The story of akedah (Hebrew for “binding) is found in Genesis 22. After the birth of Isaac, the child of promise, we don’t expect this kind of postscript. It is a chilling episode, offensive to modern sensibilities, counter-intuitive on every level.
Honestly, it’s a story I’d just as soon skip over.
But it’s there. And so we read it to be formed in faith.
Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.
At each turn in his story, Abraham seems bound to carry out the strange requests of his covenant-partner God. “Leave your home,” the Voice said, and Abram followed. “In your old age a son shall spring from your loins,” the Voice told him, and Abram believed. And now, at this final request — more than a request, a “test” according to v1 — Abraham once again responds in trusting obedience, chopping wood, saddling his donkey to leave at dawn’s first light (v3).
It’s probably no accident that there is no mention of Sarah in the text. The rabbis speculated that Abraham left early in the morning so as not to face Sarah’s inquisitive confrontation. Where are you going? When will you be back? Why are you taking Isaac? And what’s with all the wood?
In v2, we are introduced to a new Hebrew verb: ahava, to love. This is the first time we find this word used in the OT; Isaac, the only begotten, is the referent. Now, technically, Isaac wasn’t the only begotten. There was that whole matter with Ishmael and his mother, Hagar. But that was Abraham and Sarah’s idea, not God’s. According to YHWH, there is but one child of promise. It is through Isaac that God intends to bring blessing to the word — in particular, the blessing of love, ahava.
On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.
To those of us who are followers of Jesus, we note the time stamp. The “third day”. The words ring in our ears, singing of a truth that is ultimate. Our understanding of this story is colored by another third day story involving the willful sacrifice of a beloved son.
But how could God call Abraham to commit such an act? What kind of test is this? These are the questions that rise to the surface for us. And Abraham seems complicit, at least by his acquiescence to the Divine Request. When God prescribed judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham engages in tedious negotiations over the number of righteous souls needed to evade destruction. But here? As it regards his own son? Not so much as a single word of protest.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes: “Abraham’s readiness to obey God’s command shows him to be ethically deficient by later standards, but not those of his age. True, God had revealed Himself to Abraham, but He had not made known to him the full ethical implications of monotheism. Since other contemporary religious believers sacrificed sons to their gods, God, in essence, was asking Abraham if he was as devoted to his God as the pagan idolaters were to theirs.” (emphasis added)
Abraham chooses the Giver over the gift.
He believed the LORD, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
He tells Isaac, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And this prophetic utterance becomes the name for the mountain, the place where God stayed the hand of his servant and commended his faithfulness.
Abraham trusted in God. And this makes all the difference in his story.
And, as we will see, it also makes all the difference in ours.