Lesson 9: Abraham 1; Genesis 15-17, 21-22
I am going to focus on Genesis 22 this week rather than try to provide questions for all four chapters. As you can well imagine, the scholarly literature on Genesis 22 is enormous, thousands and thousands of pages. I don’t pretend even to have dipped into that literature. At the most I’ve wetted the tip of my finger, so I cannot pretend to do much justice to the piece I’m focusing on, much less to three additional chapters.
Verse 1: Chapter 22 begins by explicitly referring back to the events of chapter 21: “after these things.” It seems that Moses wants us to understand chapter 22 in relation to chapter 21. Genesis 21 tells of the promised birth of Isaac, and of Ishmael and Hagar being cast out. It also tells of the covenant that Abraham made with Abimelech. The first two of these stories are clearly background to the sacrifice in chapter 22, but are they any more than that? What insight into the story might they give us? Also, why is the story of Abraham and Abimelech included? What does that story teach us? How might it help us understand chapter 22? The story also appears to be written in such a way as to remind us of Genesis 12:1. What might that connection teach?
The word Elohim is used in the first sentence of the verse (with a definite article). Of what significance is it that he (presumably the Father), and not Jehovah (the Son), poses this test? Notice the footnote in the LDS edition of the scriptures. In 16th and 17th century English, the word “tempt” meant not only “to allure,” as it does today, but also “to test” or “to try.” Why would the Lord need to try Abraham? Does Abraham know that this is a test? Consider some other tests in the Old Testament: Exodus 15:25, 16:4, 20:20; Deuteronomy 8: 2, 16; Judges 2:22; 1 Kings 10:1; Daniel 1:12-14. Does seeing what are considered tests (or “proofs”) in those cases help us understand what the Lord means here?
“Behold, here I am” means, literally, “See me here.” In Arabic, even today a person answers a call with something similarâ€””Ready”â€”and that is part of the import of this response. In scriptures we find this phrase commonly used when prophets respond to a call. (For other examples of the phrase, see verse eleven of this chapter, Genesis 27:1, 18; 31:11; and 46:2; Exodus 3:4; 1 Samuel 3:4, 5, 6, 8, and 16; Isaiah 6:8; and 2 Nephi 16:8. We also see it in Moses 4:1 and Abraham 3:27, in the calling of the Savior and in Satanâ€™s rebellion.) Compare what happens here to 1 Samuel 12:3, where we see the same kind of language in another case, and Genesis 3:9-10 and Exodus 20:18-21, where we see cases in which people donâ€™t respond to a call from the Lord in this way. What might be the scriptural import of this response?
Verse 2: The verb translated “take” could also have been translated “please take.” That is rare in a divine command. Why is it part of this command? Is this really a command, or is it a request? Could Abraham have refused? Could he do as he did for Sodom and Gomorrah and bargained with God? If not, why not?
There is a traditional Jewish story told of this verse: God said, “Take thy son.” Abraham said, “But I have two sons!” God said, “Whom thou lovest,” and Abraham said, “But I love them both.” God said, “Even Isaac.” The writer shortened everything by giving us only Godâ€™s words. What problem is this story designed to solve? Are there other answers to that problem? Why is Isaac said to be Abrahamâ€™s only son? What about Ishmael? (The Hebrew is emphatic about him being the only son.) Similarly, why is the Savior said to be the Fatherâ€™s only son? Arenâ€™t we also the children of our Father in Heaven? Does thinking about the question in Abrahamâ€™s case help us understand the question in the second case? Why does the Lord add “whom thou lovest”? Is that written for us or for Abraham? If for us, what does it do to help us understand the story? If for Abraham, why does the Lord remind him of his love of Isaac?
Why doesnâ€™t the Lord tell Abraham which mountain he is to go to? Why wait to tell him? We don’t know for sure where the “land of Moriah” was. The temple mount is named Moriah. (See 2 Chronicles 3:1.) Perhaps the region of Moriah contained what would become the temple mount, but we don’t know. Though the Septuagint (a very early translation of the Old Testament into Greek) calls the land “the high land.” However, the temple mountain is more a hill than a mountain. Some have seen a connection between the word “Moriah” and the word “myrrh,” one of the incenses used in the temple. Why would the sacrifice of Isaac be so closely connected with the ancient temple? What connections might it have to the modern temple? Besides the possible connection between “myrrh” and “Moriah,” some connect the word “Moriah” to the Hebrew word for sight or vision (mrâ€™h). (For example, the Vulgate, an early Latin translation, calls Moriah “the land of vision.”) Does the sacrifice of Isaac have anything to do with vision? Does the ancient temple? Does the modern temple? Still others connect “Moriah” to the Hebrew word for “teaching.” What has that to do with the ancient temple? The modern? It is not uncommon for people to say that they learn a great deal in the temple? What do they mean? About what do they learn?
