The Sacrifice of Isaac

Jeffrey Glen Jackson

The Text

Genesis 22:1-22, (all scripture quotations are from the New English Translation - http://www.netbible.com).

22:1 Some time after these things God tested1 Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”“Here I am!” Abraham2 replied. 22:2 God3 said, “Take your son—your only son, whom you love, Isaac4—and go to the land of Moriah!5 Offer him up there as a burnt offering6 on one of the mountains which I will indicate to7 you.”

22:3 Early in the morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey.8 He took two of his young servants with him, along with his son Isaac. When he had cut the wood for the burnt offering, he started out9 for the place God had spoken to him about.

22:4 On the third day Abraham caught sight of10 the place in the distance. 22:5 So he11 said to his servants, “You two stay12 here with the donkey, while13 the boy and I go up there. We will worship14 and then return to you.”15

22:6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. Then he took the fire and the knife in his hand16 and the two of them walked on together. 22:7 Isaac said to his father Abraham,17 “My father?” “What is it,18 my son?” he replied. “Here is the fire and the wood,” Isaac said,19 “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 22:8 “God will provide20 for himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham replied. The two of them continued on together.

22:9 When they came to the place God had told him about, Abraham built the altar there21 and arranged the wood on it. Next he tied up22 his son Isaac and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. 22:10 Then Abraham reached out his hand, took the knife, and prepared to slaughter23 his son. 22:11 But the LORD’s angel24 called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am!” he answered. 22:12 “Do not harm the boy!”25 the angel said.26 “Do not do anything to him, for now I know27 that you fear28 God, because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.”

22:13 Abraham looked up29 and saw30 behind him31 a ram caught in the bushes by its horns. So he32 went over and got the ram and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. 22:14 And Abraham called the name of that place “The LORD provides.”33 It is said to this day,34 “In the mountain of the LORD provision will be made.”35

22:15 The LORD’s angel called to Abraham a second time from heaven 22:16 and said, “‘I solemnly swear by my own name,’36 decrees the LORD,37 ‘that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 22:17 I will indeed bless you,38 and I will greatly multiply39 your descendants40 so that they will be as countless as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession41 of the strongholds42 of their enemies. 22:18 Because you have obeyed me,43 all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another44 using the name of your descendants.’”

22:19 Then Abraham returned to his servants and they set out together45 for Beersheba, where Abraham stayed.46

Introduction

A few years ago my nephew told me of a man he was witnessing to.  The man asked a question that my nephew found difficult to answer.  How could a loving God as a man to kill is own son as a sacrifice?  Certainly such an image is horrifying.  Not just that God did do this to a man four thousand years ago, but that if He did it then, what's to stop Him from doing to me today?  To find the answer that question, we will examine Abraham's cultural and family background, then do an expository study of the passage.

Abraham's Cultural Background

11:27 This is the account of Terah.

Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. 11:28 Haran died in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans,28 while his father Terah was still alive.29 11:29 And Abram and Nahor took wives for themselves. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai,30 and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah;31 she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milcah and Iscah. 11:30 But Sarai was barren; she had no children.

11:31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (the son of Haran), and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and with them he set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. When they came to Haran, they settled there. 11:32 The lifetime32 of Terah was two hundred and five years; and he33 died in Haran.

15:7 The LORD said23 to him, “I am the LORD24 who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans25 to give you this land to possess.”

Abraham was born and raised in the city of Ur.  His father then moved the family to Haran.  The time frame we are examining here is around 2000 BC.

Abraham.png (25980 bytes)

This is the land of Mesopotamia, on of the so-called cradles of civilization.   However it was a very alien world to us here in the 21st century AD.  Every city was essentially a country of its own: a city state.  The religion of Mesopotamia was polytheistic:  each city-state had its own patron deity.  Each god a realm or responsibility, not unlike the more familiar gods of Greek and Roman mythology.   In Ur, that God was Nanna, also called Sin, the moon god.  Not coincidentally,   Haran was also a center for moon god worship.

