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.
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.