by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse
The sacrifice of Isaac as recounted in Genesis 22 is generally taken to be a test of Abraham’s faith. That is, did he really trust God or not? Did he love God more than anything else, including his son? Would Abraham trust God with his son, and was he willing to give up everything, including his son, for God? The presence or absence of faith, not the content of what he believed, is what most people think is being tested. And since Abraham passed the test he is made the supreme example for all other believers of what it means to have great faith. After all, many say, he is called the father of those who have faith (Romans 4:16). But is the Apostle Paul referring to the fact that Abraham had faith, or is he speaking of the facts Abraham believed in?
The problem with the popularly accepted interpretation is that the focus of Genesis 22 is shifted away from the grace of God to something Abraham did, which is then made the basis for moralistic applications to other believers. Instead of holding fast to a God-centered approach to the Scriptures, this interpretation slips off into a man-centered one, and with it the message of the Bible is no longer what God did for Abraham and us in Christ but what Abraham did and what we ought to do. This interpretation presents us not with what Abraham believed, but only that he believed.
Now was Abraham a sinner or was he perfectly sinless? No, he sinned in thought, word and deed just like all the rest of the children of Adam and Eve, because he came into the world with a sinful nature, disposition or heart. Was Abraham forgiven of his sin, and is he in heaven? Of course he is! The Bible makes that clear everywhere. On what basis was he forgiven? Because of something he did? No, but because of what someone else did, which he then trusted in for his salvation. The Bible does not teach two ways of salvation—one for OT saints and another for the NT and later. It does not teach that people were forgiven on the basis of their actions, including their believing, but rather on the basis of what God did to make satisfaction for their sin. The foundation for salvation is not subjective (to be found in the sinner), but it is objective (something done for the sinner, and entirely outside of the sinner’s ability to perform). God in his grace removes the guilt and power of sin by the sacrifice of his Son, and the sinner trusts in the sufficiency of that sacrifice to satisfy his debt. This was no less true of Abraham than it is for us.
While it is true that the Bible frequently reminds us of events in the lives of the saints to serve as good examples to us (1 Cor. 10:6, James 5:10), we must remember that the foundation for their actions is the grace of God in forgiving their sins. The reason they obeyed God was not to gain his favor in salvation, but rather because God had already shown them his favor by forgiving their sins and giving them a new nature so that they wanted to obey him. If they had continued to live in sinful lust that would have been a demonstration that they did not have new hearts (Ro. 6:15-23).
For example, many people have taken the Ten Commandments as being merely a list of do’s and don’ts that are entirely within the moral capacity of man to perform. It never occurs to them that because of the sinful nature each person has from birth none of us is morally capable of doing what is commanded, and that God’s prior work of forgiving us of our bad nature and evil deeds as well as restoring in us a desire and ability to do his commandments is required before we can do even the least thing pleasing to God. It does no good to give people shining examples of those who have obeyed God, to berate them for their own failures, or to throw them in jail as punishment, because none of those things will change sinners’ hearts, wills and emotions so that they will love God and love to obey him. God must sovereignly act upon them to give them that new disposition.
And that is exactly the way the Ten Commandments were originally given, and the context in which they are to be interpreted. Before God gave the commandments he reminded the Israelites that he was the Lord their God, who had redeemed them (Exodus 20:2), and it was on the basis of that accomplished redemption that they were to respond with thankful obedience.
Now let us think about Genesis 22 in this light. We will see that it is not about the greatness or strength of Abraham’s faith, though his faith was both. Nor is it an object lesson to us that he believed, and that we ought to also, though he certainly did, and we should too. Rather it is about Abraham’s understanding of the gospel, that sinners have always and only been forgiven of their sins and restored to fellowship with God through the death of a human substitute.
In order to get a sense of direction let us first of all review the passage by way of some questions. What context is suggested by the words “after these things” (vs. 1)? After what things, and what do they have to do with what we are about to read? What exactly is God testing? Is not a test given on the basis of what one has been previously taught? Why did God pick Mount Moriah as the place of sacrifice? What is a burnt offering? Why didn’t Abraham protest even a little bit that Sarah’s womb was past childbearing and that they had waited a long time as it was for Isaac? Is human sacrifice ever a legitimate form of worship? Why didn’t Abraham protest that in telling him to sacrifice his son, God was commanding something that was sinful? If this was a test of Abraham’s faith, why was Isaac the one who was to be killed? Why didn’t God tell Abraham to go jump off Mount Moriah if all he wanted to do was see if Abraham believed in him or not? Why did Abraham assure his servants that both he and Isaac would return after worshipping? How big was Isaac? How much did he know about what was going on? Did he cooperate in his own sacrifice? Why didn’t he protest even a little bit? Who is the Angel of the Lord?
The principle of interpretation I will be following is that after Genesis 3 God adds nothing new to his revelation of the plan of redemption, but rather he progressively unfolds the details and implications of redemption as he superintends all of history to bring it to his preordained purpose. The Old Testament believers knew that to be rescued from their sins they must trust in a redeemer who would die as a substitute for them, which is no different from the way of salvation that we know. We know more about it than they did, because God has told us more now that Christ has come, but God has not told us something different in kind, or contrary to what he showed them. God’s revelation in the Bible is an ever-widening stream, but still the same stream nonetheless. Abraham, Moses, David, etc. would be very comfortable with Christian doctrine were they to come back to life today. Though they would have to adjust to different practices dictated by the progress of God’s revelation, sort of like growing up very fast, they would not find the message of salvation through Jesus Christ strange. With this in mind let us consider Genesis 22.
