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Gen 22:1-14

Genesis 22:1-14
Background to the Book of Genesis

Literary Features:
Genesis is a fascinating book which begins with two creation accounts of the world in Gen 1-3, continues with stories about humanity in general through to the end of Gen 11 before we come to the specific journeys of Abraham. Gen 1-11 is often referred to as universal history or primeval history and is applicable to all of humanity. The genealogies enable Abraham to be descended from Adam and Eve. Indeed, another purpose of the genealogies is to divide these eleven chapters as follows into a 5-fold division:

  • Gen 2:4a heaven and earth - these are the generations of the heavens and the earth ...
  • Gen 5:1 ff Adam - This is the book of the generations of Adam.
  • Gen 6:9 Noah - And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth
  • Gen 10:1 Noah’s 3 sons - These are the generations of the sons of Noah. ...
  • Gen 11:10 Shem - These are the descendants of Shem ...

Besides the suggested division above, scholars have proposed different recurring literary patterns such as sin, speech, punishment - Gen 1-3, 4, 6-9,11 (Westermann) in Gen 1-11: von Rad includes forgiveness: sin, speech, forgiveness, punishment. Whether one wants to go along with any of the above suggestions about the literary divisions or patterns in Gen 1-11, there is almost unanimous agreement that there is a tightly formed literary pattern and we are meant read it as a unity. Creation of the world and humans is torn apart when the relationship between God and humans is told in Gen 3 and between humans and humans in Gen 4. One of the literary patterns which may be considered to not only be present in Gen 1-11, but also extend through into the remainder of the book of Genesis is that connected with the command in Gen 1:28 - ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Not only does the phrase occur in a number of places, but the lists of genealogies show that indeed the people have been fruitful and multiplied - Gen 5, 10, 11. The genealogies continue in Gen 12-50 at particular points: Gen 25:12 (These are the generations of Ishmael), Gen 25:19 (These are the generations of Isaac), Gen 36:1, (These are the generations of Esau), Gen 37:2 (These are the generations of Jacob). The genealogies not only show that God's command in Gen 1:28 has been followed, but the promises to Abraham in Gen 12:1-3, Gen 15:5 have come true. That is, Abram will have many descendants and become a great nation. At the point where each of the genealogies are listed we have the story of that person in the following chapters. Abraham in Gen 11:27-25:18: Jacob in Gen 25:19-36:43: Joseph, Judah and Jacob's family in Gen 37:1-50:26. There are a number of covenants mentioned in the Book of Genesis all of which come into the category of unconditional or promissory. Unlike the condition covenant in Exod 19 in which God seeks a response of obedience from the people, the covenants in Genesis are based on first person pronouncements by God. In Gen 9 it is an universal covenant with all living creatures, but once we move into Gen 12 the covenants are specific to Abraham and his descendants. The relationship has been set up from creation when humans were created to be in special relationship with God (Gen 1:26-27).

Attempts have been made since the 18th century to explain such things as: a different word used for God -Yahwist or Elohim: multiple versions of the same story = Abraham’s pretence, Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-18, 26:6-16: repetition within the same story = Gen 6:5-7, 11-12: contradictions - for example, Exod 20:24 gives permission to offer sacrifices at numerous altars v Deut 12:13-14 which forbids this and restricts sacrifice to one place only or Gen 7:17 in which the flood remains for 40 days v Gen 7:24 in which the flood remains for 150 days and other examples. The classic theory suggests that the Pentateuch has a number of written sources as well as the early oral traditions which account for the sort of differences mentioned above. In Gen 1-11 there is the Priestly source which can be seen in Gen1:1-2:4a, 6:9-22, some verses in Gen 7-8, 9:1-17, 10:1-7, 11:10-27 and the remaining texts come from the Yahwistic source. Some characteristics of what is know as the 'P' source are: the use of the Hebrew term toledoth/generations, the writing is sophisticated and often in a liturgical style (Gen1:1-2:4a), in the creation account God speaks and it happens, humans are made in the image of God, the covenant is unconditional and can be made with the animals, and an abiding concern to state numbers and years. The Yahwistic source uses myths and sagas to tell the story, God and animals speak (anthropomorphic), the world is very small (Gen 2:10-14) compared with the universal world of the 'P' source (Gen 1:1-2:4a).

