Akedah: The Trial of Faith

Two weeks ago, we met Abraham in the Bible. [1]
Today we’re going to see the most famous thing he did.
Philosophers have written books about it.
Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen sang songs about it.[2]
Jews and Christians and Muslims all celebrate it, in very different ways.[3]
There’s even a video game![4]

First let’s remember Abraham’s life so far.
Around 2000 years before Jesus was born, God said to him,

Leave your country, and your family, and your father’s house, and go to a land that I will show you.   Genesis 12:1

And God made Abraham a promise, in three parts.
Do you remember?

  1. The land of Israel.
  2.  A big family – as many descendants as stars in the sky.
  3. Through those descendants, God’s blessing to all the world.

A big promise, but there was a big problem.
When Abraham was 100 years old and his wife Sarah was 90,
They still had no children.

As we saw, Abraham’s faith was up and down.
But overall he trusted that God would keep his promise, although it seemed impossible.[5]
Abraham and Sarah waited and hoped for 25 years,
And at last baby Isaac was born.

The Call to Sacrifice

There is an old Jewish tradition that Abraham faced 10 trials through his life.
10 tests of his faith and obedience to God.
The first was in Genesis 12.
“Leave your home and go to a strange land.”

In the next chapters, Abraham faces more challenges.
You could read his story and count them![6]
Today we hit number 10.
It’s the big one.
The ultimate challenge.
The final trial.
The killer test.
Let’s turn to Genesis and find it.

Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called.
“Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.”
“Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.”  Genesis 22:1-2, New Living Translation

As Abraham moved from place to place,
He built altars to worship God.  (Genesis 12:7,8, 13:18)
In Chinese and Indian temples I’ve seen,
Altars are big tables with flowers or fruit, candles or incense.

In Genesis, an altar was outdoors, often on a mountain.
A pile of stones, then wood on top, then mostly a sheep.
You tie its legs with a rope – so it can’t run away.
You kill the sheep with a knife, then light the wood and burnt it.
The smoke from the sacrifice, the burnt offering, rises up to heaven,
Like a prayer going up to God.

Abraham was used to sacrificing cows or sheep.
Now God asked him to build an altar and sacrifice his son.

I find this a dark and disturbing story.
How could God say to murder someone? [7]
How can we handle this?

Genesis is a different world with different values.[8]
In Old Testament times, some countries killed children as sacrifices to their gods. [9]

They have built pagan shrines… And there they burn their sons and daughters in the fire.”  Jeremiah 7:31

Through Moses, God told Israel,[10]

“Never sacrifice your son or daughter as a burnt offering” Deuteronomy 18:10.

But Abraham lived 400 years before Moses.
If other people did it,
He likely did not realise it was all that wrong. [11]

When I read this story, I see a moral conflict.
God says “kill”, but I know murder is wrong.
I think Abraham faced a different conflict:
Between God’s command and God’s promise.[12]

In Genesis 12, God told Abraham to leave his past home,
And promised him a new future:
Many descendants and blessing to all nations.
That future, that promise, depended on Isaac.

Now God tells Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son. [13]
That means to sacrifice God’s promise,
To kill his future. [14]

I can imagine Abraham crying out to God,
“I’ll give you my sheep and cattle, my silver and gold.
But Isaac is the son you promised. [15]
Without him you can’t keep your promise!
It doesn’t make sense.
How can you take him away?
Why don’t you take my life instead?”[16]

Did Abraham try to bargain with God, talk God out of it?[17]
In Highway 61, Bob Dylan imagined their conversation:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on” [must be joking]
God say, “No.”
Abe say, “What?”

But Genesis doesn’t tell us what Abraham says or thinks or feels – or even if he told Sarah.
We only know what he did next day.[18]

The Journey to Obey

The next morning Abraham got up early. He saddled his donkey [a small horse] and took two of his servants with him, along with his son, Isaac. Then he chopped wood for a fire for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day of their journey, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants. “The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back.”
So Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them walked on together, Isaac turned to Abraham and said, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“We have the fire and the wood,” the boy said, “but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
“God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham answered. And they both walked on together.
When they arrived at the place where God had told him to go, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 And Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice.       Genesis 22:3-10

They travelled from Beersheba to Jerusalem.
Google says the road is 107 km. 1 hour 16 min to drive.
Three days walking sounds about right.

But don’t you wish there was more description? [19]
What was the weather on their journey?
What was the weather in Abraham’s heart?

What is the meaning of Abraham’s words,
We will worship and we will return”?
Does he trust that God will keep Isaac alive?
Or is he scared the servants would stop him, if they knew?

