Commentary on Genesis 22 (The Command to Sacrifice Isaac)

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In Genesis 22 we read one of the most shocking passages in the entire Bible. In the preceding chapters, we learned that God had promised Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son, and through this son and his descendants, all people of the earth would be blessed. The descendants of this son would also receive the Promised Land as an inheritance from God. In Genesis 21, the son was born, and his name was Isaac.

As chapter 22 opens, the reader discovers that God is going to test Abraham. The fact that we are told that God is testing Abraham is a major clue that this passage is all about Abraham’s faith and obedience. We are stunned when we see what the test is: God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

Abraham certainly remembers the covenant that God made with him. He knows that Isaac is the child through whom the promises will be fulfilled, so what does he do? The text says simply, “Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac.”

In verses 3-5, Abraham travels to Moriah with Isaac and some of his servants. Once he arrives in the vicinity, he instructs his servants to stay behind. Notice what he tells his servants, “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham assures the servants that both he and Isaac will return. This is a clue that Abraham is confident that God will somehow spare Isaac.

As Abraham and Isaac travel to the mountain, Isaac speaks up and asks where the lamb for the burnt offering is. Abraham answers that God will provide. Again, the reader sees a clue that Abraham knows that God will not break the covenant He made with Him.

The climax of the passage occurs when Abraham has bound up Isaac. Just as Abraham reaches for the knife, the angel of the Lord calls out to him, “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looks up and sees a ram caught in a thicket. He sacrifices the ram instead of Isaac, and then names the place “The Lord will provide,” because He indeed did provide.

In verses 15-19, God reiterates the covenant He has made with Abraham. He reassures him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore, that his descendants will take possession of the land promised to them, and that through his offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.

We would be remiss if we did not point out the foreshadowing in this story of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Many scholars believe that the mountain where Isaac was to be sacrificed is located where the temple would be built in the city of Jerusalem. This is where Jesus would be sentenced to die some 2000 years later. Just as Abraham did not withhold his one and only son, neither did God withhold his one and only son, Jesus.

  • Dave C

    God tested Abraham but didn’t go through with the fateful choice of death to Isaac. The type is of Christ who willingly also laid down His life for us. The strength of the Father Abraham in persuading Isaac that The Lord God will provide is astounding amazing and marvelous.

  • I’m sorry in advance for my hopefully not-to-rigid, hopefully not-too-non-conversational way of ‘interacting’. I’m rarely good at such things, because I have this very uncooperative autistic brain! I *want* to be conversational, and to come across as gracious, but I rarely manage even to approach it! I don’t know of any templates for this sort of thing, either. I’ve tried to use some articles I admire for those qualities, but It just hasn’t worked. Maybe this is partly because my focus just simply cannot usually be for more than information. Human exchange on topics I find matter deeply to me just does not happen. I really do not like to read articles that are just so information-centric. But when I read what I write, all I usually have any sense about my writing is the information in it. Fortunately for me, I rarely notice this problem I have. But that does not make it fortunate for anyone else!


    Ok. First, I here shall paraphrase what seems to me to be the reasoning. Then I offer an argument.


    ‘God’s seeming request for the deliberate, unwarranted termination of innocent human life was a pre-hoc type to a future-fulfilled reality, of which the reality justifies the seeming request in the first place. Thus our past-looking references to a then-future Christ is the whole package of the matter, since that package fits neatly together as the witness to the nature of godly faith. And that witness to the nature of faith is actually what justified God’s posing that seeming request in the first place.
    It was, after all, a unique, one-time-event, never to be repeated nor imitated, just like the Cross of Christ for the world was a one-time event that never can be replaced, nor imitated to the original’s effect.’


    My response begins by offering the claim that God was not the one who invented this test. And if that claim is plausible (read the book of Job!), then the above reasoning, while using very good information, may just be a bad, that is, misleading, use of that information. Would God Himself, by some kind of divine willy-nilly, contrive to cause a human to think that God requires child sacrifice?

    As the book of Job teaches, we ever are to allow for the existence and actions of a certain third party. But Job was the Everyman. There is no indication that Abraham was; we just tend to assume he was. I say we assume wrong. Speaking of autism, this very assumption is a case of Theory of Mind deficit! “Oh, Abraham was just a pre-Christ version of the moral outlook of us modern Christians.’ Just because he loved his children? “No, Abraham was not the least pagan in his understanding.’

    Thus, though we might well enough *initially* suppose that Abraham was at least somewhat opposed to child sacrifice, it is very, very likely, that he was wide open to the suggestion that an innocent child might rightly be sacrificed if only the god to whom the sacrifice was made would, and could, simply give the child’s life back.

    So here’s how I think it went down: First, God was put into a dilemma regarding the best Everyman, Job. When Job passed that test, Satan had to find a different kind of dilemma regarding a different kind of man. I wager that Abraham was that man. Hence, God’s praise of Abraham in Gen 22:18.

    Attempts to defend God’s good character in Gen 22 typically
    (1) assume that Abraham was an ethical-moral Everyman; and (2) cite Hebrews 11:17-19 to bolster the view that God’s purpose in praising Abraham in Gen 22:18 was implicitly to command humans to give unreasoning assent, and anti-moral loyalty, to God’s verbatim. However, the Hebrews passage: (a) addresses merely the spiritually positive lessons of Gen 22, specifically by explicating merely the culmination of Abraham’s everyday point of view; and (b) therefore does not address God’s point of view in praising Abraham for ‘obeying’ God’s ‘voice’. Therefore the Hebrews passage does not determine God’s purpose in praising Abraham’s obedience to that test.

    We do not always automatically see where to divide a Biblical account in the way it was intended. We might oversimplify it, seeing some of its features as the sole hinges on which it turns.

    But many Biblical accounts were intended in a much more complementarian, holistic, integrated way, with no simplistic ‘hinges’. This integration seems to be that of Genesis 22.

    But a typical reading of Gen 22 assumes that it hinges on God’s praising Abraham for ‘obeying’ God’s ‘voice’ (vs 18). This non-integrative reading renders God as teaching us that God required of Abraham (and, by extension, of us) an unreasoning, impulsively blind, irrationally loyal, essentially legalistic assent to God’s verbatim.

    This ‘locally hinged’ reading of Gen 22 far too often comes out in debates as “God said so, so I’m right and you’re wrong”, or “The Bible says so, so I’m right and you’re rebellious”, end of discussion. In personal thought for many people, it comes out as a rigidity born of intellectual insecurity and inexperience, and reinforces itself somewhat like an intellectual form of panic. In fact, such ‘panic’ appears to be what Dan Barker, Christian preacher turned New Atheist spokesman, had been taught to do in his Christian days.

    G. K. Beale says, ‘there is always a related range of meaning that appropriately is an expansion of the explicit meaning’ of any assertion in the Biblical text. Beale explains, ‘All speakers and writers are aware of more than what they are directly saying in their speech’ or in their writing. (((G. K. Beale, 2014, ‘The Cognitive Peripheral Vision of Biblical Authors’, Westminster Theological Journal 76: 263-93, pg. 265))).