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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 22

 

 

Verse 1

The Ultimate Test (Genesis 22:1-19).

Abraham had been called by Yahweh to leave his home, his kinsfolk and his country to go to a new land which God had purposed for him. His spiritual life was not smooth. He was not without testing. The very call itself was a test. The long wait for Isaac was a test. The incident of Sodom and Gomorrah was a test. But he had come through it all with his faith enhanced. Now he would face the greatest test of all.

Genesis 22:1

‘And so it was that after these things God put Abraham to the test and said to him, “Abraham”. And he said “Here I am”.’

The use of ‘God’ is significant. Previously when ‘God’ has been used it has been when foreign elements have been involved, for example in the wider covenant of chapter 17; with Hagar after Ishmael had been cast out; and in his dealings with Abimelech.

Yet it is not surprising here, for this test is not given by God as Yahweh the covenant God. It strikes at the very heart of the covenant. It is given by ‘God’, God the Almighty, the Most High God, Lord of Heaven and Earth (14:22; 17:1).

We can compare with this how a man who is a judge may have a son whom he loves, but one day, when the son is brought before his court he has to forget the sonship and behave as a judge. In a sense that is what Yahweh does here. This demonstrates that this incident has a larger purpose than just a personal issue between Yahweh and Abraham. It is a vindication before the world. Abraham must be shown to the world as totally beyond reproach.

It is idle to speculate on why the test was made. It may have been because Abraham was questioning his own willingness to do what some people round about him were willing to do, offer their own sons as sacrifices, and was greatly disturbed by the problem. It may have been that he was indeed being chided by others as not loving his God enough because he did not engage in child sacrifice. It may be that he himself felt that he was not sufficiently demonstrating his love for Yahweh. Or perhaps he has become concerned that he loves his son too much so that it has hindered his love for Yahweh.

Certainly the climate in Canaan was such that few would look askance at what he was asked to do, although child sacrifice, while known, was not a common feature of life there (see Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31; Psalms 106:37-38; 2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 21:6; Isaiah 57:5; Ezekiel 16:20-21; Ezekiel 20:26). It was looked on as the ultimate gift to God (Judges 11:30-40; 2 Kings 3:27).

It may not be a coincidence that child sacrifice was linked with Molech (Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:3;) or Melech (Isaiah 57:9 (translated ‘king’). Melech is the original name, the ‘o’ was a change made to indicate an abomination using the vowel sounds of bosheth, ‘shame’. His name appears in Abimelech. It is possible that these Philistine traders were worshippers of Melech.

But the importance of the narrative is that it demonstrates that, at whatever the cost, Abraham was willing to obey Yahweh, and would not even withhold from Him what he treasured most.

It is noteworthy that the stress is put on the fact that this is a test. We are to suspect immediately that it was not to be literally carried out. As always in the first part of Genesis the narrative is a covenant narrative, for the incident leads on to a re-establishing of the covenant (Genesis 22:16-18) in even more emphatic form. Thus it would be put in writing and added to the sacred covenant tablets already held.


Verse 2

‘And he said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah (LXX has ‘land of the height’ - ‘upsele’; the Syriac translation of the Old Testament has ‘land of the Amorites’) and offer him there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”

The land of ‘Moriah’ is not known elsewhere although a Mount ‘Moriah’ (slightly different etymologically) is later found in the vicinity of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 3:1-2) as the Mount on which the Temple was built. But the latter passage does not mention this incident (as we would have expected if they were identical), and here it is not the name of a mountain. It is significant in this regard that Abraham does not name the site as ‘Moriah’ but as ‘Yahweh yir’eh’ (Genesis 22:14).

In view of the fact that Jerusalem was at this stage a city occupied by the Jebusites it is not likely that Mount Moriah is in view.

It was a ‘three day journey’ i.e not very far, in contrast with a ‘seven day journey’, for they arrived within sight of it ‘on the third day’ (within one and a half to two and a half days).

The emphasis by God that He is asking for the ultimate sacrifice - ‘your son, your only son, whom you love’ - demonstrates already that it is a test, but so far as Abraham is concerned it is a very real one. The stress is interesting. It is not on the fact that he is the covenant son, but that he is the ‘only beloved’ son. It cannot help but remind us of another ‘Only Beloved Son’ of later times Who was sacrificed on our behalf. So the sacrifice requested was deeply personal, his most treasured possession.

Isaac is of course not literally his ‘only son’, and the phrase must rather mean ‘the heir’, the one on whom everything is centred, the only son of the primary marriage. Thus the phrase links directly with the covenant. He is not only called on to offer the one dearest to his heart, but the one through whom all the covenant promises are to be fulfilled. He is called on to sacrifice everything he has ever lived for.

