The Binding of Isaac 


Mount Moriah Problems
Mount Calvary Only Begotten
Traditional Jewish Interpretation Detractors

Mount Moriah

In Genesis chapter 22, Abraham is commanded to take his only (legitimate) son Isaac to Mount Moriah, to offer him as a sacrifice. Isaac is the beloved child of promise, "...that I loved him with all my soul is the presumption apart from which the whole thing becomes a crime..." (Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 27):



  • “Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”
  • “And he said, “Here I am.”
  • “Then He said, “Take now 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.”
  • “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 the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.”
  • “So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together. But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!”
  • “And he said, “Here I am, my son.”
  • “Then he said, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
  • “And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” So the two of them went together.
  • “Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
  • “But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”
  • “So he said, “Here I am.”
  • “And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
  • “Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place, The-Lord-Will-Provide; as it is said to this day, “In the Mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
  • “Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, 16and said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son— blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.”
  • (Genesis 22:1-19).




This was a sacrifice which did not happen, and so one might see this incident, rather than the prohibition of human sacrifice in the Mosaic law, as the divine command to end the practice: "If Abraham is the father of monotheism, Abraham is also the father of the abolition of human sacrifice. When Abraham laid down the knife on Moriah and offered a ram instead of his son, humanity took a huge step in the right direction." (Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars, Kindle location 1191). Certainly Abraham proved his willingness to follow through, though this was not demanded in the end. But the ultimate fulfillment, of which this rehearsal is the type, was followed through to the end:

"The father offered indeed his son, but God is appeased not by blood but by dutiful obedience. He showed the ram in the thicket in the stead of the lad, that He might restore the son to his father, and yet the victim not fail the priest. And so Abraham was not stained with his son’s blood, nor was God deprived of the sacrifice. The prophet spoke, and neither yielded to boastfulness nor continued obstinate, but took the ram in exchange for the lad. And by this is shown the more how piously he offered him whom he now so gladly received back. And thou, if thou offer thy gift to God, dost not lose it. But we are tenacious of our own; God gave His only Son for us, we refuse ours." (Ambrose, On the Decease of His Brother Satyrus, Book 2, Chapter 98).

Certainly Abraham showed his promptness to follow the divine commands, even to the point of the death of his beloved son. In the back and forth of the monotheist apologetic against Canaanite human sacrifice, the idolaters must have boasted of their superior devotion to their gods; but their devotion was not higher, their gods were lower.

Turning the focus back to the near term, why did this happen? Why do we follow God? Is there some benefit to following Him, in this life or the next, that we value? What God proposed to take away from Abraham was the one thing most precious to him. What lesson, not directed to people of a long distant time and place, might God have intended to impart, for Abraham and Isaac's benefit?:

"After all hope of a son had already been given up, a son was born unto him. How great must have been his delight in the child! How intensely must he have loved him! . . For Abraham did not hasten to kill Isaac out of fear that God might slay him or make him poor, but solely because it is man's duty to love and to fear God, even without hope of reward or fear of punishment." (Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, p. 348).

Parents today who lose a child to cancer face the same dilemma: do we honor God because of who He is, or for what He has done for us?

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Problems

Several problems present themselves. Under the law of Moses (not yet revealed), human sacrifice is one of the worst offenses, an abomination in God's sight. Yet God Himself required this performance of Abraham. Abraham's beloved son was a gift from God, the fulfillment of a promise; yet He wanted him back. . .or so He demanded. Why?:



  • that God did tempt Abraham; not to sin, as Satan does, for God tempts no man, nor can he be tempted in this sense; and, had Abraham slain his son, it would have been no sin in him, it being by the order of God, who is the Lord of life, and the sovereign disposer of it; but he tempted him, that is, he tried him, to prove him, and to know his faith in him, his fear of him, his love to him, and cheerful obedience to his commands; not in order to know these himself, which he was not ignorant of, but to make them known to others, and that Abraham's faith might be strengthened yet more and more, as in the issue it was. . .


  • “and said unto him, Abraham: calling him by his name he well knew, and by that name he had given him, to signify that he should be the father of many nations, Genesis 17:5; and yet was going to require of him to slay his only son, and offer him a sacrifice to him:


  • and he said, behold, here I am; signifying that he heard his voice, and was ready to obey his commands, be they what they would.”
  • (John Gill, Commentary on Genesis 22:1).






Rembrandt van Rijn, The Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham


Another apparent problem is the appearance that God does not know what Abraham will do, and must try the experiment to find out. Abraham's decision to obey God must have been free; had his consent been coerced, it would have had no moral force or weight. And yet, like all other free human decisions from creation to the end, it must also have been foreknown to God from eternity past. Proponents of 'open theism' here exclaim, 'Aha:'



While it is certain that God knew from all eternity past what Abraham would do when put to the test, it cannot be denied that it adds a certain something that this event actually happened, rather than that it was foreknown in an optative mood as something that 'would' happen, if certain other things happened, etc. Carried out to the fullest extent, such logic demands, why did God create a world at all, when He could have contented Himself with foreknowing what the people in this world would do if He ever got around to creating them? Perhaps it is more clever than people ought to be, to think up reasons why we don't need to be here.