Historical: (History within the text). Gen 12-50 tells the stories about Abram and his descendants as they move from Haran into the land of Canaan and begin wandering around the land and then into Egypt. These stories began as oral traditions passed down within the tribes long before they became part of the written tradition. It is the way many cultures remember their history, but in the Western world we became influenced by the enlightened definition of 'history' which understood 'history' as written facts from an objective viewpoint. This has caused many scholars to debate whether the Patriarchs can be proven to be true people through archaeological means. Other scholars say that this is not possible and therefore they cannot be historical people. If this argument was applied to Bedouin tribes or Australian Aboriginal people we deny them any history. History as oral tradition passed down is the history of a people, and does not need to be justified by Western values. The people are portrayed as very human with all their faults and strengths - they lie, deceive, steal, test God, they have courage, journey into the unknown, seek God, question God and are obedient. These traits apply to men and women, and many of the women (Sarah, Rebecca, Tamar) play a significant role in the working out of the promises of God. I encourage people to read these stories for themselves. After the story of Abram in Gen 11:27-25:18 the next block, Gen 11:19-36:43, tells us about Jacob and finally about Joseph in Gen 37:1-50:26. At the end of the book we are placed ready to begin the story of Moses, the release of the Hebrews from Egypt and their wanderings in the wilderness.

We know something of this period from the discoveries of the Mari Tablets - 20,000 tablets in old Akkadian of which 5,000 were official correspondence (J.Bright. A History of Israel. London: SCM Press, 57). Mari was a great city with highly sophisticated living conditions and the centre of trade. Terah and his family would have travelled through Mari to get to Haran. Mesopotamia was a centre of civilisation in the Far East in the same way that Egypt was in the Near East.

It is a period in which some people lived in cities and others lived a semi nomadic life travelling with their herds and stopping for periods, but rarely settling to an agrarian life style. We seem to have examples of both these life styles within the story of Abraham.

Context of Genesis 22:1-14
Genesis 20:8-18 is another story of an encounter between Abimelech to whom Abraham had tried to pass off Sarah as his sister in Gen 20:1-17. This time Phicol, Abimelech's army commander is present and a covenant is enacted in which the foreigners recognize that God is with Abraham and Abraham swears he will not deal falsely with the King of Gerar. Directly following this is a complaint by Abraham to Abimelech claiming that Abimelech had seized a well of water. Abimelech says he knows nothing of it so Abraham gives him sheep and covenant and they make another covenant. It is quite odd why Abraham gives the sheep and oxen, but the story names the place as Beersheba which is important to one of the early Patriarchal traditions. Several years have passed when we move forward into Gen 22 and Abraham is commanded to take Isaac to offer him as sacrifice. The immediate context for Gen 22 is that of the slave girl, Hagar, giving birth to Abram's son and the ensuing jealousy of Sarai who had mother and child exiled into the desert where Yahweh visited and made a promise about the boy's future. Gen 22:15-19 completes the story about Abraham and Isaac and we will comment about them in the following section. The chapter is completed with a genealogy of Nahor, Abraham's brother. One of those mentioned is Rebekah who becomes the wife of Isaac in a later chapter (Gen 24). Sarah's death is recounted in Gen 23 in which Abraham bought land, after some discussion, from the Hittites and the cave east of Mamre became the burial place of Sarah. Abraham is getting on as well and becomes concerned that Isaac marry from within the family and not a Canaanite woman. He makes his servant swear that he will travel and obtain a wife from his brother's family for Isaac. Story to be continued next week.

Insights/Message of Genesis 22:1-14
Literary Insights:"After these things" tells us as the hearers that there has been an elapse of time and then promptly gives us the immediate purpose of the story which is to follow. Abraham hears God and answers immediately which gives the implication that he is listening (the same response is made to Isaac in v.7). There is no response from Abraham after God makes the terrible demand on him. The repeat of the words, "your only son" in v.2 serves to remind us that Isaac is the longed for heir to the promises in Gen 12:1-3 and Abraham is being asked to sacrifice him. The language of burnt offering (Heb: ola. Holocaust) places it within the sacrificial system (Fretheim: 495), so that Abraham has no illusions about the act which he has been asked to do by God. Abraham arose early in the morning as he had done when he was about to expel Hagar from the camp (Gen 21:14). The use of the Hebrew verb, "to see" runs through this chapter in a number of places - vv.4, 8, 12, 13 and 14. Abraham sees the place for the sacrifice (v.4), God sees that Abraham is obedient (v.12) Abraham sees the ram (v.13), and the name of the mountain will be named as that which the Lord sees (v.14 - the English translates it "provides"). The various dialogues move this narrative along in very emotional ways, from God's extraordinary command in v.2 , to Abraham's command that the servants who accompany them for part of the journey are not going to be present at the sacrifice, and then Isaac's question to his father, "where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" There is a particular pathos when we read the beginning of Isaac's address - "my father" (v.7). Abraham knows the answer but avoids telling Isaac. In one of the paintings of this scene the painter has Abraham covering the face of Isaac with his hand because it is difficult to kill someone when you are looking at them. There has to some way of disassociating oneself from the humanity of the other.The verbs in v.9 delay the action and give suspense to the situation. We are unsure of the age of Isaac. In v.5 the Hebrew word means "lad" and could range from 10-20. Whatever age we hear no word of protest when he is bound, and of course no feelings recorded at the point Isaac sees the knife in Abraham's hand. The command of God in v.12 annuls the command in v.2, with the same emphasis given to the point that Isaac is regarded. Gunkel (235) says that once God found out that Abraham was God fearing then he provided the ram. In vv.11 and 15 it is the angel of the Lord who speaks - which is the same tradition as that in Gen 21. Verses 15-19 are often spoken of as an addition which reiterates that through Abraham's obedience the promises made in Gen 12:1-3 will come true indeed. The mountain as named in v.2 becomes the place on which Solomon builds his temple (Scullion: 173).

