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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Genesis 22



Verse 1



(1) God did tempt Abraham.—Heb., proved him, put his faith and obedience to the proof. For twenty-five years the patriarch had wandered in Palestine, and seen the fulfilment of the promise perpetually deferred, and yet his faith failed not. At length the long wished for heir is born, and, excepting the grievous pain of parting with Ishmael, all went well with him, and seemed to presage a calm and happy old age. He was at peace with his neighbours, had quiet possession of ample pasture for his cattle, knew that Ishmael was prosperous, and saw Isaac fast approaching man’s estate (Genesis 22:12). In the midst, nevertheless, of this tranquil evening of his days came the severest trial of all; for he was commanded to slay his son. The trial was twofold. For, first, human sacrifice was abhorrent to the nature of Jehovah, and Abraham’s clear duty would be to prove the command. Could such a deed really be enjoined upon him by God? Now no subjective proof would be sufficient. In after times many an Israelite was moved by deep religious fanaticism to give his firstborn in the hope of appeasing the anger of God at his sin (Micah 6:7); but instead of peace it brought only a deeper condemnation upon his soul. Had Abraham been moved only by an internal and subjective impulse, his conduct would have deserved and met with similar condemnation But when, upon examination, he became convinced that the command came from outside himself, and from the same God with whom on former occasions he had so often held converse, then the antecedents of his own life required of him obedience. But even when satisfied of this, there was, secondly, the trial of his faith. A command which he had tested, not only subjectively by prayer, but objectively by comparison with the manner of previous revelations, bade him with his own hand destroy the son in whom “his seed was to be called.” His love for his child, his previous faith in the promise, the religious value and worth of Isaac as the appointed means for the blessing of all mankind—this, and more besides, stood arrayed against the command. But Abraham, in spite of all, obeyed, and in proportion to the greatness of the trial was the greatness of the reward. Up to this time his faith had been proved by patience and endurance, but now he was bidden himself to destroy the fruit of so many years of patient waiting (Hebrews 11:17-19), and, assured that the command came from God, he wavered not. Thus by trial was his own faith made perfect, and for Isaac too there was blessing. Meekly, as befitted the type of Christ, he submitted to his father’s will, and the life restored to him was henceforth dedicated to God. But there was a higher purpose in the command than the spiritual good of these ‘two saints. The sacrifice had for its object the instruction of the whole Church of God. If the act had possessed no typical value, it would have been difficult for us to reconcile to our consciences a command which might have seemed, indirectly at least, to have authorised human sacrifices. But there was in it the setting forth of the mystery of the Father giving the Son to die for the sins of the world; and therein lies both the value and the justification of Abraham’s conduct and of the Divine command.

Verse 1-2

The Proving of Abraham

And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham; and he said, Here am I. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.—Genesis 22:1-2.

Few scenes in the whole compass of the Bible are more familiar than the sacrifice of Isaac. We knew the charm of it when we were children, and as we recur to it, time and again, amid the deepening experience of the years, we find that the story has not lost the power and beauty that so arrested us in bygone days. This indeed is one of the wonders of God’s Word, that we never leave it behind us as we travel. With all our growth through activity and sorrow, it grows in richness of interpretation. There are books which we very speedily outstrip; we read them, and we lay them aside for a period, and then we come back to them and find them thin and inadequate. But with all our growth, the Bible seems to grow; coming back to it we do not find it empty; rather with the increasing knowledge of the years, and the crosses and burdens they inevitably bring, new depths of Divine help and wisdom open themselves before us in God’s Word. It is peculiarly so with such a passage as this. We can never exhaust its spiritual significance. To our childish ears it is a delightful story; it appeals as powerfully as any fairy-tale; but gradually we come to see beneath the surface, and to discern the mind of God within the picture, until at last we reach the sweet assurance that underneath are the everlasting arms.

Looking at the whole chapter as we should at any merely human composition, we must admit that for profound pathos, for tragic force of description, it has never been surpassed. “Each time that we hear it,” says St. Augustine, “it thrills us afresh.” Compare it even with that exquisitely touching passage in the “Agamemnon” of Æschylus, which describes in words of such wonderful beauty the anguish of the father constrained to sacrifice his child, and it will not suffer by the comparison. Listen to the brief dialogue: “My father, behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?” “My son, God will provide himself the lamb for the burnt-offering.” The heart’s deepest grief was never more eloquently portrayed. No sobs, no tears, no words telling of the struggle within. The anguish lies too deep for utterance. The sculptor, when he would express a grief that he could not express, bowed and veiled the face of the mourner; and the veiling of the agony here is in fact its most pathetic expression.1 [Note: J. J. S. Perowne.]

It is most important that this great text should be approached from the right side. There is a moral difficulty in it—God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son—which arrests the attention so strongly that it usually occupies the mind almost entirely. Accordingly the common title is “the Sacrifice of Isaac.” But the subject is the testing or proving of faith; the sacrifice of Isaac being the special manner in which, for Abraham, faith was tested. If we begin with the proving of faith we shall come to the sacrifice of Isaac when we have understood the reason for it. It will then fall into its proper place, and we shall be able to see the moral difficulty in the light of an eternal truth.