So what does it mean for God to 'learn' this information? Perhaps, ". . .or this may be understood of a knowledge of approbation, that the Lord now knew, and approved of the faith, fear, love, and obedience of Abraham, which were so conspicuous in this affair, see Psalm 1:6; Saadiah Gaon  interprets it, "I have made known", that is, to others; God by trying Abraham made it manifest to others, to all the world, to all that should hear of or read this account of things, that he was a man that feared God, loved him, believed in him, and obeyed him, of which this instance is a full and convincing proof: . . ."  (John Gill Commentary on Genesis 22:12).

"When God commanded the father to desist from sacrificing Isaac, Abraham said: 'One man tempts another, because he knoweth not what is in the heart of his neighbor. But Thou surely didst know that I was ready to sacrifice my son!'
"God: 'It was manifest to Me, and I foreknew it, that thou wouldst withhold not even thy soul from Me.'
"Abraham: 'And why, then, didst Thou afflict me thus?'
"God: 'It was My wish that the world should become acquainted with thee, and should know that it is not without good reason that I have chosen thee from all the nations. Now it hath been witnessed unto men that thou fearest God.'"
(Ginzberg, Louis (2011-03-24). The Legends of the Jews — Volume 1 (Kindle Locations 3158-3162).  Kindle Edition.)
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Mount Calvary

What after all was the point of this exercise? No doubt, like all exercise, it built strength: Abraham was stronger in faith after going through this process than before. However, as we've seen, God does not delight in human sacrifice, and did not want Isaac. What was the point therefore? God revealed this to Abraham as a prophecy of a much greater sacrifice, because it was He Himself who would not spare His Son: "He that spared not even his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how hath he not also, with him, given us all things?" (Romans 8:32).



  • “Isaac may well be thought, in the whole of this, to be a type of the Messiah, the true and proper Son of God, his only begotten Son, the dear Son of his love, in whom all the promises are yea and amen; whom God out of his great love to men gave to be an offering and a sacrifice for their sins, and who suffered near Jerusalem, on Mount Calvary, which very probably was a part of Mount Moriah; and which, with other mountains joining in their root, though having different tops, went by that common name.”
  • (John Gill, Commentary on Genesis 22:2).





As Jesus would do, for part of the way before handing it over to Simon of Cyrene, Isaac bore the wood of the sacrifice on his own shoulders:

". . .and laid it upon Isaac his son: who was a grown man, and able to carry it: in this also he was a type of Christ, on whom the wood of his cross was laid, and which he bore when he went to be crucified, John 19:17; and this wood may be also a figure of our sins laid on him by his Father, and which he bore in his body on the tree, 1 Peter 2:24; and which were like wood to fire, fuel for the wrath of God, which came down upon him for them: . . ." (John Gill Commentary on Genesis 22:6).

A likeness between Isaac bearing the wood of the offering and bearing the cross was perceived even by Jewish writers,

"Crucifixion was, indeed, not a Jewish punishment, but the Jews must have become sadly familiar with it. The Targum speaks of it as one of the four modes of execution of which Naomi described to Ruth as those in custom in Palestine, the other three being — stoning, burning, and beheading. Indeed, the expression 'bearing the cross,' as indicative of sorrow and suffering, is so common, that we read, 'Abraham carried the wood for the sacrifice of Isaac, like who bears his cross on his shoulder.'" ([Ber. R. 56, on Gen. xxii. 6.] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book III, Chapter XXVII, Kindle location 12825).

This interpretation is shared by Irenaeus, one of the early church writers:

"Righteously also do we, possessing the same faith as Abraham, and taking up the cross as Isaac did the wood, follow Him. For in Abraham man had learned beforehand, and had been accustomed to follow the Word of God. For Abraham, according to his faith, followed the command of the Word of God, and with a ready mind delivered up, as a sacrifice to God, his only-begotten and beloved son, in order that God also might be pleased to offer up for all his seed His own beloved and only-begotten Son, as a sacrifice for our redemption." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 5, Section 4, pp. 931-932).

