One of the most controversial and widely-debated passages in the Old Testament is the command given by God for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22:1-14. Atheists use it as a hammer to rail against an unjust and uncaring God. Muslims claim that it is Ishmael whom Abraham is commanded to sacrifice, not Isaac. Liberal Christians
claim this account is an analogy and symbolic of something else, refusing to believe Abraham and Isaac are actual historical figures.
The historicity of the account is challenged. The morality of the account is challenged. It is seen as one of the ugliest scenes in the Old Testament. However, when it is understood in the proper context, this passage can be seen and understood as a picture of the love and care God exhibits to all mankind, and foreshadows the coming Christ and the sacrifice He voluntarily made for us all.
1. The Command (Genesis 22:1-2)
The story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac begins in Genesis 22. Isaac, the promised son whose promised coming was fulfilled twenty-five years later, is finally born in chapter 21. After Hagar and Ishmael leave Abraham
and Abraham makes his covenant with Abimelech, several years have passed. Fruchtenbaum writes that Isaac at this
point is thirty to thirty-one years old. This is based in part on the next story being Sarah’s death at the age of 127. Since Sarah was 90 when Isaac was conceived and born, Isaac would be 37 at her death.
God appears to Abraham for the eighth time and orders him to do several things. The first is to take Abraham’s son. This son is identified in four ways:
1) Take now your son. This order could have applied to both Isaac and Ishmael, though Ishmael did not reside with Abraham at this point.
2) your only son.
Fruchtenbaum writes that this phrase does not emphasize origin, since Abraham had two sons, but rather uniqueness. Isaac is the promised son through whom Abraham would become the father of a nation, and was wholy unique in that way. In God’s eyes, Isaac was the only son because the other son had been born out of sin.
3) whom you love. While Abraham’s relationship with Ishmael can only be speculated on, his love of Isaac is clear.
4) Even Isaac. Lest there be any confusion at this point, God clearly identifies Isaac as the recipient of this command.
After clearly identifying which son is to be involved, God gives instruction on what Abraham is to do. Abraham is told to
travel to the land of Moriah, which will eventually be the location of the First Jewish Temple. Once he gets there, he is to travel to a specific mountain which God would command him to travel to. It is later revealed to be Mt. Moriah, which is renamed Mt. Zion and will be the exact location of the Temple.
Once there, Abraham was to offer Isaac as a burnt offering to God on Mt. Moriah. It is of note that at this point in God’s progressive revelation, God has not actually forbid human sacrifice. Abel, Noah and others have been instructed to make animal sacrifices to God and the sanctity of human life has been commanded in the Noahic Covenant and other places, but a strict outright forbidding of human sacrifice is not formally made until Leviticus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 18:10.
Indeed, in the local Canaanite religion, child sacrifice to El was expected and Abraham would not be unfamiliar with it even if he had not exercised it himself.
Of note here is God’s purpose for ordering this. In Genesis 22:1,nacah tells us that God is tempting or testing Abraham
here. God is not tempting Abraham to sin as Satan would do, but rather testing his obedience after receiving the gift of Isaac as had been promised. Abraham has had problems with disobedience outright or delayed obedience. This final test will prove to be the crowning achievement of Abraham’s physical life. Wilmington writes that God is testing Abraham to help him grow spiritually. Leale writes that “God did not intend to sanction human sacrifices, but only to give
an evident demonstration of Abraham’s complete surrender to the Divine will.” God knows the end result of this testing and never truly intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The test is a means to grow Abraham and Isaac’s faith and the faith of the reader by giving us an example of complete faith and surrender.
2. The Journey (Genesis 22:3-8)
After receiving God’s command, Abraham does not hesitate. He awakens early the next morning, packs his things, and takes Isaac and two young servants with him to begin the three-day trip to Mt. Moriah. Before he leaves, Abraham also chops and packs the wood necessary for the burnt offerings. His preparations are complete, and his journey begins.
Matthews makes the connection between this test and the first test that God places on Abraham in Haran. In both,
God asks him to leave his family and travel to an unknown land. In the first instance, Abraham focuses on the future and the birth of an heir and obeys. In this instance, the Giver is apparently removing his future through Isaac, yet Abraham still trusts and obeys.
