Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22)

The following quote is taken from

            "Genesis, the first book of the Bible, has Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son to God.  "Take your son, your only son – yes, Isaac, whom you love so much – and go to the land of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will point out to you."  (Genesis 22:1-18)  Abraham takes his own son up on a mountain and builds an altar upon which to burn him.  He even lies to his son and has him help build the altar.  Then Abraham ties his son to the altar and puts a knife to his throat.  He then hears God tell him this was just a test of his faith.  However, God still wanted to smell some burnt flesh so he tells Abraham to burn a ram.
            Even though he didn't kill his son, it is still an incredibly cruel and evil thing to do.  If Abraham did that today he would be in jail serving a long sentence as someone's prison-b---.  It amazes me how Christians see this story as a sign of God's love.  There is no love here, just pure unadulterated evil."

            Let's examine the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis chapter 22.
            First of all, whenever you read a verse from the Bible, it is important to examine that verse in context; that is, to read the verses before and after it, to familiarize yourself with what is going on in the story.  It also greatly helps to examine the lives and characteristics of the people involved, as well as the historical and cultural context.
            For those of you who have not read the book of Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament of the Bible) and don't know the story of Abraham, here's a quick summary of what happened before this point in his life: Abraham was a man from Ur (an ancient Mesopotamian city).  Scholars debate when Abraham lived; his lifetime has been placed roughly anywhere from 2100 BCE-1800 BCE.  God called him out of his home to go to the land of Canaan (Palestine), and God promised to give him a son and many future descendants, who would inherit the land of Canaan.  Abraham, up until that point, had no children, a catastrophe in ancient Eastern culture.  In that place and time period, a person who had no children was considered to be cursed.
            Fast forward several years; God promised that Abraham's wife would bear him a son (both Abraham and his wife Sarah were in their old age).  God's promise came true; Sarah had a baby boy, and Abraham named the child Isaac.  (Abraham had had another son with Sarah's slave woman Hagar, a son named Ishmael, but that's a discussion for another time).
            Now we come to the story in Genesis 22.  You can read the full text here: 

            The author makes several assumptions regarding the story that are not mentioned in the Biblical text.  First of all, Abraham did not lie to Isaac when Isaac asked him where the sheep was for the offering.  He had faith that both he and Isaac would return (verse 5), and he predicted that God would provide the sheep for the offering (verse 8).  Even if Abraham meant that Isaac was the sheep that God would provide, it still wasn't a lie, for Isaac's birth had been brought about miraculously by God (Genesis 21:1-3).  Abraham built the altar himself; the text does not state that Isaac helped him (verse 9).  Abraham didn't put the knife to Isaac's throat, or injure him in any way.  The text clearly states that the angel of the Lord called out to Abraham as soon as he picked up the knife (verse 10).
            We do not know how old Isaac was when this occurred; the text does not say.  Verse 12 refers to Isaac as a "boy" (the Hebrew word used here is na'ar, which can be used to refer to a boy anywhere between infancy and age twenty). [1]  It is possible that Isaac was a child when this event occurred, but it is just as possible that he was a young adult on the verge of manhood.  In any case, the text never gives any indication of how Isaac felt about his father nearly sacrificing him on an altar.  From verse 9 until the end of the chapter, he is silent.  We learn later in the book of Genesis that God greatly blessed Isaac, and that Isaac embraced his father's God as his own (Genesis 26:2-6, 12-13, 23-25).
            We now come to the question of why God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  Up until this point in the Bible, God had never commanded a human sacrifice of anyone.  A whole burnt offering of an animal symbolized the complete surrender of the worshiper and complete acceptance by God.   God's command in verse 2 was all the more puzzling, since Isaac was the son that God promised to give Abraham.  The covenant that God made with Abraham would continue with Isaac and his descendants (Genesis 17:15-21).  Abraham responded with obedience, remembering God's earlier promise, and trusting that God would fulfill what he had promised.  Abraham demonstrated his faith in God by obeying the confusing and difficult command, realizing that nothing was too hard for the Lord (Genesis 18:14).  The book of Hebrews in the New Testament offers this commentary regarding Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac: "By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned' (Genesis 21:10). Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death" (Hebrews 11:17-19).
            Abraham told his servants that he and Isaac would return (verse 5), and he told Isaac that God would provide the sheep (verse 8).  His act took a great deal of courage and a great deal of faith - Abraham proved that even though he loved Isaac greatly, nothing could surpass his love for God, and he put nothing and no one above God.  The first lesson of this story is Abraham's great faith.
            God did not let this go unnoticed.  His response was one of overwhelming favor - he confirmed his covenant with Abraham, and swore by his own name that Abraham would be blessed, that his descendants would fill the earth (a very appealing promise to a formerly childless man in the ancient Near East), and, most importantly, that all nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham's descendants.
            This promise brings us to the second lesson of this story - the foreshadowing of the Messiah, Jesus, God's Son.  Throughout the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the rest of the Old Testament are foreshadowings of Jesus.  This chapter is a foreshadowing of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross to atone for the sins of humanity. 
            The mountain that Abraham took Isaac to for the sacrifice was called Mount Moriah.  The Bible indicates later on that Jerusalem, and Solomon's Temple, were built on that same mountain (2 Chronicles 3:1).  It was outside the city wall of Jerusalem, on that same mountain, that Jesus was crucified about 2,000 years later (Hebrews 13:12).  One proposed literal translation from the Hebrew in verse 8 is as follows: "Elohim (a name of God which means "God of Gods") He will provide Himself, the lamb, for the burnt offering, son of me."  Verse 14 reads, "And to this day it is said, 'On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.'” It is important to note that the proverb does not say that it was already provided; the action is in the future tense: it will be provided.  The people of that time looked ahead to the Lamb that God would provide for atonement (Genesis 3:15; John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 15:3).
            God was providing a picture of what was to come - Abraham was about to sacrifice his beloved son on a mountaintop.  God sacrificed his beloved Son on that same mountaintop.  The author of commented that he didn't see how this story could be a sign of God's love.  Where is the love in this story?  First, God showed his compassion for Abraham and Isaac by stopping the sacrifice, providing a ram as a substitute, and greatly blessing both of them in the years to come.  Also, God foreshadowed how he would demonstrate his love to the world,  how Abraham's descendants would be a source of blessing for all nations - out of Abraham's descendants would come Jesus.  "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

            (As for the comment about God wanting to smell the burning flesh of a ram, I will address that in the next article on Leviticus 1-7, that deals with the purpose of animal sacrifices in the Old Testament.)

[1] Gesenius's Lexicon, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius (translated by Samuel P. Tregelles), 1847