Edwin M. Yamuachi (see bibliography) has written a study of ancient anthropomorphic religions such as Mesopotamia's.  While we don't have the space to go into great detail on his conclusions, it is useful to review his main points.

Pagan Anthropomorphisms:

For a more concrete example of how the Mesopotamians viewed their gods, let us look at some lines from the Atrahasis myth  [Dalley, pp. 18, 24, 33]:

And the country became too wide, the people too numerous
The God grew restless at their racket,
Ellil had to listen to their noise
He addressed the great gods,
     ’The noise of mankind has become to much,
     I am losing sleep over their racket

[ the complaint is repeated as various plauges are inflicted on men to reduce their number, finally a flood is sent to estinguish humanity, but Atrahasis is warned and builds a boat to survive. After the flood, Atrahasis makes a sacrifice to the gods and we read]

The gods smelt the fragrance,
Gathered like flies over the offering.
When they had eaten the offering,
Nintu got up and blamed them all,...

In short, the gods are kept awake at night by the noise of mankind, and in a fit of anger try to kill them all with a flood, forgetting that the depend on the offerings of man to live.  Nearly starved after the flood ended they gather like flies around the offerings of Atrahasis!

As horific as it sounds, not only did the Mesopotamians sacrifice plants and animals, but they also sacrificed humans.  Nor was it always captives and criminals like we found among the Aztecs. In the middle of the 2000's BC, when the king, queen, or priest were buried in Ur, Abraham's home town, there entire staff was sacrificed and buried with them. In 1927 to 1930, the archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Wolley excavated the "Royal Cemetary" in Ur. Near the tomb of each king or priest was a death pit into which chariots had been driven, other treasures placed, and the bodies of servants of the monarch or priest who were evidently sacrificed voluntarily to continue serving him. Up to over 80 such sacrifices have been found in their tombs.  More sporadic human sacrifice has been found elsewhere as well.

Abraham's Family Background

The next question is to what degree was Abraham a child of this culture?   Was he raised to believe in these gods?  The following passages give us some insight into this.

Gen 31:19 While Laban had gone to shear his sheep,29 Rachel stole the household idols30 that belonged to her father.

Gen 35:2 So Jacob told his household and all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have among you.3 Purify yourselves and change your clothes.4 ....35:4 So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods that were in their possession9 and the rings that were in their ears.10 Jacob buried them11 under the oak12 near Shechem.

Jos 24:2 Joshua told all the people, “Here is what the LORD God of Israel says: ‘In the distant past your ancestors1 lived beyond the Euphrates River,2 including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor. They worshiped3 other gods,...

So, we are told that Terah, Abraham's father, worshiped other gods, which were certainly the gods common to Mesopotamia.  We are told that Laban, the grandson of Abraham's brother, possessed household idols (teraphim) and that Rachel, the wife of Abraham's grandson Jacob, stole them.  In cunieform tablets from the city of Nuzi we learn that possession of these idols went to the inheritor of the family leadership.   Finally we learn that the household of Jacob possessed many of these idols.

The inescapable conclusion is that Abraham's family was typical of the culture it was in.  His father was a polytheist, probably a worshipper of the moon god in particular.  He moved from one moon center, Ur, to another, Haran.  He raised his children in that religion.  The religion remained in the family three generations until Jacob finally eliminated the teraphim from his household, and even then, it is uncertain whether Jacob's belief had become truely monotheism, or was henotheism, that is, worshipping only one god, while acknowledging that others exist.

Exposition

Gen 22:1-2

22:1 Some time after these things God tested1 Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”“Here I am!” Abraham2 replied. 22:2 God3 said, “Take your son—your only son, whom you love, Isaac4—and go to the land of Moriah!5 Offer him up there as a burnt offering6 on one of the mountains which I will indicate to7 you.”

