What does Genesis chapter 22 mean?Genesis 22 contains one of the most iconic stories in all of literature: Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac. It's a troubling story for many, mostly because it is so often misunderstood. When read as part of the long, detailed story of Abraham, this is an event which reveals the depth of Abraham's trust in God, one of the qualities God values most in His people.
Sometime after the birth of Isaac, while Abraham is still living in Beersheba, God speaks to him again. This time, God comes to test Abraham's faithfulness and obedience with a very specific command. Abraham is to take Isaac to the land of Moriah. There, he is to offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains (Genesis 22:1–2). God makes the command especially poignant by acknowledging up front that Abraham loves Isaac, his only son.
Most criticisms of this story start and end here: with the idea that Abraham would ever obey such a command from God. It's important to realize, however, that this is not the first time Abraham has heard from God. Nor is it the first time Abraham has been presented with a situation he does not fully understand. However, God faithfully provided a son to Abraham, even though Abraham could not see how it was possible (Genesis 17:17; 21:1–2). God was righteous in His destruction of Sodom, saving Lot, even though Abraham didn't understand how this could happen (Genesis 18:22–23; 19:15–16). Now, Abraham has to decide if he trusts God enough to obey a seemingly impossible command, even when he does not fully understand how God plans to make things right.
Abraham doesn't hesitate. He gets up early, summons two of his servants, along with Isaac, collects enough wood for a burnt offering, and loads up the donkey. We don't know exactly how old Isaac is at this point, but he is capable of travelling without his mother (Genesis 22:3–4), asking intelligent questions (Genesis 22:7) and carrying wood for his father (Genesis 22:6). Most likely, Isaac is a teenager. The small group immediately heads out on the three-day trip to Moriah. Once there, Abraham leaves the servants and donkey behind and heads up into the hills with Isaac and the wood (Genesis 22:3–6).
Does Abraham expect God to stop him before he kills Isaac? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Hebrews 11:19 gives us a clue: "Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead." In any case, Abraham doesn't slow down even when Isaac asks where the lamb is. Abraham simply replies that the God will provide the lamb. Isaac, for his part, seems willing to cooperate with his father (Genesis 22:6–8).
After building the altar, Abraham binds Isaac and lays him on it. Before he can kill his son, though, the Lord's voice rings out from heaven commanding Abraham not to harm Isaac. The test is over. Abraham has passed: "'…now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me'" (Genesis 22:12).
A substitute sacrifice is provided in the form of a ram caught in a thicket right behind Abraham. The ram is offered, and Abraham names the mountain "The Lord will provide." Then the Lord renews and emphasizes His promises to Abraham once more, swearing by Himself. Because of Abraham's obedience, the Lord promises to bless Abraham, to multiply his offspring exponentially, and to give Abraham's offspring victory over their enemies (Genesis 22:15–17).
The Lord adds another promise: All the nations of the earth will be blessed through Abraham's offspring, something that happens unequivocally when Abraham's descendant, Jesus, becomes the means by which all may come into God's blessing of grace through faith (Genesis 22:18–19).
Genesis 22 ends with a list of the 12 children of Abraham's brother Nahor. One of those children, Bethuel, will become the father of Rebekah. Abraham's son Isaac will eventually marry Rebekah (Genesis 24), and they will father Jacob, whose children will form the tribes of God's chosen people, Israel.