Grace Theological Journal 1.1 (1980) 19-35

Copyright 1980 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.

 

 

THE TEST OF ABRAHAM

GENESIS 22:1-19

 

JOHN I. LAWLOR

 

THE incredible story of the ordeal of Abraham and Isaac begins,

presumably, with Abraham sojourning in the land of the Philis-

tines (Gen 21:34) and concludes with Abraham, the main character in

this drama, returning to Beer-sheba with the two young men and

Isaac.1

The pathos of this account is unequaled by any other portion of

the Abraham sequence and perhaps the entire Pentateuchal tradition.

The reader emotes with Abraham, for the entire story radiates great

tensions, strong reactions, and human emotions. Skinner felt this,

for he remarks that parts of it ". . . can hardly be read without

tears."2

The manner in which the narrative has been put together evi-

dences great literary artistry. Two factors unite to make the case.

First, the use of repetitious statements seems intentional. The use of

one such repetitious statement in v 1 ("'Abraham!' And he said

'Here I am."') and v 11 ("'Abraham, Abraham!' And he said, 'Here

I am."') naturally divides the story into two general movements. The

use of another ". . . your son, your only son. . ." used three times

(vv 2, 12, 16) tends to increase the gravity of the situation. Such redun-

dancy creates great tension; it seems as if God almost strains to

remind Abraham that the stakes are high. Such obvious repetition, it

seems, is premeditated, perhaps for the purpose of raising the anxiety

level of the reader. Still another, "So the two of them walked on

together" (vv 6 and 8), puts the reader off; it also heightens the

tension that builds toward the climax.

Second, there is a certain symmetry to the story which is, in part,

achieved through the use of both triplets and tensions/resolutions.

With respect to the former, the imperatives "take," "go," and "offer"

(v 2) are a case in point. Vv 3, 6, and 10 are further examples.

 

1The text is actually silent on the matter of Isaac's return to Beer-sheba with

Abraham and the two young men; however, later episodes in the Abraham cycle have

Abraham and Isaac together, a point which at least suggests his return with the rest.

2J. Skinner, Genesis (ICC; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1910) 330.



20 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

Furthermore, the blessing formula of vv 17 and 18 appears as a

triplet. With respect to the tensions/resolutions, several examples are

apparent. The "only son" at the beginning is contrasted by the

"greatly multiplied" seed at the conclusion. The initial command of

God underscores the fact that the son whom Abraham was being

called upon to offer was his only son. In one sense that was not true,

for Ishmael was also his son. But he was the only son through whom

the promises already given to Abraham could be realized. As the

story closes, Abraham receives an emphatic enunciation of blessing

(hB,r;xa hBAr;hav;) which would result in his "only son" being multiplied

into descendants that would number ''as the stars of the heavens and

the sand which is on the seashore" (v 17). The text supplies the key

element to the transition; v 16 says: ". . . because you have done this

thing, and have not withheld your son. . . ." The nature of the

experience is initially described as a "test"; at the end it is turned into

a "blessing." The crisis point of the story (v 10) divides the two

motifs. The first half (vv 1-9) lays an emphasis upon the "testing"

motif; the use of the term hsA.ni in v 1 clearly signals this point. The

j~k;r,bAxE j`rebA of v 17 confirms the blessing motif of the second half.

There is a sense in which the story begins with a child sacrifice motif,

but in the second half of the narrative that fades and the concept of

animal sacrifice surfaces. For this reason, it has been suggested that

the purpose of the entire account is to present an etiology on animal

sacrifice, and to set up a prohibition of child sacrifice.3

The employment of these various techniques not only improves

the readability and interest level of the narrative, but also helps to

generate meaning in one's understanding of the text. This point will

be further discussed following a closer look at the text itself.

 

TEXT

 

An acquaintance with the text of the story seems to be the basis

for an attempt to understand some of the concepts it is intending to

communicate. The episode of Gen 22:1-19 reads like a two-act play,

with both a prologue and an epilogue. The literary structure of the

passage suggests the following arrangement of the material:

 

Prologue, 22: 1

Act I: Ordeal/Crisis, 22:2-10

Scene 1, 22:2-5

Scene 2, 22:6-10

 

3C. A. Simpson and W. R. Bowie, "Genesis," The Interpreter's Bible (New York:

Abingdon-Cokesbury, n.d.), 1. 645.



LAWLOR: GENESIS 22:1-19 21

 

Act II: Resolution, 22:11-18

Scene I, 22:11-14

Scene 2, 22:15-18

Epilogue, 22: 19

 

Prologue, 22:1

 

That there is a conscious effort on the part of the writer to

establish relationship between the Abraham cycle up to this point and

the particular passage in focus seems evident from his opening

statement: "Now it came about after these things. . . ."4 Its place in

the saga of Abraham5 will be discussed later, so further detail is not

necessary at this point. Suffice it to say that this opening line supplies

an internal, textual connection to the preceding context, in addition

to the more literary relationship presented in the later discussion.

