Shabbat Tov (Good Sabbath)
This week I translated the Hebrew text of Genesis 22:1-19, most often referred to as “The Binding of Isaac”. As I have read and reread the text, I have been shown again and again the building blocks of character that are present on those whom God calls friend. I would like to outline a few of the lessons that I have learned from Abraham’s example, as well as some insight into this passage that my Hebrew professor, Dr. Richter, shared with us in class this week.
Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Gen. 22:1)
One of the first things I noticed with this verse is the immediate response from Abraham to God’s call. He has prepared himself so that he is 1) able to hear the voice of God easily, and 2) available to Him at all times, as evidenced by his response “Here I am.” (Hinayni). It is into this posture of readiness that God then speaks His will.
And He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” (Gen. 22:2)
This passage seems not only brutal to us, but strange in its wording as well. Why does God find it necessary to use so many descriptors for Isaac? Couldn’t he just say, “take Isaac”? And what about this talk of Isaac being Abraham’s only son? We know that at this time Abraham has at least one other son named Ishmael.
According to Dr. Richter, there is a Rabbinic legend which states that what we are presented with here is only half of the conversation, and that the Narrator has left out Abraham’s initial response to this command. This may be myth, but I think it serves us well to consider what Abraham may have been saying, or at least thinking, at this command. Here is the exchange as it might have occured:
“Here I am”
“Take your son”
“Your only son“
“The one whom you love”
“Please, let it be Ishmael”
Now here is why I worded it as I did. The firstborn son, Ishmael, would have been the natural choice when presented with a phrase like “your son”, as the first son held the greatest status of all his children (even though he had been sent into the wilderness). So, perhaps there would be a little need for clarification. It is with the next phrase however, that we begin to see God’s intentions unfold. The Hebrew word yahid (yod het dalet) is an adjective meaning “only”, or “special”. When used with the word ben, or “son”, however, this word takes on a deep meaning that would have been well known to Abraham and his contemporaries.
Again, according to Dr. Richter there has been a study conducted on the significance of this phrase in Biblical literature and surrounding cultural practices. Apparently, among some of the cultures in existence at the time of this event a “special son”, referred to as yahid would have been the one selected as a special sacrifice to appease the gods duing times of strife. In receiving this designation, a person’s fate was sealed in the eyes of his family and people. Though human sacrifice was not the way of YHWH, this practice was still well known to Abraham. So with this second phrase, the Lord has clearly set the stage for what he expects Abraham to do. And it is for this reason that Abraham, who had waited his entire life for Isaac, would have been desparate to find that what he was hearing might be a mistake. And hence the need for further clarification, to the point that God explicitly states that it is Isaac whom Abraham is to sacrifice.
Before moving on, I would like to note something else. In the Gospel narratives we are presented with Christ’s baptism by John. Immediately following his baptism, the Heavens open, and the Spirit descends like a dove to rest upon Jesus. At this time a voice from Heaven speaks, saying, “This is my son, whom I love…”
Those surrounding Christ at the time of his baptism were Jews. As such, they would have been familiar with the Torah, and with the story of Abraham and Isaac and its similarities to what they were witnessing. As such, it is likely that no one present would have missed the words being spoken over Jesus, and they would have known exactly what it meant. This man, God’s special one, was to be offered up as a sacrifice before God.
So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. 5 And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return to you.” 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. So the two of them walked on together. 7 And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 8 And Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. 9 Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there, and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. (Gen. 22:3-10)
What strikes me most about this passage is Abraham’s precise and timely obediance to the will of the Father. Once God’s will has been made clear, he does not hesitate or argue. He simply gets up and goes about his orders, and he does so to the letter. We can also learn an interesting lesson from Isaac here, as he does not struggle. put up a fight, or question his father in what he is doing. In fact, though we mught consider this downright crazy, he submits to Abraham, trusting him completely with his life.
This passage reveals one of the many reasons for which I am grateful for my training in Biblical Hebrew. The English translations we have simply cannot do justice to the painting of this word picture. The Hebrew word translated here simply as “knife”, actually means “butcher knofe”, and comes from the root aleph-kaph-lamed, which means “to eat”. Abraham was not merely planning to kill his offspring, but he was planning to do so as he would a sheep, even using the same tools and procedures. It is hard for us to fathom this, but when I read this in the Hebrew and I am forced to slow down in order to grapple with the language, what I see is a picture being painted before me of more than just a burnt offering. It is a slaughter of a beloved son for the sake of YHWH.
This picture echoes loudly in the Gospel of Matthew when Christ speaks the words. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matt. 10:37)
Bear with me as I share the final two lessons of this passage.
But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Gen. 22:11-12)
What strikes me as amazing here, is that even amid the turmoil of what Abraham is about to do. Even as his hand is preparing for the final stroke, he is still attuned enough to the voice of God that he doesn’t miss him speaking. How often do we who have sensed a calling to a specific ministry or vocation get so caught up in doing that calling that we fail to hear our Father as he gently speaks to us, asking us to slow down – to listen? Abraham did listen, and once again, he obeyed.
And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” (Gen. 22:13-14)
Again, without hesitation Abraham acts on the word of the Lord. And his first instinct is not to stop and question God, but is instead to praise and worship him, to make sacrifice and rejoice in the Lord. What an awesome lesson for us to learn as we consider our responses to God when we don’t understand His ways.
The final lesson comes from Adonai himself.
And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba. (Gen. 22:15-19)
In this passage we once again see the failthfulness of God. His faithfulness is something we can count on, and he has demonstrated this to His people time and time again throughout history. It is just as real today. We would do well to remember this before we complain that God has allowed something bad to happen to us.
I know this has gotten awefully long winded, but the Lord is continuously teaching me new things, and I count myself blessed for the beauty of his Word and its eternal truth.
Blessings to you all this day.