The journey to Mt. Moriah completes the four days necessary for Abraham to obey. Willmington notes that these four days foreshadows the coming Law. The Passover Lamb was to be kept four days before its execution. In this case, Isaac is a type of Passover Lamb, though he is not ultimately sacrificed.
When they arrive, Abraham instructs his servants to remain while he and Isaac “go yonder and worship.” Abraham’s
explanation for this entire trip has been that he and Isaac are to worship God at a specific location. Isaac and
the servants are unaware of God’s command. In truth, Abraham had been worshipping God ever since he awoke on the second day and immediately started obeying. God desires our obedience more than ritual or sacrifice. Of great
significance is Abraham’s instruction to the servants that “I and the lad…come again to you.” This statement will be analyzed in a later section.
Abraham and Isaac pack the necessary things for the burnt offering and begin their journey up the mountain. Isaac carries the wood, just as Jesus would carry His cross many centuries later. Isaac notices that they are missing the sacrifice, and asks his father why they have not brought an animal. Abraham replies that God will provide a lamb for them. This shows again that Isaac still has no inclination that Abraham intends to sacrifice him.
That one sentence by Abraham provides a complete summary of the Bible. God will provide for Himself a lamb and will provide Himself to be that lamb. It is the story of reconciliation that is the focus of the whole Bible. Only through the Lamb provided by God can man be made whole.
3. The Sacrifice (Genesis 22:9-10)
After arriving at the specific location God had commanded, Abraham begins preparations for the sacrifice. He builds the altar, lays the wood accordingly, and “bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.” Genesis is
silent on how this was actually accomplished. If Fruchtenbaum is correct and Isaac is thirty years old at this point, how did a 130-year-old man bind and place his son on the altar? Was Isaac unconscious for this? Or did Abraham finally tell him the reason for coming and Isaac acquiesces to his father’s and God’s command? Fruchtenbaum believes so and writes of rabbinical teachings to that effect. In fact, in Jewish teachings this event is called the Binding of Isaac rather than the traditional Christian Sacrifice of Isaac. If so, then Isaac’s test of faith is just as amazing as Abraham’s, if not
more so since he is the one who will die. His complete trust in his father and God is an amazing demonstration of
faith in action.
With everything prepared, Abraham “stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.” Abraham is
in the act of sacrificing his son. While it is spelled out directly in Hebrews 11:17-19, there are certain
hints in the account that point to Abraham’s thinking. The first is his instructions to his servants. Abraham tells them that both Abraham and Isaac will be returning. Hebrews 11:17-19 explains his thought process: “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was
said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.”
Abraham had resolved the conflict between the promise of God in Genesis 21:12 that Isaac would produce a nation and God’s command that Isaac be killed before he had done so. Harris writes, “Abraham thought carefully about his experiences with God and concluded that since He could make a barren Sarah give birth to a child, He also was able
to resurrect Isaac after he had been sacrificed.” In our mind, resurrection is, while not commonplace, something that occurs many times in the Bible. We would have a basis for our faith in reconciling that problem Abraham faced.
Fruchtenbaum writes that this principle of resurrection for those who have not received the promises God made to them has been upheld in other places in Scripture. He cites Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees over the issue of resurrection. In it, Jesus cites Exodus 3:6, which points to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob being alive to receive the
promises God made to them. Thus Abraham’s conclusion, though wrong in this situation, would eventually be proven
However, there had been no resurrections to this point. Indeed, the first recorded resurrection would not come for another thousand years. Abraham had no basis for this faith, but still trusted in God and fully expected it to happen based on God’s promise that Isaac would be the line by which the nation would be produced. While he would ultimately
be wrong, this was still a tremendous act of faith on his part because nothing like this had ever happened before.
Peter had Jesus standing in front of him when he walked on water. Abraham had no such example to base his
faith on. But he believed, and was acting on that faith by being fully prepared to sacrifice his only son on that
altar as he grabbed the knife.
4. The Deliverance (Genesis 22:11-14)
Before Abraham can consummate the sacrifice, the angel of the Lord stops him. Abraham is informed that God is satisfied with the results of the test. Abraham has shown that he yare', or reverently fears the
Lord. Lint writes,“When Abraham took his knife, surrender was complete. God had all of Abraham’s heart.”
When that fact is proved to Abraham, he is stopped from committing the act.