An important observation is made by the writer at the outset of

the narrative; it is an observation primarily for the benefit of the

reader. The narrator is careful to explain that what he is about

to describe represents a "test" (hsA.ni) of Abraham. This not only

informs the reader of an important point, but also seems to give some

direction to the significance of the story. It is an account of a test of

Abraham by his God. Testing in regard to what? For what purpose?

The answers to these questions are to a certain extent inherent within

the text, and will be considered later.

While Abraham's response to God's address, seen in v 1, is

undoubtedly a normal one, its appearance both here and again in

v 11 seems too obvious to be viewed merely as "accidental." As

previously suggested, it functions as a "formulaic expression" which

helps to shape the narrative.

 

4This is a debated point. Von Rad says that "this narrative . . . has only a very loose

connection with the preceding" (G. von Rad, Genesis; trans. J. H. Marks [OTL;

revised edition; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972] 238; hereafter cited as von Rad,

Genesis). However, Coats remarks: "A patriarchal itinerary scheme provides context

for this story. . . . Unity with the context derives, however, not simply from structural

context provided by an itinerary pattern, but of more importance, from unity in theo-

logical perspective with other Abrahamic tradition" (G. W. Coats, "Abraham's Sacri-

fice of Faith: A Form-Critical Study of Genesis 22," Int 27 [1973] 392; hereafter cited

as Coats, "Abraham's Sacrifice").

5The term "saga" is used here in the sense of an extended series of stories revolving

around a central figure; cf. R. B. Bjornard, "An Unfortunate Blunder: A Traditio-

Historical Study of Some Form-Critics' Use of the Word 'Saga'" (unpublished paper

read at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Nov 18, 1978, at New

Orleans, LA).



22 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

Act I: Ordeal/Crisis. 22:2-10

 

The main body of the narrative reads like a two-act drama, vv 2-

10 forming the first act which has two scenes, vv 2-5 and vv 6-10.

Act I, Scene 1 (vv 2-5) conveys the basic instructions given to

Abraham along with his initial response. In "rapid-fire" succession

the three imperatives ("take," Hqa; "go," j`l,v;; "offer," UhlefEhav;) of v 2

inform Abraham what it is that God expects of him. This is the test.

Both the "hard-hitting" style of the divine instructions as well as the

content of the instructions surface an issue that is perhaps one that

the story is intended to explore. What is the nature of Abraham's

God? Twice (cf. Genesis 12) he has instructed Abraham to take

certain actions which would result in close family ties being broken.

What is of almost equal amazement is the relative passivity, the

"cool detachment" with which Abraham is seen to respond. By two

sets of triads the writer methodically records the calculated actions of

the patriarch: he "rose early" (MKew;y.ava), "saddled his donkey"

(wboHEy.ava), "took lads" (Hq.ay.iva), and "split wood" (fq.abay;va), "arose"

(MqAyA.va), and "went" (j`l,y.eva).

Upon arriving at a place that was within eyesight of the destina-

tion (v 4), Abraham utters a statement that is most intriguing: "Stay

here. . . I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return

to you." The first person plural verbs "worship" and "return to you"

(hbAUwnAv; hv,HETaw;niv;) raise an important question: Was this a hollow,

evasive comment on Abraham's part, or was it an expression of an

honest faith which he genuinely possessed, based upon the promises

which led up to and culminated in the birth of the son whose life was

now seemingly in jeopardy? Perhaps the reader is to see some

correlation between the manner in which Abraham responded to the

divine directive and the statement in question.

Scene 2 (vv 6-10) of this portion of the narrative brings about an

intense heightening of the tension; this is accomplished both through

the development of the sequence of events as well as the various

literary techniques employed by the writer to describe the sequence of

events. As now seems characteristic of the writer, another triplet is

employed in v 6: Abraham "took the wood" (Hq.ay.iva), "laid it on Isaac"

(MW,yA>va), and "took. . . the fire and the knife" (Hq.ay.iva). The reader is

then put off by the interlude: "So the two of them walked on

together." It is a statement which seems designed to continue the

account, but more so to allow the anxiety level of the reader an

opportunity to level off momentarily before introducing the next

build-up of tension.

There are two possible approaches to the dialogue between

father and son of vv 7 and 8 -- the only recorded conversation between

Abraham and Isaac in the entire story. The more traditional view



LAWLOR: GENESIS 22:1-19 23

 

takes this, together with the "prediction" of v 5, as an evidence of

Abraham's growing faith in his God and that he was expressing his

firm belief that Isaac would either be spared or miraculously raised

up, a la Heb 11:17-19. As one reviews the complete saga of Abraham,

it is to be recognized that several indications of an "evolving faith"

on the part of Abraham do appear; this may be cited in support of

the understanding just referred to. On the other hand, however, many

regard this as an "unconscious prophecy" by Abraham, a statement

which in actuality was intended either to evade the question or to

deceive the son.6 Again, it is true that deception was a part of

Abraham's way of dealing with crisis situations (cf. Gen 12:10-20 and

Gen 20:1-18). However, that this was a situation in which the truth

could not be long withheld from Isaac must be kept in mind. This

fact raises a question as to whether or not deception was even a viable

option for the patriarch. Perhaps it is true that Abraham was trying

to side-step the question and in so doing gave an answer which gave

Isaac no cause for alarm yet in the end became reality.

