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Old Testament Commentary
Genesis 21-23: Abraham’s Greatest Test

[Editor’s Note: Commentaries on the Book of Moses and Genesis Chapters 1 – 10 may be found on the ScripturePlus App from Book of Mormon Central and on the Bible Central website here.]


Abraham’s Greatest Test (Genesis 21–23)

Jewish tradition speaks of the “ten” tests of Abraham,[1] but lists of what they were vary. A list compiled by the Jewish scholar Maimonides (also known by the acronym Rambam[2]) gives the tests as follows:[3]

  1. Departure from Abraham’s homeland to become a stranger in Canaan (Genesis 12:1)
  2. The famine in Canaan (Genesis 12:10)
  3. Sarah taken by Pharaoh (Genesis 12:15)
  4. The rescue of Lot in the battle of the kings (Genesis 14:14)
  5. The marriage with Hagar after Sarah could not give birth (Genesis 16:3)
  6. Abraham’s circumcision at one hundred years old (Genesis 17:24)
  7. Sarah taken by Abimelech (Genesis 20:2)
  8. Hagar sent away after Ishmael is born (Genesis 16:6)
  9. Hagar and Ishmael sent away again, this time permanently (Genesis 21:12)
  10. The near sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:2)

All the lists agree that God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was Abraham’s greatest test. In Jewish tradition this test is called the akedah (Hebrew “binding”). Widespread appreciation of difficulty of Abraham’s test and the magnificence of his response have made the term “Abrahamic test” a synonym for the most difficult trials that believers may face as a consequence of their discipleship.

What is an Abrahamic test? An Abrahamic test is, as described in Doctrine and Covenants 101:4, to be “chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son.” It is, as Elder Bruce C. Hafen termed it, to experience a “divine tutorial.”[4] Faithful responses to divine tutorials enable one’s faith to become “sufficiently strong to lay hold upon the promise of eternal life,”[5] “knowing (not believing merely) that [one has claim on] a more enduring substance.”[6] Exercising such faith requires one to “submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord” (Mosiah 24:15), even when such submission flies in the face of logic or common sense. “Many of us will say that we do not have that kind of faith,” observed Truman G. Madsen. But “I submit to you that you do not have that kind of faith until you pass that test.”[7]

President John Taylor “heard the Prophet Joseph say, in speaking to the Twelve on one occasion: ‘You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God, and (said he) God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.’”[8] Joseph Smith also said “that if God had known any other way whereby he could have touched Abraham’s feelings more acutely and more keenly he would have done so.”[9] The selfless, unflinching nature of his devotion to God had to be demonstrated beyond any doubt[10]—and by that experience Abraham would feel something of the love that the Father felt for His only begotten Son.

Sometimes the Abrahamic tests we encounter result from situations that expose or chasten our weakness (for example, Ether 12:27; Doctrine and Covenants 101:2–5). Sometimes they spring from the need to respond humbly, charitably, and patiently to the weakness or cruelty of others (for example, 1 Corinthians 8:9–13; Mosiah 24:15; Alma 27:29, 1 Nephi 19:9). Sometimes they come from a call to confront circumstances that seem impossible or incomprehensible (for example, Doctrine and Covenants 121:1–8; 122:5–7). Though we can’t know in this life, it’s possible that some of these circumstances may be ours as the result of a premortal assignment (Abraham 3:23; Doctrine and Covenants 138:53–56[11]). Often such challenges come when we’re sincerely trying to do right (for example, Matthew 5:1–11; 1 Peter 2:20, 3:17). No matter the origins of our predicament, there is only one antidote to the paralysis of doubt. According to Terryl L. Givens, we can be free of our dilemma only when we exercise “our obligation to know that [the] voice [that directs us] is emanating from a divine source.” “Once we have that assurance,” he continued, “then the rationality [of the heavenly directive] is irrelevant.”[12]

What can we learn from Abraham’s response? From Abraham, we learn that the sign of absolute faith is not found in the sequence of public motions that outwardly proclaim obedience, but rather in the perfect inner assurance that accompanies their performance, a faithful response to a divine call that cannot be seen by ordinary observers but is recognized by God.

