Today’s OT reading is a story sometimes referred to as ‘The Binding of Isaac’. If you’ve heard a few sermons on the Lord’s Prayer, you may have encountered a concept known as ‘the time of the test’. Those words in the Lord’s Prayer which we tend to translate as “lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil”; but the intent of the phrase is: ‘lead me not into the time of testing, but if it should come, keep me from making the wrong choice.’ The ‘time of the test’ is a theme that runs throughout both Old and New Testaments; it is a crisis of faith that believers might have to go through that puts to the test their trust in God, and/or their commitment to follow His ways.
Today’s reading is one famous example, Job’s suffering is another, David faces several; the opportunity to kill Saul without a war for the throne, the facing of Goliath, and to some extent just holding the power of the king are all tests of David’s faith. Daniel, Shadrach, Mishach, and Obendigo all face tests in whether they will pray to the emperor, or eat meat sacrificed to idols, or give in when they’re under threat of bodily harm or death. Jesus’ desert battle with the satan, and His internal battle in Gethsemane on the night He was betrayed were some of the tests He faced. Theologians debate whether God personally has any use for such times of testing, or whether they’re solely for the instruction of His faithful; but it is not a debate which I intend to engage here. Let’s get to the actual text:
Genesis 22:1–19 (NASB95)
1Now it came about after these things, that God put Abraham to the test, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”
By the way, the NASB95, as well as most English translations, omit the word ‘please’ from God’s request even though it’s in the original language. I can’t speak for the translators, but I imagine their reasoning was that it sounds weird and jarring to hear God say ‘please kill your little boy for me. Regardless, this is a request, not a command. If Abraham were to refuse, it would not be breaking a commandment of God; he is totally free to decide whether to concede to God’s request, or to refuse.
There’s a Hebrew word which has no good English equivalent. The word is hesed, and it’s usually translated as either faithfulness or lovingkindness. But those translations shortchange the meaning of the word somewhat, because in fullness it means faithfulness to your covenant partner or partners above and beyond the requirements of your covenant. It is one of the top three most prized cultural and personal values extolled by scripture, and one of the most often referenced aspects of God’s character.
It showed up just last chapter in Abraham’s covenant with Abimelech, but it doesn’t show up in this narrative. However, that is the exact value God is inviting Abraham to display. To this point, Abraham has largely just been along for the ride in his covenant with God; he gets a land, a name, and will be the father of nations, and in exchange he had to circumcise himself and his kids; painful, but by no means an equivalent exchange.
But this wasn’t part of the deal; in fact, by this point, Ishmael has been released from his obligations towards Abraham’s family, so Isaac is Abraham’s last hope that God would keep His promise. Not only does giving Isaac up go above and beyond the strictures of his covenant with God; it could mean that God’s part of the deal might never come to fruition.
And understand, child sacrifice is absolutely a thing in both the culture and region Abe came from, and the one he’s living in now. El, the Canaanite chief deity, and Baal, his son will be continually confused with YHWH by Abraham’s descendants because of some surface level similarities; and they both require human sacrifice as part of their worship. Nothing in any of Abraham’s religious upbringing would flag this as a strange request for a god to make, but it wasn’t part of the deal. Even so, Abraham goes:
3So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. 5Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.”
6Abraham 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 the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac spoke to Abraham, his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
Side note; those tragic words are literally the only words we have recorded of Abraham talking to Isaac. At the top of the reading we’re told that some, undetermined amount of time has passed since the exile of Ishmael, and the treaty with Abimelech. With the type of searching, blunt question he asks, and the fact that he’s big enough to lug wood up a mountain, we can probably assume late childhood/early teens.
At any rate, he’s clearly old enough to start piecing context clues together; it is unlikely Isacc hadn’t already guessed the answer to his own question before he asked it, and Abraham’s reply likely confirmed his suspicions. Isaac is growing up in the same religious culture; he knows that there are gods who require child sacrifice, and to his credit, he keeps going.
9Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
13Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. 14Abraham called the name of that place The Lord Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lord it will be provided.”
Sometimes I’m really irked by how far out of their way translators will go to smooth out awkward wording, or phrases which don’t make sense in English. Anywhere you see the word ‘provide’ in this passage, just know that the word in the original language is not the word for ‘provide’, it’s the word for ‘judge’ or ‘see’: “God will judge/see for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering”, Abraham named the place “The Lord Judges/Sees”, and the phrase is “In the mount of the Lord it will be judged/seen”. Why is it important? Because a parent who thought they were about to lose their child, only to have God’s divine intervention save him at the last second, and then saying that God sees is a really important motif that’s already been used [think Hagar]! That’s one reason. The second is that Genesis is a book about the way that God sees and judges the world; it literally opens with a poem that’s just that.
Hagar, using the general term for ‘God’, said He’s a God that actually sees; because He’s a God who saw her suffering, and reached out to make things right. God sees that which is bad in our world, and how to make it good again. Abraham, using God’s personal name, YHWH, says ‘YHWH sees’. Abraham comes from a world populated with gods who thirst for the blood of their own worshipers, blind gods of stone, wood, and metal. YHWH did not require any such sacrifice. In fact this story serves as a stark reminder for all of Abraham’s descendants that YHWH does not accept human sacrifice; an important reminder, because they will continue to live in a world populated with gods that do.
Abraham’s declaration that God sees is not simply an acknowledgement that God is capable of reacting to visual cues; it’s a declaration of God’s just judgements in the world. God saw Abraham’s resignation to his fate; his acceptance that he would die with nothing, and his faithfulness regardless, and unlike any other god Abraham had ever known, this God did not take advantage of his contrition. He saw Abraham.
This is also a major reversal for Abraham. The book of Genesis in particular, and the bible in general make repeated use of the theme of seeing something, judging it to be good, taking it, and using/eating it. For Abraham and Sarah, the first time that repeated motif is used is when they saw Hagar, took her, and used her to generate offspring, because they did not trust God to give Abraham offspring in His own way and on His own timeline. From that sin flowed a stream of other sins against Hagar, until God finally steps in and tells Abraham to listen to Sarah’s request that he send Hagar away, not because it was the right thing to do, but because God would see to her wellbeing, and rescue her from the abuse of staying and the destitution of being a single mother he’d otherwise be dooming her to in that time and place.
This time around, though, Abraham is not the one ‘seeing’, which again, remember is the same word for ‘judging’. He reaches out, and takes the knife in order to take Isaac’s life, not because it seemed good to him, but because it was what he was told to do. And it is not Abraham’s judgment which stops the knife, but God’s. God was never going to let Abraham sacrifice Isaac; but Abraham, to this point in the story, has been a man driven by impulse and cultural norms with only a small handful of moments of obedience. God used what was a cultural norm for Abraham, albeit an abhorrent one, to knock him off of autopilot. Abraham needs to stop making judgments on his own, based on what his cultural experience discerns to be good, and start leaning into his relationship with God, and allowing God to teach him what is good.