The second use of the formulaic expression, "So the two of them

walked on together," gives the reader an opportunity to prepare for

the climax.

Father and son arrive at the appointed place. The slow, deliber-

ate, calculated, blow-by-blow description of events at this point is

most impressive, "The details are noted with frightful accuracy," says

von Rad.7 However, not only is the reader impressed by the manner

of description, he is also impressed by what is not said or what is only

implied. The writer alludes to the passivity of Abraham in binding

Isaac; that is accomplished by the lack of any particular emphasis

being placed on that part of the description. Yet nothing is said about

Isaac's conduct. The implied non-resistance of the son along with the

willingness of the father suggest the idea that there was a commitment

to the belief that God had the absolute right to make this demand

upon both.

The narrative of v 10 is a continuation of the previous verse; this

is seen in the fact that the long string of waw consecutives continues.

Another triad is employed at the peak of the description of the crisis,

Individual details at this point characterize the description: ". . . he

stretched out his hand and took the knife. . . ." At the very peak of

the story a noticeable change in the descriptive method takes place, a

change which seems to serve as a mediating factor between some of

the binary elements which are found on either side of the crisis point.

 

6Von Rad, Genesis, 241; Coats, "Abraham's Sacrifice," 394.

7Von Rad, Genesis, 241.



24 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

A "string" of imperfects, apparently based upon the perfect of v 1

(hsA.ni) characterizes the account up to this point. While the change at

this point to the infinitive, FHow;li, is necessitated by the fact that he

did not, in fact, slay his son, it also seems to denote inner disposi-

tion.8 He fully intended to carry through with the action initially

required. For all intents and purposes, Isaac had been slain.

 

Act II: Resolution, 22:11-18

 

The intervention by the angel of YHWH, which is seen in Scene 1

(vv 11-14), is a welcome turn of events. In spite of the opening

statement of the story, the reader tends to wonder by the time he

reaches v 10, whether God was actually going to let Abraham carry

out his intention. Though great relief is experienced by the reader and

presumably Abraham, the patriarch, nevertheless, continues to act in

the same "restrained" manner as before. Crenshaw remarks: "Most

astonishingly, we do not hear a word of rejoicing when the ordeal is

ended by an urgent command. . . . "9 For the first time he notices the

ram, he retrieves it, and offers it in place of his son. There is no hint

that this sacrifice was rendered in response to divine directive.

A good example of paronomasia is evident at this point in the

narrative. In response to Isaac's question, Abraham had responded,

"'elohim yir'eh." According to v 14, Abraham called the name of the

A place "yhwh yir'eh." To add to this, the comment of the angel is

noteworthy: ". . . I know that you fear God. . ." (yere' 'elohim)

(v 12). This latter comment by the angel signals an important link to

the statement of purpose for the testing.

Scene 2, vv 15-18, records the divine response to the now proven

patriarch. That the blessing pronounced in vv 17-18 is directly related

to Abraham's willingness to offer Isaac is clearly established by the

redundant expression of v 16: ". . . because you have done this thing,

and have not withheld your son. . . ." The announcement of the

blessing is presented in the now characteristic style of the writer,

another triad. The blessing formula which appears in the narrative is

not entirely new to the Abraham cycle (cf. Genesis 12, 15, 17).

However, the form in which it is seen here is somewhat intensified

over previous similar formulas. As an example, the "I will bless

you" (j~k;r,bAxEva) of Gen 12:2 now becomes "I will greatly bless you"

 

8"A noteworthy shift from finite verb to infinitive takes place in the description of

Abraham's intention. Thus one cannot miss the purpose of these actions described with

such minute detail and in technical language of the sacrificial cult" (J. L. Crenshaw,

"Journey into Oblivion: A Structural Analysis of Genesis 22:1-19," Sounding 58 [1975]

248; hereafter cited as Crenshaw, "Journey").

9Crenshaw, "Journey," 252.



LAWLOR: GENESIS 22:1-19 25

 

(j~k;r,bAxE j`rebA), Gen 22: 17. As Speiser suggests, the promise that

Abraham's descendants would ". . . possess the gate of their enemies

. . ." (v 17) ". . . refers to capture of the opponent's administrative

and military centers."10 A similar blessing was invoked upon Rebekah

by her brothers prior to her departure for Canaan to become the wife

of Isaac (cf. Gen 24:60).