The Proving of Faith

1. First of all, take the general statement that Faith needs to be tried or proved. Ewald says: “That only is a spiritual and therefore true and abiding blessing which we are able to make our own in the strife and wrestling of a faithful spirit.” That is to say, God’s gifts are not in the best sense our own till we have been taught by experience that they continue to be His still. It may even be questioned whether in the unthreatened secure enjoyment of a great joy, there does not always mingle some dash of sin. It may be doubted whether a hot trial does not always find its occasion in some moral need of the tried soul. At all events, as Augustine reminds us, there is no way to self-knowledge but through trial, through what he calls “some kind of experimental and not merely verbal self-interrogation.” In other words, God’s stern providence must step in to test the latent capabilities of the soul. No scrutiny of our own, however honest, will ascertain what is really in us. When He takes in hand to try us, because He loves us, it is that He may discover, not to Himself who sees all hearts, but to us and to our brethren, that which His grace has planted deep within. Moreover, He designs, by lending to our unfledged virtue scope and a call to exercise itself, to train its strength of wing for bolder flights to follow.

False gold says to true gold every moment,

“Wherein, brother, am I less than you?”

True gold in reply but maketh comment,

“Wait, O brother, till the touch-stone come in view.”1 [Note: Jalaluddin Rumi, in A Little Book of Eastern Wisdom , 11.]

2. Not only does Faith need to be tried but Faith needs to be tried all through life. And trials do not become lighter as we go on. The text says, “And it came to pass, after these things, that God did tempt Abraham.” What, no repose? No place of honourable quiet for the “friend of God,” full of years? No. There are harder and yet harder trials even to the end. The last of Abraham’s trials was the hardest of all to bear. And this is the history of our existence. For the soldier engaged in this world’s warfare, there is an honourable asylum for his declining years; but for the soldier of the Cross there is no rest except the grave. Conquer, and fresh trials will be yours, followed by fresh victories. Nay, even Abraham’s last victory did not guarantee the future.

There is a deep truth contained in the fabled story of old, where a mother, wishing to render her son invulnerable, plunged him into the Styx, but forgot to dip his heel by which she held him. We are baptized in the blood and fire of sorrow that temptation may make us invulnerable; but let us remember that trials will assail us in our most vulnerable part, be it the head, or heart, or heel. Let us therefore give up the idea of any moment of our lives coming when we may lay aside our armour and rest in perfect peace.2 [Note: F. W. Robertson.]

3. But there is usually in our life one trial, one crisis, to which great issues are attached. As we pass along the path of life there may come to us, in some form or other, the Divine command, to give up something very dear, because God wills it. And we must learn to do it, to do it cheerfully and willingly, as Abraham did,—to do it without murmuring, with a calm confiding trust in our Father’s Love and in His Wisdom, that what He wills is surely good, what He orders must be for the best.

This was not the first time that God had tried Abraham. He had tried him all his life. He tried him when He commanded him to leave his native land. He tried him in suffering him to wander as a stranger in the land given him by promise. He tried him in the peril of Sarah in Egypt and in the peril of Lot in Sodom. He tried him in causing him to wait twenty-five long years before Isaac was born. He tried him severely when He bade him thrust out his son Ishmael from his home. But here it is said in marked phrase that God did try Abraham, because it is the crucial instance of his life, the hardest trial, perhaps, of all history.1 [Note: J. J. S. Perowne.]

If God speak to thee in the summer air,

The cool soft breath thou leanest forth to feel

Upon thy forehead; dost thou feel it God?

Nay, but the wind: and when heart speaks to heart,

And face to face, when friends meet happily,

And all is merry, God is also there;—

But thou perceivest but thy fellow’s part;

And when out of the dewy garden green

Some liquid syllables of music strike

A sudden speechless rapture through thy frame,

Is it God’s voice that moves thee? Nay, the bird’s,—

Who sings to God, and all the world and thee.

But when the sharp strokes flesh and heart run through,

For thee, and not another; only known,

In all the universe, through sense of thine;

Not caught by eye or ear, not felt by touch,

Nor apprehended by the spirit’s sight,

But only by the hidden, tortured nerves,

And all their incommunicable pain,—

God speaks Himself to us, as mothers speak

To their own babes, upon the tender flesh

With fond familiar touches close and dear;—

Because He cannot choose a softer way

To make us feel that He Himself is near,

And each apart His own Beloved and Known.2 [Note: Harriet Eleanor Hamilton King.]

4. God sends us no trial, however, whether great or small, without first preparing us. He “will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Trials are, therefore, God’s vote of confidence in us. Many a trifling event is sent to test us, ere a greater trial is permitted to break on our heads. We are set to climb the lower peaks before being urged to the loftiest summits with their virgin snows; are made to run with footmen before contending with horses; are taught to wade in the shallows before venturing into the swell of the ocean waves. So it is written: “It came to pass after these things that God did tempt Abraham.”

The trial of faith is the greatest and heaviest of all trials. For faith it is which must conquer in all trials. Therefore, if faith gives way, then the smallest and most trifling temptations can overcome a man. But when faith is sound and true, then all other temptations must yield and be overcome.1 [Note: Luther, Watchwords for the Warfare of Life, 46.]

5. And now, lastly, let us remember that our experience is that filial obedience on our part has ever been followed by special tokens of God’s approval. We have something more than mere Hebrew redundancy of language in the promise made to Abraham by the Almighty. Hear how that promise reads. It reads like a river full to overflowing: “Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” Is there a more striking realization of the promise, “I will open the Windows of heaven, and pour out a blessing until there shall not be room enough to receive it”? Have we not ourselves, in appropriate degrees, realized this same overflowing and all-comforting blessing of God, in return for our filial obedience? Have we ever given money to the poor without repayment from the Lord? Have we ever given time to God’s cause without the sun and the moon standing still until we had finished the fight, and made up for the loss? “Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). Exceeding great and precious are the promises of God! He is able to do very exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.