“Offer him there for a burnt offering”: The Hebrew says, literally, “take him up there for (or â€˜asâ€™) a burnt offering.” Though the wording is the wording one would use to tell someone to make a sacrifice, the Hebrew is more ambiguous than the English; it is less obvious in Hebrew that a blood sacrifice is demanded. Some of the ambiguity can be seen in an alternate translation: “Offer him as a burnt offering.” What do we make of this ambiguity? How does what the Lord commands here compare to what we see recorded in Judges 11:31-40, and 2 Kings 3:27 and 17:17? How would Abraham’s experience (Abraham 1:12) have made him feel about this commandment?
In English, the word “sacrifice” is closely related to “sacrify,” meaning “to make sacred.” We often think of sacrifice as giving something up, but it isnâ€™t necessarilyâ€”except that to recognize something as holy is no longer as claiming that it belongs to me. In what sense or senses was Isaac sacrificed?
Verse 3: Why does Moses tell us that Abraham rose “early in the morning”? Why doesnâ€™t he tell us anything at all about how Abraham felt or what he was thinking? This events in this verse are out of sequence: Abraham arose, he saddled the ass, he took his servants and Isaac with him, he cut some wood, he rose up, they went to Moriah. The expected sequence would have Abraham cut the wood before saddling up the ass before or leaving with the young men and Isaac. Why do you think that Moses has given the events this order? Though we see here that Abraham has at least two servants, and earlier scriptures tell us that he has many servants, Abraham saddles his own ass and cuts the wood for the sacrificial fire himself. Why? Does that tell us anything about Abraham? And, why is that an important part of the story of the sacrifice? Why does Abraham take two servants with him?
Verse 4: In this story we see only three gestures, here and in verses ten and thirteen, so I assume that when the gestures are mentioned they are important to the story. Why does it say that Abraham “lifted up his eyes”? (Is the name of the mountain relevant?) Abraham was looking at a mountain, but it was a long way off and, if the tradition is correct about it being the temple mount, it wasnâ€™t much more than a large hill, so it would not have been the physical geography that made him lift up his eyes. What is the writer telling us? Is there any significance to the fact that the trip takes three days? If so, what is it? (Compare Genesis 31:22, 40:20, and 42:18.) Given that the trip took three days, why donâ€™t we see even one detail regarding it? Are there any parallels to this that might be instructive? Does this detail tell us anything about Abraham or about the sacrifice itself?
Verse 5: Why does Abraham not want the servants to accompany him? Is the fact that Moses went up Mount Sinai alone relevant? (See Exodus 19 and 24.) Though not as explicit in English as in Hebrew, notice that Abraham unwittingly prophesies what will come: “I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” He tells them “we will come again to you.” What is the point of this unintentional prophesy? In other words, what is it supposed to tell us, as readers? The word translated “worship” means literally “to bow low.” This is a much weaker term than “make an offering.” Is Abraham weakening in his resolve? Why does he describe what will happen with that term? There are at least four ways that a person who didn’t already know the story could understand what Abraham is doing: he could be deceiving them about his real purposes so that they would not interfere with him; he could be understood not to be deceiving anyone, but to not plan to kill Isaac; we could read him as affirming his faith: “I don’t know how this is going to work out, but I know that God will not make me annihilate Isaac, the child through whom God has promised that my blessings will come. So I know that we both will return.” Given the story as Moses has written it, which do you think is the best interpretation? In any case, what has bowing low to do with worship? What does bowing symbolize? Are there scriptures which indicate that worship involves what bowing symbolizes? How about Mosiah 4? If Mosiah 4 is an appropriate comparison, how does it help us understand this better? How does this help us understand Mosiah four better?
Verse 6: Notice how the writer alternates: details in verse 3, none in verses 4 and 5, and details again in this verse. Why give us details in those places and not between? What purposes do the details serve? To help you think about the details and what they do, notice that the word translated “knife” could also be translated “cleaver.” It may mean, specifically, a butcher knife. (Compare Judges 19:29, where the same word is used.) How would that different translation change how we read this verse? For more understanding of the impact of that difference in translation, read about what was done with the sacrificial animalâ€”see, for example, Leviticus 1:3-9. Notice the parallel between Christ carrying his own cross and Isaac carrying the wood for the sacrifice. Why would such a parallel be important to Moses, the writer? Why does the writer make such a point of Abraham and Isaac being together at the end of this verse?