Abraham's assurance that God will provide the lamb is a prophecy of Christ's sacrifice. The ram God finally provided was a type of Christ:

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  • And Abraham said, my son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering,.... In which answer Abraham may have respect to the Messiah, the Lamb of God, John 1:29, whom he had provided in council and covenant before the world was; and who in promise, and type, and figure, was slain from the foundation of the world, Revelation 13:8; and whom in due time God would send into the world, John 10:36, and make him an offering for sin, Isaiah 53:10, and accept of him in the room and stead of his people: and this was a provision that could only be made by the Lord, and was the produce of his infinite wisdom, and the fruit of his grace, favor, and good will and of which Abraham had a clear sight and strong persuasion, see John 8:56; though as the words may be considered as a more direct answer to Isaac's question, which related to the sacrifice now about to be offered, they may be regarded as a prophecy of Abraham's, and of his faith in it, that God would, as in fact he did, provide a lamb or ram in the room of that he was called to offer; or he may mean Isaac himself, whom he was bid to take and offer, and so was a lamb of God's providing; though he did not choose directly to say this, but puts him off with such an answer, suggesting that it was best for him to leave it with God, who, as he had called them to such service, would supply them with a proper sacrifice; and in speaking in this manner he might give room for Isaac to suspect what was intended, and so by degrees bring him to the knowledge of it. Some Jewish writers say, that Abraham to this answer added in express terms, 'my son, thou art the lamb:'. . .”
  • (John Gill, Commentary on Genesis 22:8).





Only-Begotten

What might appear another 'problem' with this passage is Isaac's description as Abraham's only son. What about Ishmael? Though he and his mother had been summarily dismissed and sent off into the wilderness, he is still a son. . .isn't he? Not by some folks' legal standards:

"And this is why he only says that he will give her [Sarah] one son. And now he has called it a son, not speaking carelessly or inconsiderately, but for the sake of showing that it is not a foreign, nor a suppositious, nor an adopted, nor an illegitimate child, but a legitimate child, a proper citizen, inasmuch as a foreign child cannot be the offspring of a truly citizen soul, for the Greek word 'teknon' (son), is derived from 'tokos'; (bringing forth), by way of showing the kindred by which children are, by nature, united to their parents." (Philo Judaeus, A Treatise on the Question Why Certain Names in Scripture are Changed, Chapter XXVI).

The son only of a free-born citizen wife could be registered as a citizen of the city of Athens. Offspring of other unions had no legal standing. This sounds harsh to modern ears, but they were non-persons in the eyes of the community. The middle of nowhere isn't Athens, but the conceptual framework seems similar. By this standard, Abraham had one son, and not only because Isaac was the child of promise, but because his mother was a free-born citizen lawfully married to the father. In one of his flights of interpretive fancy Philo mentions this distinction: "Accordingly the practicer of virtue lives with all the aforesaid powers, with some as with free women and citizens, and with others as slaves and concubines." (A Treatise on the Meeting for the Sake of Seeking Instruction, Philo Judaeus, Chapter VI). The son born of the slave-woman was illegitimate:

"Why did Abraham say to God, O may this my son Ishmael live before thee?
"In the first place, I do not despair, says he, O Lord, of a better generation, but I believe thy promise: nevertheless, it would be a sufficient blessing for me for this son to live who in the meantime is a living son, standing visibly, even though he be not so according to the legitimate blood, but is only born of a concubine." (Philo Judaeus, A Volume of Questions, and Solutions to Those Questions, Which Arise in Genesis, Volume III, Section 57).

Philo praises Abraham as "the constant husband of one wife" (Philo Judaeus, A Volume of Questions, and Solutions to Those Questions, Which Arise in Genesis, Volume III, Section 21), while acknowledging no law prevented his actions: ". . .at that time in which it was lawful for him to make use of her handmaid. . ." Still, Ishmael could not be the legitimate citizen son and heir, inasmuch as his mother was a slave. The author of the letter to Hebrews shares the understanding that Abraham had only one citizen son: "By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten [monogenes] son, (To whom it was said: In Isaac shalt thy seed be called:) Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him for a parable." (Hebrews 11:17-19).

That 'monogenes,' 'only begotten,' confuses some readers, but it is legitimate: Isaac was Abraham's only citizen son. Compare with, "And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child [και αυτη μονογενης αυτω αγαπητη LXX]; beside her he had neither son nor daughter." (Judges 11:34).

Notice that the letter to Hebrews distinguishes between a 'son' an an illegitimate child:

"If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons." (Hebrews 12:7-8).

We do not tend to think this way; to us, the 'son' is a son and so is the illegitimate one. But if the usage is consistent and meaningful, it is pointless to quarrel with it. The other One called 'only begotten' is the anti-type foreshadowed by the binding of Isaac,

"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:14).

"No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." (John 1:18).

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. . .He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." (John 3:16-18).

"In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him." (1 John 4:9).