The phrase “after these things” and the matter of testing raise the question of how this chapter fits into the context of the preceding chapters, and of how this chapter advances the purposes of God in redemption. It seems to me that these two details of verse 1 go together in helping us understand the point of Genesis 22. After God had taught Abraham he tested him to see how well he had learned his lessons, and the whole curriculum is recorded so that we will glorify God for his great salvation decreed from all eternity and progressively unfolded in history.
When we survey God’s revelation to Abraham, beginning in Genesis 12, we find that the covenant, the family, the covenant seed, and Abraham as the father of many nations are central elements of all God’s dealings with Abraham. In the preceding 11 chapters we find many of the same elements. The covenant is obviously the heart and core of what God is doing. The point of this is that God is interested in Abraham not simply as one individual who needs to be saved from sin, but as the father of a believing community that would fill the earth with the glory of God. God’s glory was attacked in the Garden of Eden by Satan, and now God is concerned to restore his whole creation to its intended purpose of reflecting his glory. This would be accomplished not by individuals worshipping and serving God alone in the woods or on a creek bank, but by whole families and nations joining together with the common goal of subduing all things to the glory of God.
To be sure, individuals must be saved, forgiven of their sins and given new dispositions before they will desire from the heart to obey God, but that individual salvation is not an end in itself. It is the means to the end of establishing a new nation from all races on the face of the earth—a community that will give practical expression in its culture and life of its religious commitment. A community of people who fear and love God from the heart will show what is in their hearts by the laws, policies and activities which they enact. In that society there would be not only an individual consciousness of the grace and glory of God, but a collective one as well.
The first 21 chapters of Genesis convey to us, then, a message of the covenant and not a series of disconnected stories of events in the lives of certain individuals and of the faith they had. Of course they had faith! But that is not the question. The question is, “What was the content of what they believed?” When God makes the test in Genesis 22 include Isaac we ought to understand that Abraham’s individual relationship to God is not what is at stake, but rather the covenant with its emphasis on God’s original purpose in creation to have a people who would fill the earth with his praises. We are being directed to look not at Abraham, but at what Isaac symbolized at this stage of God’s unfolding revelation.
If we grasp this theme of the covenant the role of chapters 5 and 11 becomes clear. They are both family genealogies and chronologies that, among other things, indicate how Abraham knew what he knew. This is not the place to discuss biblical chronology, but it is my position that Genesis gives us an accurate chronology without gaps from the creation to Abraham. Adam, Enoch and Methuselah, therefore, were contemporaries for a brief time, Noah was a contemporary of Methuselah since Methuselah died the year of the flood, and Noah and Shem lived long into the lifetime of Abraham. For a more detailed treatment of this, see James Jordan’s article “Biblical Chronology” (available from Bishop Dan Morse in unpublished form). Abraham would thus have had the benefit not only of what God said directly to him, but also of the revelation to his “recent” predecessors. He would have had a clear idea of what God was doing, and so the God’s word to him, beginning in Genesis 12, would not have come as a bolt out of the blue.
We may take as a summary of God’s program his promise to Adam and Eve that he would accomplish the rescue of fallen humanity by putting hatred between the seed of the woman and the seed of Satan (Gen. 3:15). This holy war would be consummated by the destruction of Satan himself, not one of his seed, by the hand (literally foot) of one male seed of the woman. In the process God’s rescuer would receive a heel wound from which, of course, he would recover. The heel wound could be a figure of speech for resurrection from death, but in any case the relatively insignificant wound would be well worth the trouble considering the devastating wound to Satan and the happy consequences. Eve expresses this joy at the birth of Cain (Gen. 4:1) and again at the birth of Seth (Gen. 4:25, 26).
The actions of Cain and his descendants make it very clear who the seed of the serpent are, and Genesis 4:26-5:3 makes it very clear that the seed of Adam through Seth are the seed of faith.
At the same time it is clear that blood alone, or family ties, is not sufficient to put one into the family of God since Cain had Adam’s blood, and most of the descendants of Seth fell away from the faith. Only the sovereign grace of God could cover man’s sin. Noah and his family were not preserved because of his good deeds, but only because he found grace in the eyes of the Lord (Gen.6:8). The Bible from the very beginning does not focus our attention on human goodness in order to exhort us to moral behavior, but it always points us to the grace of God that ushers us into the family of God. There is nothing new or different in Genesis 22.
After the earth was cleansed by the flood (a new creation) there was again only Noah (a new Adam) and his family. But again there was a fall—Ham (a new Cain)—and a new line of faith—Shem. The world grew progressively worse—the tower of Babel—and another Noah—Abraham—found grace in the eyes of the Lord.
It is in this context that God calls Abraham in Genesis 12 to leave his home and people to go find the “new earth”, and he promises to bless him and his family, and through him all the families of the earth. In the last half of this chapter there is the account of Satan’s attempt to defeat God’s purposes by attacking the woman from whom the covenant seed was to come. In response to this attack God sent plagues on Egypt, and Abraham escaped from Egypt (forerunner of the Exodus and the coming of Christ with Joseph and Mary from Egypt, Hosea 11:1, Matthew 2:15).