Verse 7: Why does the writer repeat the word “father” and then contrast it with the word “son”? What effect does that create? What does that repetition and contrast teach us? Notice that in this story Abraham consistently refers to Isaac as “my son,” rather than by name. Abraham answers his son in the same way he answered the Lord. What might that show? What is Isaacâ€™s reaction to the situation he finds himself in? When do you think Isaac understood what was to happen, now or later, in verse nine? Why? Based on the age of Sarah at her deathâ€”which occurs immediately after this storyâ€”tradition has it that Isaac was thirty to thirty-five years old at the time of the sacrifice. In verse 12 Isaac is called a n’r, which is translated “babe” in Exodus 2:6 and “young man” in 2 Samuel 14:21, so the Hebrew word doesn’t help answer the question. If Isaac was older, perhaps even as old as thirty or thirty-five, how would that change our understanding of the story?
Verse 8: “God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering”: Like most prophecy and much scripture, there are several levels at which this phrase can be understood. Among them are:
1. Like his comment in verse 5, it could suggest that Abraham is deceiving his son (though, unlike verse 5, if we read it in that way, there is no suggestion that Abraham is going to disobey the commandment).
2. It can mean what Isaac (correctly) thinks it means, that the Lord will provide a lamb they can use.
3. It can mean what Abraham thinks it means, that Isaacâ€”provided by God in the matter of his birth, and now (Abraham thinks) provided by God in the matter of his deathâ€”will be the sacrifice.
4. It can be Abrahamâ€™s unknowing prophesy of what we read later (verse thirteen).
5. It can be a prophesy of the Atonement, provided by the Father for the redemption of all mankind.
Which of these possibilities help us think about the meaning of Abrahamâ€™s sacrifice? How do they help us understand Christ? How do they help us understand our own lives? This verse, like verse 6, ends with “they went both of them together.” Verse 6 listed the implements of the sacrifice, then ended with this phrase. Verse 7 takes up the question of the victim of the sacrifice. Then verse 8 takes up the answer to that question, ending with the phrase, “they went both of them together.” The parallels are so deliberate that they cannot be coincidence. What is going on here? The phrase “God will provide” is the turning point of this story. Could it also be something like a thesis statement for the story? How is that phrase a response to the test that Abraham has been given?
Verse 9: We saw absolutely no details of the journey, why does the writer give us details when they get to the mountain? The traditional Hebrew name for this event is the akedah, meaning “the binding,” rather than “Abraham’s sacrifice” or some other variation that we use. Why was the binding of Isaac so important to the Jews that the whole event could be named after it? What kinds of things can “binding” mean? Do those meanings have anything to do with the ancient temple? With the modern temple? Compare and contrast the different things that these different names for the story tell us.
Verse 10: The word “slay” translates a Hebrew word that could also be translated “slaughter.” In most cases, it means “to kill in a ritual manner.” (The same word is used in Leviticus 1:5 and 6:25.) Why is it important that the writer use that word here? Here the second gesture of the story appears: “Abraham stretched forth his hand.” (The first was when Abraham lifted his eyes in verse 4.) What does that gesture show us? Does this gesture say something about Abrahamâ€™s attitude? Notice that this verse and verse 9 use very short phrases: “came to the place,” “laid the wood in order,” “bound Isaac,” “laid him on the altar,” “stretched forth his hand,” “took the knife to slay his son.” What is the effect of this staccato pattern?
Verse 11: In verse 1, God gave Abraham the commandment, but in this verse the commandment not to sacrifice Isaac is delivered by an angel, the angel of Jehovah. What might Abrahamâ€™s reaction have been? What kinds of things does this show us? Why is the original commandment given by the Father, but the reversal of that commandment given by an angel of the Son? Why does the angel call Abrahamâ€™s name twice? In verse 1, the Lord called him only once. What might the repetition show?
Verse 12: Why does the angel repeat the injunction not to hurt Isaac? What does it mean to fear God? Does this story help us understand that by showing us? Do we see any evidence of what we might mean by “fear” in this story? Why do you think English uses the word “fear” for this attitude of awe and respect before God? What does it mean to say that Abraham hasnâ€™t withheld his son from Jehovah?
