While understanding how this passage contributes to God’s overall plan of redemption is important, it is equally vital to understand the historical context of the contents in the passage as well as the original audience.
When the Events of the Passage Occurred
It is difficult to determine precisely when the events of this passage occurred. Some have tried to date the passage based on verse 1 along with Isaac’s ability to carry wood (which suggests he grew up and possessed physical strength).However, since Moses did not record specific temporal markers, he obviously wanted the readers to focus more on the test than when it occurred. Now, while Moses did not concern the readers with specific dates, there are two details that he provides that help the readers understand what the culture wrestled with along with the history of interpretation from others.
Older forms of exegesis understood this passage to occur during a time when the various ancient near eastern cultures were switching from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. Therefore, in God’s accommodation to his people, he used cultural realities to express his values concerning sacrifice. While understanding God’s requirement to provide animal sacrifice rather than human is important, verse 1 indicates that this is not the point of the text. This verse emphasizes that God is testing Abraham and not demonstrating to his readers why they should sacrifice animals.
The mountain Abraham and his band travel to is unnamed. In fact, the mountain remains anonymous to the reader until Abraham “lifts up his eyes” and sees it. However, after Abraham and Isaac are delivered and a proper sacrifice is given, Abraham names the mountain Moriah which means “‘God reveals himself’ or ‘God sees.'” The whole test assessed whether Abraham had faith in God and his promises—even when the promise appears to be extinguished before his eyes. When God “sees” that “[t]he execution, right to the very end, deviates not a bit from God’s command,” he knew that Abraham feared God. Therefore, he provided a substitute sacrifice rather than his one and only son whom he loved.
When the Passage was Written
Affirming Mosaic authorship, he most likely recorded this story after the exodus took place and before they entered the promised land, most likely in the wilderness period. First, the Israelites need to know that Yahweh their God is faithful to them as he was to their patriarchs. The Israeli people entered uncertain times in uncertain lands. They needed to trust God and that he would fulfill his plans for them rather than leaving them to be destroyed. Second, during times of syncretism, testing would sift out whether the people would follow God or not. This test proved vital as Israel entered foreign lands and interacted with people who did not follow Yahweh—would they remain faithful to the true God, or abandon him and pursue others? Finally, they needed to know their history. Israel, coming out of centuries of oppression and indoctrination by the Egyptian people risked losing knowledge of who they were. Moses needed them to know who their forefathers were and God’s promises to them. This knowledge would enable Israel to live out their identity as the people of God and the fulfillment of his covenant.
- Hamilton, Gen. 18-50 (NICOT), 2:100.
- Arnold, Gen. (NCBC), 1:200; Sarna, Gen. (JPS), 1:151; Wenham, Gen. 16-50 (WBC), 2:105; Westermann, Gen. 12-36, 357–8.
- Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 48; Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1996), 160; Waltke and Fredricks, Gen., 310; Westermann, Gen. 12-36, 364.
- Westermann, Gen. 12-36, 360.
- Hamilton, Gen. 18-50 (NICOT), 2:101.
- Wenham, Gen. 16-50 (WBC), 2:105. Disagrees.
- Brueggemann, Gen. (Interpretation), 190; Wenham, Gen. 16-50 (WBC), 2:103.
- Arnold, Gen. (NCBC), 1:209. Disagrees: Brueggemann, Gen. (Interpretation), 185.