In Chapter 21 Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac. All is not rosy, however. Sarah sees Ishmael playing with her son and she's not happy. Ishmael's mother Hagar, we're now told, is an Egyptian. Abraham obviously acquired her when Sarah was servicing the Pharaoh. She tells her husband to get rid of the girl. She's afraid Ishmael will get some of Isaac's inheritance. Abraham is reluctant "because of his son" – that's interesting – he obviously has affection for Ishmael – but the Lord tells him to do what Sarah asks, He'll make a nation of Ishmael.
Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away, provides them with bread and water, and they head into the desert. They're dying of thirst, Hagar sits down some distance from Ishmael – about the distance of a bowshot the text reads, that's very precise – because she doesn't want to see her child die, then God hears Ishmael crying, so he sends an angel to tell Hagar to have faith because Ishmael is going to be the patriarch of a great nation, whereupon – lo and behold – a well magically appears and they're rescued. Ishmael grows – "God is with him" the text states, he dwells in the wilderness, becomes an expert archer, marries an Egyptian, and that's almost the last we hear of him.
The Ishmael story is followed by an account of a squabble about possession of a well between Abraham and a man called Abimelech. It's an interesting juxtaposition – two well stories side by side. It's the explanation for the name Beer-sheba, "Well of the Oath."
In Chapter 22 God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The story begins, "After these things God tested Abraham." We're not told why God decides to test Abraham. We might think he's been tested enough already. And the next sentence reads: "He said to him, Abraham." One of the striking features of this story, like many in Genesis, is its extreme economy. No superficial details – in fact hardly any details at all. "Here I am," Abraham replies, meaning in effect, I'm at your service.
Once God has got Abraham's attention, He says, "Take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I'll show you." Note the repetition: your son, your only son, the one whom you love. The author is making a heavy point. This is a terrible command. Abraham only has one son now in effect, he's waited years for that son, he loves him dearly, and now he has to sacrifice him to God "as a burnt offering" – what a terrible image!
And what's Abraham thinking? Who knows? Does he have a sleepless night? Does he tell Sarah? All that follows is "Abraham rose early in the morning." He and Isaac set off accompanied by two young men – presumably slaves – and a donkey, evidently laden with the wood for the burnt offering. What makes the story – for me – all the more terrible – is that it takes the party three days to reach the place that God has appointed for the sacrifice to take place. What, I wonder, did father and son talk about all that time? When they arrive, Abraham leaves the young men to look after the donkey – they're obviously not in on the act – and he loads Isaac with the wood – that's another terrible image – while he himself brings the fire and a knife.
And then a brief conversation strikes up between father and son, and it's very interesting how it begins. "Isaac said to Abraham his father, "Father." And he said, "Here I am, my son." We surely haven't forgotten that Abraham is Isaac's father, but the author emphasises Abraham's agony by referring to him needlessly, so to speak, as "his father." Then to make the point yet more insistently, Isaac refers to Abraham as his father, and Abraham refers to Isaac as his son. Be in no doubt whatsoever, the author is stating: God is demanding that a father sacrifice his son. Note too that sentence, "Here I am." That's what Abraham said to the Lord when he addressed him. Then Isaac asks his father the obvious question: where's the sheep we're going to sacrifice? And Abraham replies – cryptically – God will provide the lamb, my son. "Son" yet again.
They reach the place that God has marked out for the sacrifice. Abraham builds an altar, lays wood on it and then binds Isaac. He then places him on top of the wood. We're not told at what point the penny drops and Isaac realises he's to be the sacrifice. Does he resist when his father binds him? Or does he accept that he has to play his part? What exchange takes place between father and son at this point? Nothing is revealed. We don't know how old Isaac is, but he's obviously old enough to know what a sacrifice is.
Well, the story has a happy ending, of course. Just as stretches out his hand in preparation to killing Isaac, an angel of the Lord calls him by name. And again he says, "Here I am." "Leave the lad alone. You've passed the test". That's a slight paraphrase. And the Lord does provide an alternative victim. Abraham sees a ram whose horns have been caught in a thicket and he sacrifices the ram instead. Then the Lord renews His covenant with Abraham, which we now learn seems to have been conditional upon him passing this test. He also tells Abraham that his descendants will prevail against their enemies – the first time he has promised them victory in war.
Then father and son return to his servants. What on earth does Abraham say to Sarah when he returns?
So what is the takeaway? Most obviously that God demands total obedience. Whatever, or rather whoever is most precious to you, you must be prepared to give up, because devotion to God takes precedence over devotion to any human being.
When I teach this story to students, some of them go down the road of saying that Abraham knew that God would provide an alternative sacrifice from the get-go. That's possible, of course. The elliptical nature of the narrative allows us many interpretations of motivation on both sides. But the story loses its force if Abraham knows from the beginning that God will let him off the hook.
Is the story about obedience or about faith? If it's about faith, then, yes, Abraham is confident God will spare Isaac. If it's about obedience, he isn't. However, the Lord's judgement on Abraham – "because you have not withheld your son, I will bless you, etc." – strongly suggests it's about obedience.
Living in the age we do, we obviously have problems with people who do terrible things in the belief that they are performing God's will, and this inevitably complicates our response to the story, which for me remains one of the most chilling in the Hebrew Bible. In the next lesson we'll follow Isaac's life as he searches for a wife.