It is appropriate to bring up a point here. In Genesis 15:6 Abraham is declared righteous because he believed in the
Lord. This righteousness was not dependent on his actions, but that righteousness would be evident in his acts,
or works, from that point. This then is Abraham’s greatest act of that belief, as James attests to in James 2:21-24. His work proceeded from his righteousness which he already had. This test proved to Abraham that his belief was total and all consuming.
When Abraham is free from committing the heinous act, he notices, as his earlier promise to Isaac indicated, that God had provided a sacrifice. Isaac is unbound, and a ram is sacrificed instead. Henry writes, “Now that the altar was built, and the wood laid in order, it was necessary that something should be offered. For 1. God must be acknowledged with thankfulness for the deliverance of Isaac…2. Abraham’s words must be made good.” Abraham gives thanks and offers a substitute for his son whom he was willing to offer.
The phrase “in the stead of his son”clearly indicates that Abraham understood that the ram was a substitution for Isaac.
The many pictures of Jesus this narrative illustrates will be dealt with in a later section, but the ram as a substitute for Isaac is a clear picture of the coming substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus.
Finally, Abraham names that place Jehovah-jireh, which translates to “Jehovah sees” or “Jehovah Will Provide.” Just as God had provided for a substitution for Isaac that died in his place, so would God provide for his people a substitutionary atonement through the sacrifices to come. Mt. Zion would be the future place of atonement for those people, and indeed God had provided for His people. Ultimately, though, God would provide the ultimate propitiation through Jesus.
Was God’s Test Righteous?
Let us turn our attention away from the narrative itself and unto related topics to help understand the passage more fully. Opponents of the Bible use this passage as a supposed example of a God who is unjust. It is evil, they
claim, for God to require Abraham to sacrifice his son. They argue that He had no right to make that demand on Abraham, even if He knew that Abraham would not have to go through with it. To demand such an action is unjust in and of itself.
While they may not understand it, the Bible provides more than enough evidence to refute that claim and prove the righteousness of God and the righteousness of this test. First, we must understand that Abraham had been tested in others ways throughout his account. The first was God’s demand that Abraham leave his family and Ur and journey to Canaan. Abraham passed that test, though he did take his nephew with him. The second test Abraham failed. Abraham waited on the promised son for twenty-five years, but grew impatient and impregnated Hagar. That failure produced another test when Abraham must force Hagar and Ishmael to leave by God’s command.
God always tests the faith of His children. Hebrews 12:11 tells us that these tests produce righteousness if we stay
faithful and turn to God in these times in our lives. These tests are not for God, but for us that we might see that
righteousness in us. Abraham had made many mistakes in his day, and so God deemed that he required a final test
to satisfy himself that he was indeed a follower of God.
Additionally, God is aware when inspiring the authors of Scripture that the men who experiencing these events are not just suffering for their own sake. Romans 15:4 says “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” Another commonly cited account by
atheists is that of Job. The sufferings of Job are unjust in their minds because they do not understand that the sufferings of Job and his faithful answer to those sufferings are not meant just for him, but to serve as an example for us as well.
Abraham’s example is that there is nothing that should come between God and us. Abraham waited 25 years for his promised son, and nothing was dearer to him than Isaac. This test proved that there was one thing dearer, that being God. That is an example to us that we should have no idols between us and God, even if it is family members.
Finally, God is not asking Abraham to do anything He Himself is not willing to do. God, to provide a substitute for us and our sins, sacrificed His own Son. Jesus had existed before time began and throughout all of history had existed in perfect union with His Father. Jesus first sacrificed His omnipotence and became a human. He then lived a life fully devoted to God and His will, submitting Himself at every turn to the will of His Father.
But when Jesus hung on that cross and took on all the sins of the world past, present and future, God for the first time turned His face away from His Son and forsook Him. That perfect union was shattered for the first and only time, and was agonizing for both parties. God gave His own Son, and Jesus willingly gave His own life to be that substitutionary propitiation for us. God is not asking Abraham to do something that He does not do Himself.
Child sacrifice is one of the most evil things ever invented by Satan. At no point, though, does God intend to allow Abraham to do so. He knows what Abraham will do and knew when to intervene. Asking Abraham to do something that God will do Himself, knowing that Abraham will not have to consummate that act, is not abhorrent. It shows the love of God in what He sacrificed for us.