The great Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1814–55) compared Abraham’s “leap by faith” to the leap of a skilled ballet dancer.[13] He wrote: “It is supposed to be the most difficult task for a dancer to leap into a definite posture in such a way that there is not a second when he is grasping after the posture but by the leap itself he stands fixed in that posture. Perhaps no dancer can do it—[but Abraham] does.”[14]

Of course, the poetic hyperbole of Kierkegaard exaggerates when it implies that Abraham had already achieved perfect faith. While standing in awe of his greatness, I seem to see subtle signs in the biblical story of Abraham that the latest stretch of his great soul strains him. Remember that even the incomparably perfect Jesus Christ Himself said that His “suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink.” “Nevertheless,” He continues—in words that follow a long dash that, to me, suggests that His agonies were beyond expression—“glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:18).

Our Savior, having now borne all, “will bear no more”;[15] continuing to work all things through an absolute and independent form of faith,[16] having become “perfect, even as [His] Father who is in heaven is perfect” (3 Nephi 12:48). Of course, we cannot hope in this life for such perfection, we can only strive for the ideal of faith that Kierkegaard describes. With the English poet Robert Browning, we can be comforted rather than discouraged by the thought that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”[17] As we look at those of great faith around us who have through long experience conquered doubt in situations that would have daunted us, we realize, at least, that progress is possible, that faith can become knowledge in one “thing”[18] at a time, and that practiced efforts require less effort with each repetition.

In the meantime, we of lesser faith are unable to immediately assume the posture Kierkegaard describes when we are called to do so. We are shaken by such experiences and “vacillate an instant,”[19] and our wavering proclaims the imperfection of our pose. By way of contrast, the perfectly executed leap is not one of “bravura or virtuoso display,” but rather “a refined, technically demanding kind of dance; one that capture[s] a sense of lightness and the ethereal.”[20] To the degree we continue to grow, our response to calls for faith will be, in this manner, more reflexive. Eventually, at least in smaller things, we will need no pause for preparation, no deep breath or sigh taken to muster courage and strength, but only what seems to be an immediate, effortless forward spring to bridge the chasm of earth and heaven[21]—a flying embrace of divine futurity, with no looking back (see Luke 9:57–62; 17:31–32).

I love to read Genesis 22, because it gives me a glimpse of what that kind of faith looks like better than any event in scripture except, of course, the great atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ that Abraham’s experience foreshadows.

Reading Genesis 21 helps prepare us for the story of Isaac’s binding. Bible scholar Nahum Sarna observes that the story of Isaac’s near sacrifice in Genesis 22 “is organically connected with the preceding chapter [about Hagar and Ishmael]. Abraham has lost [the company of] one son [Ishmael] and now seems about to lose the other [Isaac]. In both narratives, the child is saved by divine intervention at the critical moment, the only two biblical instances of an angel calling from heaven to human beings. In both cases there is a fortuitous discovery: a well of water in the earlier story, a ram in the thicket here.”[22]

Similarly, Genesis 23 provides a closing bracket for the three chapters. Abraham’s handling and honoring of Sarah’s passing in his acquisition of the cave of Machpelah quietly echoes the same faith and kindness evident in chapter 22 within a much more ordinary business transaction. “The sublime influence of God here reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of the sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but basically inseparable.”[23]

Like Abraham, the great figures of scripture are, in the words of Erich Auerbach:[24]

bearers of the divine will, and yet they are fallible, subject to misfortune and humiliation—and in the midst of misfortune and in their humiliation their acts and words reveal the transcendent majesty of God. There is hardly one of them who does not, like Adam, undergo the deepest humiliation—and hardly one who is not deemed worthy of God’s personal intervention and personal inspiration. … Adam is really cast down, Jacob is really a refugee, Joseph really in the pit and then a slave to be bought and sold. But their greatness, rising out of humiliation, is almost superhuman and an image of God’s greatness. The reader feels how the extent of the pendulum’s swing is connected with the intensity of the personal history—precisely the most extreme circumstances, in which we are immeasurably forsaken and in despair, or immeasurably joyous and exalted, give us, if we survive them, a personal stamp which is recognized as the product of a rich existence, a rich [personal] development [through testing].

Further Reading

Bradshaw, Jeffrey M. 2018. Part 2 of 5: The Tomb of the Patriarchs (Abraham’s Hebron: Then and Now). In

Sarna, Nahum M., ed. Genesis. The JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum M. Sarna. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, 146–61.

