Abraham – The Binding of Isaac, week 1 (Notes)

(Genesis 22)

In the reading this week, God commands that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. This is the last request made by God to Abraham in Scripture. The sacrifice of children to the resident god was a common practice in the Ancient Near East. For example, the Ammonite god Molech, and the Moabite god Chemosh, both required child-sacrifice, and the Old Testament is replete with warnings for the Israelites not to participate in this worship. (e.g. Deut. 12:31, 1 Kings 11:7, 2 Kings 16:3). But why would God make this demand upon Abraham himself, and why doesn’t Abraham protest this request? Below is a series of questions to contemplate as you read through Genesis 22, followed by a series of commentaries on the narrative and its ethical implications.


  • In verse 1, what exactly is the test? Is the test fair since Abraham is being asked to either follow God or kill his son?
  • In verse 2, why is Isaac called Abraham’s “only” son? Also, this is the first time that “love” is mentioned in the Bible. Is Abraham’s love for his son (he believed God but did not love him) one of the reasons for the test?
  • In Genesis 15:8, Abraham asked for proof of God’s promise. In Genesis 18:22-33, Abraham tried to negotiate and talk God out of destroying Sodom. Why doesn’t Abraham do those things when God says to sacrifice his son? Did Abraham really believe that God would allow him to kill his own son? If not, was this really a test?
  • In verse 4, why does the narrative have a three-day time period between the command and its execution? During these three days, what is Abraham thinking?
  • How old do you think Isaac is since he can carry all the wood sufficient for his own holocaust?
  • When do you think Isaac became aware that he was going to be the sacrifice? Abraham’s response in verse 8 could be translated as “God will provide. The lamb for a burnt offering is my son.” What does it mean that Isaac and Abraham continued to “walk together” after this exchange?
  • Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born (Gen.21:5) and Isaac was strong enough to carry the wood up the mountain. Why did Isaac consent to be bound? Why didn’t he resist or simply run away? Is Isaac the first martyr? Was Isaac being tested as well, since he is the heir of God’s promises? (See, Judith 8:26).
  • What if Abraham had not followed through with the test, would God have withdrawn his former promises?
  • In verse 19, why does it mention only Abraham descending from the mountain, and not Isaac?
  • Is there any connection between the events of Chapter 22 and Sarah’s death at the beginning of Chapter 23?
  • Is there any connection between the events of Chapter 22 and Scripture not recording any further conversations between Abraham and Isaac or Abraham and God?

Below are several understandings of why Abraham was tested and the moral lesson of the Binding of Isaac, and particularly what it means in those situations where believing God conflicts with the moral law. Think through these analyses (you don’t have to agree with them), and do recent event undercut these analyses?

Hebrews 11:

In the letter to the Hebrews, the binding of Isaac is intended to show that Abraham had faith in the resurrection of the dead:
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Babylonian Talmud:

The Babylonian Talmud is a compilation of Jewish teachings first collected in Babylon around 500 A.D. In explaining why Abraham was “tested” it looks to the testing of Job to provide the explanation. According to the Talmud, Satan accuses Abraham of only obeying and believing God because God has richly blessed him. Therefore, God gives Abraham the command to sacrifice Isaac to show Satan and us that Abraham’s faith was pure and not based upon the blessings that God promised and bestowed upon him.

Moses Maimonides:

In “The Guide for the Perplexed,” the medieval Jewish theologian Moses Maimonides (1145-1204) argues that the story of “The Binding of Isaac” contains the two great lessons that 1) God requires our perfect obedience even to the command to murder a child and 2) God’s prophets were divinely inspired, for why else would Abraham sacrifice Isaac unless instructed by God.
“First, it shows the extent and limit of our capacity to love and fear God. [For God requested that Abraham destroy all the hopes and promise to place upon Isaac,] and yet because he feared God, and loved to do what God commanded, he thought little of that beloved child, and set aside all his hopes concerning him, and consented to kill him after a journey of three days. . . . The second purpose is to show how the prophets believed in the truth of that which came to them from God by way of inspiration . . . . [Otherwise] Abraham would not have found in his soul strength enough to perform that act, if he had any doubt.”

Søren Kierkegaard:

In his book “Fear and Trembling,” Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) analyzes the Binding of Isaac as a conflict between faith and goodness. In this work, Kierkegaard sees Abraham as the “knight of faith” who differs from the “ethical man.” For the ethical man God is Good, and the moral law is universal and is coextensive with the Deity. So that “sin” is simply a violation of the moral law which is the same as being disobedient to God. The “knight of faith,” however, has a higher obligation than simply the ethical with regards to his relationship to his God and this may involve a “suspension of the ethical.” God calls Abraham to renounce all that he holds precious, including the ethical ideal to which he subscribes and which he has been taught. Consequently, the test was whether Abraham had to obey God’s command or obey his ethical obligations. Abraham is held up as a great man because he chose to obey God’s command in faith over his moral and ethical responsibilities. (pp46-49). Attached is an excerpt from Kierkegarrd’s analysis. If you have an extra hour this week, please read the passage from “Fear and Trembling,” and see if you agree with his analysis and its implications for having any objective criteria for condemning actions made in the name of God.

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