We are not told what passed through his mind. Sacrifice the one through whom the covenant would be fulfilled (Genesis 17:19; Genesis 17:21)? He did not even stop to question. He obeyed unquestioningly. Yahweh would see to the rest. He had trusted Him so far, he would trust Him to the end.

He does not even question the morality of it. As a prophet of God he knows when God has spoken, and if it is His command it can only be right. (Only one who has had unique experiences of God and actually hears the voice of God can have such certainty. For such it was not an issue that required consideration for ‘God had spoken’). The final consequence, of course, is that God finally demonstrates to His people once and for all that He does not want such sacrifices.

This episode compares very specifically with that in Genesis 12. There he was called to go to a country that Yahweh had chosen for him, here he is called to go to a mountain that God has chosen for him. Yet the second contradicts the first because of its purpose. We cannot doubt that this is the greater test of faith. As Abraham grows in obedience the tests become harder.


Verse 3-4

‘And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off.’

“Rose early in the morning”. Compare Genesis 21:14. Is this a deliberate connection between the two tests to demonstrate their connection? Then he rose early in the morning to lose one son, now he does the same with the other. In both cases he obeys without question. The two men would accompany them both for safety reasons and to help with luggage.

“Went to the place of which God had told him.” Emphasis is laid on his obedience to God. The deliberate emphasis on ‘God’ as opposed to ‘Yahweh’ brings out the chill in the atmosphere. He obeys but his heart is frozen. What must have been his thoughts when at last he sees the place ‘afar off’, i.e in the distance.

“On the third day.” Abraham had had plenty of time to think over what he had to do. This was no momentary act based on a burst of enthusiasm and ecstasy, but a considered, thoughtful, heart-rending act about which, with a steady will, he was willing to proceed.


Verse 5

‘And Abraham said to his young men, “You stay here with the ass and I and the lad will go yonder, and we will worship and come again to you.”

“We will come again to you”. Was this just camouflage to the young men? There is no reason to think so. They would soon find out the truth and would recognise that it was a custom of the land. Or did he want to hide the truth from Isaac until the last moment? But surely he should have prepared Isaac for his part in the sacrifice to make it more meaningful. It does suggest rather that Abraham believes that somehow God will give him his son back again. After all He had enabled Sarah to give birth, and has made His unbreakable promise in the covenant.

But there was nothing unusual about going up into a mountain to pray when on a journey, and at present it would not seem strange to the men, although they must have wondered why he was not taking a lamb.

The next section is given in full detail with every aspect emphasised, and when the actual moment comes, in even greater detail. The writer seeks to build up the suspense right to the end.


Verse 6

‘And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife, and they went both of them together.’

Isaac carries the wood. Abraham has to carry the fire and knife, both dangerous to a young lad, the former at least requiring great care. This does demonstrate that Isaac has grown somewhat and is now a lad of some strength.


Verse 7

‘And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father.” And he said, “I’m here, my son.” And he said, “Look, the fire and the wood. But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” ’

The men must previously have wondered the same. It stood out a mile. But Isaac has clearly been pondering over it and now cannot resist the question which must have gone like a dagger into his father’s heart. And he is obviously of an age to be aware of the details of such an offering and to be aware that lambs do not just come from nowhere. But it is clear he does not know of the purpose of the visit.

Isaac’s question brings out that already as a young lad he is quite familiar with the idea of the sacrificial lamb and that at this stage the ‘burnt offering’ (literally ‘that which goes up’) is the regular sacrifice.


Verse 8

‘And Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”

What a wealth of meaning is found in these words. ‘God will provide’. For Isaac they meant that his father believed that God would let him have a lamb from somewhere. But was he beginning to get a little uneasy? For Abraham it was a statement of belief that God would somehow make all things right. But for us it is far more significant. For we know that God did provide Himself as a Lamb for the offering, the Lamb of God Who would take away the sin of the world. And it makes us look at what this was costing Abraham, and realise how much it must have cost God. God did not ask Abraham to do something that He would not do Himself.

Genesis 22:8 b

‘So they went both of them together.’

The repetition of the phrase (compare Genesis 22:6) brings out the length of the journey in the mind of Abraham. It must have seemed that they went on and on. Getting ever nearer to the fateful place.


Verse 9

‘And they came to the place of which God had told him, and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar on the wood.’

Every moment of agony is dragged out by the writer. The slow careful procedure, the puzzled but possibly apprehensive lad, Isaac, the so well known preparations, and then the moment of truth. Abraham takes his son and binds him with ropes. Does either say anything? What can they say? We do not know. But we do know what they must have felt; Isaac, puzzled, hurt, yet submissive and Abraham, torn in two yet obedient.