Related Verses

Genesis 21–23 chapter headings


The Birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:1–7)

21:1. the Lord visited Sarah as he had said. Sarna translates this as “the Lord took note of Sarah as he had promised.” He observes that this Hebrew verb is used in connection with the birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:21) and, even more momentously, becomes a major theme during the story of the Exodus. “The birth of Isaac thus marks a new and momentous stage in the unfolding plan of history.”[25]

21:3. Isaac. Sarna concludes that the reason Isaac does not receive a new name like his father Abraham and his son Jacob is because the name Isaac had already been given by God before he was born.[26]

21:4. eight days old. The age of Isaac is highlighted here because he was the first person reported to have been circumcised at the age that God had specified. In JST Genesis 17, we are given the additional information that infant circumcision at the age of eight days was that “thou mayest know forever that children are not accountable before me till eight years old.”[27]

21:6. God hath made me to laugh. Sarah’s “laughter is now joyous, in contrast to the early laugh of skepticism recorded in 17:17 and 18:12 [and following].”[28]

Further Reading

Sarna, Nahum M., ed. Genesis. The JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum M. Sarna. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, 145–46.

Related Verses

Genesis 21:1–7


Hagar and Ishmael Sent Away (Genesis 21:8–21)

21:8. the child grew, and was weaned. The age of weaning varied, but was usually when the child was two to five years old.[29] Families celebrated weaning and other major stages in a child’s life rather than following the modern idea of a fixed schedule of annual birthday celebrations.

21:9. mocking. Others translate this verb as “playing” or “laughing.” Robert Alter explains the complexities of translation for the Hebrew term metsaḥeq:[30]

The same verb that means “mocking” or “joking” in Lot’s encounter with his sons-in-law and that elsewhere in the Patriarchal narratives refers to sexual dalliance. It also means “to play.” … Some medieval Hebrew exegetes, trying to find a justification for Sarah’s harsh response, construe the verb as a reference to homosexual advances, though that seems far-fetched. Mocking laughter would surely suffice to trigger her outrage. Given the fact, moreover, that she is concerned lest Ishmael encroach on her son’s inheritance, and given the inscription of her son’s name [Isaac, laughter] in this crucial verb, we may also be invited to construe it as “Isaac-ing it”—that is, Sarah sees Ishmael presuming to play the role of Isaac, child of laughter, presuming to be the legitimate heir.

21:10. Cast out this bondwoman. Or, in Alter’s translation, “Drive out this slavegirl.” “In language that nicely catches the indignation of the legitimate wife, Sarah refers to neither Hagar nor Ishmael by name, but instead insists on the designation of low social status.”[31]

21:12. God said unto Abraham, … hearken unto her voice. Abraham’s reluctance to act prompts direction from God. The nighttime instruction followed by his rising early in the morning to follow the Lord’s command parallels the events that open the episode with Isaac in the next chapter.

21:17. And God heard the voice of the lad. The phrase both evokes the name of Ishmael and fulfills what its meaning promises—namely that “God will hear.” Up to this point, Ishmael has been called a “child.” Now, he is “referred to as na‘ar, “lad”—a more realistic indication of his adolescent status and also a term of tenderness, as in the story of the binding of Isaac in the next chapter.”[32]

21:17. called to Hagar out of heaven. “Both sons of Abraham are saved at a critical moment by an angelic ‘voice from heaven’ (compare Genesis 22:11).”[33]

21:18. I will make of him a great nation. “Unlike Isaac, Ishmael is promised only nationhood, not national territory.”[34]


The Place of Abraham and Ishmael in Islam

André Chouraqui describe the place of Abraham and Ishmael in Islam as follows:[35]

The sacrifice of the son of Abraham is of central importance in the Qur’an (37:101–11) and has an even greater importance in Islamic tradition, which identifies Ishmael as the son who was designated by God for the sacrifice. Each year Muslims commemorate Abraham’s sacrifice through the slaughtering of a sheep in a family setting where the members are united in prayer and intention with the Mecca pilgrims. The commemoration is called Eid al-Kabir [or Eid al-Adha “Feast of Sacrifice”].

Regarding the identification of the son destined for sacrifice, it seems that the Qur’an and the oldest Islamic traditions followed the Bible, while later scholars and theologians—al-Tha’labi, al-Tabari, and Baydawi, for example—suggested that it was Ishmael who was the required sacrifice, thus assigning the merits of this sacrifice to the ancestor of their people.