And when Isaac asks, “Where is the lamb?”
And Abraham answers, “God will provide the lamb my son.”
How much does Isaac understand? [20]

You could write a novel about this three-day trip.
But Genesis only gives a bare list of actions, [21]
A silent line of footprints in the sand.

It reminds me of old computer games,
Where you just type short commands.[22]
God has spoken.  Abraham obeys.
So he gets up and plays, though the game is no fun.


Who is hearing this story for the first time?
What do you think will happen?

A man stands on a mountain in front of an altar.
He holds a bitter-sharp knife. [23]
He looks up to heaven; he looks down at his son.[24]
What will the father do?[25]

Was God also holding his breath?
How long did Abraham stand on the edge of the cliff?
How many times did he raise and lower the knife? [26]
Before he tightened his grip
And typed the final command:


11 At that moment the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Yes,” Abraham replied. “Here I am!”
12 “Don’t lay a hand on the boy!” the angel said. “Do not hurt him in any way, for now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son.”
13 Then Abraham looked up and saw a ram [adult male sheep] caught by its horns in a thicket [thick bushes]. So he took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in place of his son.   Genesis 22:11-13

Do you feel relieved?  That was a scary moment!
It’s one of the most painted scenes in the Bible.
Now we can relax: Isaac is safe. [27]

The Meaning of the Test

Or are you asking,
What on earth was all of that about?
Verse one said, “God tested Abraham.”
So it’s a test.

But what sort of test?[28]
What does it mean?

There are different opinions. [29],[30]
Here’s what makes most sense to me.[31]

Firstly, I think it’s a test of Abraham’s faith in God’s character.
Does Abraham trust that God is good, all the time,
Even though it doesn’t seem like that?
Can Abraham trust that God will keep his promise?
Though this command seems to contradict the promise.

Abraham couldn’t see how Sarah could have a son at 90 years,
But he trusted God anyway.
Now once again he trusts and obeys – it’s the mark of his life,
Though he doesn’t understand.

In a way, Abraham is testing God.
“Okay God, I’ll do what you say.
Now the ball is in your court.
You gotta prove you really are good and faithful to your promise.” [32]

And God does.
Both of them passed the test!
God gives Isaac back,
And gives the promise back with a guarantee.

If I want to say something very strongly,
I might say, “I swear by God…”
So now God said to Abraham,

“I swear by myself that I will bless you
and do for your descendants what I promised.”  (16-18)

It’s a test of trust in God’s character.
Secondly, I think this is a test of idolatry or true love.

Someone asked Jesus, which is the greatest command?
Jesus answered,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.”  Mark 12:30

In the first of the Ten Commandments, God says,

“You must not have any other god but me.  You must not make any kind of idol.”  Exodus 20:30-4

An idol is anything that we treat like God, anything which takes God’s place.[33]
Love God with all your heart.
Have no idols.
Two sides of the same coin.

Isaac meant everything to Abraham.
His history, his hope, his future, it all came down to that boy.
Maybe Abraham loved Isaac so much, he was becoming an idol,
And God was getting pushed out.

Maybe God is saying to Abraham,
“I want your whole heart.
I want you to love me more than anything I give.
So I want you to give Isaac up.” [34]

I’ve got a friend who bought a boat.
He polished it until it glowed.
One day a car knocked his boat.
It made a big scratch, and he cried!
My friend is a Christian and he said his reaction gave him a shock.
He suddenly realised, that boat is too deep in my heart!

Can you relate to that?
Is there something in your life that could push God out?
Is there something you need to sacrifice,
To love God with all of your heart? [35]

There is a beautiful book that reminds me of Abraham’s sacrifice.
Hinds’ Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard (1955)[36]

On her journey with God, the main character
Learns to build altars and sacrifice her own human desires.
Near the end is a chapter called “The Grave in the Mountains”.
God tells her,

“Take now the Promise that I gave you, and the natural human love in your heart…  Go up into the mountains to the place that I shall show you.  Offer them there as a Burnt Offering unto Me.” (123)

Does that sound like Genesis 22?
What’s different is the book describes how she feels.
She is tempted to lose all hope.
It’s the hardest thing she has done.

It’s a kind of death.
But once she obeys, it brings a kind of resurrection.
A new life of peace and joy and closeness to God.

Self-sacrifice is the ecstasy of giving the best we have to the one we love the most.  Hannah Hurnard

The painful struggle to sacrifice, then the peace and joy of giving ourselves to God.
Have you experienced that on your journey?

