own destruction. Sarna suggests that Abraham carried the dangerous items so that Isaac would not harm himself and thus would remain an unblemished sacrifice.8 The knife (ma’akhelet) must have been something more like a sword than a knife (Judges 19:29; Proverbs 30:14).9 The ascent of the mountain is framed by the phrase “So they went both of them together” (vv 6, 8), highlighting both their isolation and companionship.

7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

In their dialogue Abraham and Isaac use the phrases “my father” and “my son,” thus highlighting their relationship. Does Isaac’s question mean the awful truth is dawning on him?

8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

Hebrew has no punctuation so the word’s “my son” can be taken in two different ways: (1) Abraham’s address to Isaac or (2) as identifying Isaac as the burnt offering.10 Presumably Isaac understood it in the first sense for he shows no concern over his father’s words, yet the reader can appreciate the irony. There is further irony in that God does actually provide an animal for the sacrifice (v 13).

9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

Mention of the wood arranged on the altar not only gives a graphic picture for the reader but also contributes to the portrayal of Isaac as a willing victim who must have recognized at this point that he was the intended offering . . . . Isaac, the stronger and the swifter of the two, submits without struggle to the old man’s binding to the altar. Is it to ensure that the lad will not escape if his heart weakens in the face of the knife? Or is the binding rather Abraham’s assurance that the thrust of the knife will fall certain to kill mercifully the motionless victim? The delay required to bind Isaac may reflect the father’s wish to postpone the painful end of the ordeal.11

In two respects the procedure Abraham adopts here differs from that prescribed in Lev 1 for the burnt offering of oxen and sheep. Lev 1 does not mention any binding of the animal prior to slaughter, and the slaughtering takes place before the dismembered animal is placed on the altar. It is not easy to explain these differences. Jacob suggests that binding the animal is simply presupposed in Lev 1, as it was done throughout the ancient Orient. So why bother to mention that Abraham bound Isaac? Perhaps it was because Abraham might relatively easily have slit Isaac’s throat when he was off guard; that an elderly man was able to bind the hands and feet of a lively teenager strongly suggests Isaac’s consent. So this remark confirms that impression given by vv 7-8 that Isaac was an unblemished subject for sacrifice who was ready to obey his father, whatever the cost, just as his father had showed his willingness to obey God to the uttermost.12

This story is known as the Akedah because of the Hebrew stem ‘-k-d, “to bind.”13

10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.

The Hebrew word translated “slaughter” (sahat) is used of the slaughter of animals for both secular and sacred purposes.14 It is also used to describe the slaughter of children to false gods (Isaiah 57:5; Ezekiel 16:21; 23:39).

11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”

Calling from heaven emphasizes the urgency and importance of what follows (cf. 21:17). Note that here he is called the angel of “the LORD” (cf. 16:9-11), God’s covenant name was last used in Genesis when the promised Isaac was born (21:1). The strange God who tested Abraham once again shows himself to be the gracious LORD who keeps his promise (Exod 34:6-7).15

The double call “Abraham, Abraham” shows the urgency of the situation (cf. v 1).

12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

The text maintains that the sequence of events is done for God’s benefit. This stunning suggestion would seem impossible were it not for the clarity of verse 12: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” God himself focuses on what he gains from the test. Despite its forthrightness, it has often been circumnavigated by interpreters as they object that God, in his omniscience, must have known that Abraham would do what he did. God, by his nature and affirmed attributes, cannot add to his cognitive knowledge. Yet the text stands, and our commitment is to understand it, not sidestep it.

We must differentiate between knowledge as cognition and knowledge as experience. We can agree that God knew ahead of time what Abraham was going to do. But there is ample evidence throughout Scripture that God desires us to act out out our faith and worship regardless of the fact that he knows our hearts. God wants us to pray even though he knows what we are going to say and may already have the answer in motion. He wants us to praise him even though he knows how we feel. God asks us to express our faith and love. It is honoring to him for us to demonstrate those things that he knows exist because it pleases him. That is what I mean when I speak of God’s “benefit.” We all know that as much as our parents, spouses, and children know that we love them, it is important that it be said and demonstrated. Cognitive knowledge is not enough and is often less than satisfying.