“Unless above himself he can erect himself, how mean a thing is man.” He that sets himself with his whole heart on this task, will find at some stage or other of the work, that, like Abraham, he has to offer up his first-born, his dearest possession, his “ruling love,”—whatever that may be. He must actually lift the knife,—not so much to prove his sincerity to God as to himself; for no man who has not thus won assurance of himself can advance surely. But he will find that he has killed a ram, and that his first-born is safe, and exalted by this offering to be the father of a great nation; and he will understand why God called the place in which this sacrifice was offered “The Land of Vision.”1 [Note: Coventry Patmore.]

I stood and watched my ships go out,

Each, one by one, unmooring free,

What time the quiet harbour filled

With flood-tide from the sea.

The first that sailed,—her name was Joy;

She spread a smooth and ample sail,

And eastward strove, with bending spars,

Before the singing gale.

Another sailed,—her name was Hope;

No cargo in her hold she bore,

Thinking to find in western lands

Of merchandise a store.

The next that sailed,—her name was Love;

She showed a red flag at the mast,—

A flag as red as blood she showed,

And she sped south right fast.

The last that sailed,—her name was Faith;

Slowly she took her passage forth,

Tacked and lay to—at last she steered

A straight course for the north.

My gallant ships they sailed away

Over the shimmering summer sea;

I stood at watch for many a day,

But only one came back to me.

For Joy was caught by Pirate Pain;

Hope ran upon a hidden reef;

And Love took fire, and foundered fast

In ’whelming seas of grief.

Faith comes at last, storm-beat and torn;

She recompensed me all my loss,

For as a cargo safe she brought

A Crown, linked to a Cross!


The Proving of the Faith of Abraham

1. The word “tempt.”—“God did tempt Abraham” (R.V. “prove”). A better rendering might be, “God did put Abraham to the test.” Satan tempts us that he may bring out the evil that is in our hearts; God tries or tests us that He may bring out all the good. In the fiery trial through which the believer is called to pass, ingredients of evil which had counteracted his true development drop away, shrivelled and consumed; whilst latent qualities—produced by grace, but not yet brought into exercise—are called to the front, receive due recognition, and acquire a fixity of position and influence which nothing else could possibly have given them. In the agony of sorrow we say words and assume positions which otherwise we should never have dreamt of, but from which we never again recede. Looking back, we wonder how we dared to do as we did; and yet we are not sorry—because the memory of what we were in that supreme hour is a precious legacy, and a platform from which we take a wider view, and climb to the further heights which beckon us.

“Tempt” in Old English, like the Latan tentare, was a neutral word, meaning to test or prove a person, to see whether he would act in a particular way, or whether the character which he bore was well established; in modern English, it has come to mean to entice a person in order to do a particular thing, especially some thing that is wrong or sinful. God “tests” or “proves” man, when He subjects him to a trial to ascertain whether his faith or goodness is real; man is said to “test” or “prove” God, when he acts as if doubting whether His word or promise is true.1 [Note: S. R. Driver.]

2. The particular form of Abraham’s trial.—The command given by God was fitted as perhaps no other command could have been to purify Abraham’s faith. God had been training him from the first to live only by His promise. He called him out of his own land, He promised him another land, but Abraham lived a stranger in it, and was never able to call it his own. He promised him a son in whom all the families of the earth should be blessed, and for many long years Abraham had lived by that promise, seeing no hope of its fulfilment. At last Isaac was born, and he welcomed him as the child of promise. But years pass on. The child has grown up before him and twined himself about his heart, till at last he has almost forgotten the promise in the child of promise. Isaac, it has been strikingly said, the precious latewon gift, is still for Abraham too exclusively a merely natural blessing, a child like other children, though born of the true mother, Abraham’s son only because he has been born to him and been brought up in his house. Pangs, the pangs of a soul wrestling in faith, he has not felt for him since his birth, and yet that is the only spiritual and therefore the only really abiding blessing which we are able to make our own, through the fightings and wrestlings of the believing heart. Therefore, now that in Isaac the supreme blessing has been won, there must also take place the supreme trial of Abraham’s faith and obedience.

Abraham was in a special sense the creature of promise. His whole life rested upon the promise; all his hopes centred in and were dependent upon the promise; and the whole object of God’s discipline and training seemed to be to isolate him from all else, and to make him hang only on the promise. The promise is all. Is God’s promise enough for him? Can he live by that? Can he trust to it with unhesitating reliance in spite of all that seems contrary? Can he trust even when God’s own word seems to contradict it? This was the exact nature of Abraham’s trial.2 [Note: J. J. S. Perowne.]

3. Abraham’s recognition of it.—How was Abraham able to recognize as Divine a command to sacrifice his son? We could not so regard such a command: an alleged command of God to sacrifice a child could not be accepted as such; and if it were acted upon, the action would be condemned as a violation of conscience by the whole Christian Church; there had been, it would be said, some hallucination or delusion. The reason is that we live in an age, and under a moral light, in which we could not regard as Divine a command to violate not only our sense of what was morally right, but even our natural instincts of love and affection. It was possible for Abraham so to regard it, because he lived under the mental and moral conditions of an age very different from ours. He lived not only in an age when such sacrifices were common, but also in an age in which the rights of the individual were much less clearly recognized than they are now, when it was still a common thing, for instance, for the family of a criminal to be punished with him, and when also a father’s power over his son was far more absolute than it is now. The command would not therefore shock the moral standard to which Abraham was accustomed, as it would shock ours. It would not be out of harmony with what he might suppose could be reasonably demanded by God.