The Father’s Willing Son

Now you might be thinking:
All this talk about pain and sacrifice.
What right does God have to test us like this
When he’s sitting happy in heaven?
A good question.
To find an answer, let’s look again at our text.

We’ve seen Abraham’s side of the story.
What about the poor kid on the altar? [37]

Well actually, Isaac wasn’t a kid.
He carried the wood up the mountain himself.
He was at least a teenager.
Maybe even in his 30s.[38]
Isaac was likely stronger than his old father – over 100.
Which means Abraham did not force him,
But Isaac freely laid down his life.[39]
Father and son obeyed God in harmony. [40]

Our Bibles call this story, “Abraham’s Faith Tested”.
Jews call it the Akedah: the Binding of Isaac.[41]

Jewish people believe that when they sin by disobeying God, when they are in trouble,
God will forgive their sins and rescue them,
When he remembers the faith of Abraham and the willing sacrifice of Isaac.[42]

Does that sound a little familiar?
God said to Abraham: “You did not withhold your only son” (22:12, 16).
2000 years later the Bible says,

God did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us.  Romans 8:32

God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so whoever believes in him will not die but have eternal life.           John 3:16

Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice. [43]
And Jesus carried his own cross.

At the last minute, God provided the sheep, as Abraham had said he would.
The sheep died, and Isaac’s life was saved.

Jesus was the Lamb of God.
The sacrifice who died in our place, [44]
As the sheep replaced Isaac.
So we, like Isaac, could live.

Abraham and Isaac.
God the Father and God the Son.
The Father freely gives up his beloved only Son.
The Son freely gives up his life,

That is why God has the right to ask us to give things up.
He first sacrificed himself.

Abraham on the mountain, offering Isaac to God.
It’s a mysterious story,
Probably deeper than we’ll ever understand.
For me it has two big meanings.

It reminds me of the Father who gave his Son for me.
The Son who gave his life for me.
The perfect offering of Jesus on the cross.

And then it challenges me to offer my life on the altar, as Abraham did.
To give up idols that compete with God,
And give my heart fully to him.

By faith Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him.            Hebrews 11:17

Offer your body as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.     Romans 12:1


What did God ask Abraham to do?
How do you think Abraham felt?
Why did God test him like that?
What does Isaac show us about a later, perfect sacrifice?
Does anything stop you loving God 100%?
Has God asked you to give up something precious?
How did (or will) you respond?