Typology is a system of biblical interpretation where an element found in an Old Testament passage is seen to foreshadow or prefigure one found in the later passages. The initial element is called the type and the new element is called the antitype. Isaac’s account offers many of these types and antitypes that were fulfilled in later scriptures. While some of these have been addressed in the narrative sections, they need to be understood in this context as well.
The first is the location of the sacrifice. Mt. Moriah is the first type, in that it would later be called Mt. Zion and be the location of the Temple. That location is not chosen by God coincidentally, but is to be seen as a picture of the coming atonement available there.
Next would be the chosen sacrifice. Isaac was the promised son, and Abraham would have to wait for him many years before that promise was fulfilled. The Messiah was also a promised seed, and the descendents of Abraham would wait centuries for Him to come. Both Isaac and Jesus would be the natural sons of their mother, and not the adopted sons as was the case with Ishmael. Finally, both Isaac and Jesus would be the result of miraculous births. Sarah was barren and was ninety when she finally became pregnant with Isaac. While Mary was not barren, as Jesus’ half-brothers would prove, the virgin birth was even more miraculous. Finally, both Isaac and Jesus appear to voluntarily offer themselves as
Next, we must consider the actual sacrifices. In both cases, Jehovah-jireh, God provides the sacrifice. Leviticus 1:3 sets the standard for a burnt offering and states that it must be a perfect male that is offered totally voluntarily. God voluntarily offers the ram for Abraham’s use. Of course, Abraham voluntarily sacrifices this ram as a substitute for
his own son. Jesus, in the same way, voluntarily offered Himself as the final sacrifice for all humanity. Indeed, He is called the Lamb of God many times for that very reason.
The central inescapable message of the Bible is that God loves us and wants to be reconciled to us. In His effort to make that reconciliation possible, He provided a sacrifice for us in His own Son, Jesus. That love explodes from the pages and the reader is told to trust in that sacrifice and place their faith in Him.
The Sacrifice or Binding of Isaac is a picture of that coming sacrifice. It is also a picture of faith given for us that we might emulate it. Did Abraham love his son? Absolutely. Did he want to sacrifice Isaac? We can safely say that he did not. But by obeying and trusting in God and His promises, Abraham gives us a lesson in faith and patient that is not seen anywhere else in the Bible. As Romans 15:4 states, this account was given for us that we might have hope.
Jehovah-jireh. God has indeed seen our suffering and provided a sacrifice for us. When the ram was given to Abraham, he worshipped God. When we were given Jesus, men worshipped God truly and fully for the first time in this world. This
story points to the love and glory of God, and the mature Christian has no choice but to see that picture of Jesus when reading it.
Arnold Fruchtenbuam, The Book of Genesis. (San Antonio: Ariel Ministries Press, 2009), 352.
John Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 510.
 Blue Letter Bible, “Lexicon Results for nacah”, http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H5254&t=KJV, accessed 5/2/12.
H.L. Willmington, Willmington’s Guide to the Bible. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishing, 1984),
 Thomas Leale, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), 462.
Kenneth A. Matthews, The New American Commentary: V. 1B. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman
Publishers: 2005), 283.
 There is the first day for the command, then Abraham sleeping. He immediately packs and journeys three days.
Willmington, Willmington’s Guide to the Bible, 45.
 Hosea 6:6 and 1 Samuel 15:22.
Fruchtenbaum, The Book of Genesis, 354.
 Ralph W. Harris, The New Testament Study Bible: Hebrews-Jude. (Springfield, Missouri: World Library Press, Inc., 1989), 147.
Arnold Fruchtenbaum, The Messianic Jewish Epistles. (San Antonio: Ariel Ministries Press, 2005),
 Blue Letter Bible, “Lexicon Results for yare'”, http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3373&t=KJV,accessed 5/2/12.
Gregory A. Lint, The Old Testament Study Bible. (Springfield, Missouri: World Library Press, Inc., 1994), 189.
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, V. 1. (McLean Virginia: MacDonald Publishing, 1978), 140.
 James G. Murphy, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005),
 Blue Letter Bible, “Lexicon Results for Jehovahjireh”, http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3070&t=KJV, accessed 5/2/12.
Fruchtenbaum, The Book of Genesis, 356.