 

Epilogue, 22:19

 

The notice that "Abraham returned to his young men" and that

together they returned to Beer-sheba is of special interest because of

what it does not say. Rather obvious is the complete lack of any

reference to Isaac in this epilogue. There is no clear indication that he

returned with his father; neither is there any clear indication that he

remained at Moriah. The text is silent. For this reason Crenshaw

refers to this as the "Journey into Oblivion."11 This fact seems to

point the reader's attention toward Abraham rather than Isaac, and

justifiably so, for this is not a story of the sacrifice of Isaac, it is the

story of the testing and obedience of Abraham.

 

PURPOSE/INTENT

 

It is doubtful that anyone would deny the moving nature of this

account, but what contribution does it make to the Abraham cycle in

particular and to Hebrew thought in general? How does it make that

contribution? It is not only important to discover the meaning, but

also to discover how it has meaning. The narrative of Genesis 22

conveys meaning as it is read both diachronically and synchronically:

diachronically, it seems to take on meaning as it is seen as the climax

to the Abraham cycle; synchronically, it generates meaning as it is

viewed as a paradigm on certain sociological issues.

 

The relationship of this incident to the entire Abraham cycle

 

One's appreciation of this moving account is increased when

it is viewed diachronically in the light of the entire Abraham cycle:

Gen 11:27-25:11. It appears as the climax to the saga of Abraham. All

that precedes this event leads up to it; what follows almost seems

anticlimactic. The introduction to the Abraham cycle (Gen 11:27-30)

emphasizes the point that Sarai, Abram's wife, is barren. After long

years of barrenness, anxiety and struggling, a son is born to Abraham

and Sarah (Gen 21:1-7). Almost as though with a vengeance, the saga

leaps over several years and hastens to the story which portrays the

 

10E. A. Speiser, Genesis (AB; New York: Doubleday, Inc., 1964) 164.

11Crenshaw, "Journey," 245.



26 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

fruit of the once barren womb as being in grave danger.12 However, it

is not just a son who is in danger; it is an entire future, a potential

nation. All that Abraham had lived for is suddenly at stake. If his

God's word is to be believed, all the nations of the earth would

somehow be affected by this demanding order. Either way Abraham

might respond, it appeared as though the covenant was in danger. If

he were to disobey, the covenant may be in jeopardy; on the other

hand, if he were to obey God and slay Isaac, the covenant likewise

stood in jeopardy. Abraham, indeed, was on the horns of a dilemma;

and the demands that were placed upon him placed him in a situation

in which it appeared that he could not win.

When viewed as a whole the Abraham cycle is a study in

progression, development, maturing. Perhaps as a regular reminder

that the patriarch is very human, there appear stories, strategically

located, which clearly portray his vulnerability. While these accounts

are in no way to be minimized, the overall trend of the saga is

upward; each segment seems to build upon and add to the previous

ones. A call and promise are issued, to which there is response (Gen

12:1-9); Abram demonstrates graciousness to Lot (Gen 13:1-13), after

which Jehovah appears to him and reiterates the promise (Gen 13:14-

18). In turn, Abram spares Lot (Gen 14:1-16); later, the promise is

formalized as a binding covenant (Gen 15:1-21). The covenant is

expanded (Gen 17:1-21) and sealed by circumcision (Gen 17:22-26).

The seed aspect of the covenant is particularized (Gen 18:1-15);

Abraham intercedes for Lot (Gen 18:16-33). At last the promised son

is born (Gen 21:1-7).

The sequence of these events suggests that both Abraham and

the reader are being prepared for something. The cycle is going

somewhere; it is not static. At almost any point along the way, the

reader can stop, look behind him, and see that the plot has advanced;

Abraham has progressed. Difficult circumstances have consistently

presented themselves, and at times the patriarch has reacted in a very

immature and deceitful manner. Yet overall, the relationship of these

individual stories one to another makes the point that Abraham was

"growing up."

Then comes the ordeal. One is inclined to believe that had such a

sore test come earlier in his experience, Abraham would not have

been able to cope with it. Hence, the climax of the cycle comes and

with it the most formidable test of the patriarch's life: God orders

 

12The amount of time between the birth of Isaac and the Genesis 22 incident is

unknown; estimates seem to range from 7-25 years. The term employed here, rfana is no

real help in that it is used in reference to an unborn son (Judg 13:5, 7, 8, 12) as well as the

sons of Samuel who were ministering in the Tabernacle (I Sam 2:17). Gen 21:34 says,

"And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines for many days."



LAWLOR: GENESIS 22:1-19 27

 

him to slay his long-awaited son. The nature of the test and the

manner in which Abraham faced it are issues which are taken up in

the following portions of the study. Suffice it to say here that there

seems to be some evidence that this event marked a change in the

patriarch's life.