Going the extra mile to conform the prophecy to its fulfillment, Jerome, in his Latin Vulgate translation of Genesis 22:2, makes Isaac "filium tuum unigenitum." 'First-born' is a familiar Old Testament title of the Messiah. 'Only begotten' is a little less familiar but equally valid. The transmission route, it would appear, is through Isaac:


Cur Deus Homo


Apostolic exegesis was anything but minimalistic. Once it was established,— and it was established early on,— that Jesus is 'Isaac,' then all conclusions following therefrom would be diligently extracted. That the binding of Isaac was found relevant by the early church is shown, for instance, in the epistle of Barnabas: " . .the Lord commanded it because he himself was planning to offer the vessel of his spirit as a sacrifice for our sins, in order that the type established by Isaac, who was offered upon the altar, might be fulfilled." (The Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 7, The Apostolic Fathers, J. B. Lightfoot, J. R. Harmer, edited by Michael W. Holmes, p. 171).  'Son' can mean various things in reference to God; sometimes it means no more than 'creature,' because all created things are in some sense God's offspring. However, if Jesus is God the Father's "only begotten" Son, then He cannot stand in the same relation to God the Father as a million other men, who are also creatures. Abraham had only one son; there never were a million and one Isaacs. He must stand in a relation to the Father similar at least in some aspect to the relationship between Isaac and Abraham, which is that of a beloved, and only, Son.

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Jewish Interpretation

Author Michael Brown mentions in his book, 'The Real Kosher Jesus,' some very interesting traditional Jewish interpretations of the binding of Isaac, including the [creative] concept that Isaac shed blood on the altar (presumably because, without the shedding of blood, there is no remission?) They understood Isaac as a willing, consenting participant, as also do some Christian expositors: "Isaac, with perfect confidence, as if knowing what was to happen, cheerfully yielded himself as a sacrifice." (First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter 31):

“One ancient source, compiled less than two hundred years after the death of Jesus, states: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: ‘I keep faith to pay the reward of Isaac son of Abraham, who gave one fourth of his blood on the altar’” (Mekhilta d’Rashbi, p. 4; Tanh. Vayerra, sec. 23).

“Vermes also notes that the 'blood of the Binding of Isaac” is mentioned four times in the early Jewish midrash called the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael. In Exodus 12:13, God promised the Israelites that when he passed through the land to destroy the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, he would pass over the houses of the Israelites who had applied the blood of the Passover lambs to the lintels and doorposts of their houses. The midrash interprets the verse to mean this: “‘And when I see the blood, I will pass over you’—I see the blood of the Binding of Isaac” (I, 57). God wasn’t looking at the blood of the lambs; he was looking at the blood of Isaac.

“Vermes even states that:
“According to ancient Jewish theology, the atoning efficacy of the Tamid offering [the fixed, daily offering], of all the sacrifices in which a lamb was immolated, and perhaps, basically, of all expiatory sacrifice irrespective of the nature the victim, depended upon the virtue of the Akedah [the Binding of Isaac], the self-offering of that Lamb whom God had recognized as the perfect victim of the perfect burnt offering.
“In keeping with this, one of the Targums (the Aramaic paraphrastic translations of the Hebrew Scriptures read in the ancient synagogues) puts this prayer in the mouth of Abraham: 'Now I pray for mercy before You, O Lord God, that when the children of Isaac come to a time of distress You may remember on their behalf the Binding of Isaac their father, and loose and forgive them their sins and deliver them from all distress.'” (Brown, Michael L. (2012-04-03). The Real Kosher Jesus: Revealing the mysteries of the hidden Messiah (p. 154- 155). Strang Communications. Kindle Edition.).

The revelation of the Messiah as suffering servant comes primarily from Isaiah chapter 53, but this current flowing from Isaac's bloodless near-miss joins with that greater stream. Then the confluent current of Jesus' self-identification as the eternal Word of God joins to form a mighty river.

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Detractors

Not everyone comes away from the binding of Isaac marvelling at God's wondrous provision in giving the Ram, His own Son:

"Such unpleasant episodes in Abraham's story are mere peccadilloes compared with the infamous tale of the sacrificing of his son Isaac. . .God ordered Abraham to make a burnt offering of his longed-for son. Abraham built an altar, put firewood upon it, and trussed Isaac up on top of the wood. His murdering knife was already in his hand when an angel dramatically intervened with the news of a last-minute change of plan: God was only joking after all, 'tempting' Abraham, and testing his faith. A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense: 'I was only obeying orders.'" (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, pp. 274275).

God was not 'joking' at all, He was in deadly earnest; what He meant was Calvary. The question Isaac asked, "Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" (Genesis 22:7), was answered two millenia later: "The question Isaac asked his father was answered centuries later by John the Baptist, recorded in John 1:29. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, 'Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'" (quoted Warren Wiersbe, The Names of Jesus, Kindle location 1409). There are no untied loose ends in scripture, and certainly not here. It is hard to make the case that Abraham was a victim, where there was no follow-through; it's God who is the victim, who delivered the actual sacrifice:

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