[1] There is a summary of Abraham’s life in Hebrews 11:8-12, 17-19.  Or read my sermon from 2 weeks ago, Abraham: the Promise of Faith.
[2] Philosophers: Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling, 1843) and Derrida (The Gift of Death, 1995).  Singers: Bob Dylan (Highway 61, 1965 – see lyrics) and Leonard Cohen (The Story of Isaac, 1969 – see lyrics).  See an article “Dylan, Cohen and the Music of the Akedah” here.
[3] Every year Jews remember the story by blowing rams’ horns (and Genesis 2 is read at every morning service), Muslims remember it by killing tens of millions of animals at Eid al Adha, and many Christians read the story at Easter.
[4] The game’s called “The Binding of Isaac”.  See Wikipedia here.
[5] cf the definition of faith in Hebrews 1:1 “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.”
[6] There are several different lists of Abraham’s 10 trials, sometimes including legendary persecution by the idolatrous ruler Nimrod before he left home for Israel.  There is one list on slide 13 from a Jewish message on Genesis 22 here.
[7] God is later called “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42) – you can understand why!
[8] e.g., Abraham sleeps with Sarah’s servant Hager to get a son; Lot offers his virgin daughters to be gang raped.  Neither is viewed with horror.
[9] Also e.g. 2 Chronicles 28:3-4, 33:6.  And unfortunately, women and children were sometimes viewed and treated like men’s property, not like people.
[10] Also e.g., “Do not permit any of your children to be offered as a sacrifice to Molech” Leviticus 18:21, Deuteronomy 12:31.  The firstborn belongs to God, but is to be redeemed by sacrificing an animal instead (Exodus 22:29, 34:40).  And, of course, do not murder.  (Exodus 20:13, 21:12, Numbers 35:16ff, Deuteronomy 5:17)  Though shedding human blood had already been forbidden (Genesis 9:5-6).
[11] Read a Jewish article on this story and child sacrifice in the Bible and Jewish history here.  Scholars debate whether there really was all that much child sacrifice around in Old Testament times.
[12] About this passage, John Calvin said, “The command and the promise of God are in conflict”; Martin Luther called it a “contradiction with which God contradicts himself.”  Walter Brueggemann writes, “The problem of this narrative is to hold together and embrace both the dark commandof God and his high promise”, the way God both tests and provides. True faith says “yes” to both.
[13] The first occurrence in the Bible of this Hebrew word for love.  Jewish Midrash imagined a whole conversation out of verse 2.  God: “Take your son”.  Abraham: “I have two sons – which one?”  God: “Your only son.”  Abraham: “both are the only sons of their mother.”  God: “the one you love.”  Abraham: “I love them both.”  God, at last gives the name at the end of the sentence, unlike many translations: “Isaac”
[14] There are several parallels linking Genesis 12 and Genesis 22.  There is a threefold specification before going to an unknown destination (the similar-sounding lands of Moreh and Moriah): “Leave your country, your family, your house… And go to a land I will show you.”  “Leave your son, your beloved son, the one you love… And go… to a mountain I will show you.”  In Hebrew “go” only occurs in these two places.  Genesis 12 and 22 are the first and last time God speaks to Abraham, his first and last altars, the first and last promises.
[15] There wasn’t much idea of life after death early in the Old Testament.  You lived on in your descendants.
[16] I guess Abraham asked himself: If Isaac dies, has God deceived me?  Were all God’s promises lies?
[17] As he did about God’s judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33).
[18] For the third time he gets up early in the morning to obey God’s command (Genesis 19:27, 21:14).
[19] How did God lead them there?  Some Jewish Midrash imagines the mountain was covered with a cloud, like the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites during the Exodus.
[20] How should Abraham’s reply be punctuated?  A faith-filled “God will choose the lamb, my son.”  Or, more ominously, “God will choose the lamb: my son.”  (Jo Milgrom, 1988)
[21] In contrast to all the long dialogues in the book of Job, the classic example of God’s testing.
[22] Apparently Genesis 22 has very easy language so is one of the first stories Hebrew students read.  One commentator said Abraham moves like a sleepwalker in “staccato phrases”.   In Mimesis (1953, 12), literary scholar Erich Auerbach said Genesis 22 gives the impression “that the journey took place through a vacuum… as if… Abraham had looked neither to the right nor to the left, had suppressed any sign of life in his followers and himself save only their footfalls… the journey is like a silent progress through the indeterminate and the contingent, a holding of the breath, a process which has no present, which is inserted, like a blank duration, between what has passed and what lies ahead, and which yet is measured: three days!”  Von Rad suggested it would be a good competition subject for all the great poets from Aeschylus to Shakespeare and Goethe: what did Abraham and Isaac say to each other on the way?  (1956)
[23] The word for knife means something like a heavy cleaver, not just a little pocketknife, and is elsewhere used only in Judges 19:29 where a man drops up his concubine into 12 parts, and Proverbs 30:14.
[24] It might be the biggest decision in the Old Testament, after Abraham and Eve eyeing up that fruit.  It may be the most debated and painted scenes of the Old Testament.  The poet Wilfred Owen wrote The Parable of the Young Man and the Old in World War I about how we sacrifice kids to war (read it here).  One rabbi commented that every parent in Israel sending a son off to the army hears God’s command, “take your son, your only son, whom you love…”
[25] This is the second time Abraham stood over Isaac with a knife.  The first was when he circumcised him at eight days old (Genesis 21:4).