 

What the term hsA.ni contributes to the narrative

 

That the narrator is so careful to introduce his account as a

"test" is both obvious and important. It is obvious because it is the

first statement employed by the writer in this narrative sequence. The

importance of this point is seen in several different ways. First, it is

important for the reader's benefit. So it was viewed by the writer, for

he informs the reader from the very outset that this is "only a test."

Abraham, of course, was not privy to that information. The reason

for that appears obvious. It would not have been a genuine test if he

had been informed that it was "only a test." Nothing would have

been proven through it, had he known.

Second, it is important because it contributes to one's under-

standing of the God-man relationship; specifically, it gives insight

into an apparently new dynamic in the Elohim/Yahweh-Abraham

cycle. This is the first, and the only, time in the Abraham saga where

the nature of a particular event is so labeled. Nevertheless, its use here

suggests that from Yahweh's perspective, Abraham needed to be

tested.13 There is no clear indication why He deemed such a test

necessary; only that He did. No unusually troublesome flaws in

Abraham's character have been brought to the surface up to this

point. On the contrary, Yahweh appears to have looked with favor

upon the patriarch.14

With no clear explanation of this question coming from the text

itself, one is left to offer several possibilities for consideration.15 One

possibility is that the test is a clear indication of the somewhat

tyrannical nature of Abraham's God. Yahweh, a young, ambitious

deity, was perhaps attempting to demonstrate his rather cynical

 

13Crenshaw makes the following thought-provoking remarks: "In a sense the story

bears the character of a qualifying test. The fulfillment of the promise articulated in

Genesis 12 and reaffirmed at crucial stages during Abraham's journey through alien

territory actualizes the divine intention to bless all nations by means of one man.

Abraham's excessive love for the son of promise comes dangerously close to idolatry and

frustrates the larger mission. Thus is set the stage for the qualifying test." Crenshaw,

"Journey," 249.

14That this is true is evidenced by the initial promises of Gen 12:1-3, the formalizing

of the promises into a covenant in Genesis 15, the statement that "Abraham believed

God and it was counted to him for righteousness" (Gen 15:6), the fulfillment of the

promise of a son, the manifold blessings of Yahweh on Abraham, et al.



28 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

attitude toward one of his subjects/devotees. In this writer's opinion,

to establish such a suggestion as legitimate would require much more

evidence than this one passage can be construed to present. Another

suggestion is that the key to understanding the reason behind the test

is to be found in a study of the term hsA.ni, which the writer employs.

This suggestion brings our attention back to the original point

regarding the importance of the identification of this as a "testing"

experience by the writer.

A third reason why the writer's opening statement is important,

therefore, is that it may hold the key to understanding the reason why

God tested Abraham as he did. The term hsA.ni is employed, in

addition to the usage in Genesis 22, eight other times in a context

where Elohim/Yahweh is said to be the "tester." In six (Exod 15:22-

26; 16:4; 20:18-20; Deut 8:2,16; Judg 2:21-22; 3:1-4) of these cases,

Israel was the object of His testing; in 2 Chron 32:31 Hezekiah, king

of Judah, was the one tested; in Ps 26:2 David appealed to Yahweh to

test him. In five of the six cases where Yahweh/Elohim speaks of

"testing" Israel, the context of each clearly shows a relationship

between the motif of "testing" and his concern over the nation's

obedience to his commandments/statutes/law/ways.16 In Exod 20:18-

obedience concept is implied though not specifically stated,

and interestingly enough, the subject of the nation's fear of God is a

central issue, as it is in Gen 22:1, 12. Again in the Ps 26:2 occurrence

of the term, the obedience concept is implied when David says:

"Prove me, a Lord, and try (hsA.ni) me; test my heart and my mind."

Of Hezekiah, the Chronicler observes:

 

And so in the matter of the envoys of the princes of Babylon, who had

been sent to him to inquire about the sign that had been done in the

land, God left him to himself, in order to try him and to know all that

was in his heart (2 Chron 32:31).

 

If the pattern seen in the use of the term hsA.ni, when Yahweh/

Elohim is said to be the "tester," can serve as a legitimate key for

understanding its use in Gen 22:1, then one may conclude that the

reason Yahweh deemed it necessary to test Abraham was to know

what was in his heart, to test his obedience to and fear of Yahweh

when his promised and beloved son was at stake.

 

15In addition to the two suggestions which appear in the following discussion, see

Plaut's discussion in W. G. Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary. Vol. I: Genesis

(New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1974) 210-11.

16Exod 15:22-26; 16:4; Deut 8:2, 16; Judg 2:21, 22; 3:1-4.



LAWLOR: GENESIS 22:1-19 29

 

Exploring relationships

 

One of the functions of this particular story seems to be that of

exploring relationships: relationships between man and his God as

well as relationships between a father and his sons. Both of these

areas of investigation are in themselves fairly complex. An attempt

will be made here to probe both realms in an effort to understand the

dynamics involved in these two areas of relationships. The latter one

seems to be the result of or the outgrowth of the former; therefore,

they will be analyzed in the same order as they have initially been

mentioned.

