Sometime after having concluded a covenant with Abimelech, Abraham faced the greatest test of his faith. God asked him to take his dearly beloved son Isaac to the “land of Moriah” (the “high land” [LXX]) and there to offer him as a sacrifice on one of the mountains that would be pointed out to him. (22:1, 2) According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xiii, 2), Isaac was twenty-five years old, but Targum Jonathan indicates that he was in the thirty-seventh year of his life.
Abraham rose early in the morning on the next day, departing with Isaac and two young men, apparently his servants. In preparation for the sacrifice, he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering and loaded it on his donkey, likely along with supplies of food and water for the trip. On the third day after setting out, Abraham, at a distance, saw the place about which God had told him. (22:3, 4) The actual location in the “land of Moriah” is not revealed in the account, but 2 Chronicles 3:1 indicates that it was the mountain in Jerusalem where the temple was built during the reign of King Solomon. It may have been some fifty miles (c. 80 kilometers) from a location in the “land of the Philistines” that Abraham, Isaac, and the two young men walked to reach the “land of Moriah.” This could have taken them two days, making it possible for Abraham, on the “third day” after setting out, to see the mountainous region of which a part later came to be included in the city of Jerusalem.
Abraham instructed the two young men to stay with the donkey while he and Isaac would be going to the designated site to worship God and then to return. Abraham had Isaac carry the wood for the burnt offering, whereas he carried the knife and the “fire.” It was not possible to start fires easily, and so it was preferable to be able to transfer fire from one source to another. Abraham must have carried the means to start a fire and to set the wood on fire for the burnt offering. When Isaac asked about the sheep for the burnt offering, Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (22:5-8)
At the location about which God had told him to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham erected an altar, arranged the wood thereon, and had his son positioned in a bound state on top of the wood. As Abraham was about the slay his son, the angel of YHWH called out to him, telling him not to lay his hand on him. The angel continued to speak as the representative of YHWH, “Now I know that you fear God as you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me.” The reference to knowing that Abraham feared God is to be understood as meaning that his reverential regard for God had been undeniably demonstrated as existing through an act of unqualified obedience. Although Ishmael was a son of Abraham, Isaac was his only or unique son by his wife Sarah. (22:9-12)
Abraham then did see an acceptable sacrifice — a ram that was “caught in a thicket by its horns.” He placed this ram on the altar as a burnt offering. Abraham recognized YHWH as the one who had provided the suitable sacrifice and, therefore, named the place “YHWH-jireh,” meaning “YHWH will see [or provide].” “To this day,” or down to the time when the Genesis account came to be in its final written form, it continued to be said, “On the mountain, YHWH will see [or provide].” (22:13, 14)
For a second time, YHWH’s angel called out to Abraham and, with a solemn oath, spoke as the direct representative of YHWH, “Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only one, I indeed will bless you and will multiply your seed [or descendants] like the stars of the heavens and like the [grains of] sand on the seashore, and your seed will possess the gate [cities (LXX)] of his enemies.” To possess the gate signified to have control of the city, indicating that the descendants of Abraham would not become subservient to foreign powers. This proved to be the case as long as they were obedient to YHWH. “All the nations of the earth” were to bless themselves by the “seed” of Abraham because he had obeyed YHWH’s voice. In the fulfillment, the “seed” by whom people of the nations were to bless themselves is the Messiah or Christ, Jesus the unique Son of God. Persons who put faith in him and his sacrifice of himself for them are granted forgiveness of their sins and thus gain an approved relationship with God as his beloved children. (22:15-18)
Abraham, Isaac, and the two young men who had accompanied them returned to Beer-sheba and continued to reside there. (22:19) Josephus (Antiquities, I, xiii, 4) added that Abraham and Isaac “embraced one another.” They “returned to Sarah and lived happily together, God affording them his aid in everything they desired.” Targum Jonathan contradicts the comments of Josephus and contains words that do not find any support in the Genesis account. This Targum says that Satan told Sarah (when 127 years old) that Abraham had killed Isaac (in the thirty-seventh year of his life), and she then arose, cried out, was strangled, and died from agony.
It was after Abraham and Isaac returned to Beer-sheba that news reached Abraham about his relatives in Haran. Milcah, the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, had borne eight sons — Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram (the “Syrians” [LXX]), Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel. Bethuel became the father of Rebekah, the future wife of Isaac. Nahor’s concubine Reumah had four sons — Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah. (22:20-24)
Targum Jonathan contains added information that has no relationship to the words of the Genesis account. It represents Ishmael in an argument with Isaac. Ishmael claimed that he had the right to the inheritance of Abraham because of being his firstborn. Isaac countered with the words, “It is right that I should inherit what is [my] father’s because I am the son of his wife Sarah, and you are the son of Hagar the handmaid of my mother.” Ishmael then contended that he was “more righteous” than Isaac because he allowed himself to be circumcised (although he could have prevented it) at thirteen years of age, whereas Isaac had no such option when he was circumcised as a child of eight days. To this, Isaac responded, “Today I am thirty-six years old. And if the Holy One, blessed be he, were to require all my members, I would not delay.” It was this willingness on Isaac’s part to sacrifice everything that then occasioned Abraham’s being tested to offer his son.