Following this is the story of Lot’s defection from Abraham (Gen. 13). It looks like God’s promise to make Abraham a great nation isn’t going to come true, but right at that moment God renews the promise with special emphasis on numerous children. God really seems to have sense of humor. Abraham is already an old man, and he doesn’t even have one child yet.
Then comes Abraham’s successful rescue of Lot from the kings who had defeated the king of Sodom and his allies (Gen. 14). As he returned, Melchizedek met him, and blessed him confirming that God was beginning to bless all nations of the earth through him in that God was delivering all his enemies into his hands. This same idea is repeated in Gen. 22:17, but there it is Isaac and his descendants who will overcome their enemies.
In Genesis 15 Abraham and God carry on a discussion that centers around Abraham’s confusion over his lack of a child in the face of God’s repeated assurances that he would be the father of many nations. Abraham is concerned that his servant, Eliezer, will be his only heir, but God refutes this with the statement that one born of his own body will be his heir. Abraham then asks for some guarantee, and God confirms his covenant with the ritual of the split pieces. In this symbolic way God is saying that he will take upon himself the curse of the covenant if he does not fulfill his word to Abraham.
Since God did not say anything about Sarah being the one to bear Abraham’s child, she devised the plan to have her maidservant, Hagar, bear the child. When Sarah saw that her suggestion did not turn out to her liking, and that she was despised by Hagar, she treated Hagar harshly. Hagar fled into the wilderness, but God rebuked her and instructed her to return and promised her that he would make a great nation of the son she bore to Abraham. She called the name of the place where God met her “The Well of the One Who Lives and Sees Me”, using the same root word (to see) used by Abraham in Genesis 22:8, 14 when he names Mt. Moriah “The Lord Will Provide”. Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born, which means that Ishmael was 14 when Isaac was born (Gen. 21:5).
God continued bringing Abraham along in his understanding of the covenant seed promise by patient instruction and reiteration in chapter 17. In fact, the promises had been made so often, and for so long, that it all seemed ludicrous to Abraham, and we read in verse 17 that he fell down laughing at the prospect of bouncing a baby from his wife’s 90 year old womb on his 100 year old knees. He pleads with God to take the easy way of letting Ishmael, who was already there, fill the vacant spot of covenant seed (vs. 18). God responds by telling him that the son will not only be from his loins (chap. 15), but will also come from Sarah (vs. 19).
When Abraham and Sarah have finally despaired of being humanly able to bring forth “the covenant seed” (not just any child will do) and are convinced that if a child is born to them it must be a miraculous birth in God’s own good time (Gal. 4:4), then God will fulfill his promise. God made this plain when he said, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18: 14) What was impossible for Abraham and Sarah was easy for God. God further emphasizes the centrality of the covenant seed in the plan of redemption when he says in verses 18 and 19 that the way in which the blessings of Abraham will come upon the nations of the earth is through Abraham’s instructing his children so that they will obey the righteous commands of God. Though God had determined from all eternity to bring the Messiah through the line of Abraham, the means to that predestined end was the faithful instruction of the children of believing parents.
Chapters 19 and 20 recount renewed attempts by Satan to crush the godly seed, but again he is defeated. All the way through these first 20 chapters of Genesis God is laying such heavy emphasis on the centrality of the covenant seed as the way of salvation that it can hardly be missed.
We come finally to the long awaited birth of Isaac in chapter 21. Sarah laughs, and all the earth laughs with her because redemption is drawing near.
Now remember that Ishmael is 14 years old at the birth of Isaac. In Genesis 21:8 we read that Isaac was weaned, which means he was probably about 3 years old, and Ishmael was 17. The reason this is important to note will become clear later when we come to chapter 22, but suffice it to say at this point that 17 year old Ishmael is called a lad, or boy. The chapter closes by telling us that Abraham lived in the land of the Philistines for many days. In other words the events of chapter 22 did not occur when Isaac was 3 years old.
As a conclusion to this brief survey of the context of Genesis 22 we can summarize by saying that the two main points are the salvation of sinners by the grace of God and the defeat of Satan accomplished by the death of one male child of a woman. This was the content of God’s revelation to the patriarchs prior to the time of Abraham, and this content would have been passed down to him. On the foundation of what Abraham already knew God built further knowledge of the person and work of the Redeemer. What began as a vague picture in the first 11 chapters of Genesis becomes sharper with the new revelation given to Abraham. God’s point in all this heavy emphasis on the birth of Isaac through years and years of discussing the matter with Abraham is that Isaac was no ordinary covenant child, but indeed a very special one. He was the promised seed. He was the one who would make the sin-saddened nations laugh (Isaac means “he laughs”) because their sins were removed by the grace of God. Of course, as it actually turned out Isaac was only a picture, and an imperfect one at that, of the true Redeemer, Jesus Christ. In the exposition that follows it will be seen that Isaac functioned in God’s unfolding of his plan of redemption as no other covenant child can function. He was unique, and he was absolutely essential to the test because the test was not to see if Abraham had faith, but to demonstrate that Abraham believed what God had been teaching about the salvation of sinners by the death of a substitute. And these things were written down for our learning that we might have hope through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures (Rom. 15:4).
