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Genesis 22 in the Context of the Abraham Cycle

Read in context of Abraham’s long life, Genesis 22, the account of the averted sacrifice of Isaac, is both more profound and more profoundly perplexing.


Gen 22 presents a strange turn of events in the story of Abraham. After years of patiently waiting for a child through whom God’s promise of a mighty nation would be realized, God inexplicably commands Abraham to sacrifice that very son, Isaac. Ever obedient, Abraham sets out to do as he has been commanded, only to be told by God three days later not to carry out the sacrifice.

The episode is so jarring that Genesis 22 has often been regarded as a later addition to the Abraham story. But this suggestion fails to account for the story of Abraham in its final form, in which Genesis 22 is a transformative moment. What are we to make of Genesis 22 in light of what happened before and what will happen afterwards? Read in context of Abraham’s long life, Genesis 22 is both more profound and more profoundly perplexing than if read in isolation.

The preceding chapters of Genesis make Abraham’s silent obedience to YHWH’s shocking command all the more poignant. Abraham stood up to YHWH, argued boldly for the just treatment of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18), and raised his voice to rue the expulsion of his son, Ishmael (Gen 17:8). Now, however, Abraham sets about to fulfill YHWH’s command, rising early, and silently making his way to the mount of sacrifice with his son. Is he silent because he cannot challenge his god when a request is made to him? Or is his silence fraught with grief? Context both sharpens what is surprising about his silence and suggests possible reasons for it.

Read in context, the Akedah, the Hebrew term for the binding of Isaac, is surely the most dramatic example of what Abraham is willing to sacrifice—but in truth he has been losing family members throughout his life to follow YHWH. In Gen 12:1-9, an episode with remarkable parallels to Genesis 22, Abraham is called to leave his family and homeland, much as he is called to leave and sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22. And he does so. He relinquishes his wife in Gen 12 and Gen 15. And Ishmael is expelled from Abraham’s home in Gen 21; they will not be reunited until Ishmael returns to bury Abraham (Gen 25:9).

Reading Genesis 22 in context also focuses the reader on the relationship between Abraham and Isaac. Some are puzzled by Isaac’s question to Abraham, as they walk to the place where he is to be sacrificed: “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Gen 22:7) Is this the naïve wondering of a child—since in just the previous chapter, Isaac was born and weaned? The interpretation that reads Isaac as a youngster heightens the horror of what Abraham is about to do. The relationship may, however, be read differently in light of later chapters, in which Isaac is not a child, but a grown man: In this reading, a grown Isaac asks the question to signal indirectly his full knowledge of the test. In that case, the episode is as much a story of Isaac’s selfless devotion to YHWH’s command as of Abraham’s. 

More to the point, what does Abraham still need to prove and why is he being tested (Gen 22:1)? While the reasons why he was selected for the covenant are not revealed, he has already been given the promise unconditionally in Gen 12, in Gen 15, and again in Gen 17. In Gen 22:15-18, the divine messenger reaffirms that YHWH will make Abraham the father of a mighty nation. Why was he tested? Had he not been chosen before? Just as we are uncertain about Abraham and Isaac’s states of mind, context makes us unsure about YHWH’s as well.

The anguish of Genesis 22 is subtly developed and reinforced by reading it in context. Abraham’s special status is reaffirmed at the end of Genesis 22, but it is not clear that Isaac returns home with him, and his wife Sarah dies immediately thereafter. The sacrifice is averted, but the event marks the end of the unity of the first family of the covenant and will reverberate throughout Abraham’s life.

  • Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

    Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor is an associate professor and an award-winning teacher at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Enduring Exile: The Metaphorization of Exile in the Hebrew Bible (Brill, 2011) and is currently working on a book on the Song of Songs.