The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac

Genesis 22 opens up with an event that is one of the central stories and passages in all of the Bible. The binding of Isaac would be the ultimate test in the faith of Abraham.

Evidently God had summoned Abraham in some time. 

Gen. 22:1

"And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am..."

One immediately senses that this is going to be much different than any other time God had called on Abraham. The Hebrew word, Nasah, is used for the first time in the Bible. This word is translated as "tempt". It does not mean to tempt to do evil. Perhaps a better translation of this word is "test" or "try", or as it is most oftentimes translated, "prove".

God would indeed "prove" Abraham with His request in Genesis 22:2.

"And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son, Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of."

Abraham must have done a double take when he heard God's request. God had plainly asked him to take Isaac, the son God had promised and delivered, and sacrifice him on a mountain in the land of Moriah. The phrase, "the binding of Isaac", refers to this request by God and Abraham's subsequent obedience.  Abraham was ordered to bind his son to an altar and sacrifice him.

A 4th Century BC sacrcophagus of the Binding of Isaac

Four times God identifies Isaac to Abraham; "thy son", thine only son", "Isaac", "whom thou lovest". Human sacrifice was common among the ancient religions. The ancients committed infanticide on unimaginable scales. Canaanite gods were believed to have lived off the smell of the offerings. When the people sought to inquire of a god, if the matter was urgent, then they would offer up human sacrifices to please the particular god or gods. When new Temples or cities were dedicated, they were done so with ceremonies involving human sacrifice.

Especially pleasing to the gods was the sacrifice of a son or daughter; still yet, most sacred was that of a first born, particularly first born infants. Skeletons of babies have been found throughout Canaan. Infants have also been found buried in jars. This practice was widespread in the time of Abraham.

As God had instructed him to avoid these pagan religions and practices, His request seems contradicting. One would not find fault with Abraham for questioning such a request. 

However, he remained steadfast in his faith in God. If he did question God, the text is silent on the matter. The binding of Isaac appears, at face value, to be God asking Abraham to take part in child sacrifice - and Abraham doing so willingly. 

"And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac, his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him." Gen. 22:3

Preparations began immediately for the journey as they set out the very next morning. Abram even cuts the wood for the sacrifice.

A mosaic of the Binding of Isaac

Abraham sets out on the journey with a donkey, cut wood, food and water, two servants, and his son, Isaac. The binding of Isaac presented Abraham with a conflict of conscience. Could he possibly sacrifice his own son? On the other hand, how could he deny God?

One of the much debated questions revolving around the binding of Isaac is the age of Abraham's son. Isaac was certainly not an infant or toddler, as he is old enough to reason and question his father. Isaac later carries the very fire wood that will be used to burn him alive.

Josephus argued Isaac was twenty-five. The Talmud suggests the symbolic age of thirty-three as Isaac's age. This is, of course, the widely held age of Christ at His crucifixion.

The Binding of Isaac

One theory suggests Isaac was much older. This is based on the fact that, in the text, Sarah's death takes place immediately after the binding of Isaac. Sarah was ninety when she had Isaac, and is reported to be 127 when she dies. The Bible is silent on the matter, so any age assigned is theoretical and, frankly, irrelevant to the narrative. 

The binding of Isaac was certainly a stressful time in both Abraham and Sarah's life. Perhaps the stress was too much for Sarah in her old age.

Many Bible scholars theorize that trauma associated with learning of Isaac's near death, triggered factors leading to her death. Isaac, according to this theory, would have been thirty-seven years old at the time of his binding. Regardless of his age, the journey took two full days and part of a third. The total distance traveled was about thirty miles. Moriah was in what would become Jerusalem . Abram lived in the south, apparently not far from Beer-sheba, thus his party traveled north. The binding of Isaac was to occur on the same spot Solomon would build God's Temple centuries later.

Abraham would have ridden the donkey, while Isaac and the two other men walked. On the third day Scripture tells us Abram "lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off."

It is interesting to note that in the text God never tells Abraham to kill Isaac. His words were to "offer him there". Offer was used, not kill or sacrifice. Of course, Abraham took this to mean offer up in sacrifice. God simply intended to see the faith of his servant and had no intention of killing Isaac. 

Perhaps Abraham did notice this phrasing, as from the beginning he showed an intensely deep faith in God. When they arrive within sight of the place, Abraham instructs the servants to stay behind with the donkey.

"And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together."

Gen. 22:6-8

A Painting of Abraham Binding Isaac

Both Abraham's faith and obedience can be seen in the above verses. Instead of procrastinating, perhaps hoping for a last minute intercession by God, Abraham leaves his servants behind and sets out at once with Isaac. Abraham exhibited deep faith throughout the binding of Isaac.

His faith is seen when Isaac, perhaps a bit weary at this point in the story, asks where the sacrificial lamb was. Abraham's answer was simply; "God will provide himself a lamb".

Isaac showed a tremendous amount of faith as well. He was a young man, perhaps even an adult, and could have easily overpowered the aged Abraham and escaped. Yet he, like his father, trusted God and had faith in whatever his father Abraham, and God the Father, would have him do. Thus Scripture portrays a willing son acquiescing to his father's instructions.

"....and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar."

As Abraham extended the knife to bring down upon his son, Scripture tells;

"the Angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven..."

The text suggests this was none other than the voice of God calling down out of heaven, telling Abraham to spare his son and stop the execution. Abraham had been tested and approved by God as being faithful with everything he had, including his own son. God was indeed pleased with His servant Abraham. 

A ram is provided by God, caught in the nearby thicket, and Isaac is spared. Abraham takes the ram, sacrifices it and names the place, "Jehovah-jireh".

This phrase translates as, "the Lord will appear", or, "the Lord will provide". Opinions vary on the exact meaning. As a result of Abraham's steadfast obedience, in Gen. 22:15-19 God once again showers Abraham with a promise of prosperity.

God tells Abraham that his offspring will be:

"as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore, and thy seed shall posses the gate of his enemies"

God also promised that the other nations of the earth shall be blessed through Abraham and his seed as well. Abraham and Isaac departed Moriah together, just as Abraham had said they would. He and Isaac reunited with the two servants and together they left for Beer-sheba, where Abraham had earlier built an altar (again) for the LORD. 

He was returning to give God thanks for provision and sparing his son. He was returning to the altar to renew the covenant he had made with God. The binding of Isaac was the ultimate test of Abraham's faith.

Often overlooked, however, is the faith of his son, Isaac. Isaac willingly laid himself upon the altar and allowed his own father to raise the knife which would kill him. The faith of Abraham had taken root in Isaac. Isaac would now be the vessel in which the lineage of the promised "seed of the woman" from Genesis 3, ie, the Messiah, would one day emerge from to strike down the enemies of God. 


What do you think of God's command to Abraham? Do you have insight into the binding of Isaac? Click on the above link to share your insight, thoughts, comments, and questions!

Additional Resources

The Akedah - My Jewish Learning Center

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