[In Islamic tradition,] Ishmael and his father Abraham not only built the House of Allāh [Bayt Allāh] at Mecca, but they were also the founders of the hadj, the annual pilgrimage that draws Muslims from around the world to Mecca, the center of the world, foreshadowing the Paradise of Allāh. Sura 14 [of the Qur’an], called Abraham’s sura, should be read in its entirety by anyone wishing to understand the central place of Abraham al-khalil [Abraham the friend (of God)] in Islam—he who fulfills the duty of prayer; he whose prayers are granted by Allāh (Qur’an 14:35–41).

Further Reading

Sarna, Nahum M., ed. Genesis. The JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum M. Sarna. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, 146–48.

Related Verses

Genesis 21:8–21


Abraham Secures Ownership of the Well at Beer-Sheba (Genesis 21:22–34)

Sarna summarizes and describes the import of this incident:

The last incident [of Genesis 21], which is connected with the topic of chapter 20, presupposes a knowledge of the previous encounter between Abraham and Abimelech. It assumes that the reader knows who Abimelech is and that he has treated Abraham decently (Genesis 20:15ff.; 21:23). The account of the stolen well, Abimelech’s plea of blamelessness, and the restoration of the property to the patriarch parallels the monarch’s kidnapping of Sarah, his protestation of innocence, and her return to Abraham (Genesis 20; 21:25ff.). Abimelech made Abraham a gift of sheep and oxen, and Abraham reciprocates (Genesis 20:14; 21:27); the identical formula, “took and gave,” is used in both cases.

In light of the close connection between chapters 20 and 21:22–34, the first two stories would appear to be intrusive. Yet a closer look reveals that their present position is intentional and purposeful. The relief of Sarah’s infertility through the birth of a son is juxtaposed with the removal of the infirmity that afflicted Abimelech’s household, thereby enabling the women to give birth (Genesis 20:17f.). This close association of motifs is underscored by the use of the name Sarah to close the preceding chapter and to open the present one. Finally, the action of both the second and third episodes centers around a well in the Beer-sheba area.[36]

Further Reading

Sarna, Nahum M., ed. Genesis. The JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum M. Sarna. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, 148–49.

Related Verses

Genesis 21:22–34


God Tests Abraham (Genesis 22:1–2)

22:1. God did tempt Abraham. The opening of Genesis 22 discloses to the reader something that Abraham did not know, namely that God’s request for him to sacrifice Isaac was a means to “tempt” (King James Version), “try” (Joseph Smith Translation), or “test”[37] him. By stating this purpose at the outset, the narrator of the chapter precluded “any possible misunderstanding [by the reader] that God requires human sacrifice as such.”[38] This point is especially relevant when we remember that Abraham, as a child, was nearly sacrificed in a similar manner (Abraham 1:7–15).[39] The scriptures are clear that God abhors human sacrifice; what He wanted in this instance was for “Abraham … to learn something about Abraham.”[40]

Importantly, the Hebrew text implies that God couched his request as an entreaty rather than a command.[41] This allowed Abraham to demonstrate that his willingness to comply sprang from love rather than obligation. In brief, because God has technically not commanded Abraham, Abraham “has absolute freedom of choice,”[42] as did Adam when God said, immediately after giving the commandment about the forbidden fruit, “thou mayest choose for thyself” (Moses 3:17[43]). The choice is made more painful because it comes after God’s promises have all been fulfilled. Abraham had finally received his greatest blessing in Isaac, now he was asked to give him up.[44]

Abraham was prepared for this test. He knew God’s voice through repeated experience in his previous trials. Abraham’s faith in God’s word was sure, knowing that “Jehovah could raise his son from the dead, if necessary, in order to fulfill His promise”[45] of posterity through Isaac. After God instructed Abraham to make the sacrifice, there were no long, agonizing soliloquies, no impassioned protests, no doleful mourning in anticipation of his presumed loss. Significantly, “he who was so daringly eloquent on behalf of the people of Sodom surrender[ed] in total silence to his own bitter personal destiny.”[46]

22:1. Here I am. Abraham’s simple response (Hebrew hinneni) “expresses an attitude of attentiveness and receptivity. It is the only [recorded] word Abraham utters to God in the entire episode.”[47] Describing the silence and the spare dialogue of the account, André Chouraqui writes:[48]

The narrator creates an extraordinary dramatic effect through the silence of the actors in this tragedy. The question of Isaac, “Where is the lamb?” breaks the silence for an instant to better highlight the horror of the situation. The heartbreak of Abraham is expressed by his three statements of “Here I am,” said twice to the Lord (vv. 1, 11) and once to his son (v. 7). He is fully present to each of them, but doubly present to the Lord, to whom he belongs, having given himself freely to Him.