After having been informed about the birth of a son to his wife Sarah, Abraham apparently thought about the impact this might have on his son Ishmael and was moved to appeal to YHWH with the words, “O that Ishmael might live before you!” (Genesis 17:17, 18) Upon having learned about the coming destruction of Sodom, Abraham, probably also out of deep concern for the welfare of his nephew Lot, had pleaded with YHWH regarding the people of the city. (Genesis 18:20-32) Faced with the greatest trial imaginable in connection with his beloved son Isaac, however, he appears to have remained silent, bearing the emotional strain that must have affected him without saying a word to anyone. Not until arriving at the divinely designated site did Abraham reveal to Isaac the nature of the sacrifice.
In his Antiquities, (I, xiii, 2), Josephus attributed Abraham’s not telling anyone what God had asked of him because of desiring to be obedient in everything. “Abraham thought it was not right to disobey God in anything, but that he was obliged to serve him in every circumstance of life, since all living creatures enjoy their life by his providence and the kindness he bestows on them. Accordingly, he concealed this command of God, and his own intentions about the slaughter of his son, from his wife, as also every one of his servants,” so as not to be “hindered from his obedience to God.”
It appears that Josephus felt that he needed to expand on what happened before Abraham was about to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, thereby weakening the impact of the laconic nature of the Genesis account. Josephus (Antiquities, I, xiii, 3) quoted Abraham as telling Isaac: “O son, I poured out a vast number of prayers that I might have you for my son. When you came into the world, there was nothing that could contribute to your support for which I was not greatly solicitous, nor anything wherein I thought myself happier than to see you grown up to man’s estate, and that I might leave you at my death the successor of my dominion. But since it was by God’s will that I became your father, and it is now his will that I relinquish you, bear this consecration to God with a generous mind. I resign you up to God, who has thought fit now to require this testimony of honor to himself on account of the favors he has conferred on me in being to me a supporter and defender. Accordingly, you, my son, will now die, not in any common way of going out of the world, but sent to God, the Father of all men, beforehand, by your own father, in the nature of a sacrifice. I suppose he thinks you worthy to get clear of this world neither by disease, neither by war, not by any other severe way, by which death usually comes upon men.”
Contrasting with the comments of Josephus are the words of Hebrews 11:17-19, where the reference is to Abraham’s faith that God was able to resurrect Isaac from the dead. The basis for this faith is identified as trust in God’s promise that Abraham’s “seed” would be called “in Isaac.” It may also have been on account of this faith that Abraham indicated to the two servants that he and Isaac would return after having worshiped at the divinely designated site. (22:5) Another possibility is that his words concealed what he, in obedience to God’s command, was about to do to Isaac.
Josephus quoted Isaac as expressing himself to his father, saying to him “that he was not worthy to be born at first, if he were to reject the determination of God and of his father and were not to resign himself readily to both their pleasures. It would have been unjust if he had not obeyed, even if his father alone had so resolved.” “So he went immediately to the altar to be sacrificed.” (Antiquities, I, xiii, 4) The Jerusalem Targum also includes words of Isaac, but these have no parallel in the writings of Josephus. “My father, bind my hands rightly, lest in the hour of my affliction I tremble and confuse you, and your offering be found profane, and I be cast into the pit of destruction in the world to come.” Moreover, this Targum indicates that, as Isaac looked up, he saw angels, but his father did not. The angels are referred to as saying, “Come, behold two righteous ones alone in the midst of the world: the one slays, the other is slain. He who slays defers not, and he who is to be slain stretches out his neck.”
Besides proving to be a test of Abraham’s faith and obedience, the command regarding Isaac and the ultimate outcome of the related developments may have served as a precedent that human sacrifice was not what God wants. In view of the fact that Abraham was not permitted to sacrifice Isaac, his descendants should never offer their children as sacrifices to YHWH.
There is also a possibility that what Abraham and Isaac portrayed served to point to the future time when God would demonstrate his great love for the human family by giving his Son as the means to have their sins forgiven and to be reconciled to him and when his Son, Jesus Christ, would willingly lay down his life as a sacrifice for humankind.