There is considerable drama here.  Note how the request is structured to create suspense.  "Take your son" is followed by three expositions on "son".  Then he's told where to go.  Only after all this is the awful demand made.  However saddened Abraham may have been by this request, it simply never would have occurred that a god should not make such a request.  Everything in his upbringing, everything he had been taught about the gods by his father and by his culture, led him to believe that this was a just and normal request for a god to make.  It is thus not unreasonable to find that Abraham, to prove his faithfulness to Yahweh in particular, was willing to make that sacrifice.

Gen 22:3-5

22:3 Early in the morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey.8 He took two of his young servants with him, along with his son Isaac. When he had cut the wood for the burnt offering, he started out9 for the place God had spoken to him about.

22:4 On the third day Abraham caught sight of10 the place in the distance. 22:5 So he11 said to his servants, “You two stay12 here with the donkey, while13 the boy and I go up there. We will worship14 and then return to you.”15

Abraham is going to perform the sacrifice himself.  No priest is going to do it for him while he turns his head.  By his own hand he will have but Isaac's neck open.   By his own hand he will have to light the fire that consumes Isaac's body.

Gen 22:6-8

22:6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. Then he took the fire and the knife in his hand16 and the two of them walked on together. 22:7 Isaac said to his father Abraham,17 “My father?” “What is it,18 my son?” he replied. “Here is the fire and the wood,” Isaac said,19 “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 22:8 “God will provide20 for himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham replied. The two of them continued on together.

Isaac was no baby or little boy here.  He is big enough to carry the wood for the sacrifice, so we can presume that he was a young teenager.  Isaac too was a child of Mesopotamian culture.  When he asked where the lamb was for the burnt offering, he knew that human sacrifice was an option, and, if that was to be the case, Isaac knew he himself would be the victim.

Abraham's answer, "God will provide...the lamb" is perplexing.  I do not think this was a premonition of what would actually happen.  The author of Hebrews agrees for he says that Abraham expected that Isaac would be raised from the dead (Hebrews 11:19).  Nor was this an entirely a deception either.  Isaac had been provided miraculously to Abraham, and so in a very real sense, Isaac was the lamb and God had provided that lamb.  None the less, the statement is prophetic of what is about to happen.

Gen 22:9-14

22:9 When they came to the place God had told him about, Abraham built the altar there21 and arranged the wood on it. Next he tied up22 his son Isaac and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. 22:10 Then Abraham reached out his hand, took the knife, and prepared to slaughter23 his son. 22:11 But the LORD’s angel24 called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am!” he answered. 22:12 “Do not harm the boy!”25 the angel said.26 “Do not do anything to him, for now I know27 that you fear28 God, because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.”

22:13 Abraham looked up29 and saw30 behind him31 a ram caught in the bushes by its horns. So he32 went over and got the ram and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. 22:14 And Abraham called the name of that place “The LORD provides.”33 It is said to this day,34 “In the mountain of the LORD provision will be made.”35

At some point, it became explicitly clear to Isaac that he was to be the sacrifice.   Now, it is difficult to imagine that a man over one hundred years old could have tied a young teenager up.  I can only concluded that Isaac must have voluntarily concented to be bound.

Verse 10 is another drawn-out dramatic sentence as Abraham prepares to do the deed.   It reaches a climax when God does something, unlike the request to do the sacrifice, which was completely in keeping with everything Abraham believed about the gods, that completely overturns Abrahams world view.  God redefined what the relationship between a man and a god is.  God showed himself to be compassionate by stopping Abraham from killing his son.  God showed himself to not be dependant on man for sustenance by providing the sacrifice himself.  God showed himself to be sovereign over the natural world.

Gen 22:15-18

22:15 The LORD’s angel called to Abraham a second time from heaven 22:16 and said, “‘I solemnly swear by my own name,’36 decrees the LORD,37 ‘that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 22:17 I will indeed bless you,38 and I will greatly multiply39 your descendants40 so that they will be as countless as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession41 of the strongholds42 of their enemies. 22:18 Because you have obeyed me,43 all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another44 using the name of your descendants.’”