The God/man relationship is explored at different levels in this

narrative. The images of both God and man are studied to some

degree; the demands of God are seen in contrast to the response of

man. Fundamental to the account is an obvious question: "What

kind of a God would subject a man to such an ordeal?" This, of

course, immediately raises the whole issue of the image of God as

seen in Genesis 22. Responses to the question vary. In large measure

one's response depends upon which aspect of the narrative is empha-

sized. If the emphasis is upon the initial command to sacrifice Isaac

and the concept of the divine deception involved, the view of the

image of God obviously will be somewhat negative. On the other

hand, if the emphasis is placed upon the fact that Yahweh stayed the

hand of Abraham and subsequently increased his blessing upon the

patriarch, one's conclusions concerning the image of God would

agree with de Vaux, who commented: "Any Israelite who heard this

story would take it to mean that his race owed its existence to the

mercy of God, and its prosperity to the obedience of their great

ancestor."17

More, however, is to be gained by viewing the image of God as

portrayed in Gen 22:1-10 in a broader context. When seen in the

perspective of both that which precedes and follows these verses, a

noticeable "role reversal" occurs in this problematic section. In

Genesis 12-21 Yahweh is depicted as the deity who desires to bless

greatly the patriarch; the promises abound in these chapters. Not only

is he seen as one who promises blessing; he is unmistakably set forth

as the one who fulfills the promised blessings. Genesis 21 records the

birth of the son of promise, Isaac. Suddenly, a reversal of roles

occurs. The God of promise and blessing appears to become the

antagonist, the tyrant, the adversary, the God of contradiction. In the

minds of some, the problem is not so much in the initial demand

 

17R. de Vaux. Ancient Israel; Vol. II: Religious Institutions (New York: McGraw-

Hill, 1965) 443.



30 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

which Yahweh/Elohim made on Abraham as with the fact that he

allowed Abraham to think right up to the very last moment that he

was actually serious when in fact he was only testing Abraham.

Just as the careful student of the saga of Abraham must see the

role reversal just described, he is also obliged to see another drastic

reversal in Gen 22: 11-18 -- a reversal in the portrayal of the image of

God back to that which prevails in Genesis 12-21. This second

reversal sheds a different light on the first reversal. Certainly there

should be no attempt to minimize the image of Yahweh in Gen 22:1-

10. There is no question that a "different side" of Yahweh is to be

seen there. At the same time, however, one must reckon with the

double role-reversal which is evident in the story. But, as demon-

strated elsewhere in this study, Yahweh/Elohim is to be understood

as a God who sorely tests his subjects. According to Exodus 15, Israel

needed water; in Exodus 16 and Deuteronomy 8, the nation needed

bread; Judges 2 and 3 suggest that the nation needed military

assistance. While the exact circumstances differ in the Genesis 22

incident, the basic point is the same. Yahweh/Elohim is set forth by

the biblical writers as a God who takes his servants through perilous

situations for the purpose of testing them. In almost every one of

these examples, including Genesis 22, there is evidence of divine

provision as a means of survival through the experience. This is not at

all unusual in the realm of religion. The religions of the ancient Near

East were characterized by deities who demanded devotion; in some

cases demonstration of one's devotion was evidenced through child

sacrifice. The unique feature in Abraham's experience was that his

God stopped him from completing the act. Thus the double role-

reversal shows itself to be significant in the story.

A second fundamental question must be asked concerning the

story: "What kind of a man would respond to such a command in

the manner in which Abraham did?" Almost as important as the

image-of-God motif is the image of man in relationship to his God as

it is explored in this fascinating account. Once again, there is differ-

ence of opinion on this question. In fact, the same individual some-

times experiences mixed emotions in this regard, as Kierkegaard

demonstrates:

 

Why then did Abraham do it? For God's sake and (in complete

identity with this) for his own sake. He did it for God's sake because

God required this proof of his faith; for his own sake he did it in order

that he might furnish the proof. The unity of these two points of view

is perfectly expressed by the word which has always been used to

characterize this situation: It is a trial, a temptation. A temptation -

but what does that mean? What ordinarily tempts a man is that which

would keep him from doing his duty, but in this case the temptation is

itself the ethical. . . which would keep him from doing God's will.



LAWLOR: GENESIS 22:1-19 31

 

Therefore, though Abraham arouses my admiration, he at the same

time appalls me. . . . He who has explained this riddle has explained

my life.18

 

An interesting and perhaps significant ingredient is to be gleaned

by tracing the role-reversal pattern in the case of Abraham. With one

major exception, it is opposite that of Yahweh/Elohim's. It is not at

all unusual to find Abraham arguing with Elohim throughout Gene-

sis 12-21. Whereas in that segment of the cycle God is the "blesser,"

Abraham is somewhat the "antagonist." However in Genesis 22,

where he is called upon to do something of a far more severe nature

than anything else up to this point, a clear reversal is seen. He does

not argue with God, in spite of the fact that to obey would mean the

death of his long-awaited and dearly loved and favored son. There is

no hint even of any hesitancy on Abraham's part, though to actually

follow through would place the covenant in jeopardy in addition to

suffering the loss of his son. How is this phenomenon to be explained?