The “Only Son” Sacrifice
So far we have seen that Isaac is at the very center of God’s revelation of the plan of redemption, and he is also the crux of the test given to Abraham. As we begin to examine Genesis 22 the first matter of importance is God’s command for Abraham to offer his only son as a burnt offering. This would seem to go without saying since it is the subject of the whole chapter, but it is easy to miss that Isaac is called the only son in verses 2 and 16, and that he is not just killed but offered as a burnt sacrifice.
Now it is plain that he was not the only son, literally that is. There was Ishmael, whom Abraham had wanted God to accept as the covenant seed. For God to refer to Isaac as the only son must mean that he has something in mind other than physical descent; that there is a special significance to Isaac.
There are two closely associated words used in the OT for one or only. They are “‘echad” and “yachad”. Both words can have the sense of uniqueness, but “‘echad” stresses unity within diversity. The one used in Genesis 22 is “yachad”, or “yachid” as it is spelled there, and it appears 11 times in the OT. The Septuagint (LXX) translates “yachid” 7 times with the word “agapetos” (beloved), and 4 times with “monogenes” (only begotten). The LXX uses “agapetos” in Genesis 22, and this may be because Isaac was not the only begotten son of Abraham, but he was the specially beloved son.
It is interesting that Hebrews 11:17, referring to this incident, uses “monogenes” to speak of Isaac. From this we may understand that “yachid” contains both ideas, and that they overlap. The other 9 places, outside the 2 uses of the word in Genesis 22, are Judges 11:34, Psalm 22:20, 25:16, 35:17, 68:6, Proverbs 4:3, Jeremiah 6:26, Amos 8:10 and Zechariah 12:10 where the sense is always that the child or the soul is especially precious. In other words, “yachid” always describes a unique relationship sometimes in the sense of only begotten and sometimes that of being well-beloved, and when one idea predominates the other is never far away. It is for this reason that the NT uses these 2 Greek words that translate “yachid” to speak of Christ, and as we go along I hope it will become clear that God was laying the foundation in Genesis 22 for that NT usage. Just as Moses built the tabernacle according to the pattern shown him on the mountain (Ex. 25:40, Heb. 8:5), which was a picture of the work of Christ, so Abraham had been taught the significance of “the only son” for the salvation of sinners and was then instructed to sacrifice him according to the pattern he had been shown.
Christ is the pattern imposed on the OT; the OT was the earthly shadow patterned after the heavenly reality, not vice versa. Thus when Jesus Christ came he fulfilled the shadows of the OT not by contriving to recapitulate in his life and claims well-known events in the lives of OT saints so as to give himself an aura of authenticity, but he truly fulfilled what those events pointed to because they were patterned after the events in his life, the only begotten Son of God, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. Jesus was not speaking metaphorically in John 8:56 when he said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.”
This becomes even plainer from God’s instructions to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. He was not just to kill him and by that means show his faith by his willingness to give up all for God. Any method of death would have served that purpose, but God specified a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. The principle here is that sacrifice is acceptable to God only when it is done in the way and at the place God mandates. This principle is later elaborated in the Mosaic sacrificial system and the law of the central sanctuary (Deut. 12), and it finally comes to fulfillment in the sacrifice of Christ as God shows us in Christ why he required certain things in the OT.
The full import of a burnt offering is not explained until we come to the time of Moses, particularly the book of Leviticus, but this is really no problem for our noting the significance of Isaac’s sacrifice being called a burnt offering. After all, God is using this very incident to elucidate the meaning of sacrifice for the people in Abraham’s day. Furthermore, the specific instructions about sacrifices given to Moses are not to be understood as the initial institution of those practices, but instead the careful organization for use in a nation of those practices already long-used by families, such as the sacrifices of Cain and Abel. And since Moses was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write down God’s interpretation of history, we know that he carefully chose his words to convey that message correctly.
The word translated burnt offering is “ ‘olah”, which comes from the verb “ ‘alah” that means “to go up.” This type of sacrifice was to be wholly consumed in fire, none of it being left for the offerer or priest. The point of this is that the whole animal was dedicated to God—“went up in smoke”—as a substitute for the offerer, and it was accepted by God symbolizing that the sinner was accepted. The offerer would bring the animal, lay his hand on it, showing his identity with the animal, and then he would kill the animal. The priest would catch the blood and sprinkle it around the altar, and then he would flay and cut the animal in pieces, arrange all the pieces on the altar and burn it all (Lev. 1). This was done to make atonement for the person (vs. 4).
While the mention of the sprinkling of blood and atonement certainly bring to mind the necessity of the removal of sin, the emphasis in the burnt offering is on the delight God takes in his people. That is, they are accepted; a sweet smelling aroma that is pleasing to him. The attention of God’s people was focused on the blessed fact that their lives were pleasing in his sight. Of course they could never be or do anything pleasing in God’s sight unless their sins had been paid for and removed, which is the main purpose of the sin offering (Lev. 4), and is the reason why the burnt offering was often accompanied by the sin offering. There was no possibility of presenting themselves to God as a wholly acceptable living sacrifice unless the just penalty due to their sins was first of all taken care of. Once that was done the way of privilege was open for them to give themselves totally to God and to know that God liked their gift. With this variety of pictures God was teaching them about the work of Christ. Christ not only came to take away sin and its punishment, but also to make our good works pleasing to God so that we may rejoice in God’s presence daily.