Verse 13: Here the third gesture occurs, and it is the same gesture as the first one: “Abraham lifted up his eyes.” What does lifting his eyes indicate? Does the parallel to verse 4 help us understand either one of these better? The ram, of course, is the traditional burnt offering. (See Leviticus 1:10-13.) There is an obvious textual difficulty here: Abraham looks up and sees the ram behind him. That seems impossible. But scholars have suggested that perhaps copyists have made a mistake and written a Hebrew word for “behind” when they were reading a very similarly written Hebrew word for “solitary.” If we accept that emendation of the text, what is the point of writing “a solitary ram” rather than just “a ram”? The Joseph Smith Translation deals with the problem by putting the ram behind the thicket: “Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind a thicket, there was a ram” (JST Genesis 22:16).
Verse 14: Notice that there is a double entendre in the name, Jehovah-jireh: The Hebrew phrase means literally “The Lord will see” but that can be understood to mean “the Lord will provide.” What is it the Lord has seen? What is it he has provided? (See verse 8.) You might want to do some brainstorming on this one to go beyond the obvious answersâ€”Abrahamâ€™s obedience and a ram. Remember the connection to the temple and the atonement. “Mount of the Lord” is a phrase often used in the Old Testament to refer the temple, whether on a mountain or not. Another translation of the sentence that explains the name Abraham gave the place is, “The Lord will be revealed in a mount (i.e., a temple).” (This is probably a more accurate translation than the translation given by the King James translators.) Moses tells us that people say this because of the sacrifice of Isaac and the name Abraham gave to the place of that sacrifice. Ancient Israel offered sacrifice in its temples, so the connection of this story to their temples was more obvious. (You might want to read about sacrifice in the Bible Dictionary in your scriptures.) But it might pay to think about, though not to discuss, the connection between the sacrifice of Isaac and the temple. What has this story to do with temple work? What has it to do with the seeing the Lord in the temple? How is the Lord revealed in the temple? What do we learn of sacrifice here? In the temple?
Verse 15: Why is the angelâ€™s message divided into two parts? Does the division help us focus on particular aspects of each part? Is there a difference in the messages?
Verse 16: What is the significance of the Lord saying “By myself have I sworn” (italics added)? (Compare Jeremiah 22:5 and 49:13, and Amos 4:2 and 6:8.) One medieval Jewish commentator (Nachmanides) suggests that in the phrase, “By myself have I sworn,” we see the Lord making Abrahamâ€™s calling and election sure. (Obviously, I’m using our terminology for his concepts, not his terminology.) So what? How is that relevant to us? Notice the emphasis put on Abrahamâ€™s not having withheld his only son. Why that emphasis? What does Abraham not withholding his son show? The blessing that follows in verses 17 and 18â€”already given once before (Genesis 12.2-3 and 13.14-16)â€”is said to be “because thou hast done this thing.” If it has already been given, how can it be the result of this test?
Verses 17-18: Why does the Lord say, “in blessing, I will bless thee”? What do you think the repetition of a word for blessing does for our understanding? Abraham has already received this blessing. Why repeat it? Or is this version different in some way? Why is this blessing such a desirable blessing? Why is it a blessing to have innumerable posterity? Hebrews 6:14 quotes the blessing of verse 17. Does that quotation help us understand something of what this story teaches from a Christian point of view? What does it mean to say that Abrahamâ€™s seed will possess the gates of their enemies? Who are their enemies? What are the enemies gates? What does it mean to say that all the nations of the earth will be blessed in Abrahamâ€™s seed? Compare Abraham 2:9-11 to see more clearly who Abrahamâ€™s children are. Does the end of verse 18 perhaps give us a better idea of what the Lord meant by “this thing” in verse 16?
Verse 19: The Lord has spoken to Abraham and renewed the covenant. However, we don’t see Abraham respond or Isaac be released, Isaac isn’t mentioned again in the story, and Abraham just goes back to his servants and goes with them to Beersheba. Why? At the end of chapter 21 (verse 34) we are told that Abraham lived in Hebron (the land of the Philistines). Now we are told he dwelt in Beer-sheba. Has he moved? If so, why? How would the sacrifice cause Abraham to move to a new location?
Verses 20-23: Here, within a message given to Abraham, we see Milcah’s sons. Why is this message important to Abraham as part of the story of his test? When the Bible was divided into chapters and verses, the editors could have put these verses into the next chapter, as its beginning. Do you have any ideas as to why they would think it belongs in this chapter? Why is this genealogy inserted here, between the story of the sacrifice and the account of Sarahâ€™s death? Rebekahâ€™s birth seems to be the point of the genealogy. How is that relevant to what we have just seen?
Verse 24: In contrast to verses 20-23, this list of Reumah’s sons is not something that was said to Abraham, but a comment made by the writer. Why does he think he needs this comment, and why has it been included here rather than at the beginning of the next chapter?