Does his response represent a "blind obedience," which in present

times seems to have been operative to some degree in Jonestown,

Guyana? Or does his response indicate that he had reached a level of

maturity and obedience which enabled him to carry out God's

instructions and at the same time leave the consequences to God? In

answer to this perplexing problem, it may be significant to note that

there is no evidence in Genesis 22, or in the remainder of the

Abraham cycle, of a reversal back to the image which characterized

Abraham prior to the Genesis 22 incident. It is true that there is no

strong or positive evidence in the rest of the Abraham saga that he

was a "different Abraham" from this point on. However, the failure

of the text of the cycle to allude to a second role reversal may be

significant in this respect.

Further evidence that the tale seems to be exploring relationships

between God and man is the heavy emphasis which is placed upon

testing/obedience and fear of God/love of son. It seems quite appar-

ent that there is a direct relationship between the discussion concern-

ing the image of God/image of man and testing/obedience as well as

fear of God/love of son. Both of these latter issues seem to be

engaged at a level different from the former matter. Allusion has

already been made to the fact that the writers of the OT portray

Yahweh as a God who tested his subjects. That is not so unusual

or surprising. Abraham's unflinching obedience is somewhat more

puzzling. He appears as a man who believed that the God whom he

 

18S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Princeton: Princeton University, 1945)

89-90.



32 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

worshipped had the right to make such a demand of him and that the

sacrifice of Isaac was the right thing for him.

It seems significant that both comparisons and contrasts can be

drawn between this experience and Abraham's initial encounter with

Yahweh, as told in Gen 12:1ff. Both experiences began with a divine

emphatic imperative, "go."19 Both situations involved going to an

"undesignated place": ". . . to the land that I will show you" (Gen

12:1); ". . . upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you" (Gen

22:2). In both cases a "sacrifice of family" was required: in the former

experience, it was to leave family behind; in the latter, it was an

actual sacrifice of his son. This final confrontation by Yahweh was, in

a sense, not a completely new experience for the patriarch, although

obviously the most trying. Abraham's entire experience with Yahweh,

beginning with the initial call and promise, may be viewed as pre-

paring him for this final, supreme test. While the general direction of

Abraham's response in both cases was toward obedience, in the first

situation there was only partial obedience, while in the last situation

there was total obedience. This fact "puts a little distance" between

the two experiences. The major contrast, of course, between the two

is the fact that the first imperative was accompanied by a promise of

blessing; there was no such promise which came with the imperative

of Gen 22:2. In fact, this latter imperative seemed to place all the

foregoing promises in jeopardy. This set of facts greatly increases the

distance between the two situations. But that distance is then reduced

by the fact that both responses are followed by blessing from Yahweh.

Sarna, commenting on a comparative study of these two passages,

draws some conclusions which deserve consideration because they

relate the study to the matter of exploring the relationship between

Yahweh and the patriarch:

 

The great difference between the two events is what constitutes the

measure of Abraham's progress in his relationship to God. The first

divine communication carried with it the promise of reward: The final

one held no such expectation. On the contrary, by its very nature it

could mean nothing less than the complete nullification of the covenant

 

19The form is j~l;-j`l,. Cassuto remarks that this form ". . . is not without specific

signification." He further observes: "In both cases Abram undergoes an ordeal: here he

has to leave behind his aged father and his environment and go to a country that is

unknown to him; there he has to take leave of his family circle for a little while, and of

his cherished son forever; his son, it is true, will accompany him for the first part of the

way but only so that he might bid him farewell forever. Thereafter he must go on his

way alone, the way of absolute discipline and devotion. In both instances the test is made

harder by the fact that the destination of the journey is not stated beforehand."

Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Part II: From Noah to Abraham; trans.

I. Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1964) 309-10.



LAWLOR: GENESIS 22:1-19 33

 

and the frustration forever of all hope of posterity. Ishmael had already

departed. Now Isaac would be gone, too. Tradition has rightly seen in

Abraham the exemplar of steadfast, disinterested loyalty to God.20

 

A third level of interest in regard to the Yahweh/man relation-

ship is the set of binary elements: fear of God/love of son. There

appears to be something of a relationship between this and the

testing/obedience motif, yet the fear of God/love of son struggle goes

beyond or becomes more particularized than the former. Gen 22:2

sets up the frustration by the way in which Yahweh referred to Isaac,

". . . your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love." At the point

where the angel stops Abraham, the clear pronouncement is made,

" . . . now I know that you fear God . . ." (Gen 22:12). The impli-

cation seems to be that the fear of God on Abraham's part was

in question because of his love for his son. Two factors in the text

unite to mediate between these two elements. The description of the

raised knife in the hand of the patriarch together with the writer's

employment of the infinitive FHow;li clearly indicates Abraham's

intention of slaying his son. An inner disposition reduces the distance

between Abraham's fear of God and love of Isaac.