Verse 10

‘And Abraham stretched forth his hand to slay his son.’

Obedient to the end, he knew he must obey God’s absolute command. With nerves of steel he takes the final step in making the ultimate sacrifice. He lifts the knife ready to plunge it into the body of his son. The writer brings out the pathos. Not Isaac, not the lad, but ‘his son’.

Centuries later another Father would send His Son to be a sacrifice, but in His case there would be no intervention, no voice from Heaven. For He was the One to whom the coming substitution pointed. He had to carry it through to the bitter end for the salvation of the world.


Verse 11-12

‘And the angel of Yahweh called to him from Heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham.” And he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, neither do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing the you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.” ’

At last the change to the name Yahweh. The covenant has not been forgotten. The angel of Yahweh is clearly God Himself for He says, “you have not withheld your only son ‘from Me’.”

“Now I know that you fear God.” ‘I know’ - an anthropomorphism. It was not that God needed to be convinced of Abraham’s faithfulness. He is the One Who knows the heart. It was rather that Abraham might be reassured, and that the world might later know, that Abraham would hold nothing back from God whatever the cost. This act has brought out Abraham’s total obedience and submission. He had passed the ultimate test.

To ‘fear God’ means to have such a reverence and awe for Him that we obey Him. It is strongly linked to the idea of obedience (compare 20:11; 42:18; 2 Kings 4:1; Job 1:1; Job 1:8; Proverbs 1:7; Isaiah 11:2). Thus God wants Abraham to know that He fully appreciates what he has been willing to do.


Verse 13

‘And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son.’

To us it may seem an afterthought, but to Abraham it is one great swell of praise to Yahweh. Never had he offered a ram with more gratitude and with more praise in his heart. Whatever the normal significance of the burnt offering it is clearly stated that in this particular case it is substitutionary. It replaces his son. The burnt offering was in fact more of a total offering to God of worship and praise and dedication, and it was this for Abraham. But as ever it included the shedding of blood and was thus a reminder that sin produced death, the death of the victim in the place of the guilty one.


Verse 14

‘And Abraham called the name of that place ‘Yahweh Yir’eh’. As it is said to this day, “In the mount of Yahweh it will be provided ”.’

The naming of a place was an important matter for ancient peoples, especially when it commemorated a theophany. For that place became accepted as a sacred place, and many would go there for religious purposes. But no well known name is given here. It was a private naming in a spot which, though it would ever be sacred to Abraham, would not be known to the world. ‘Yahweh yir’eh’ means ‘God sees’. What it did result in was a well known proverb which the editor of the tablets adds on. We may paraphrase the comment ‘Yahweh will provide for those who truly seek Him.’


Verses 15-18

‘And the angel of Yahweh called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said, “By myself have I sworn, the word of Yahweh, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, that in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the sea shore, and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice”.’

This is the covenant on which the whole narrative is centred. The text has stressed the cost to Abraham in being willing to give his son, his only son, whom he loves, and this is confirmed here. Isaac is his only full son as born of his true wife. Hagar is not seen as a primary wife (although she is a wife), but more as a surrogate mother. ‘Only son’ therefore seems to carry the connotation of ‘the heir’ on whom everything is centred.

“By myself have I sworn”. Hebrews 6:13 comments on this verse, ‘because He could swear by no greater, He swore by Himself ’. We must say it reverently. Yahweh swears on His own eternal existence. Nothing could confirm the covenant more emphatically than that. Only the greatness of what Abraham had done could even begin to merit such a privilege. It expresses a unique relationship.

“The word of Yahweh” (ne’um Yahweh). A typical prophetic phrase emphasising that Abraham is a prophet. It emphasis the truth and reality of that which it describes.

“Because you have done this thing --”. But the covenant had already been given and ratified. Thus we see that what Abraham has done here has been the result of his life of constant faithfulness. He has done this thing because he has been fashioned by a life of faithful obedience. He Who knows the end from the beginning had seen what Abraham would be and rewarded him accordingly.

“Have not withheld your son, your only son --”. The price he was willing to pay is again stressed, with a special emphasis on the only son.

The covenant is repeated and reconfirmed. Continual blessing, a multitude of descendants, his seed ‘possessing the gates of their enemies’. The gates were the common meeting place, the place where the rulers and elders would gather to rule the city. To possess the gates was to have rule over them. But above all, forcefully repeated, in him would all the nations of the world be blessed.

It may be that in these past hours Abraham had seen ahead the possible destruction of the covenant in the destruction of his son. But he had gone ahead, confident that if necessary God could bring Isaac back to life, and now he receives his son back again and the covenant confirmed more firmly than ever.