This means that when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering, Abraham understood on the basis of all God had taught him about Isaac’s being the covenant seed that his sins were forgiven and that God had accepted him through the Messiah.
Finally, God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. This name occurs only twice in the OT: in Genesis 22 and 2 Chronicles 3:1 where it is identified as the place David bought from Ornan (1 Chr. 21:18-22:1) for offering burnt sacrifice when the judgment of God ceased against Israel. This is the site where God directed Solomon to build the temple. The word is made up of three elements: the “m” indicates a place, the “r” comes from the verb “ra’ah” which means “to see”, and the “iah” (yah) is the name of God, Yahveh. The word means then “the place where God sees, appears (is seen), or provides (he sees to it)”.
Since the name is first attached to this place by Abraham it seems obvious how that came to be. Moses is giving us the inspired version of history, the unfolding of God’s plan of redemption. He tells us that God determined before the foundation of the world to send his Son, the covenant Seed, to be sacrificed at a certain time and place, and then he began the process of leading his people through the ages to understand the significance of that sacrifice when it finally occurred. After teaching Abraham the purpose of the covenant he commanded him to take Isaac to that place and sacrifice him. As they were ascending the slope of the mountain Abraham answered Isaac’s question by assuring him that God would see to it, or provide the sacrifice. God further instructed Moses that when Abraham’s children returned to the land from Egypt they should sacrifice only in the place where God placed his name (The-Lord-Will-Provide; Moriah), and when the time came to build the temple God directed David and Solomon to the same place. Then in the fullness of time, the Lord Jesus was crucified on that mountain. Thus we come to see what God “sees”, and since the sacrifice of Isaac is the preeminent illustration in the OT that God sees the end from the beginning and provides what is necessary to accomplish his plan, the mountain is named “The-Place-Where-God-Sees”. Not only is all history under the control of God, but we have in this particular instance an example of God’s superintending minute details in order to make crystal clear his purpose in redemption. Abraham’s, and God’s, reason for naming this place Moriah is not just that God sees Isaac and Abraham, but that God sees everything and was using Isaac to help his people understand the way of salvation.
The Problem of Human Sacrifice
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac has always been a problem for the interpretation of this passage in three ways. First, how could God command Abraham to do something that is forbidden, abhorrent to God himself, and contrary to what he teaches elsewhere about children in the covenant? That is, God’s purpose in the covenant is for us and our children together to come to redemption, not separate us from each other. Second, why didn’t Abraham protest? Third, why didn’t Isaac protest?
The first problem has been abated somewhat by saying that God never intended for Abraham to go through with it, the proof of that being that God stopped him just in time. That may heighten the drama of the story for Sunday School children, but it also presents a God who trifles with ethics, by commanding something that is against his own law, and the feelings of his people.
An answer to the second problem is attempted by praising the greatness of Abraham’s faith for the purpose of commending like faith to us. He trusted in God so much that he was even willing to kill his long-awaited son, and we ought to have as much faith. We are led to imagine the anxiety of heart and soul of Abraham as he lay awake all night contemplating the horrible thing he must do at daybreak, and then we are told that his faith triumphed over his God-given parental love for his covenant child and he went to do what God commanded. But again, while that may add to the drama of the story, where in the Bible do we read that he had any anxiety of soul? He presented holy arguments to God for the preservation of Sodom. Does that mean that he cared more about Sodom than for Isaac? And does God really want our love for him to drive a wedge between us and our children? If a child turns out to be a hardened criminal, then of course parents must choose God and righteousness before family, but where is the righteousness in shedding innocent blood? What is the practical moral value of commending to Christians a faith that will do something immoral? Would we really want Christians to kill their children in order to show how much they love God?
The third problem of Isaac’s silence is either not addressed or solved by thinking of Isaac as too young to protest or being a very obedient child. It is almost as if Isaac is incidental to the event since Abraham is thought of as having the central role. But in this passage as in all of Scripture Christ, not man, has the central role.
All three of these problems having to do with human sacrifice are solved if we understand that this passage is not so much about whether Abraham had faith or not, but about the Messiah in whom he trusted.
Is there any circumstance in which human sacrifice is not only permitted but required? The answer, according to Genesis 3:15, is that there is only one—the death of one male seed of the woman for the purpose of crushing the head of the serpent. And since that death is described as a heel wound in contrast to a head wound, we are assured of the recovery of the son. This is the only human sacrifice permitted by God, and it is the only one God’s people, including Abraham, are to approve and accept. All the OT believers looked forward to it, and their faith was counted to them as righteousness, and all believers since the NT look back to it as the warrant for their acceptance with God.
When God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the striking thing is that Abraham offers no argument or resistance. We might expect him to at least remind God of how difficult it had been to get Isaac there in the first place if what was being tested was Abraham’s faith. But Abraham so readily accedes to God’s instructions that it seems like what he expected, and indeed he did! He had learned his lessons well about the significance of Isaac. He was looking forward to the day when God would destroy Satan and deliver his people through the covenant seed. He rejoiced over the coming of that day (John 8:56). He knew that through him and his covenant seed all nations of the earth would be blessed, and he knew that would come to pass not because of anything he did, but because God would bring the Savior of the world through him.