A second major realm of relationships is explored through this

narrative: a horizontal realm. The relationship of a father to his sons

is a theme that is investigated. At this point it is instructive to

place two incidents side-by-side. The expulsion of Ishmael, as recorded

in Genesis 21, and the binding of Isaac, described in Genesis 22,

lead to an interesting study in comparisons and contrasts when

analyzed together. Generally speaking, these two segments of the

Abraham cycle illustrate the pattern, seen often in the OT, of

the younger son becoming the favored son over the firstborn.21

As a matter of fact, this case sets the pace for those which follow

in the patriarchal sequence. Ishmael, the result of Abraham's attempt

to "help God fulfill His promise," was rejected by Yahweh and

eventually expelled by Abraham. Isaac, the younger of the two

sons, is described as having been sovereignly chosen by Yahweh and

favored by Abraham. This, in itself, is not foreign to the biblical

record; but the paradox is seen in the fact that Abraham became

quite distressed over Sarah's instructions to cast Hagar and Ishmael

out, yet when God instructed him to slay Isaac, the favored son, there

was no evidence of any reluctance whatsoever on the father's part.

 

20N. M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel (New York:

Schocken, 1974) 163.

21See Genesis 27 (Jacob) and Genesis 37 (Joseph).



34 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

A number of interesting comparisons and contrasts can be

observed between the two events. The following chart summarizes the

main details:

Ishmael in danger Isaac in danger

Genesis 21 Genesis 22

CONTRASTS.

Crisis created as a result of a Crisis created as a result of a

human directive: Sarah tells divine directive: God tells

Abraham to cast out Hagar Abraham to offer Isaac as

and Ishmael (v 10) a burnt offering (v 2)

 

Abraham shows real reluctance Abraham shows no real reluc-

to fol1ow through (v 11) tance to fol1ow through (vv 3ff.)

 

God refers to Ishmael as God refers to Isaac as

"Abraham's seed," fraz, (v 13) "Abraham's son," NB, (v 2)

 

Sarah aware of the circum- Sarah apparently not aware

stances; she was the of the circumstances

"perpetrator" (vv 9-10)

 

Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, Abraham, the father of Isaac,

could not stand to watch did not shrink from observing

her son die (vv 15-16) (in fact, participating in)

the death of his son

 

Action takes place in the Action takes place in the

wilderness of Beer-sheba (v 14) land of Moriah (vv 2-4)

 

COMPARISONS

 

Firstborn cast out, becomes Firstborn cast out, becomes

a nation a great nation

 

God promised to make a God promised to make a great

nation of Ishmael because he nation of Isaac because

was Abraham's seed (v 13) Abraham had not withheld him

(vv 16-18)

 

Abraham "rose up early in Abraham "rose up early in

the morning" to fol1ow the morning" to fol1ow

through (v 14) through (v 3)

 

Divine intervention occurs; Divine intervention occurs;

angel of God cal1s out to angel of Yahweh calls out

Hagar; reversal of danger to Abraham; reversal of danger

(v 17) (vv 11 ff.)



LAWLOR: GENESIS 22:1-19 35

 

Water (life-preserving) Ram (life-preserving)

was providentially provided was providentially provided

(v 19) (v 13)

 

Hagar saw the heretofore Abraham saw the heretofore

unseen well (v 19) unseen ram (v 13)

 

Hagar appropriates the water Abraham appropriates the ram

without a specific divine without a specific divine

directive (v 19) directive (v 13)

 

Hagar, an Egyptian, Abraham, a Mesopotamian,

takes a wife from takes a wife from

Egypt for Ishmael Mesopotamia for Isaac

(v 21) (Genesis 24)

 

CONCLUSION

 

It seems apparent that one of the themes that the story presents as

it is read diachronically is the testing and obedience of Abraham. That

concept keeps reappearing in several different ways. That is not meant

to imply that this diachronic motif exhausts the contribution of this

celebrated story. One is inclined to ask the question: Is it really

possible, on the basis of the details of the story as they are given, to

know what was going on in the heart and mind of the patriarch? What

do his unusual reactions mean?

In the synchronic direction, the account contributes to the

exploration of certain religious and sociological relationships: God/

man and father/son. But is there more? After some fairly extensive

study, looking at the passage in many different ways and from several

perspectives, it is obvious that the passage warrants further attention.

 

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Grace Theological Seminary

200 Seminary Dr.

Winona Lake, IN 46590

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu