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Abraham, Isaac, and El Shaddai (part 2)

Post Title: Abraham's Freedom to Choose

In Jewish tradition, Genesis 22 presents the last of ten tests for Abraham, the first one being when he was told to leave his country, his kin, and his father's house in chapter 12. Now he faces his greatest test.

Why does God still need to test him at this point? Hasn't Abraham proved his dedication, his loyalty? Yes, in a sense, but not in an unconditional way. He was obeying God through all those tests because God was going to bless him: make him wealthy, prosperous, and the father of many nations. This test will decisively show if Abraham is willing to unconditionally and wholeheartedly serve and obey for God's sake.

God elected Abraham by his grace, but is he worthy to be the father of the faithful?

"After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, 'Abraham!' And he said, 'Here I am.'" Here I am in the text is actually only one Hebrew word, hineni. It is the only word Abraham speaks to God throughout this whole narrative. He says it twice, in verse one and again in his response to the angel in verse eleven.

Hineni is a response of humility, responsiveness, and readiness to obey. It is the reply of the devout.

Regarding Abraham's response, many through the centuries have wondered why he didn't challenge God, push back against this seemingly immoral act. After all, he was not a man lacking in courage. Do you remember the story of Sodom? There Abraham takes God on, so to speak. No, he is not a man reluctant to challenge El Shaddai.

In Genesis 22, God engages Abraham, but this time he is noticeably and utterly silent. In his first call, he was asked to leave his past. Now he is being asked to forsake his future. This means giving up the promised son, the one through whom the blessing of God will come to the nations. And the only thing we hear from our father Abraham is "here I am" (hineni).

"Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go [...]." The Hebrew here reveals that God is entreating Abraham; his direction comes with regard to his concerns. He is saying, "Abraham, take your son, please, and go to the place I will show you."

The sages point out that Abraham is entirely a free agent; he does not have to comply. There is no threat of punishment. God's grace has already elected Abraham—the promises have been uttered, the covenant is given. What we see is God imploring him, "Abraham, please take this test."

He then uses the very words he used in Genesis 12:1, "get yourself up and go forth (lekh lekha)." This is just one of many parallels between Abraham's first and last test. Both are about the blessing of obedience, both include family, both require radical reliance, in both Abraham builds an altar, and, God promises him posterity and prosperity.

To get the most from Genesis 22, you need to read it in the light of chapter 12.

"[...] 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." Moriah is an important idea for biblical authors. There are at least three intriguing interpretations that have been offered up for the meaning of the word. Each, in their way, adds something insightful to ponder for those immersed in the narrative.

  • The first idea is that Moriah comes from the Hebrew word to see (ra'ah). It is a play on words, "the place I will show you (mareh), is Moriah."

  • The second idea is that Moriah comes from the word to fear (yireh). Therefore, Moriah literally means fear of God (Yah). There is a Jewish midrash that says Moriah is the place from which the fear of the Lord emanated to the whole world.

  • The third idea is that Moriah comes from the root to teach (yarah). So it is related to teaching (torah). The sages note that Isaiah says the Torah will go forth from Jerusalem, the Word of the Lord from Zion.

We are told in 2 Chronicles 3:1 that "Solomon began to build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah." Mt. Moriah is associated, in Scripture and tradition, with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But it goes deeper; according to ancient Jewish understanding, the rock upon which the temple was built and around which the Holy of Holies was constructed was the very rock where Abraham bound Isaac.

All of this adds a depth of meaning as we study the story of Abraham, Isaac, and El Shaddai. And it enriches our reading of both Testaments from this point forward.


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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.

Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.

Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.

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