Equally striking is Isaac’s ready compliance with the idea of human sacrifice, and in his case it was no partial commitment. His religion was going to cost him his life. We know that Isaac must have had discussions with his father on numerous occasions due to the fact that he not only asked Abraham where the lamb for the sacrifice was, but he seems to have been satisfied with the answer. He had witnessed enough sacrifices to know what to look for, and he also had been taught enough about God’s provision to accept Abraham’s answer. When we recall what God said about the faithful instruction of children in Abraham’s household (Gen. 18:19), that God’s promise to Abraham, which the NT tells us was fulfilled in Christ, would be brought about because Abraham taught the gospel to his children, and that Isaac by this time had had the benefit of many years of that teaching about the grace of God in the covenant, we should not be surprised that he willingly cooperated. He knew God’s promise to remove sin, regain paradise and restore the nations through one male child of the woman, and he delighted in that gospel. He took comfort in the certainty of the resurrection of the Savior just as all true believers have done. He had heard how God had chosen the family of Abraham to bring the Savior into the world, and he was aware that he was the covenant seed—not Eliezer and not Ishmael. There was only one legitimate reason for human sacrifice, and it was stuck in Isaac’s mind and heart as firmly as in Abraham’s.
The central focus of this chapter is not Abraham’s strong faith, or even the death of Isaac. Both of those could have been accomplished any number of ways. And it is not even human sacrifice in general. It is rather the sacrifice of one particular person, the covenant seed (not seeds as of many, but seed as of one, Gal. 3:16), as a burnt offering.
The Age of Isaac
This may not seem to be a very important matter, but it actually provides confirming evidence for the line of argument so far. If Isaac was not a young child, but a young man, then several questions come to mind. How long had he been taught? Was his life taken from him, or did he lay it down of himself? Was he physically strong enough to prevent his elderly father from killing him? If he was a young man, and not a boy, doesn’t he typify the true Messiah much better?
We noted in an earlier section that the events of chapter 22 occurred some time after Isaac had been weaned and also that Ishmael at 17 was called a lad. The word for lad is “na’ar”, and the same word is used in Genesis 22 for Isaac and Abraham’s servants. The English translations are misleading at this point because they refer to the servants as young men, but to Isaac as a lad or boy. No matter what else you read about Isaac in this chapter this distinction alters your concept of the story. The servants were strong young men, but Isaac was just a boy, it is said. But the fact is that Ishmael, who was 17, the servants, who did the menial labor along the way, and Isaac are all referred to with the same word in Hebrew—“na’ar” or youth.
Now consider what Isaac does in Genesis 22. After Abraham and Isaac leave the servants Abraham takes enough wood to burn a person, or ram, and puts it on Isaac’s back. Then Isaac climbs Mount Moriah, which is certainly not one of the Rockies, but it isn’t a knoll either. Isaac was definitely a strong young man, and not a small boy.
Since that is so, consider what happened when they got to the top. Isaac had earlier asked about the lamb for the sacrifice, and Abraham had assured him that God would provide one. Now he informs Isaac that he is the sacrifice. Isaac could have argued. He could have run. He probably could have overpowered Abraham. But he allowed himself to be bound and laid on the altar. Even then he could have proved an unwilling sacrifice and squirmed off. You can be sure that if bulls, lambs and goats knew what was about to happen to them, they wouldn’t stand idly by and let it. But Isaac, with full knowledge and strength, willingly submitted to God’s plan of redemption. As was his name, so he did. For the joy that was set before him (Heb. 12:2) he submitted to the will of his father, which was the will of God.
The Assurance of the Resurrection
I have mentioned that Abraham and Isaac were assured of the resurrection, and we ought to consider the evidence for that more fully. I will not take up Genesis 3:15 again since I have already spoken of that as being part of Abraham’s education.
One event in the life of Abraham that stands out in this regard is recorded in Genesis 15. There God renews the covenant with Abraham in the ceremony of the split pieces. The ancient custom was for a conquering king and a conquered king to enter into a treaty that stated terms for maintaining the peace. To ratify the treaty the two would split animals in half, lay the pieces opposite each other on the ground, and together pass between the pieces. This symbolism indicated that the one breaking the treaty was agreeing to have his own body split in two—a self-maledictory oath.
In Genesis 15 only God, in the form of the torch, passes between the pieces thus indicating that if the covenant is broken he will take the curse instead of Abraham or his descendants. Now if the covenant is broken, who would most likely be the offending party? Not God! Here then is the promise of life to sinners. Someone else, namely God, would be their substitute in death, and they would live. Abraham could be sure on the basis of Genesis 3:15 that the male seed of the covenant who died destroying Satan would recover, and on the basis of Genesis 15 that he and his descendants would live because God would provide a substitute to take their death.
This is confirmed in Genesis 22 by Abraham’s words to his servants and Isaac. As he was leaving the servants he assured them that he and Isaac would return. That was not wishful thinking or duplicity but his firm assurance based on what God had taught him. He knew that even if he went through with the sacrifice of Isaac, God would raise him from the dead, and they both would return victorious over death and Satan. From that death and resurrection would come blessing for all the nations of the earth. When he told Isaac that God would provide the lamb he was not insincere in hopes that he could keep Isaac in the dark for a few minutes longer just so he could get all that wood to the top of the hill. And when Isaac calmly and willingly cooperated it was because he shared his father’s confidence in God’s promise of victory through the resurrection from the dead.