[26] In Jewish traditions, Abraham’s tears dripped into Isaac’s eyes and were so burning they blinded him – explaining Isaac’s fateful weak sight in Genesis chapter 27.  Alternatively, Isaac was blinded by looking into the face of the angel above him.  Or again, Abraham’s tears melted the knife so he had to strangle Isaac by hand!  In a way it’s Abraham himself lying there on the altar.  If he kills Isaac, he’s got nothing more to live for.  I could imagine he might next slit his own throat and die there on the mount with his son.
[27] God tests, and God provides.  Paul promised that God will not allow our testing or temptation to be more than we can stand, but he will provide a way out so we can endure (1 Corinthians 10:13).
[28] It’s sometimes said that God tests us to strengthen our faith, while Satan tempts us to destroy our faith (Exodus 20:20, Deuteronomy 8:2, 16, James 1:13, 1 Peter 1:7).  However, both Hebrew and Greek have the same word for test and tempt.
[29] It could be a test of blind obedience. Will Abraham do whatever God says, without question, even if it contradicts his conscience, goes against right and wrong?  I find that hard to accept, and it doesn’t fit Abraham’s character.  In chapter 18 Abraham argued with God to not kill innocent people.
The New Atheists take this line, and delight in this chapter!  In The God Delusion (2016, 275), Richard Dawkins wrote “this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ‘I was only obeying orders.’”  Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim writes, “Jonestown and Waco… seem not too far away”.
[30] Many people think Genesis 22 is God’s dramatic way of saying: “I am different from other gods.  I do not want child sacrifice.”  That’s absolutely true, but it doesn’t really fit the context of Genesis, or the story of Abraham’s life.  This is one of the mainstream Jewish interpretations.  There’s a recent Christian sermon that takes this view here.
One rabbi wrote, “When I was in college, the Hillel rabbi blasted Abraham for his near sacrifice of his son Isaac. He adduced proof texts to show that Abraham was wrong to obey God’s command to slaughter Isaac.”  Read the article here.  Some earlier Jewish authors said Abraham actually misunderstood God’s commandment.  They claim detailed examination of the Hebrew words shows Abraham wasn’t told to kill Isaac, but just to “bring up” Isaac to the mountain and offer a sacrifice.
[31] There are other ideas.  A few have suggested it’s God’s punishment for mistreating Ishmael, or making a treaty with Abimelech in the previous chapter.  Von Rad said there is no one meaning to the story: there are always deeper levels.  Alan Dershowitz writes while discussing Genesis 22, “One of the glories of the Bible is its Rorschach test quality: its 70 faces and its amenability to multiple midrashim-interpretations.” (2000)
[32] One commentator wondered if Abraham and God were both effectively daring each other to call off the challenge before it was too late.
[33] Abraham came from an idol worshipping family (Joshua 24:2).  There are Jewish and Muslim legends about how he realised the futility of idol worship, and was persecuted as the first great monotheist for rejecting idols.
[34] At the end of the test God says, “Now I know you worship me” (22:12)… and don’t worship your son – the risk of an idolatrous love of his son is over.  Now God knew his great gift would not tempt Abraham to forget the Giver.
[35] It is often painful.  But when we let go, we have open hands to receive new gifts.  God sometimes gives something better than what we gave up (Abraham is called to leave his old land and family, and is given a new land and family), or he gives it back – as he gave Isaac back to Abraham.  But now the gift is better, because we can enjoy it as a true blessing without it becoming a curse that leads us away from God.  As it said, something is only really yours after you give it away.  Jesus said, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it.  But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”  (Mark 8:35)
[36] I wrote an introduction: Gambolling with the Shepherd: Hinds’ Feet on High Places.
[37] In this story, Christians have tended to focus on Abraham, and Jews on Isaac.
[38] Traditional Jewish exegesis says Isaac was 37, because in the next chapter Sarah died at 127, and Isaac was born when she was 90 (Genesis 21:17, 21:5, 23:1)
[39] In fact, Jewish stories say that Isaac asked Abraham to tie him tightly, in case he is nervous and flinches and becomes an unworthy sacrifice, possibly by being wounded and not cleanly killed.
[40] On the way to the mountain, Genesis repeats, “The two of them walked on together.”  (22:6, 8)  EA Speiser wrote, “the short and simple sentence… covers what is perhaps the most poignant and eloquent silence in all literature”.
[41] From the Hebrew word akad, where Abraham ties or binds Isaac.  The word is used for tying the legs of an animal together when it’s sacrificed in the temple.  Inspired by verse 19 that says only Abraham returned, there’s an old Jewish tradition that Abraham did kill Isaac (or at least spill one quarter of his blood), and God brought him back to life.  The “ashes of Isaac” were restored to life by the “dew of resurrection”.
[42] One reason Jews blow the shofar or ram’s horn at some festivals is to recall the ram of Genesis 2, reminding God of the faithful obedience of Abraham and self-sacrifice of Isaac, which merits Israel a “credit card” that never expires (Jo Milgrom, 1988).
[43] The temple in Jerusalem was built on Mt Moriah, where God told Abraham to go.  2 Chronicles 3:1, and “the Mountain of the Lord” normally means the Temple Mount: Psalm 24:3, Isaiah 2:3, 30:29, Zechariah 8:3.  The rock where Abraham traditionally offered his son is now covered by the Muslim Dome of the Rock, built in 691 AD.
[44] Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).  In one Jewish tradition, the ram that replaced Isaac was formed on the 6th day of creation, as in the New Testament Jesus was the lamb slain/chosen from (before) the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:19-20, Revelation 13:8)