Now that the text has been analyzed and situated in its proper context, the final step of the interpretive process is to apply it to Christians today. To do this, the original application will be considered, and apologetic issues addressed before it is applied to today’s readers.
As the meaning of this passage is considered, this paper will analyze the original characters for their response, interpret how the original audience would have understood this passage, consider apologetic issues, and finally apply it to today’s audience.
Original Characters in this Passage
There are five main characters in this passage: Yahweh, the angel of the Lord, Abraham, Isaac, and the two servants. However, special focus will be given to the two main non-divine characters—Abraham and Isaac.
First, Abraham learned about Yahweh’s faithfulness. He had heard the promises of God—to make him and his clan into a mighty nation. Therefore, why would he renege on those promises? This test proved that Yahweh would remain faithful to him and his promises. He also learned about how faithful he is to Yahweh. If Abraham lacked faith in God, it would have been easy for him to flake on the obligation and preserve his son. However, trusting in Yahweh and his intentions for Abraham, he rose early the next morning and prepared to sacrifice his son. Yahweh, though he delivered a hard test, dealt graciously with Abraham. Yahweh, knowing that this command would be awkward for Abraham to hear and carry out, added na’ to the end of his command. While there are various interpretations about this particle, it seems to indicate a form of politeness. Therefore, God dealt kindly with Abraham in his request, rather than coldly commanding him.
Isaac learned about dedication to the Lord. Halfway through the narrative, Isaac asks Abraham where the sacrifice was since they had all the tools. Abraham simply replied that the Lord would provide. Now, Isaac matured in years, so it seems highly dubious that he accepted that answer on face value, especially if they had made sacrifices together before. It seems more likely that Isaac was witnessing his father’s faithfulness to their God. He also started to understand how he fit into God’s redemptive plan. As noted, Isaac did not travel with the band back to Beer-sheba. Shortly after this encounter, the Abrahamic narrative concludes, and it picks up with Isaac. From this encounter, Isaac began to learn about God’s redemptive plan and even what would be required for redemption. Yahweh, though putting him in the awkward position of being a sacrifice, delivered him from death. Isaac could continue living and start his own family, thus carrying out the covenantal promise that Abraham’s family would be as the sand on the shore and the stars in the sky.
The central theme in this narrative is faithfulness. Specifically, God’s faithfulness to his people. The original audience would have been the wilderness generation—those who have vacated the land of Egypt and are on their way to the promised land. However, the people struggled to know whether God would make do on their promise. Regularly, they grumbled about food, water, and being lost. This story of God’s faithfulness to one of their patriarchs serves as an example to a lost and grumbling people to not give up hope. If God, after years of bareness, provided Abraham and Sarah a son, and he brought this son to the brink of death and they received him back alive, then they, too, will be brought into the land.
To those reading this passage without Christian presuppositions, this narrative is strange due to the dissonance it involves. God, who values life and requires animal sacrifices, commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, who he gave after years of barrenness. This is certainly a hard passage to understand—and takes more time to study than the space afforded to it already. Many have attempted to explain how Abraham went through with it, like Søren Kierkegaard’s argument that the typical moral obligations are suspended. This suspension results in two Abrahams: “the knight of faith” who obeys God, and “the ethical Abraham” who obeys the moral law. While Kierkegaard makes a compelling argument, it leaves much to be desired. Namely, it does not resolve how God could command such an action. Victor P. Hamilton makes a compelling argument for this passage:
In the case of Gen. 22, if one focuses exclusively on v. 2, then God appears to be deceptive, irrational, and self-contradictory, if not cruel. If one focuses, however, on the whole narrative — the provision of the ram, the command to Abraham not to let the knife fall, and the subsequent promises to obedient Abraham — then the view of God that emerges is quite different.
Often, when this objection comes up, it views the facts in isolation—it often considers the original command without considering the nature of God and the rest of the narrative. God, who is sovereign over all things, planned the outcome of this event. Therefore, from before this event, to the start, to the end, God was in control. When he commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he did not issue this command haphazardly, but with the express intention of testing and confirming Abraham’s faith.
This passage applies to the church today by remembering God’s faithfulness. Amid wars, rumors of wars, pandemics, divisions, financial ruin, it is easy to forget that God is with us and orchestrating all things for our good. Just as Abraham followed God out of his country into an unknown one and almost sacrificed his child, the church today should pursue God that closely. However, this passage is not calling the church to be faithful out of its own volition. Instead, Gen. 22 calls the church to rely on God to be faithful to his people amid turmoil.
The original promise to Abraham was fulfilled. God sent his only Son Jesus to kickstart the work of redemption. All things in this life are ending in a culmination of God’s work in his world. He will refine everything and recreate his people and world into a new people and creation. Until then, the church relies on Jesus’ active obedience to terry until the end of days.
- Brueggemann, Gen. (Interpretation), 194.
- Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 47; Hamilton, Gen. 18-50 (NICOT), 2:101; Wenham, Gen. 16-50 (WBC), 2:104.
- Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 45.
- Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 43.
- Hamilton, Gen. 18-50 (NICOT), 2:104.
- Hamilton, Gen. 18-50 (NICOT), 2:105–6.