After telling Abraham to abandon his first-born son and Hagar in the wilderness, God now turns his sights on Abraham’s other son. He tells Abraham to take Isaac into the land of Moriah and “offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2).
This time, Abraham doesn’t protest. Either he’s learned his lesson from Chapter 21, or he just doesn’t like Isaac as much. Either way, he wakes up early and gets things ready to murder his son.
This is a really creepy chapter because there’s absolutely no indication that Abraham has any reaction to God’s command. All we get is a narration of him packing up his knife and kindling. No tears are shed, he never complains or begs God to spare his son. It’s all very cold and methodical, it’s almost psychopathic. Just to make the whole scene seem even more cruel, he makes Isaac carry the wood on which he intends to burn him.
Isaac is still fairly human at first, asking his dad where the sacrificial lamb is (normally a fair question when one is carrying a bunch of pyre wood up a mountain, but rather chilling in this particular situation). Abraham lies and tells him that God will be bringing that himself. But then we’re told that Abraham “bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood” (Gen. 22:9). At no point does Isaac say “Hey, dad, why are you binding me up?” or “okay, pa, I can overlook the whole binding me part, but putting me on the sacrificial pyre? What exactly do you think you’re doing?”
There’s no reaction from Isaac, no emotion from Abraham. And remember, this isn’t Isaac being stoic – Abraham lied to him and he has no idea that he is the lamb God will be providing. Yet he doesn’t seem at all concerned.
In the nick of time
As Abraham raises his knife to kill Isaac, the angel of the Lord calls down to him, saying “Woah, dude! I was just kidding! I didn’t think you’d actually go through with it!”
Interestingly, his exact words are: “For now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). There are two problems with this.
The first is the implication that God has to test Abraham to know whether he fears God or not. In other words, God not only cannot predict the future, he also cannot even read our minds.
The second problem is that God refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only son.” Does Ishmael suddenly not exist? He’s been cast out, sure, but he’s being made into a nation because he is Abraham’s son even after having been abandoned. Unless part of the abandonment was a total disowning. If this is the case, it might explain the literal issue, but it only raises a moral one.
I do think it’s important to note that, while God does stop Abraham from killing his son, it’s “without ever suggesting that the act of slaughtering one’s own child is immoral” (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, p.97). Once again, God prevents a crime because it serves his own purposes, not because the crime itself is wrong. Furthermore, it’s insane to think of this as having really happened. Imagine if someone today claimed that they heard the voice of God telling them to kill their child! That person would be locked up, but paraded as a paragon of faith!
But God does stop Abraham from killing Isaac and, because Abraham was totally willing to go through with it, God will reward him with a blessing. “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:17-18). For those of you counting at home, this is the fourth time God is promising these things to Abraham.
Abraham goes back down the mountain with Isaac and they all go home.
Is a lie still a lie if it turns out to be true?
Abraham makes a couple statements that seem out of place given what he’s supposed to know:
- When he gets to the mountain, he says to his servants: “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you” (Gen. 22:5);
- When Isaac asks where is the lamb for the offering, Abraham answers: “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8).
In both cases, Abraham is lying to avoid suspicion. But in both cases, the lie turns out to be the truth. Is this the authors’ idea of humour?
By the way, this chapter is a favourite of Christians who claim that Jesus is prophesied throughout the Old Testament. There are two passages cited:
When asked about the sacrifice, Abraham says: “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8). This, clearly, is not supposed to answer the question he has just been asked (even though it fits perfectly in this context). Rather, it’s letting the reader know that God will be sending a lamb (*wink wink nudge nudge*) to be sacrificed for our sins.
When God tells Abraham for the fourth time that he’ll have oodles of descendants, he adds: “By your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves” (Gen.22:18). If you turn your head to the side, squint, ignore the context of the passage, and pretend that “descendants” is actually in the singular, this is totally letting us know that the future messiah (Jesus!) will be descended from Abraham.
After all that excitement, the authors decide to bring us back down with another genealogy. This time, we’re jumping over to Abraham’s brother, Nahor.
From his wife, Milcah (who, if we remember, is also his niece), he has eight sons: Uz (or Huz), Buz, Kemuel, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel. Kemuel fathers Aram and Bethuel fathers Rebekah.
Not content with just a wife and her eight sons, Nahor also takes a concubine, named Reumah, and has four kids: Tebah, Gaham, Thahash, and Maachah.