Abraham was no stranger to challenges, but everything he had gone through up to this point only prepared him for the ultimate challenge that his God would ask of him – offering to God his son, Isaac. Yet it is here, in Genesis 22, that the ultimate test of Abraham’s trust is spelled out: When God called Abraham’s name, he responded – “Here I am.” (Gen. 22:1). Like Noah, Abraham was willing and ready to answer God’s call immediately. He was his servant, ever-ready to do his God’s bidding. This story would come to epitomize the determination of every true Israelite to serve his God, no matter what the circumstances. Indeed, this faithful service to God is the ultimate reason for Israel’s existence. The difficulty of this tenth and final test lay not only in Abraham’s love for his son Isaac, but also in the promises that God had given Abraham in connection with him. If Isaac was to die, those promises could never be fulfilled. What is Abraham to make of the words of his God? Visit our certificate in the Hebrew Bible Course collection.

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The Demand

We read in Genesis 22:2-4:

וַיֹּאמֶר קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַבְתָּ אֶת־יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ אֶל־אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ׃

And He said, “Take your son, your fa­vored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Gen. 22:2)

The order of the Hebrew is “your son, your favored one, the one whom you love, Isaac,” indicating increasing tension. The expression “go” or “get going” לֶךְ־לְךָ (lekh lekha), which previously occurred only in Genesis 12:1, the initial divine command to Abraham, connects this story to the very beginning of Abraham’s dealings with his God. Note also the parallel between “on one of the heights that I will point out to you” in this verse with “to the land that I will show you” in Genesis 12:1. All these stories form one coherent narrative of the faith and trust relationship between Israel and her God.

Of course, Isaac was not the only son of Abraham. Ishmael was both his son, and was acknowledged by God as such, but here Abraham is told to take his son, the only son, whom he loves – Isaac. While Ishmael was also blessed by God due to being Abraham’s son, it was Isaac who was the sign of God’s ultimate commitment to him.

The giving of Isaac to Abraham in the most improbable of circumstances possibly produced in Abraham (along with prophetic statements about Isaac) an exceptional love and hope for this son born to Sarah. Will the child of “laughter” now turn into the child of “sadness”? Were Abraham and his family simply part of some crude, heavenly experiment? Abraham did not know. But he trusted God. So early the next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him his two servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and set out for the place that God had told him about (Gen. 22:3). It is clear that Isaac is singled out as Abraham’s most “treasured possession.” Now he faced his greatest test – to give up the son he loved; the one he had hoped and waited for, for so long. Yet, it was not just the giving up that was difficult for Abraham – he had passed similar tests before. This time the righteousness, faithfulness and goodness of Abraham’s God – his reputation – was at stake. Visit our certificate in the Hebrew Bible Course collection.

The Chosen Mountain

בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק׃

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. (Gen. 22:4)  

The journey to the mountain of God’s choosing, “Moriah” מֹּרִיָּה (Moriah), took three days. The third day must have been the most difficult. Abraham actually saw the very place where he needed to kill his Isaac, just as he would an animal sacrifice, and offer him to God. About a thousand years later, at this very location, King David bought the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite and built an altar to the Lord so that a “plague may be held back from the people” (2 Sam. 24:18-21). After David’s death, his son King Solomon built a glorious temple on the same site. We read in 2 Chronicles 3:1: “Then Solomon began to build the house of the LORD at Jerusalem on Mount Moriah…” The story of the significance of this place will not stop here, but we must return and continue with the story of Abraham and Isaac as they continued their journey to Mount Moriah.

The Challenge of Faith

When they arrived at the foot of the mountain Abraham told his servants to stay while he and the young man continued together. So he put the wood for fire on the back of Isaac (adding enormous tension to the story), while he took the stones he used to set fire and the knife for the killing of Isaac (Gen. 22:5-6). We continue reading in Genesis 22:7-8:

וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה׃

Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he an­swered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7)

The text emphasizes the pain Abraham must have experienced when the word “Father!” (אָבִי) were uttered by Isaac. Since the ancient text did not have punctuation marks, we must practice reading original Hebrew very slowly and with holy imagination, in order to feel together with Abraham, the redemptive pain of Isaac’s address, recalling perhaps all the faithfulness and goodness of Abraham’s God. This pain and sensitivity from an old warrior is epitomized in his immediate and tender response: “Here am I, my son” הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי (hineni beni). The ancient Hebrew divides up the dialogue with repetitions of the simple: “and he said” וַיֹּאמֶר (va-yomer), whereas today we might use different words.

וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה־לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה בְּנִי וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו׃

And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together. (Gen. 22:8)

Abraham’s response continues with firm, consistent and modern mind-boggling faith that earned him his fame. Literally the text says, reflecting the Hebraic structure of the language, “God will see for him the lamb” or “God will see for himself the lamb” אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה־לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה (Elohim yireh lo ha-seh). This binding of the father and the son under the enormous challenge of God is evoked in the phrase “and the two of them walked on together” וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו (va-yelkhu sheneyhem yakhdav). While nothing in the text indicates the age of Isaac, it seems he could have been anywhere from a teenager to a grown adult. Either way, he appears to be a willing participant, together with Abraham, in the sacrifice that his God has demanded (to whatever extent he understands the proceedings). Visit our certificate in the Hebrew Bible Course collection.

Isaac on the Altar

As we have already seen, wherever the great men of God of Genesis went they built altars consecrating new places to the worship of their God. This is no exception. What is different here is the intensity and difficulty of God’s demand.

וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר־לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וַיַּעֲרֹךְ אֶת־הָעֵצִים וַיַּעֲקֹד אֶת־יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתוֹ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ מִמַּעַל לָעֵצִים׃

They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. (Gen. 22:9)

וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יָדוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת לִשְׁחֹט אֶת־בְּנוֹ׃

And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. (Gen. 22:10)

It is interesting to see how beautifully the author speeds up and slows down the narrative presentation. The relatively slow development of the story as they travelled to Mount Moriah took eight verses to cover (Gen. 22:1-8). The action picks up in verse 9, with the building of the altar and binding of Isaac upon wood, being described quite quickly. Then, in verse 10, the narrative motion slows considerably as it describes Abraham lifting up the knife. This is masked in some English translations (as in NJPS that we are using here), where the first part of the sentence is missing in translation altogether: וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יָדוֹ (va-yishlach Avraham et yado), literally something like “and Abraham sent out his hand.” Only after this does the text continue וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת לִשְׁחֹט אֶת־בְּנוֹ (va-yikach et ha-maachelet lishchot et beno), which means “and he picked up the knife to slay his son.”

So, whilst those translations do not really lose any of the basic meaning by omitting the first part, the literary skill and intention of the author who intended the text to have a slower, fast, and extra-slow tempo, goes unnoticed. The specific word used for the knife Abraham lifted up – מַּאֲכֶלֶת (maakhelet) – probably meant “slaughtering knife” and is connected by root to אֹכֵל (okhel) “food.” (Click on this link to take first steps in Reading Hebrew). Yet that kind of knife does not simply prepare food for consumption, but is actually meant to end the life of an animal. Hebrew is a root language, so we can see how words that are unconnected in other languages, like “slaughtering knife” and “food,” can be etymologically connected in Hebrew. In the language of worship, a sacrifice is just that – “food” offered to God for His “consumption.” So Abraham prepared the instrument of food for action as he stretched out his hand with a knife in it. (Let’s study this together in-depth! Click HERE. Will you do it?) Visit our certificate in the Hebrew Bible Course collection.

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30 COMMENTS

  1. God sees the lamb. Abraham sees the ram, not the lamb. God sees (no matter what our circumstances are)? One of the reasons I did not know I was a believer is because my faith was in what God sees (I don’t know the way). I had very little scripture and never read the NT. Am I reading too much into the lamb vs the ram?

    • In another version of the text, it says God will prepare HIMSELF a lamb for the offering. That is referring to Jesus. God provided Abraham a ram to sacrifice in place of Isaac.

      • Yes, but Isaac asked “where is the sheep?” He is looking for the sheep. This sounds like a different question (to me) then asking who provides the sheep. Perhaps it seems different because of my English.

  2. While reading this part of Genesis, grieved by what Abraham was asked to do. My spirit communicated these words to me; “Abraham moved forward to obey.” Somehow this comforted me, it communicated to me that faith is active, it moves; this time forward to perform an act.

    Thank you Dr Eli, for explaining this most difficult understanding about the fact that the sacrifice is connected to providing food, while there’s the aspect of a life lost.