Further confirmation comes from Hebrews 11:17-19, which does not say that Abraham’s faith was tested. It says that when he was tested, by faith he offered Isaac because he had received the promises (the promises indicated by “after these things”, Gen. 22:1). That is, he believed the promises, and therefore he was assured that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead. It is sometimes thought that the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead was not fully believed or explained until the NT was written, but the evidence of Genesis 22 confirmed by Hebrews 11 makes it very clear that the resurrection was part of evangelical faith from the very beginning. And the association of the resurrection with death as a burnt sacrifice of the covenant seed, Isaac, not just the resurrection of believers in general, makes it clear that more is at stake in Genesis 22 than the presence or absence of faith in Abraham.
The Only Begotten Son
Mention has been made of this already, but the allusion to Isaac’s being the only begotten son in Hebrews 11 is worthy of further treatment. God does not waste words, and it is significant that Isaac is spoken of in both the OT and NT as the only begotten son. The significance is that he is not only unique for Abraham, but he is unique for everyone. Though every child of believing parents is a covenant child, there is something special about Isaac. He points to Christ, the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, in a way that no other covenant child can.
His coming took years of preparation. His birth was preceded by much instruction to clear away misconceptions as to who he was. His birth was miraculous. It is through him that blessing came to all the nations of the earth. He was not just to be killed, but offered as a burnt sacrifice.
But not only are we to think of Christ when Isaac is referred to as the only begotten or well-beloved son, but the connection is made even stronger in Genesis 22:12, 16. There the Angel of the Lord commends Abraham for not withholding his only son. The NT picks this up in passages such as Romans 8:32, 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Acts 2:23. The whole message of the NT is that God did not withhold, or spare, his only begotten son, but he gave him up (the language of the burnt offering—“ ‘olah”—to go up) so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.
The objection might be raised that this is an unwarranted reading of the NT back into the OT. We must remember, however, that it is God who is superintending events and choosing words to interpret those events in order to gradually reveal his purposes in salvation. The OT believers may not have known that Jesus would be called the only begotten Son of God in the NT, but God did, and he taught Abraham to use that name for Isaac and inspired Moses to record it. God was using this incident to add another piece of information to the knowledge of his people in the OT so that when the Apostles spoke of Jesus as the only begotten Son not withheld their hearers knew exactly what they meant. Since God did not withhold his Son, we can be assured that we have been accepted by God and that he will freely give us all things in Christ.
The Angel of the Lord
As Abraham was about to kill Isaac the Angel of the Lord spoke to him from heaven and told him to stop. Since Isaac was neither divine nor sinless he could not be the perfect substitute for sinners. Because he was a unique covenant child he could foreshadow the true Messiah, but he could not function as the Savior in dying for the sins of the world. He had his own sins that needed to be removed, and therefore he could not be a suitable sacrifice for the sins of others. The Angel of the Lord halted the test, and Abraham used a ram as the substitute both he and Isaac needed.
Our conception of what is transpiring in this chapter will be helped immensely if we can identify this Angel of the Lord. The first line of evidence is again found in the chapter itself. We must remember that God is the one who originally commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and therefore only God can relieve Abraham of the necessity to obey. God said do it, and the Angel says don’t do it. Which one should Abraham obey? Should he pronounce a curse on the Angel speaking from heaven (Gal. 1) for contradicting God? Abraham knew that he should obey the Angel, because he recognized him from previous encounters, and the Angel identified himself in Genesis 22 as God.
In verse 12 the Angel says, “I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” In verses 16-18 the Angel says that he has sworn by himself that he will bless Abraham and all nations through him, because he has obeyed the Angel’s voice. These are all direct claims of divinity on the part of the Angel, and Abraham accepted his claim and obeyed him.
This Angel is no newcomer to Abraham, having appeared at several crucial times already. He helped Hagar twice (Gen. 16 & 21). He was the spokesman for the three visitors entertained by Abraham (Gen. 18). Later, he led Eliezer in the selection of Rebekah (Gen. 24). He identified himself to Jacob as the “God of Bethel” (Gen. 31), and after he had wrestled with the Angel all night, Jacob said that he had seen God face to face (Gen. 32). He appeared to Moses in the burning bush and there claimed to be the God of Moses’ fathers. He delivered the people from Egypt and went before Joshua leading the conquest of Canaan, and in Judges 2:1 he appears to all Israel and tells them he is the one who made and kept his covenant to deliver them from Egypt and bring them to the promised land. The Angel of the Lord is very obviously God himself appearing in human form, though he is also distinct from the Father.
Who is this? Because of the close connection of the Angel to blessing, the performance of the covenant promises, leading his people to victory, and revealing the word of God, it is unavoidable to identify him with the one person of the Trinity who became flesh and lived among us to finish the work of salvation and who is called the Word (John 1:1-14). The Son of God, who would be incarnate as the person of Jesus Christ to finally remove sin from his people, made many pre-incarnation appearances in the OT to prepare his people to understand the complete good news he would be and bring.
Genesis 22 tells us of one of the most important of those appearances. Glimmers of the Messiah were granted by God in Genesis 1-11, but the first real burst of light began to break in chapters 12-22 with the climax being the sacrifice of Isaac. At that very moment the true Son, the truly unique Seed of the covenant, appeared to Abraham and Isaac, and at that moment they rejoiced to see his day and were glad (John 8:56). They lifted up their eyes from the imperfect shadow of laughter, Isaac, and saw the one whose name meant real, complete joy for the world.