God here proclaims himself to be a god very different from the gods of the Mesopotamian polytheistic religion.  He is not a god limited to a particular city-state, or a particular aspect of nature.  He is a God whose influence extends to the whole world and to all people.

Gen 22:19

22:19 Then Abraham returned to his servants and they set out together45 for Beersheba, where Abraham stayed.46

Abraham's servants certainly suspected what Abraham's intent was.  It must have been with great amazement that they saw both Abraham and Isaac returning from the mountain, perhaps bearing cooked meat from the sacrificial meal.

Conclusion

The request to sacrifice Isaac was culturally relevant to Abraham.  It was a request 100% in keeping with all Abraham knew and believed about the gods.  The immorality of taking his own sons life would not have interferred with it being a test of Abraham's faith.  Finally, its conclusion turned those beliefs upside down and revealed a God very different from that believed in by Mesopotamians:  it revealed the loving God who doesn't require us to murder our children for him.

Questions for Discussion

Does God ask us to make sacrifices today?  In everyday life?  What about when we send our loved ones to war, for example?

Bibliography

Bright, John. A History of Israel. (1981, Westminster Press [Logos Edition]).

Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia. (1989, Oxford University Press).

Haik, Paul S. "Tophet, Topheth" in Charles F. Pfeiffer, Howard F. Vos, John Rea. Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia. (1975, The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago [Logos Edition]).

Hoffner, Harry A., Jr. "The Linguistic Origins of Teraphim" in Bibliotheca Sacra. Volume 124, Issue 495. (1967, Dallis Theological Seminary [Logos Edition]).

Free, Joseph P. "Archaeology and Biblical Criticism. Part III: Archeology and Liberalism" in Bibliotheca Sacra. Volume 113, Issue 452 (1956, Dallas Theological Seminary [Logos Edition]).

Killen, R. Allan. "Sacrifice, Human" in Charles F. Pfeiffer, Howard F. Vos, John Rea. Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia. (1975, The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago [Logos Edition]).

Margueron, Jean-Cl. "Ur (Place)" [trans. Stephan Rosoff] in David Noel Freedman. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. (1992, Doubleday [Logos Edition]).

Mariotinni, Claude F. "Laban (Person" in David Noel Freedman. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. (1992, Doubleday [Logos Edition]).

Negev, Avraham. The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land. (1990, Prentice Hall Press [Logos Edition]).

Pfeiffer, Charles F, and Howard F. Vos. The Wycliff Historical Geography of Bible Lands. (1967, The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago [Logos Edition]). See especially "The city-state of Ur", "Pithom", "Neolithic Beginnings"

Prichard, James B. Ancient Near Eastern Texts. (1969, Princeton University Press).

Rosenberg, Joel W. "Teraphim" in Achtemeier, Paul J., general editor. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. (1985, Harper & Row [Logos Edition]).

Steele, Francis R. "Nuzu" in Charles F. Pfeiffer, Howard F. Vos, John Rea. Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia. (1975, The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago [Logos Edition]).

Steele, Francis R. "Ur" in Charles F. Pfeiffer, Howard F. Vos, John Rea. Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia. (1975, The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago [Logos Edition]).

Unger, Merrill F. "The Use and Abuse of Biblical Archeology" in Bibliotheca Sacra. Volume 105, Issue 419 (1948, Dallas Theological Seminary [Logos Edition]).

Unger, Merrill F. "Archaeology and the Age of Abraham" in Bibliotheca Sacra. Volume 110, Issue 440 (1953, Dallas Theological Seminary [Logos Edition]).

Wenham, Gordon J. Word Biblical Commentary Volume 2: Genesis 16-50. (1994, Word [Logos Edition]).

Yamauchi, Ediwin M. "Anthropomorphism in Ancient Religions" in Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 125, Issue 497 (1968, Dallas Theological Seminary [Logos Edition]).

Youngblood, Ronald. F. "´┐Żypir;T]" in Harris, R. Laird, editor, et al. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. (1980, The Moody Bible Institute [Logos Edition]).