Post Title: The Faith of Isaac
"He said, '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.'" - Genesis 22:2
Literally, God says he wants Abraham to bring Isaac up (veha'aleihu). To make aliyah is to go up to Jerusalem, to emigrate to Israel. It comes from the same root. The sages point out that God does not explicitly say anything about slaughtering his son because he never intended to permit Abraham to do so. He says instead, "I want you to bring him up to Moriah." Abraham understood it to mean that Isaac is to be turned into a burnt offering, but God did not intend, nor does he permit, the killing of children.
God is opposed to human sacrifice, let alone child sacrifice, widely practiced by the surrounding nations.
How does Abraham respond? The narrative in Hebrew is very striking. Abraham gets up early and saddles the donkey ignoring his dignity in not using his servants. He splits the wood, loads up, and goes to the place. He is a determined man of action, yet he is a silent man. In the Jewish community, the circumcision ceremony on the eighth day is traditionally done early in the morning, commemorating father Abraham's eagerness to obey.
Perhaps Abraham got up quite early because he didn't want to disturb his wife. Sarah was deeply attached to her son Isaac. Maybe Abraham, out of his love for her, didn't want to cause her trouble, anxiety, or fear.
There is a Jewish tradition that when Sarah heard the news, she died because the very next chapter in Genesis tells of her death and Abraham eulogizing her. The rabbis interpreted this to mean that while he was still away on the journey to Moriah, she heard the news and breathed her last in the proud knowledge that she had raised a son who was willing to give his life in the service of God.
Rabbinic tradition concluded that Isaac was 37 years old when these things occurred because Sarah was 90 years of age when Isaac was born, and we are told here that she was 127 years when she died. So by subtracting 90 from 127, you get 37 years. Other traditions dispute that saying he was much younger.
The Hebrew word used to describe Isaac in verse 12 is na'ar, the same term used for the two servants in verse 5. It means a young person of indeterminate age, so we don't know exactly how old he was. Isaac is always depicted in art as a child, but how can he carry the wood upon his shoulders? Keep in mind that compared to Abraham's advanced age, Isaac is a mere lad.
What I want to point out and have you think about is that Isaac's actions are far more significant in Jewish thought than in our Christian traditions.
We focus almost exclusively on Abraham and how the sacrifice prefigures the sacrifice of Jesus. Yet Isaac has a vital role in all of this, evidenced by his voluntary co-operation and humble submission. He is represented as the archetypal martyr in Judaism, one who is willing to give up his life for God.
"On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar." The sages interpreted this to mean that he and Isaac were given spiritual vision—they saw the glory of God (shechinah) hovering over Mt. Moriah and knew that was the place. Abraham is a man of faith—he has the vision, the perceptiveness of faith—he recognized the mountain because he saw the glory of God hovering over it. He took Isaac and went up to meet God.
Abraham says to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy (na'ar) will go over there and worship and come again to you." What was he saying here? Was he speaking prophetically in an inadvertent, unconscious way? Was he convinced because of his great faith that he would return with Isaac? Was he trying not to disturb or frighten Isaac? The rabbis express all those views.
The Bible itself offers an interpretation (midrash) on this subject. Do you know where? In the New Testament! It's one of only two instances where the story is explicitly mentioned in the NT.
"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, of whom it was said, 'Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.' He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back." - Hebrews 11:17-19
The writer of Hebrews suggests that Abraham had such great faith that he believed even were he to offer Isaac as a burnt offering (olah), God was able to resurrect him, and that the two of them would be able to return.
"And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son." - Genesis 22:6
In his gospel, John seems to refer to this image when he notes, "they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull." Indeed as early as the second century in the epistle of Barnabas, we find direct connections being made in Christian teaching and preaching between Messiah Jesus and Isaac. Even as late as the 4th century, we know there was an Easter service in Jerusalem at which the sermon was on Isaac's binding, known in Hebrew as the Akedah.
Early in Christian tradition, the binding of Isaac was linked with the cross of Jesus.
Isaac prefigured the Messiah's sacrifice, who was the one promised by El Shaddai to come through the seed of Abraham.
Here are some of the parallels:
Both Isaac and Jesus were miraculously conceived. Isaac was born to a mother whose womb was closed but supernaturally opened by God. Jesus was born to a virgin mother and was conceived of the Holy Spirit.
Both are the beloved and only begotten sons of their father.
They both carried the wood for their sacrifices.
It is on the third day that Isaac is offered up and rises from the altar. It was on the third day that Jesus rose from the grave.
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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.