Possessing the Gates
In the section on the context I have already noted that after Abraham rescued Lot (Gen. 14), Melchizedek blessed Abraham. The blessing was that God had delivered all his enemies into his hands, and he, as God’s avenger, was bringing the practical blessings of the gospel to the nations by delivering them from captivity and slavery. No longer could the kings of the earth make war to satisfy their whim and pleasure, because God had sent his servant to give them their just punishment. As God’s law and gospel permeated and ordered human society the wicked would less and less be able to run rampant in the earth killing, raping and pillaging. If they would not repent of their sin and receive the blessings of the gospel, then they would have just punishment imposed upon them by the one into whose hands God delivered them.
That this was not a blessing only for Abraham, but for his posterity, is indicated by this very same promise being renewed to Isaac and his descendants. In Genesis 22:17 the Angel of the Lord, who is the Son of God, tells Abraham that his seed will possess the gate of their enemies. The gate through the wall of the city was the only way for the inhabitants to trade with traveling merchants, go out to their fields, or do anything but sit inside and starve to death. The gate was the way to life, and anyone who controlled the gate held the key to life and death for those inside. If a city’s defenders could not control the gate, the city was doomed. The wealth and life of the city was at the disposal of the attacker.
But this is not all. The gate was also a place of worship as well as a courtroom. When a person entered the city, he would be expected to pay homage to the local gods whose shrine was at the gate since the prosperity of the city was secured by the favor of the gods. The person or army that controlled the gate had the privilege of determining the religion of the city. This was naturally the place for the elders, or civil magistrates, to hold court since the moral values of a society come from their religion. The civil law of any society is simply the codified, public expression of the religion. Controlling the gate of the city meant, then, that the life, commerce, religion and legal system—in short, the whole structure of the society—was dominated by the gate-possessor.
Since Isaac and his descendants would be taught the Word of God, “so that they would keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has spoken to him,” (Gen. 18:19) that is the standard they would use in structuring society as God delivered it into their hands. As that Word of God was taught, preached, believed and implemented in society, the nations of the world would begin to experience the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant. And what is the heart and core of that Word of God? The sacrifice and resurrection of the Messiah, the victory of Christ over sin and death for the healing of the nations, and that is the message of Genesis 22. That is why Abraham and Isaac so happily complied with God’s command.
When Jesus Christ was on earth, he asked his disciples on one occasion who they thought he was. He was testing them to see if they had paid attention to his teaching, just as he had tested Abraham. Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:17-19) He gave to his people the gates of their enemies, and he gave them the same binding and loosing authority over the gates that he promised to Isaac on Mount Moriah.
Now there are many people, both inside and outside the church, who do not think that religion should or can be mixed with politics, economics, law, education, medicine, etc., and there are also many people who have never thought about it. If by religion one means the institutional church, then of course we can agree that the church ought not to rule over all segments of society. This kind of separation of church and state is taught in the Bible in both OT and NT. Even when the religious and civil establishments were “under one roof” during the period of the monarchy in Israel there was still separation of powers. The king was not allowed to administer the affairs of the temple, and was severely punished if he tried to do so (2 Chr. 26:16-21). Likewise, the priests were not allowed to administer the civil affairs of the kingdom. Both, however, were required to obey the Word of God in the administration of their respective spheres. In so doing peace and order would ensue, and the practical blessings of God’s salvation would fill the earth.
Consider the alternative. When the wicked rule the earth everyone suffers injustice. One example of this is just weights and measures. The Bible tells us that each and every person has a sinful heart, and therefore if we are left to our own devices we will follow business practices that have the effect of robbing others. We will use perverted weights and measures that prejudice trade in our favor so that we end up with another person’s wealth without giving him a fair amount in return. By adding base metal to the currency or diluting the wine with water (Isa. 1:22), reducing the size of the candy bar while charging the same price as for the larger one, and many other ways we engage in theft.
But God in mercy determined not to leave us in our sin. From the very beginning he declared his purpose to thwart the schemes of Satan and rescue his creation from the practical effects of sin and from the eternal penalty due to sinners. God did not leave mankind in a day-to-day existence of grinding sin and misery and just tack on to the end of it salvation from hell. When the good news of salvation by a redeemer is proclaimed, God powerfully works to change the hearts of sinners, recreating them in the image of Christ. Then the converted sinner desires to do things God’s way, to pattern his life according to God’s instructions, because he knows his old way of life was the way of death. He also joins with others of like mind in efforts to restrain wickedness, oppression and injustice in the world. Those individuals whose hearts are not changed by the Holy Spirit certainly do not go to heaven just because they are restrained from stealing or killing, but life is better for everyone because the law of God has been imposed on society. In this way, i.e., the conversion of many and restraint of the rest, the blessings of Abraham come to the nations.
Genesis 22 presents the same word and work of Christ that we find in the NT. We are not to focus our attention on the greatness of Abraham’s faith, but the Christ in whom he believed. It is that Christ, the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth and all that happens in both, who laid down his life for his people, rose again in power, and declares that the gates of his people’s greatest enemy, hell itself, shall be possessed and overpowered by them. He is the one who shall accomplish this by his Word and Spirit. Let us show that we are children of Abraham by believing Christ, obeying his Word, and living in the power of his Spirit.