The Faithful God: Literary Context

While examining the details of a text helps the reader understand what the author is communicating, the text must be understood in its context. For no one has written a text in mere abstraction—every text has been influenced by a literary, historical, and religious context.

Literary Context

To understand what is happening in Gen. 22, one must examine the overall narrative of God’s redemptive narrative as well as the events immediately preceding and following this text.

Big Picture

This story happens in the life of Abraham (Gen. 12-25).[1] However, just before Abraham came onto the scene, Moses records the creation account and the early years along with the life of Noah.[2] In each of these major stories, God demonstrated his steadfast faithfulness to both wicked peoples: to the original family and to the whole world. He demonstrated his faithfulness by preserving a remnant—Adam and Eve’s line and Noah’s family—from utter destruction. 

In fact, looking to the rest of the Genesis narrative, the readers of Genesis continually see God’s faithfulness to his people. Ishmael’s family line continues to flourish,[3] Isaac’s line also grows,[4] not to mention Esau’s quiet growth,[5]and ending with the father of the Israelites Israel himself—Jacob[6] and his significant son Joseph.[7] God demonstrated steadfast love to each one of these men by preserving them from death and giving their barren family trees a plethora of notches and branches.

As the reader approaches Gen. 22, these images of God’s steadfast faithfulness should come to mind. Time and time again—in significant and small ways—God provided for his people and kept his promises to them. This understanding of who God is and what he does will help the external reader understand what God is accomplishing in his test of Abraham.

More Immediate

Immediately prior to this passage, Abraham receives God’s promises—a son from God through Sarah (Gen. 21).[8] However, Abraham hit a snag: he fathered a son—Ishmael—to Sarah’s maid-servant—Hagar. He expelled them from his clan to appease Sarah; he committed his previous family to the desert to perish.[9] However, the Lord took care of them and promised to make Ishmael’s lineage into a mighty nation—as he promised to Abraham in Gen. 12:3 and 15:4-5.[10]

Approaching Gen. 22, Abraham has now received the promise of God—a son from their barrenness. However, since this story immediately follows the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, one must wonder about the purpose of God’s test. Was he simply punishing Abraham for banishing these people to perish in the desert by causing his one and only son to perish?[11]

While this seems like a legitimate purpose, it appears that God’s test attempted to determine Abraham’s faithfulness again. In Gen. 12, God tested Abraham’s faithfulness to God and his ability to fulfill the covenant promise. God told Abraham to go from his country to a new country (Gen. 12:1). The command to go is in the exact same form as God’s command to go in this chapter along with the clarification of the object Abraham is departing from (country in Gen. 12, Isaac in Gen. 22).[12] This parallel echoes back to this first “test” and Abraham’s ability to trust God in this transition. Now that God has delivered tangibly on his promise, it is time to test whether Abraham trusted God and his ability to make Abraham and his clan into a great nation.[13]

  1. Bill T. Arnold, Genesis, ed. Ben Witherington and Bill T. Arnold, vol. 1, The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 125ff; Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, ed. James Luther Mays and Patrick D. Miller, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 105ff; Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, vol. 1B, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005), 81; Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, vol. 1, The Jewish Publication Society Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 88ff; Claus Westermann, Genesis 12-36, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), 10ff.
  2. Arnold, Gen. (NCBC), 1:27ff; Brueggemann, Gen. (Interpretation), 11ff; Sarna, Gen. (JPS), 1:2ff, 47ff.
  3. Mathews, Gen. 11:27-50:26 (NAC), 1B:81; Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, vol. 2, World Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1994), 162ff.
  4. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50, vol. 2, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 173ff; Mathews, Gen. 11:27-50:26 (NAC), 1B:81; Sarna, Gen. (JPS), 1:177ff; Wenham, Gen. 16-50 (WBC), 2:167ff.
  5. Mathews, Gen. 11:27-50:26 (NAC), 1B:81–2; Wenham, Gen. 16-50 (WBC), 2:332ff.
  6. Arnold, Gen. (NCBC), 1:228ff; Brueggemann, Gen. (Interpretation), 204ff; Hamilton, Gen. 18-50 (NICOT), 2:173ff; Mathews, Gen. 11:27-50:26 (NAC), 1B:82; Sarna, Gen. (JPS), 1:197ff; Westermann, Gen. 12-36, 15ff.
  7. Arnold, Gen. (NCBC), 1:311ff; Brueggemann, Gen. (Interpretation), 288ff; Hamilton, Gen. 18-50 (NICOT), 2:403ff; Sarna, Gen. (JPS), 1:254ff; Wenham, Gen. 16-50 (WBC), 2:343ff.
  8. Arnold, Gen. (NCBC), 1:192; Brueggemann, Gen. (Interpretation), 177; Mathews, Gen. 11:27-50:26 (NAC), 1B:81; Sarna, Gen. (JPS), 1:145–6; Wenham, Gen. 16-50 (WBC), 2:76; Westermann, Gen. 12-36, 330.
  9. Mathews, Gen. 11:27-50:26 (NAC), 1B:81; Sarna, Gen. (JPS), 1:145–6.
  10. Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 46–7.
  11. Brueggemann, Gen. (Interpretation), 188; Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 47; Hamilton, Gen. 18-50 (NICOT), 2:99; Sarna, Gen. (JPS), 1:150.
  12. Arnold, Gen. (NCBC), 1:204; Mathews, Gen. 11:27-50:26 (NAC), 1B:283; Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 301; Westermann, Gen. 12-36, 357.
  13. Wenham, Gen. 16-50 (WBC), 2:112.
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