22:2. Take now thy son. In Genesis 12, Abraham’s sudden engagement with his divine mission required a successive exit from each tie that bound him to his former life: “Get thee out (lekh lekha “Go forth”) [from] thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house” (Genesis 12:1). Nahum Sarna notes that the elements of God’s directive are “arranged in ascending order according to the severity of the sacrifice involved: country, extended family, nuclear family.”[49] Similarly, in Genesis 22, when Abraham reached the time of his greatest trial, there are “striking verbal echoes”[50] of his first call. Observe that God again uses the unusual expression for going forth (lekh lekha), which appears here for the second and last time in the Bible. God then tells Abraham describes the supreme sacrifice of Isaac in a sequence that, like his first call to leave his homeland, reflects an ascending order of emotional intensity: “your son, your favored son, Isaac, whom you love” (Genesis 22:2[51]).

22:2. Offer him there for a burnt offering. In their rapid scan of this brief description, modern readers may not experience the vivid mental picture that must have run through Abraham’s mind as he considered what the sacrifice of Isaac as a “burnt offering” (or “holocaust”) would entail. God’s command would require Abraham “to lift [the tightly bound] Isaac to the top of the altar, slit his throat, and burn him so completely that his body would be reduced to ashes.”[52]

Further Reading

Sarna, Nahum M., ed. Genesis. The JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum M. Sarna. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, 150–51.

Related Verses

Genesis 22:1–2


The Journey to Moriah and the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:3–10)

The eminent BYU expert of literary style, Arthur Henry King, underlined the importance of considering what is included and what is omitted in the inspired telling of this brief and rich story:[53]

Why … are we told so much about Abraham’s preparations for the journey—the fuel, the knife, the donkey, the two young men that assisted—and nothing whatever about his state of mind? Could it be that he was not introspecting and worrying? We have one question from Isaac in that story, and only one, but it is a very pregnant question—it is a weighed question: We have the knife, the fire, we have the wood, but where is the victim? Think how effective that question is when there is nothing whatever said about what Abraham or Isaac were thinking. Then, after the story is told, we get that bit of genealogy at the end of the chapter (vv. 20–24). Why? And why are we not told what Sarah felt? Perhaps she did not feel anything, for she may have been left in complete ignorance. Did it not occur to the writer to mention Sarah at all in that chapter? Or did he deliberately exclude Sarah from that chapter? Sarah made some important decisions in the life of Abraham, like the decision to send away Hagar. Abraham didn’t want to send Hagar away. Sarah insisted, and the Lord spoke to Abraham in the night and told him that Sarah was right and that he must send Hagar away. So why isn’t Sarah in the chapter about Isaac? I don’t suppose a modern teller of that story would have dared to leave Sarah out, but she is left out and those genealogical details are in. If we try to figure out why these things are included or excluded, we give ourselves a better chance of understanding what the story is all about.

22:3. Abraham rose up early in the morning. The Lord had issued his instructions in the night. At sunrise, Abraham carried them out, with no delay nor any word said to anyone.[54]

22:3. saddled his ass. The only hint of a temporary loss of composure by Abraham is in the confused sequence of the actions taken.[55] Normally, the wood would have been chopped first and the ass would have been saddled last. In reading the verse, we are led to wonder whether Abraham delayed as long as possible the preparation of the wood intended to consume the body of his son.

22:4. on the third day. “Three days is a typical period of preparation for something important (compare Genesis 31;22; 40:20; 42:18). Westermann notes that the mountain of God to which the Israelites sought to travel was three days’ journey (Exodus 3:18; 5:3). Indeed, the phrase “on the third day” occurs twice in the Sinai pericope (Exodus 19:11 [twice], 16).”[56] The text says nothing about the three-day journey itself. Any description of the journey would be a distraction from the tight focus of the narrative.

22:4. Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. The name of the area given in verse 2, Moriah (related to the Hebrew verb for seeing), provides an occasion for wordplay in this verse and later in verse 14.

