Genesis 22: The Binding of Isaac

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Chapter 22 is often noted as the climax of the whole story of Abraham, and it is thoroughly integrated with what has gone on before. There are many verbal connections and literary parallels between this chapter and the previous narrative. The story begins when God says to Abraham, “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 that I shall show you.”

The next line reads, “So Abraham rose early in the morning…” and does what is necessary to fulfill God’s order.

Though the incident is held up as a great test of Abraham's faith, it is one that sends shivers down the spine of every modern listener. Such a demand is unthinkable; efforts to blithely explain it away are unsatisfactory. How could God make such a request? How could a loving father agree to it, even if it did come from God? And how is it that one who argued so eloquently for a demonstration of mercy regarding the people of Sodom is now silent when he agrees to this most difficult demand?

First of all, it is important to note that this story comes after Chapter 21, when all of God’s promises seem to have been fulfilled. Isaac is the established heir; they are living peaceably in the land of promise; they have water and adequate means.

Moreover, this test is so outrageous that the author states that it’s only a test. Unfortunately, Abraham doesn’t know this. He thinks it’s the real thing. God has asked him to sacrifice the child of promise. And he sets out to do just that.

The first question might be: What does it mean when God tests someone? In all other instances it means that God wants to know his heart and wants to see if he will obey and fear Him. The test shows what the person is really like; it has no sinister connotations. A test is intended to strengthen and build up the person being tested, to prepare them for the difficult tasks that lie ahead, and to benefit from the experience.

The demand consists of three startling imperatives. “Take, go, and sacrifice.” There is no ambiguity. Each descriptive statement becomes more poignant, tender, and personal. In a sense, these words sum up the whole story to date. There has been promise, delay, and a miraculous fulfillment. This is the child of promise. And it is precisely this child, the one that Abraham loves, that is involved.

God tells Abraham to “go by yourself”—the very same words that the Lord used when he told Abraham to leave everything that he had ever known, his country, his kinsman, and his father's house, to go to a land that God would show him. These are the only two times that this phrase, lech lecha, is used in the entire Bible. When Abraham first heard that command, he was being asked to separate from his past; now he is being asked to separate himself from his future.

People don’t really know where Moriah is. Some speculate that it’s the temple site in Jerusalem. But the location is not as important as the word that is used. The root of this word has to do with providing and with seeing. Both ideas will be very important as the story develops. And once again, Abraham is asked to go to a location that he does not know.

God wants him to go there and offer Isaac as a burnt offering. A burnt offering involves cutting up and burning the whole animal. The usual victim was a bird, or possibly a sheep. A wealthy person might offer a bull, but never a child. It is an extraordinary test, both morally and theologically, because Isaac is the child of promise. The fulfillment of the promise depends upon him.

Abraham responds in total silence. He does not question the divine will—a striking change, considering his lengthy conversation with God on behalf of the people of Sodom. But perhaps he learned something from that encounter with God. Perhaps, he truly realizes that justice and mercy are, indeed, attributes of God.

As it is, early the next morning, Abraham rises, saddles his donkey, takes two of his young men, cuts the wood, and goes. All of these are action words, suggesting a flurry of activity. But nothing is said about his feelings. By concentrating on Abraham’s actions, the words of the text stress his obedience.

They travel for three days. He has three days to think about it, to mull it over, to come to terms with it. Perhaps his initial response was very impulsive and without proper consideration. Now he has time to reflect upon it, to compose himself. And he continues going forward.

Finally in the distance, he looks up and sees it. He tells the young men to stay with the donkey. Abraham and “the lad” will go up to worship, and then they will return. For the first time, Abraham refers to Isaac as a lad, not as a son. Perhaps he is trying to detach; perhaps he has already turned Isaac over to God. But then why does he say, “…we will return to you.” Does this little white lie protect Isaac from what is actually happening? Or is it a way of affirming his faith?

Tension in the text heightens as Abraham deliberately makes further preparations for the last phase of their journey. He takes the wood for the burnt offering and lays it upon Isaac, while he takes the fire and the knife. He carries what is most dangerous. Yet ironies abound in that Isaac carries the wood that is to burn him. And in this one line, Isaac, the son, is surrounded by the wood and the fire and the knife—all the elements of his destruction. And the two of them go off together.

The silence continues for some time before Isaac exclaims, “My father!” Abraham responds, “Here am I,” the same response he has made to God. Then he adds, “my son.” Father and son are together again. Isaac asks, “Father, where is the lamb?” The simple question is very penetrating. Abraham answers, but his answer seems evasive, ambiguous. “God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering,” and he adds again, “my son.” Is this a hope, a prophecy, a prayer, or an expression of faith?

And once again, the two walk off together, in perfect rapport, in mutual solitariness. Abraham trusts the providence of God; Isaac trusts the intentions of his father. Just as Abraham does not argue with God, Isaac does not argue with Abraham. The silence is profound.

When they finally arrive at the place, every detail is reported methodically. First an altar needs to be constructed. Then there are other preparations for sacrifice. Eventually, the time comes; he must bind his son. The verb “to bind” occurs only here in the entire Old Testament. It gives rise to the Jewish term for this entire story, the akedah, the binding of Isaac. Judaism calls this the greatest act of faith of its first ancestor. It is at this moment that everyone knows that Abraham is truly serious and intends to follow through with it.

So the pace slows to a painstaking crawl as Abraham reaches out his hand to take the knife to kill his son. This is a moment of great importance. The unthinkable is upon him. But precisely at the last moment, an angel of the Lord calls his name—twice. And for the third time in the space of one short story, Abraham answers, “Here I am.” He has remained faithful throughout. The trial has ended; it will not go on any further.

The angel now says, “Do not put forth your hand against the young man, do not do anything to him.” Isaac is safe; the promise is safe. The angel continues, “For now I know that you fear God and have not withheld your son, your only one from me.” To fear God means to honor him in worship and to live an upright life. Though the act remains unfulfilled, its value is determined by the intention of the heart. Abraham demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt those qualities of character that had only existed before potentially.

At that moment, Abraham lifts his eyes and sees…a ram caught in the thicket. Without any hesitation, he immediately sacrifices the lamb instead of his son. The Lord, indeed, has provided.

Yet the story does not end here. The angel continues with a second summons from heaven and repeats the promises made so many years ago. For the first time in this story, God swears by himself, giving the occasion a special solemnity, an unusual emphasis. The promises are amply renewed. Most of these points have been made elsewhere, but they are emphatically repeated here. And they include blessings for Abraham’s descendants. Yet, here his obedience is clearly stressed. Initially, the promises were dependent solely on the will and purpose of God; now Abraham’s obedience has been added to that. Henceforth, Israel owes her future, both to God’s will and purpose and to its father, Abraham.

This adventure closes with Abraham returning alone to his young men and going to Beer-sheba, where he stays. Commentators have long wondered what happened to Isaac. We can’t ever know for certain, but it seems apparent that he remained in the care and providence of God.

So why was Abraham tested? Consider this. From the very beginning, the promises were freely given. At every crisis in his life and whenever he demonstrated a level of faith, the promises were affirmed. At no time was he given an opportunity to demonstrate that his devotion to God was unconditional or boundless. Yet, he was designated to found a new nation, a nation with a high destiny among all nations. At some point, must he not prove his worthiness to be so chosen? After years of personal growth and progress, he is prepared for this new challenge. During all those years, so much of his journey had been focused on the goal, on getting that heir, and on being in the land. When it finally happens, when all the material things are in place, he needs to be able to let go of them. It is time for him to elevate his own view and his own understanding about God’s promises. So he is tested and proves himself worthy.