  3. Great article Dr Eli, may God continue to bless you. I see 2 willing people here. Isaac silently agrees to be a sacrifice. He is saying to his father, “Father I am aware there is no animal besides me, so are you really going to sacrifice me?” Abraham understands too well Isaac’s question, and you bring his pain out so well and the additional pain that his son knows he is the sacrifice. No wonder there was earthquake when Jesus died, God’s pain must have been so great. Both sons willingly carry the wood of sacrifice.

  4. God had promised to establish his covenant with Isaac and his seed in Gen 17:19, 21. What would Abraham have understood about the coming messiah, and could he have thought that it would be Isaac?

  5. Thank you Dr Eli for your excellent study. What amazing faith Abraham had in the living God to even offer the son who he loved at Gods request. And as were told in the New Testament believing that God would raise Isaac as the child of promise back to life. A faith that looked forward to the coming Messiah for he saw His day and was glad. Oh to have faith like Abraham. Thank you Dr Eli for this work.

  6. Please watch Bob Fitts video song called ‘Sacrifice ‘ in YouTube for a very touching visual of what Abraham must have gone through.
    As well as our Heavenly Father !

  7. Wow. What an awesome story of faith and love and complete trust. So many thoughts and emotions to process. Dr Eli, reading this article felt like complete “silence in the room” and holy tears from everyone reading. I don’t even know how to articulate what I feel and want to say. Thank you indeed. I can’t imagine writing this without falling hopelessly in love with God like I imagine all of us did. My heart wants to burst. I pray the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will give His angels charge concerning Israel at this interesting time.

  8. John 6:51 may support your idea “maakhelet” is connected to “ohel”. Jesus sees himself as food. He says “…the bread which I give for the sake of the life of the world is my flesh”.

  9. Abraham was not the only one tested. Sarah never saw Isaac again once he left on this trip. Abraham told his servants ” I and the lad will go yonder and worship, then WE will return to you. Abraham returns to the servants, but text says nothing about Isaac. Next we hear of him, he is at Beer-laharoi. This episode appears to have caused a rift between Abraham and Sarah. When she dies, Abraham has to travel to bury her. Why wasn’t he with her? Also interesting that the phrase “whom you love” found in 22:2 is missing in 22:12.

  10. Dr. Eli, is there any significance in the Hebrew to the fact that Isaac was bound? All animal sacrifices were slaughtered/already dead before they were placed upon the altar, they were not ever bound. Why was Isaac bound?

  11. The sacrifice of Isaac always puzzled me, but I have come to a conclusion which I think can explain all my questions. My first question was, “how come and Abraham did not doubt that he really heard G-d’s voice or at least that he heard it correctly, since G-d never required human sacrifices?” Instead, as he obeyed so promptly, it seems as if he was long prepared. Also, I realized that Isaac should have been a young man (as is the Jewish understanding), otherwise how could the father tie the child on the altar? (cont.)

  12. Without Isaac’s consent, it would be a rather grotesque scene. So, why would they both agree to that? Yes, showing obedience to G-d is an explanation, but… Is G-d asking a man to kill his son, much like the heathens did, a thing which He detested? Unless, both men knew/understood that, sometime, a unique such sacrifice would take place. Yes, I am suggesting that they thought Isaac was the promised seed, and I believe that this is very possible because… (cont.)

  13. …They knew of G-d’s promise for Eve’s sperm, Who would bruise the serpent’s head, and now Abraham (second ever after Eve) received his own promises about his seed. They also knew that the serpent would bruise the Sperm’s heel (meaning “kill him?”). Clearly, Isaac was a sperm sent from G-d, so why wouldn’t it cross Abraham’s mind that maybe Isaac was the one? And then there is the specific sacrifice. G-d is asking Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, an olah – H5930ֹ עֹלָה (Gen. 22:2). (cont.)

  14. This is the second time that this sacrifice is mentioned in the Bible, so Abraham knew of the first time, the sacrifices that Noah offered after the Flood (Gen. 8:20) and those sacrifices “reconciled” again the Almighty with humans. So, I believe that Abraham and Isaac thought that it was time for this final sacrifice that would heal the rift between men and G-d, and accepted to pay the price. And G-d honored Abraham and made him father of all those who believe, but revealed that He Himself would provide that Sacrifice.

  15. Thank you, Dr. Eli and thank you all the fellow readers who add more insight to the text through your interesting comments. God bless you all !

  16. Many new things arises and brings new revelation and translation that very interesting to learn from and believe in the mighty power of the lord that he is still in control.

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