Message:The picture of God in Gen 22 in which he commands Abraham to sacrifice his "only son" as a test of his faith is not one that sits well with me. Scholars have a variety of ways of dealing with the difficulty. Fretheim (495. 497) says that "God does not intend for the command to be fully obeyed". Brueggemann (187) suggests that it is just a much a test for God as for Abraham, that while God may have some idea of the outcome there was no certainty, especially in light of the demand. God is vulnerable. Coats (162) and others ignore the picture of God portrayed in the passage. Coats is quite certain it is setting the scene for the offering of first-born, but unlike some cultures does not include child sacrifice. Fretheim (499) would disagree with Coats that it is an etiological tale, but in exile, Israel as the first born has been sacrificed and will be saved. Sarah is ignored completely in this story. She has no part in Abraham's decision to take Isaac. An article by Phyllis Trible ('Genesis 22: the Sacrifice of Sarah') has an excellent literary analysis of this passage and raises the questions about the absence of Sarah. von Rad (244) says that Abraham is being asked whether he really "understands the gift of promise as pure gift". What sort of God asks for the sacrifice of your only son - both as one who tests and one who provides. God delivers and God prohibits. There is a mystery and freedom of God. According to Brueggemann (188) testing takes place in time of apostasy and is part of the theology in OT. So, we can look at it simply as a test that Abraham passes with flying colours because he appears to be willing to sacrifice Isaac, even when it would be the death of this longed for son and the loss of the promise once more. This view is possible for those who have a deep trust in God or can live with a mystery in which God can make these sort of demands. However, there is a major crisis for those of us who have a problem with this view of God and for those outside the church who read about a God who can make this sort of demand. For some Jesus Christ was the ultimate sacrifice. God allowed Jesus to be crucified, but God was not the one who held the knife to his son. I have no problems with the idea that people of faith are tested - it is this particular test which is abhorrent to my understanding of God. If this is a particular understanding which can be left in the Old Testament then I can live with that, but I cannot hold to a view of God that would ask a parent to kill a child to prove one's faith.

When this narrative was read in the exilic community (587 BCE) it would stress two things to the exiles. The first was the need for obedience, which had been seen as the reason for their present situation, and the second that God kept his promises. As they read the whole narratives of their ancestors they can see how God, despite human interference or disobedience does honour the promises made to the people. It becomes part of the narrative of hope that as Abraham trusted God so the Israelites can trust God.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mth 10:40-42, contains no direct allusions or quotes in the Old Testament.

Resources/Worship for Genesis 22:1-14:

If you wanted any of the art which depicts this story of Abraham and Isaac it is very easy to do a search under Images in the Google search machine.


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Genesis, the author is R.W.L.Moberly, 1992. (Genesis 12-50)

Brenner, Athalya, ed. A Feminist companion to Genesis. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.
---. ed. Genesis. Feminist companion to the Bible (Second Series), 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
*Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Int. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox 1982.
Coats, George W. Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature. FOTL. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1983.
Davies, Philip R., and David J. A. Clines, eds. The world of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
*Fretheim,Terrence E. "The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections." In The New Interpreter's Bible. Vol 1. Abingdon: Nashville, 1994.
Hamilton,Victor P. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1990.
---. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50. NICOT, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1995.
Hess, Richard S., and David Toshio Tsumura, eds. I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1994.
*Moberly, R. W. L. Genesis 12-50. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.
*Rogerson, J. W. Genesis 1-11, OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1996.
Scullion, John J. Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers, and Preachers. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992.
Waltke, Bruce K., and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, c2001. Call Number: 222.11077 W237g
Wenham,Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987.
---. Genesis 16-50. WBC. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1994.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis: A Practical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1987.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: These links were updated 30/12/11

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