Few texts of the Old Testament capture the imagination like Genesis 22. The tensions are palpable, and any readings that diminish the holy terror of this chapter do so against the text’s own grain. So many questions are left unanswered. For example, how did Abraham know he was hearing the voice of God? Did Abraham’s voice tremble when he answered his son’s piercing questions? If Isaac was old enough to put together the missing sacrifice and carry the wood, how exactly did he end up on the altar? Was there a struggle? And the list of questions goes on. Biblical narratives are funny this way. They leave unanswered some of our most pressing questions.
Genesis 22 slows down in such a way as to startle our reading of the narrative. To put it in perspective, Genesis 1-11—the section known as the primeval history—takes place over a thousand year period. While Genesis 12-25—the Abrahamic narrative—takes place over a twenty-five year period. And here’s Genesis 22, a whole chapter given to this particular episode. What’s the poetic or narratival point of this slowing down? Answer: this scene is important.
The scene is a test. So we are told in the opening two verses. This “test” is not an enticement to do wrong but a challenge to Abraham’s faith. Remember, knowing this is a test is our privilege as readers of the narrative. It was not a privilege Abraham enjoyed. While this scene has the theological potential for multiple connections and elaborations, surely the “testing” part is at the heart of this narrative. Abraham was coming into direct conflict with God’s promise to provide an offspring. Isaac is the child of promise, that hilarious demonstration of the grace of God—Isaac’s name means laughter. But Abraham goes. The hard word comes and before we have a moment as readers to blink, he’s on his way to Moriah. “Abraham!” God cries. “Here I am,” Abraham responds: much like Moses, Samuel, Isaiah and a litany of others. Abraham responds in obedient faith to the word of God because of his hope in the promises of God. Surely this attitude undergirds Abraham’s statement in verse five, “I and the boy will go over there and worship and we will come back to you.” One observes Abraham modelling a humble submission to the hard Word of God even when experience and human reason lean against it. Jon Levenson helpfully reminds us, “The main point about Abraham’s preparations for the slaughter is not that he acts in obedience to God’s commandments, but rather that he demonstrates his trust in God’s prevenient and gracious word of promise.” Well, you know how the scene unfolds.
The place is Moriah. There is some difficulty in identifying Abraham’s Moriah, but the Chronicler leaves little doubt that Moriah is Jerusalem (2 Ch 3:1). Abraham offers a ram in place of his son on Mt. Moriah, a proleptic look forward to future sacrifices in the same place. As with Abraham so too with Abraham’s offspring: when sacrifice is needed, the Lord will see to it (Jehovah Jireh).
Subsequently we will see fathers in the book of Exodus making animal sacrifices for the salvation of their firstborn sons (Passover, Ex 12-13). Moreover, the sacrifices in Leviticus which take place in Jerusalem make public and corporate the private worship of father Abraham at this sacred place. As Stephen Dempster clarifies, “It is as if the Day of Atonement institutionalizes for the public community this private experience of Abraham and Isaac. Israel is also spared the knife.” The ram of sacrifice undergoes the knife so that Israel, Yahweh’s first-born son, does not have to.
You can see the scene. The first-born of God moving with slow determination to Mt. Moriah; the Father’s raising of his own whetted knife; and the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world. A knife once stopped is now a knife hard pressed.
Jehovah Jireh! We are left with little else to say.