The custom of human sacrifice was widely spread in the ancient world, as it is still among savage or half-civilized tribes, the idea lying at the bottom of it being that the surrender of something of the highest value—and so especially of a relative or a child—to the deity, would have extraordinary efficacy in averting his anger, or gaining his help. The custom was thus practised among the Phœnicians and other neighbours of Israel (cf. 2 Kings 3:27; 2 Kings 17:31); the Carthaginians, Greek writers tell us, in times of grave national danger or calamity, would sacrifice by the hundred the children of their noblest families. Under the later kings, especially Ahaz and Manasseh, the custom found its way into Judah, in spite of its being strenuously forbidden by legislators and condemned by prophets. In view of this prevalence of the practice among Israel’s neighbours it is quite possible that Jehovah’s claim to the first-born in Israel (Exodus 22:29; Exodus 13:12-15, al.) stands in some relation to it; Jehovah took the first-born, but gave it back to its parents upon payment of a redemption price.1 [Note: S. R. Driver.]

4. The moral difficulty which we feel would not exist for Abraham.—Living in an age and a country where human sacrifice was common and approved of, held generally to be the highest mark of devotion, most sacred, most acceptable, it could have been no stumbling-block to him. Now, on the other hand, faith would be shown in refusing any such seeming Divine intimation, however vouched for by the senses. We should regard it, and rightly regard it, as only an hallucination. We should and ought to say, My eyes, my ears may deceive me, a dream may seem like reality, bodily disorganization may cheat my working mind, but that God should bid me slay my child is impossible. No miracle even could attest such a command. If I heard such a voice, if I saw such a miracle, I must only say, being in the full possession of my intellect and my faculties, “I am the victim of some strange hallucination. I believe in God’s character as revealed by conscience, as declared to me in Holy Scripture, and I must believe in it against any outward seeming evidence, however strong.” And to act in accordance with such a belief would be the proof of our faith, a faith in the unseen against the verdict of bodily sense.

Here we may learn the necessity which is laid upon us of obeying under all circumstances the voice of conscience—of following the promptings of that inner sense of duty, which we all have, if we will only heed it, and which will urge us, from time to time, to do this or to do that—not because it is pleasant, or because it is profitable, but simply because it is right. This is, in fact, what makes a man—what makes him essentially different from the brutes that perish—that he has a conscience, a sense of right and wrong, an inward voice which bids him do this and do that, simply because it is right for him to do it. Many brute creatures are very strong and very clever; but to do what is right and true and good belongs not to brutes, it belongs only to men.1 [Note: J. W. Colenso.]


The Use of the Proving of Abraham’s Faith

i. Its Use to Abraham

The command to slay his son was not to Abraham that abrupt, startling, unaccountable command which at first sight it appears. God was leading him, as He leads us all, in the way of His providence. Abraham was living among idolaters; he had been an idolater himself. He must often have witnessed the cruel rites, the impure and debasing practices, associated with idol worship. He may not have been free from temptation to fall back into idolatry. On all the high places, by sacred rock, and in sacred grove, fathers shed the blood of their sons and of their daughters to the idols of Canaan, and the land was defiled with blood. When he saw or heard of these awful sacrifices, do we suppose he could see or hear of them unmoved? Do we think they stirred in him no searchings of heart? The triumph of religious faith, however mistaken, over natural affection must surely have moved him to serious and painful reflection. Abraham was a man, as all his history shows, of the tenderest affection—a man who loved his children with no common love. He was also a man, as all his history shows, conspicuous for his faith and obedience to God. Trusting in God, then, and loving Him with all his heart, and feeling, too, that his child was dearer to him than life itself, must he not have asked himself the question, forced upon him by the scenes which he saw around him, “What if my love to God and my love to my child should ever be brought into this painful conflict? Can I give Him my son? Can I give Him, if He asks it, the child who has been the light of my home, the music of my life, the stay and hope of my falling years?” Such questions, we say, must have forced themselves upon Abraham; and we may see in this temptation, this trial, God’s answer to such thoughts. God showed His servant what was in his heart; He showed him that he could do all this, that he could do more than the heathen did; for he yielded a sacrifice no less costly, and he yielded it not out of fear, but in simple, unquestioning, childlike obedience.

In contrast with the heathen sacrifices, Abraham’s sacrifice, as Philo long ago argued, shines by its moral superiority. “It was not offered,” he says, “from any selfish motive, under the compulsion of a tyrant, or through fear of man, from desire of present glory or hope of future renown. He did not offer his son to win a battle, or to avert a famine or a pestilence, or to obtain some coveted gift of the gods. Nor did he give up one child out of many. He was ready to sacrifice his only son, his beloved son, the son of his old age, and he did this simply because God commanded it. His sacrifice in itself went far beyond all heathen sacrifices, as in its motives it infinitely surpassed them. He gave all that he had, and he gave it not from fear, or from interest, but out of love to God.”1 [Note: J. J. S. Perowne.]

The practical test of faith is obedience, and such obedience has to be learned through suffering. But how rarely does it happen that any bystander can guess what tragedies are being enacted in human bosoms! A little excursion by the pious chief and his son for purposes of devotion may have been too ordinary an incident to do more than gently stir the monotony of their pastoral life. Yet few passages in literature carry a deeper pathos than the words which tell how, in the fresh dawn, the aged lord of that camp crept away on foot out of the midst of his retainers’ tents, while the cattle, marshalled with merry call and tinkling bell, were going forth in long strings to their several grazing-grounds, and all the landscape grew busy with cheerful stir.2 [Note: J. O. Dykes.]

When one asked what was that service of God which pleased Him best, Luther said, “To hear Christ, and be obedient to Him. This is the highest and greatest service of God. Beside this, all is worth nothing. For in heaven He has far better and more beautiful worship and service than we can render. As it was said to Saul, ‘To obey is better than to sacrifice.’ As also soldiers say in time of war; obedience and keeping to the articles of war—this is victory.”

It is recorded of the Emperors of Russia and Austria and the King of Prussia that they were one day discussing the relative unquestioning obedience of their soldiers. Each claimed the palm, of course, for his own soldiers. They agreed to test the matter at once. They were sitting in a room on the second storey in a house, and they determined each to call up a soldier, and to order him to leap out of the window. The Prussian monarch first called his man. “Leap out of that window,” he said to him. “Your Majesty, it would kill me,” was the reply; and he was sent down. Then an Austrian soldier was called, and the emperor ordered him to leap out of the window. “I will,” said the man, “if your Majesty really means it.” He was sent down, and the Czar of Russia called his man, and gave him the same order. Without a word the man crossed himself, and started for the window to do it. Of course, he was stopped ere he could leap out—but to all intents and purposes he did make the leap; and whatever there was of agony of feeling connected with that leap, he felt.3 [Note: A. C. Price.]

ii. Its Use to us

There are various lessons to be learned from it.

1. They that are of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.—It was designed to reveal to posterity the fitness of this man for the unparalleled honour to which God had summoned him—the honour of entering first into friendly alliance with Heaven, of receiving in the name of the universal Church Heaven’s promise of eternal blessing, and of becoming to after ages the exemplar of that trust in God to which it has pleased Him to attach His favour and forgiveness. The issue of that probation was to justify the confidence reposed in Abraham by Abraham’s almighty Friend.

2. True sacrifice is the surrender of the will.—The sacrifice, though commanded, was not exacted. Abraham’s hand was stayed, before the fatal act was completed. This showed, once for all, clearly and unmistakably, that in contrast to what was imagined of the heathen deities worshipped by Israel’s neighbours, the God of Israel did not demand human sacrifices of His worshippers. He demanded in reality only the surrender of Abraham’s will. Abraham, by his obedience, demonstrated his readiness to part with what was dearest to him, and with something, moreover, on which all his hopes for the future depended; thus his character was “proved,” the sincerity of his religion was established, and his devotion to God confirmed and strengthened. It was the supreme trial of his faith; and it triumphed. And so the narrative teaches two great lessons. On the one hand, it teaches the value set by God upon the surrender of self, and obedience; on the other, it demonstrates, by a signal example, the moral superiority of Jehovah’s religion over the religions of Israel’s neighbours.

We must take the history as a whole, the conclusion as well as the commencement. The sacrifice of Isaac was commanded at first, and forbidden at the end. Had it ended in Abraham’s accomplishing the sacrifice, I know not what could have been said; it would have left on the page of Scripture a dark and painful blot. My reply to God’s seeming to require human sacrifice is the conclusion of this chapter. God says, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad.” This is the final decree. Thus human sacrifices were distinctly forbidden. He really required the surrender of the father’s will. He seemed to demand the sacrifice of life.1 [Note: F. W. Robertson.]

Abraham never needed, himself, to be taught a second time that God does not wish the offering of blood. No Hebrew parent, reading that story in after years, and teaching it to his children, would ever think of pleasing the God of Abraham by offering to Him his first-born son; it became an abomination in Israel to cause children to pass through the fire to Moloch, and the later prophets knew that God loves mercy rather than sacrifice. Though the influence of surrounding idolatries may on rare occasions have led Israel into the tragic sin of offering human sacrifices, the Hebrew law and custom, and the whole providential leading of the people from Abraham’s day were against it; and they who would sit in judgment upon this Divine procedure should not be suffered to ignore the decisive fact that the God of Abraham is the God whose course of moral education succeeded in destroying the fatal errors, and saving the vital truth, of sacrifice; and that the beginning of this great, beneficent, providential instruction in the true meaning of sacrifice was the vivid historical object-lesson which God taught Abraham of old, and which Israel has not forgotten to this day.1 [Note: Newman Smyth.]

3. Give God the first place.—In that most cruel rite of human sacrifice there is a truth providentially to be cared for, as well as a fearful evil to be abolished. At the heart of it lies this idea, that he who would be a friend of God must love nothing better than God, nor hold back anything which God’s service demands. This is the same everlasting law which on the lips of our Lord Jesus found explicit and reiterated utterance: “He that loveth father or mother, son or daughter, more than me is not worthy of me.” To disentangle this precious truth from the false and hateful inference which had become involved with it, that the literal slaying of a beloved child could constitute an act of worship pleasing to the Deity, formed beyond question one design of the strange command, “Take now thy son Isaac and offer him up.”

Do you say that such an act could not be done now? That is all the more reason why it should have been done;—why it should have been done when it could be done; when the state of evidence admitted of it; when the primitive standard of human rights gave the son to be the property of the father, to be surrendered by him, upon a call, as his own treasure. That idea—that very defective idea of the age—it was, which rendered possible the very point of the act, the unsurpassable pang of it, the self-inflicted martyrdom of human affection, the death of the son in will, by the father’s hand. That idea of the age, therefore, was used to produce that special fruit which it was adapted to produce; the particular great spiritual act of which it supplied the possibility, and which was the splendid flower of this stock.1 [Note: J. B. Mozley, Ruling Ideas in Early Ages, 60.]

To refuse sacrifice is to refuse the love that is one aspect of God’s being. Love lays down its life unceasingly, but so it transcends time, and conquers death. It is the fulfilling of the law, but its necessity is perfect freedom. And it dies to the finite self; but it has found the universal self, and life eternal.2 [Note: May Kendall.]

4. Redemption is by blood.—Viewed as a part of the Divine teaching of the world, we find in this history the wisdom of God. We find an answer to that first and deepest of questions that the human heart can ask, “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord?” We do not find it indeed in doctrine or even in words at all. But we do find it in fact. We find it just in that mode of revelation which was best suited to the wants and capacities of those to whom it was addressed. Precisely as we ourselves teach children by pictures, whose meaning, however, they cannot themselves fully understand, so God taught the childhood of the world. Not till the great act had itself been accomplished on Calvary could all its Interpretation be given. First came the picture, then, so to speak, the comments on the picture in the mouth of prophets and holy men of old. Then the great fact itself was exhibited; and then from the hallowed lips of the Apostles of the Lord came the eloquent interpretation of the fact. It is one truth throughout. Christ Jesus came “to do the Father’s will,” and “to give his life a ransom for many”; “by his obedience we are made righteous,” “he hath redeemed us by his blood”—what are words like these but the filling in, so to speak, of the fainter lines of that ancient picture?

5. God spared not His own Son.—At this point the wonderful story begins to burn inwardly with the fire of prophecy. It grows prophetic of the transcendent sacrifice on the cross, not through ingenious accommodation, or making the most of any accidental surface resemblances, but because at its very core it was an inspiration of the same self-subduing love that inspired and glorified the offering of Golgotha. Abraham’s best praise is found in this, that his act can be described in those identical terms which were to be selected by the noblest spokesman of the New Testament Church as the most fitting to describe the supreme act of eternal love: “He spared not his own son.” With perfect justice, therefore, has the Christian Church delighted since the beginning of her history to place the sacrifice of Isaac over against the mysterious and adorable sacrifice of her Lord, as its most splendid Old Testament prefiguration.

God’s true children must climb their mount of sacrifice. When our own hour shall have come, may we arise forthwith, cleave the wood for the burnt-offering, and go unflinching up the path by which our Heavenly Father shall lead us. So shall the mount of trial become the mount of blessing. We shall have a wider horizon; we shall breathe a purer atmosphere; we shall set our affection more entirely upon things above; we shall walk more closely with God. And so when He asks something very dear to us, let us think not only of Moriah, but of Calvary, where He Himself gave infinitely more than He can ever ask of us.

The dearest offering He can crave

His portion in thy soul to prove,

What is it to the gift He gave,

The only Son of His dear love?

In the moral significance of this history the Jew and the Christian are agreed. Even to the present day the Jew, though he has rejected the true propitiation, sees in the binding of Isaac on the altar a meritorious deed which still pleads on behalf of Israel with God. And whilst the Christian Church prays to God for pardon and blessing on account of the merits and death of Jesus Christ, the Jewish synagogue beseeches Him to have compassion upon it for the sake of the binding of Isaac.

How seemed it to the lad,

As down Moriah’s slope they slowly went,

They who had glimpsed th’ eternal plan of God?

Behind, the pressure of encircling cords,

The vision of a sacrificial knife,

And dying ashes upon altar stones.

Before, a life that nevermore might be

The glad, free life of sunny-hearted youth—

For he had looked into the face of death.

How seemed it to the lad,

When at the mountain’s base they ran to meet

And welcome back the chieftain and his son?

Marked they upon his brow a graver shade?

Within his eyes a stronger, clearer light,

As panoplied with power beyond his own?

And said they, under breath, from man to man,

The while they passed along the homeward way,

“The prince has seen—has seen and talked with God”?

How seemed it to the lad,

When for his mother’s greeting low he knelt,

And felt her welcoming kiss upon his cheek?

Oh, did she see, with tender mother sight,

A change had come? And think you that he told

The tale to her? Or did he hold it close,

Too sacred for the common speech of earth,

While dimly seeing through the mist of years,

In one great Sacrifice, the type fulfilled?


Aglionby (F. K.), The Better Choice, 10.

Banks (L. A.), Hidden Wells of Comfort, 130.

Brooks (Phillips), The More Abundant Life, 137.

Colenso (J. W.), Natal Sermons, i. 356.

Dykes (J. O.), Abraham the Friend of God, 243.

Hessey (J. A.), Moral Difficulties connected with the Bible, i. 83.

Horton (R. F.), Lyndhurst Road Pulpit, 103.

Matheson (G.), Times of Retirement, 184.

Maurice (F. D.), The Doctrine of Sacrifice, 33.

Meyer (F. B.), Abraham, 167.

Morrison (G. H.), The Footsteps of the Flock, 67.

Mozley (J. B.), Ruling Ideas in Early Ages, 31, 64.

Parker (J.), Adam, Noah, and Abraham, 169.

Parker (J.), Studies in Texts, iv. 188; vi. 181.

Perowne (J. J. S.), Sermons, 332.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, x. 193.

Robertson (F. W.), Notes on Genesis, 53.

Smyth (N.), Old Faiths in New Light, 48.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xv. Nos. 868, 869.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Contemporary Pulpit Library, i. 144.

Waddell (R.), Behold the Lamb of God, 28.

Christian World Pulpit, xiv. 228 (Hubbard).

Expositor, 1st Ser., i. 314 (Cox); 2nd Ser., i. 305 (Godwin).

Expository Times, iii. 301 (Perowne).

Verse 2

(2) Take now.—Now is not an adverb of time, but an interjection of entreaty, usually coupled with requests, and intended to soften them. It thus makes the words more an exhortation than a command.

Thine only son Isaac.—The words in the original are more emphatic, being, “Take, I pray, thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac.” If childlessness was so unendurable in old time to Abraham (Genesis 15:2), what would it be now, after so many years of enjoyment of a son, and after giving up Ishmael for his sake (Genesis 17:18)?

The land of Moriah.—Moriah may either mean Jah is teacher (see Note on Genesis 12:6), or Jah is provider. The first is supported by Isaiah 2:3, where the verb is rendered will teach; but the second agrees best with Genesis 22:8; Genesis 22:14. If this be the meaning, the name would be derived from this event, and would signify the place where “Jehovah will Himself provide the sacrifice.” It has been suggested by many able commentators, that the place meant was Moreh in Sichem, and that the site of the sacrifice was, as the Samaritans affirmed, the natural altar upon the summit of Mount Gerizim. But as Abraham and Isaac reached the spot on the third day, and evidently at an early hour, Gerizim is too remote from Beer-sheba for this to be possible Even Jerusalem is distant enough, as the journey from Beer-sheba takes twenty and a half hours; and travellers in those days had to cook their own food, and prepare their own sleeping accommodation. We may notice also, that Moriah is described as “a land,” in some part of which Abraham was to be shown the special mountain intended for the sacrifice; Moreh, on the contrary, was a place where Abraham had lived, and which was therefore well known to him.

Offer him there for a burnt offering.—Hengstenberg and others have argued that Abraham was not to kill Isaac, but to surrender him spiritually to God, and sanctify him by a burnt offering. But this is contradicted by the narrative itself (Genesis 22:10), and by the passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews referred to above, where the victory of Abraham’s faith is described as consisting in the belief, that even though Isaac were killed, nevertheless the promise would still in some Divine manner be fulfilled in him.

Verse 3

(3) And Abraham . . . —Every preparation for the sacrifice is minutely detailed, as if to show the calmness with which Abraham girded up himself for obedience. He even took the wood ready cleft, not because there was no wood there (Genesis 22:13), but in order that on arriving at the destined place there might be nothing to distract their thoughts, and that so they might proceed at once to the sacrifice.

Verse 4

(4) On the third day.—We may compare the patriarch’s feelings during these two weary days of travel with those of Hagar as she wandered in the wilderness, and each day felt the death of her child growing nearer and more certain. But hers were human sorrows only, while Abraham was giving up the son on whom his spiritual hopes depended.

Afar off.—The summit called the Mountain of the House, usually identified with Mount Moriah, cannot be seen by a traveller from Beer-sheba at a greater distance than three miles (Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 251). Hence it has been argued that some more widely conspicuous hill-top must be meant. But the phrase afar off is used very indefinitely, and three miles exactly agrees with what Abraham did. For he left the servants at the spot, and laid the wood on Isaac, and went the rest of the way on foot. It must have sorely taxed the strength of the lad to be compelled to carry the wood a distance of three miles; while to have carried it from the spot where Gerizim becomes visible would have been impossible.

In Isaac thus carrying the wood on which he was to be sacrificed, the Fathers discerned a type of Christ carrying his cross (John 19:17).

Verse 5

(5) I and the lad will . . . come again to you.—In these words Abraham gives utterance to the hope ascribed to him in Hebrews 11:19. The belief in the resurrection of the body was no new thing with Abraham, as it was part of the creed both of Chaldea and Egypt (Tomkins, Studies, p. 127).

God will provide himself a lamb.—Heb., the lamb. We learn from Hebrews 11:17-19, that Abraham expected that he was to consummate the sacrifice, but that Isaac would be restored to him from the dead, and the promise that his seed was to be born of him so fulfilled. The bestowal of Isaac had been so extraordinary, that Abraham would not feel staggered at what otherwise would have seemed incredible. Apparently, therefore, he meant Isaac by the lamb, thus showing that it was not he who chose the victim, but God. The few words that passed between father and son, the notice by the latter that amid such careful preparation no victim had been provided, the father’s answer that that matter was left to God, the resolute faith of the one, and the trusting submission of the other, as “they went both of them together,” form a picture full not merely of interest, but even of tragical pathos.

Verse 9

(9) Abraham . . . bound Isaac.—Jewish commentators agree that this was done with Isaac’s consent, nor could it well have been otherwise. Thus his youthful faith was tried equally with that of his father, his future life sanctified, and himself ennobled by being made a type of Christ (1 Peter 2:23).

Verse 11

(11) The angel of the Lord.—Up to this point, the narrative had been Elohistic, but it is the angel of Jehovah who interferes to stop the sacrifice (see on Genesis 16:7).

Verse 13

(13) Behind.—By a slight change in the shape of a consonant, many ancient authorities read one ram instead of a ram behind (“him” is not in the Hebrew). This correction is almost certain, as nowhere else is the word translated behind used as an adverb of place. The ram was probably that with four horns, still common in the East.

A burnt offering in the stead of his son.—We have here the fact of substitution, and the doctrine of a vicarious sacrifice. The ram took Isaac’s place, and by its actual death completed the typical representation of the Saviour’s death on Calvary. In The Speaker’s Commentary it has been well shown, that there is no difficulty in this representation being composed of two parts, so that what was wanting in Isaac should be supplied by the ram. And while it would have been most painful for Isaac to have actually died by his father’s hand, the doctrine of the possibility of a vicarious sacrifice would have been even less clearly taught thereby. He therefore rises again to life from the altar, and the ram dies in his stead, and by the two combined the whole mystery is set forth of God giving His Son to die for mankind, and of life springing from His death. Compare the mystery of the two birds, Leviticus 14:4; and the two goats, Leviticus 16:8.

Verse 14

(14) Jehovah-jireh.—That is, Jehovah will provide. In Genesis 22:8, Abraham had said “Elohim-jireh,” God will provide. He now uses Jehovah as the equivalent of Elohim. It is added that hence arose a proverb “In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen,” or rather, In the mount of Jehovah it shall be provided.—The verb literally means to see, or, to see to a thing, and the sense of the proverb plainly is that in man’s necessity God will Himself see to it, and provide due help and deliverance. The Samaritan, Syriac and Vulg. have a better reading, namely, “In the mount Jehovah will provide.” This makes no change in the consonants, which alone are authoritative, but only in the vowels, which were added since the Christian era, and represent the tradition of the Jewish school of Tiberias. The LXX., without changing the vowels, translate, “In the mount Jehovah shall be seen,” which would be a prophecy of the manifestation of Christ. The other two renderings, besides their general proverbial sense, point onward to the providing upon this very spot of the sacrifice that was to take away the sins of the world (comp. Isaiah 53:5).

But when and how did this grow into a proverb? and who added this note? It may have been inserted by Moses when he arranged these marvellous. documents; less probably by Ezra and the men of the Great Synagogue, when they collected and revised the several books of Holy Scripture after the exile. In either case, the proverb is a national testimony to the genuineness of the record, and proves that the facts narrated in it were so impressed upon the memory of Abraham’s descendants, as to shape their thoughts and language.

Verse 16

(16) By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord (Jehovah).—This solemn interposition of an oath (Hebrews 6:17), of which the present is the sole instance in Holy Scripture, plainly indicates that this trial of Abraham’s faith was of no common kind, and that its typical teaching is of no ordinary value. Abraham might have appealed to God’s own attributes, and said, Far be it from thee, Lord, to command a human sacrifice, and bid a father slay his son. He might have pleaded the promises bound up with Isaac’s life. But no, as soon as he is convinced that the command comes from God. he obeys, and, against hope, still believes that the promises will all be fulfilled in the sacrificed Isaac. He is thus the highest and most perfect example of faith, and by his offering of his son the Church received the assurance that the Son of God incarnate in the flesh would upon that very mountain offer the sacrifice Divinely necessary for the pardon of man’s sins.

The blessing now given to Abraham differs from those that precede it in three particulars. First, it is no longer a promise, but a solemn compact ratified by an oath. Next, it assures Abraham’s seed of victory, whereby the spiritual Israel is certified of the ultimate triumph of the Gospel. Lastly, it transfers to Abraham’s offspring the promise of being the means of blessedness to all mankind.

Verse 20


(20) Thy brother Nahor.—Dwelling so far apart, news would seldom reach Abraham of those whom he had left at Haran. But besides the domestic interest, the knowledge thus conveyed to him was the cause “probably of Abraham’s determination to seek a wife for his son from among his own kindred. It has been noticed that Nahor has twelve sons, eight by his lawful wife, and four by his concubine. So Jacob has twelve sons, eight by two lawful wives, and four by two concubines. Lastly, Ishmael has twelve sons. These coincidences are curious, but afford no ground for the assertion that therefore these narratives are mythical. For coincidences quite as strange are to be found in every history, and in daily life.

Verse 21

(21) Huz.—The same name as Uz in Genesis 10:23; Genesis 36:28, the Hebrew in all cases being’Uz. For the various regions supposed to have been “the land of Uz,” see Notes on Job 1:1; Jeremiah 25:20.

Buz.—Probably he was the ancestor of Elihu (Job 32:2); but Buz, in Jeremiah 25:23, seems to have been a region in Idumea.

Kemuel, the father of Aram.—He was not the progenitor of the Aramaic race, but the ancestor of the family of Ram, to which Elihu belonged (Job 32:2), Ram being the same as Aram (Keil). If so, Buz and Kemuel must have coalesced into one tribe.

Verse 22

(22) Chesed.—He was not the ancestor of the ancient Chasdim or Chaldees, but possibly of the small tribe of robbers with the same name who plundered Job (Job 1:17). Of the rest, no trace remains in history.

Verse 24

(24) Maachah.—This name appears as that of a small Aramaic people, in Deuteronomy 3:14; Joshua 12:5; 2 Samuel 10:6.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 22:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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