22:5. I and the lad will come again to you. The medieval Jewish sage Rashi wrote that in saying this Abraham “unknowingly prophesied that both of them would return.”[57]

22:6. Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son. Early Christian commentators saw Isaac’s bearing of the wood of the sacrifice as a type of Jesus, also an only son, carrying His cross.[58] Expositions of traditions such as those preserved by the Jewish contemporary of Jesus, Philo Judaeus, contrasting “Abraham, the man who learned,” to “Isaac the man who was born good by nature” might have also resonated as a type of Jesus to Christians.[59]

22:7. Isaac spake unto Abraham his father. “The conversation between Abraham and Isaac on the way to the place of sacrifice is only an interruption of the heavy silence and makes it all the more burdensome. The two of them, Isaac carrying the wood and Abraham with fire and a knife, ‘went together.’ Hesitantly, Isaac ventures to ask about the ram, and Abraham gives the well-known answer. Then the text repeats: ‘So they went both of them together.’ Everything remains unexpressed.”[60]

22:8. My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering. Old Testament scholar L. Michael Morales has summarized the “rich history of rabbinical interpretation … clearly demonstrating that the sparing of Isaac was understood deeply as the sparing of Israel.”[61] In similitude of Isaac’s willing consecration to God, the children of Israel were required to consecrate themselves in like manner if they themselves wished to be spared. In the temple sacrifices of ancient Israel—which pointed back to Isaac’s arrested sacrifice and pointed forward to Jesus’ unarrested sacrifice—we are to see our own arrested sacrifice and redemption, having been spared the shedding of our own blood through the Atonement of Christ.[62]

22:9. Abraham … bound Isaac his son. In discussions of Genesis 22, Isaac is often treated as a passive foil to Abraham in his trial. But there is no doubt that in this experience Isaac—a man who possessed (we might suppose) the same apparent soberness of faith that belied the age of the young Mormon (see Mormon 1:2)—was also put to the test in this experience. Indeed, later rabbinical tradition saw explicit evidence that Abraham and Isaac were both meant to be tested in a grammatical detail of Genesis 22:2.[63] Going further, Truman G. Madsen summarizes related extrabiblical traditions to argue that Isaac’s obedience was no less voluntary than Abraham’s:[64]

If we can trust the Apocrypha, there are three details that the present narrative omits. First, Isaac was not a mere boy. He was a youth, a stripling youth on the verge of manhood.[65] Second, Abraham did not keep from him, finally, the commandment or the source of the commandment. But having made the heavy journey (how heavy!), he counseled with his son. Third, Isaac said in effect: “My father, if you alone had asked me to give my life for you, I would have been honored and would have given it. That both you and Jehovah ask only doubles my willingness.”[66] It was at Isaac’s request that his arms were bound, lest involuntarily but spontaneously he should resist the sinking of the knife.[67] Though many have assumed it to be so, only the Book of Mormon records a prophet’s words saying that this was in “similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son” (Jacob 4:5).[68]

Further Reading

Sarna, Nahum M., ed. Genesis. The JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum M. Sarna. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, 151–53.

Related Verses

Genesis 22:3–10


God Accepts the Sacrifice (Genesis 22:11–12)

22:11. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven. Sarna gives this conjecture for the reason the angel is depicted, not as having appeared on earth, but rather having called Abraham from heaven:[69]

Angels need to travel between heaven and earth, as is clear from 28:12, as well as from place to place on earth, as proved by 18:22. But the critical urgency of the moment precludes their usual personal appearance, such as made to Hagar (16:7ff.), and dictates this exceptional mode of angelic intervention, just as it did in 21:17.

22:11. Abraham, Abraham. This phrasing provides another indication that the narrator wanted to convey the haste required to stop Abraham from harming his son. “The repetition connotes both urgency and a special relationship between the one addressed and the One who calls.”[70]

22:12. For now I know that thou fearest God. “As Ramban points out, it is not that God’s foreknowledge is wanting but that, for Abraham’s sake, the quality of character that now exists only potentially must be actualized. In the biblical view, the genuinely righteous man must deserve that status through demonstrated action.”[71]

What can we learn from Isaac’s near-sacrifice? In the temple sacrifices of ancient Israel — which pointed back to Isaac’s arrested sacrifice and pointed forward to Jesus’ unarrested sacrifice — the people were to “see” their own arrested sacrifice and redemption, having been spared the shedding of their own blood through the Atonement. Harold Attridge concluded that “Isaac’s rescue from virtual death[72] on the sacrificial pyre is symbolic of the deliverance that all the faithful can expect.”[73%

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