Verse 19

‘So Abraham returned to his young men and they rose up and went together to Beersheba, and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.’

To the young men it possibly looked as though nothing unusual had happened, apart from the fact that their master must have seemed somewhat more cheerful and Isaac somewhat more thoughtful. We do not know whether he too was aware of the theophany, but undoubtedly his father must have given him some explanation.

And they returned to Beersheba, and dwelt there. Life would go on as usual. But it would never be the same again. Whatever high experiences we have of God we must always return to earth and dwell there. We cannot live always in the land of Moriah.


Verses 20-24

The Sons of Nahor and the Family Connection of Rebekah (Genesis 22:20-24).

The incident at Mount Moriah was the climax of Abraham’s life. All that remains is the closing down of his life. The stress in Genesis 22:20 to Genesis 24:67 is the new beginnings in Isaac, the chosen heir.

This family record is the introduction to Genesis 24. It is explaining the knowledge of a daughter that persuaded Abraham to send his steward to Nahor’s family to find a wife for Isaac. It was thus included in the original covenant record which included Genesis 24. It may be that the contract detailed in Genesis 23 was also incorporated in that covenant record at the time. This would explain why it divides Genesis 22:20-24 from the passage it introduces.

Alternatively Genesis 23 may have been placed within the latter by the editor. It is possible that this happened while Joseph was in authority in Egypt, when it would have been likely that the life history and background of so important a man would be set down in writing from the written records available. Alternately it may have been done later by Moses himself from the covenant records. In either case it was done because the editor knew that the news of the existence of Rebekah reached Abraham before the death of Sarah, and that Sarah died before Isaac married Rebekah. We will consider why it was introduced shortly.

It is clear that many years have passed since the previous incident, silent years because there was no revelation from Yahweh. It is not the history of Abraham that is written down, but the history of Yahweh in His dealings with Abraham.

This introduction of a tablet with a genealogy was a regular feature of such ancient tablets.

Genesis 22:20-21

‘And so it was after these things that Abraham was told, saying, “Behold, Milcah, she also has borne children to your brother Nahor. Uz, his firstborn, and Buz, his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram.’

It was quite natural that news would come through to Abraham about his brother’s family. It may have been because he himself sent a messenger to enquire whether there was a suitable wife for his son there, or because Nahor kept in contact with his elder brother who was thus aware of family affairs. The former is very likely and would explain why full details of the family genealogy were sent to Abraham.

As we have previously been told, Milcah was the daughter of Haran, who had died young, and was married to Nahor (11:29). She was clearly fruitful and bore him eight sons listed in this passage. The names are typical of the period and are attested either elsewhere in the Old Testament or in cuneiform sources. For Uz compare 10:23 where an Uz is a descendant of an earlier Aram, also 36:28. Job lived in ‘the land of Uz’ (Job 1:1). For Buz compare 1 Chronicles 5:14; Job 32:2; Job 32:6; Jeremiah 25:23. For Kemuel compare Numbers 34:24; 1 Chronicles 27:17. Aram is well associated with the area in which they dwelt.

Genesis 22:22

‘And Chesed, and Hazo, and Pildash, and Jidlaph, and Bethuel. And Bethuel begat Rebekah. These eight did Milcah bear to Nahor, Abraham’s brother.’

For Bethuel compare 1 Chronicles 4:30. Bethuel is the father of Rebekah.

Genesis 22:23-24

‘And Bethuel begat Rebekah. These eight did Milcah bear to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. And his concubine Reumah, she also bore Tebah and Gaham and Tahash and Maacah.’

The four sons of Reumah are mentioned to bring the number of sons to twelve. It is constantly apparent that twelve is depicted as the ideal inter-tribal make up. Compare Ishmael -Genesis 25:13-16 - and the twelve tribes of Israel. (The number of the tribes of Israel are maintained at twelve even though the constituents change).

Thus the family pedigree is carefully laid out in preparation for the account of the obtaining of a bride for Isaac. The family associations of Rebekah are made clear. Rebekah is the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Nahor who rules over an established tribal association.

In Genesis 29:5 Laban, Rebekah’s brother, is called ‘the son of Nahor’. But this is to connect him directly with the Patriarch of the tribal association. It was quite common for a man to be called ‘the son of’ his grandfather when that grandfather was very distinguished. In the same way Rebekah is later described as residing in ‘the house of his master’s (Abraham’s) brother’ (Genesis 24:24). The continual stress is on Rebekah’s relationship with Nahor. It must be made apparent that she is a suitable wife for Isaac.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 22:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/genesis-22.html. 2013.

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