We’re up to one of those famous stories in the bible. The “Binding of Isaac”, as it is generally called, is almost as well known as Noah’s Ark or the Parting of the Red Sea and it does so without cute animals or Charlton Heston. In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to Him, only to relent at the last moment and provide a ram to use instead. Because of his commitment to God, Abraham proves himself worthy again to be the patriarch of the future Israel.
This test and validation narrative is a good one, but a careful reading shows that God wasn’t demanding an empty sacrifice of Abraham. Although Isaac was spared the knife, God dealt Abraham a tremendous hidden sacrifice: a family, a father and son, walked up the mountain together but two strangers walked down. In one stroke, Abraham’s family was shattered. He, his son, and his wife would never be together again.
Read on for more.
Let’s start with a recap.
And it came to pass after these things [Abraham’s treaty at Beersheba], that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’ And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’
God doesn’t mince words, but he does say more here than it might seem. God has commanded Abraham to do the unthinkable: travel to the “land of Moriah” and sacrifice his only remaining son on a mountain. But the choice of words is key to the type of sacrifice that Abraham is about to make: He says “thine only son“. Has God (or a biblical redactor) forgotten Ishmael? Is this story somehow out of sequence? I don’t think so. I think this is God’s way of emphasizing the sacrifice that Abraham is about to make. On God’s will, Abraham has already “sacrificed” his relationship with Hagar and Ishmael. The stress on only serves to remind Abraham and us that no, he wasn’t his only son. I take this a step father because it connects the loss that Abraham had with his son and concubine with the loss that he will shortly have with Isaac and Sarah: exile rather than death. (There’s also some fun things to think about with the reference to Moriah, but that will have to wait for another post.)
And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men: ‘Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and come back to you.’ And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: ‘My father.’ And he said: ‘Here am I, my son.’ And he said: ‘Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ And Abraham said: ‘God will a provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
Abraham travels with a small company of two men and his son to Moriah, a three-day journey. Notice that Abraham takes it on himself to cut the wood for the offering– it would have been sadly ironic (and perhaps a Christian pre-echo) if Isaac had been made to help as well. When they reach the top of the mountain, Abraham binds his son on an altar of wood and prepares the knife for the killing blow. Abraham doesn’t hesitate. Isaac doesn’t struggle.
And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’ And he said: ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.’ And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: ‘In the mount where the LORD is seen.’
And suddenly, deus-ex-heaven, an angel appears and stops the sacrifice. It was all a test, of course! The angel provides a ram to be used as an offering instead of Isaac. The crisis was over, the mountain was given a new name, and everything could return to normal.
Except… it doesn’t. The writing really wants you to, even encourages you, to feel that this is a happy ending. Only in a close reading of the subsequent chapters do you realize something is wrong: the family has split up. Only Abraham is described as returning the way that he came, to Beersheba.
So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.
Where we last left Sarah, she was in Beersheba as well. But fast-forward a few days or a few years and now Abraham and Sarah are separated: she has gone off to Hebron.
And Sarah died in Kiriatharba—the same is Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.
Why wasn’t Abraham with Sarah? Was this a brief parting, such as her visiting a long lost relative or Abraham traveling on a business trip? Possibly. The bible is silent on why Sarah was in Hebron and why Abraham had to travel to mourn for her. Were they divorced? Certainly not– Genesis 23 is explicit that she was his “dead wife”. But were they separated? Having a marital spat over the near death of their son? We can only speculate.
What about Isaac? We know he didn’t return to Beersheba with Abraham, so where did he go? The next chapters reveal him as being a bit of a nomad, but with a very clear subtext to his wanderings. Genesis 24 tells us that Isaac was off in “the South” soon after his mother’s death, when the wounds of his heart were still open (but that’s another post):
And Isaac came from the way of Beer-lahai-roi; for he dwelt in the land of the South.
A chapter later, Isaac is again at Beer-lahai-roi after his father’s death.
And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son; and Isaac dwelt by Beer-lahai-roi.
What is so special about Beer-lahai-roi where Isaac went after his trial on the mountain? The bible doesn’t say, but it does HINT at a possible answer. What other famous event happened only a few chapters ago in Beer-lahai-roi? This is where Hagar fled while she was pregnant with Ishmael, where she spoke to God for the first time and He told her to return to Abraham. Could it be that after Hagar and Ishmael were cast out, that one or both of them settled there? In Isaac’s time of need, did he come to heal with his older brother? It’s poetic to think that even though Abraham lost his family, that Isaac may have regained part of his. The bible doesn’t say, but it’s too much of a coincidence for me that Isaac would end up there in his times of need.
Of course, the bible doesn’t say any of this, not really. There are plenty of blank spaces between stories where Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac could have been a family again. And yet, I can’t help but think that Abraham’s sacrifice was a true one.
Update: I made a small error in reading Genesis 25. This has now been corrected.
Up next: Musing on Moriah