There is more. Abraham is being asked to demonstrate something that goes well beyond anything he has previously demonstrated. It is true that he cut the ties of his family and relatives when God called him to leave (Gen. 12), but in that situation there was something in it for him: the promise of a new family through the covenant God would make with him. Every other sacrifice God has asked Abraham to make was balanced by a promise that, in a sense, made it worth his while; there was something to lose but more to gain. Here, however, there is nothing to gain. No promise balances the loss. No covenant offers motivation. In fact, it is not only his son that he is putting on the sacrificial altar, it appears to be the covenant and its promises as well . . . .

The stakes are considerably higher here. Has Abraham’s faith been motivated by personal gain or simply by his love for God? Up until this point one does not know which is true. Maybe Abraham himself does not know for sure. This test allows the patriarch to demonstrate to himself, to Isaac, to the world, but most of all to God that his faith is not driven by what he will receive out of it but by his commitment to God. God and God alone motivates his faith – he is willing to give up all he stands to gain, all he loves, all he hopes for . . . . God takes the expression of this as benefit to him.16

13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

In verse 8, Abraham had told Isaac that God would provide a lamb. The text does not explain why a ram, not a lamb, was provided.

14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

Whether Abraham’s statement should be taken as a hope, prayer, or prophecy makes little difference. The Hebrew phrase behar YHWH yera’eh can be translated the following ways: “On the mount of the LORD he is seen,” “On the mount of the LORD he shall be seen,” or “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”17

15-18 And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Past blessings are recalled (12:1-3; 15:4-5; 17:2; 18:18-19), but there are some new elements: (1) this blessing is viewed as a response to Abraham’s actions as opposed to an act of divine grace; (2) God swears by himself; (3) the prophetic formula “declares the LORD” is used; (4) sand is used as a metaphor for the multitude of descendants; and (5) Abraham’s offspring are promised victory over their enemies.

19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.

The text does not explicitly mention Isaac returning which has caused some to raise the possibility that in a lost version of the story Isaac was actually sacrificed. “The focus on Abraham alone, however, is in accord with vv. 15-18. Moreover, the language ‘they set off together’ presupposes the parallel in vv. 6, 8 (‘went on together’) in which the boy Isaac is specifically noted (‘two of them’).”18 Obviously the text of Genesis leaves no doubt that Isaac survived the ordeal. Sarah’s response is also not recorded. “Commentators and preachers have often been tempted to fill the gaps, but in so doing they draw attention away from the central thrust of the story, Abraham’s wholehearted obedience and the great blessings that have flowed from it.”19

20-22 Now after these things it was told to Abraham, “Behold, Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor: Uz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.”

The Uz of this verse is apparently different from the Uz of 10:23. Buz was probably an Arabian site (Jeremiah 25:23). Bethuel later appears as an individual person, not a tribe (24:15, 24, 47, 50; 25:20; 28: 2, 5).

23 (Bethuel fathered Rebekah.) These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother.

Rebekah became Isaac’s wife. It is not clear whether this notice was told to Abraham or whether it is part of the narrator’s summary. In other words, it is uncertain whether Abraham knew about Rebekah before he sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac.20

24 Moreover, his concubine, whose name was Reumah, bore Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah.

Reumah is the ancient name of a tribal or political league in the middle Syrian and northern Transjordan area.21 Tebah is probably the Tubihi of the El-Amarna letters, a city in southern Syria.22 Tahash is probably the land of Tahsi, mentioned in the El-Amarna letters and various Egyptian lists, and located between Damascus and the Orontes River in Syria.23 Maacah was a small kingdom in northern Transjordan (Deuteronomy 3:14; Joshua 12:5).24

Bibliography

Friedman, Richard E. Commentary on the Torah. HarperOne, 2003.

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 100.

2Ibid., 101.

3Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 99-100.

4Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 391-392.

5Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 107.

6Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 290-291.

7Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 75-77.

8Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 152.

9Ibid.

10Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 74.

11Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 295-296.

12Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 109.

13Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 150.

14Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 111.

15Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 110.

16Walton, Genesis, 514-515.

17Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 114.

18Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 300.

19Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 112.

20Ibid., 120.

21Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 156.

22Ibid.

23Ibid.

24Ibid.

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