The narrator of this story of a theophany to Abraham is artful in his use of foreshadowing. And the meaning of the story is about the yearning we have to see God’s promise and for all to be right in the world.
In Hebrew, one of the designations of God is Adonai, from the root adōn אַדוֹן (“master, Lord”). What does the form Adonai mean specifically? It is not the simple plural, “lords,” which would be adōnim אֲדוֹנִים, but is the plural with the first person possessive, “my lords.” This is consistent with the practice of referring to God in plural terms, as in the common word for God in Hebrew elōhim אֱלֹהִים (literally “gods”). The One God is everything the many supposed gods are alleged to be, the One who fills all meaning in his singularity. A simpler explanation is to say these terms reflect a “plural of majesty,” the idea that God’s vastness is best described by using a plural.
All of this background helps us understand the author’s clever use of Adonai in vs. 3. Abraham runs up to three strangers who approach his camp in the desert and he addresses them as adōnai, “my lords.” In the plain meaning of the story, Abraham is being hospitable and addressing a group of strangers with an honorific title. But as the story unfolds, we see that one of the three strangers really is Adonai himself.
In visiting Abraham and Sarah, God has two purposes. First, he tells them that their long wait (more than two decades) is nearly over. He will return to them next year and give them a son — at last! The anguish of their wait is nearly over. They have tried to bring the promise in their own way several times. Now God will make it happen.
Second, he wishes to inform Abraham that he is about to destroy Sodom, where Lot is living. God is concerned that his friend, Abraham, should know what is about to happen.
Why does God visit his friend Abraham about these two matters? Perhaps it is because Abraham is the progenitor of the entire chosen people. Or perhaps it is because of a friendship God had uniquely with Abraham. In either case, Abraham yearns for two things. He especially longs for a child of his own, to have progeny and a future name through his offspring. Abraham also longs to see the world set right again, as we will see when Abraham asks God, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” God comes to assure his friend that some of his longings will soon be met and regarding others, he will simply have to wait and trust.
Narrative summary looking forward (1), the story of the Lord’s appearance to Abraham and his announcement of the coming birth (2-14).
What happens in vs. 1? Is this a separate event, a story untold about God appearing to Abraham? To the reader unfamiliar with the style of Genesis it can appear this way. “Adonai appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre.” If this is a narrative, it makes us wonder, what happened in the appearance. What did God say?
Or is vs. 1 a narrative preface stating what will happen in the story that follows? That is, we see that God does appear to Abraham in the story that follows (as one of the three visitors). So maybe nothing happens in vs. 1, exactly as it was in Genesis 1:1. This is a technique of narrative, to announce in advance what is going to happen, and then let the story unfold.
Three “men” come to Abraham, but we quickly figure out they are not men at all. For example in vs. 10, the speaker seems to have foreknowledge about Sarah becoming pregnant. And in vs. 13, this speaker is plainly referred to as Adonai himself. It is possible to read the story as if the voice in vs. 13 is coming from outside the group, a heavenly voice speaking to the assembled group. But since the speaker in vs. 10 uses the first person, and Adonai says the same thing in vs. 14, it makes better sense to assume the voice is one of the three visitors.
Furthermore, in vs. 22 and following, Abraham will have a conversation while walking with Adonai. Adonai’s voice in this story is not coming from heaven, but from one of the visitors.
Then we read that “the men” went toward Sodom but Abraham stood still before Adonai. The final clue is on 19:1, where we see that only two of the three visitors went to Sodom. Doing a little math we surmise that one of the three visitors is Adonai and the other two are angelic beings.
Where did Adonai go? 18:33 says he departed after his dialogue with Abraham.
An additional evidence for this interpretation of the three visitors is that Abraham addresses them as “Adonai” (vs. 3), whereas the usual expression for “lords” would be Adonim. Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban seek ways around the obvious truth that one of these visitors is God, but Maimonides affirms it (Sarna, see Maimonides, Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 6:9).
The story in vss. 1-14 emphasizes Abraham’s hospitality and the difficulty in believing the divine promise of a son. Abraham sees three strangers from a distance and runs, not walks, to meet them. He speaks to them in the exaggerated politeness of the Near East and offers them only a little water and a morsel of bread. Then he tells his wife to prepare about five gallons (three seahs) of flour, to kill a calf, and to provide yogurt and milk with this supposedly small meal! In Bereishit Rabbah (a midrash collection about Genesis) Abraham is praised by God for his hospitality to strangers in the desert and it is said that Abraham does this to make proselytes. In the New Testament, this story of Abraham is the basis for a saying about hospitality: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2, ESV).
God discusses his strategic action with his friend Abraham. There is no story in all the Bible like this one. And its subject matter concerns us all: divine justice against violent people, the innocent being swept away with the wicked, and the problem of evil in human society.
Abraham has been told that blessing will come to all the families of the earth through him. Yet here, his nephew lives in a city that will be completely destroyed. Abraham bravely asks the Creator what all of us should ask: you who are the Judge of all the earth, won’t you do what is right? Is it right to kill an entire city, two of them even, because of the violent ways of their leaders? What about the innocent who will also die?
Why does God discuss this with Abraham? One of several reasons mentioned in the text can be found in vs. 19, כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת־בָּנָיו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה, ki yeda’tiv lema’an asher yetzaveh et-banav ve’et-beitō acharav veshameru derech Adonai la’asōt tzedaqah, “For I have known him [singled him out] in order that he might command his children and his household after him to observe the way of Adonai to do what is just.”
“For I have known him.” Nahum Sarna (JPS Commentary) argues the meaning in context is about the specific “knowing” God has for Abraham, a familiarity and intimacy. He suggests translating it “I have singled him out.” Just as we choose friends, close friends, by singling out people worth our time and loyalty, so God has done with Abraham.
God’s friendship with Abraham is directed toward a purpose. Abraham’s line will be known for two things: keeping the way of Adonai and doing tzedaqah (doing right, maintaining justice). This ideal is later expressed in the Torah as a core principle, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut 16:20).
And Abraham embodies that justice in this dialogue. He does not allow the Ruler of the Universe to destroy Sodom without answering for the seeming injustice in it. He questions God, “Will you sweep away the innocent with the wicked?”
We find ourselves in a world that does not make sense. Tragedy and loss mar what seems as if it should be a beautiful world. Behind it all is a God whose policy we do not completely understand. God invites us to question, to hold out for justice, to expect and desire more out of life than the current state of futility and sadness.
Abraham does not get answers. The problem of evil as a theoretical question is not solved. But as we watch the story unfold, we will find that Lot and his daughters are saved. Would they have been saved if Abraham had not discussed this with God? At the end of the dialogue, something God says implies the incredible power a small group of righteous people might have. We already know it takes only a few violent people to ruin human society. What if a few people who follow the ways of love, sacrifice, giving, justice, courage, and goodness can also affect society powerfully?
The key to living the ways of Adonai will be to know what true goodness is and living it. For that we have the Torah and the prophets.
Sarah’s fear (15), the Lord’s internal dialogue about whether to tell Abraham (16-19), the Lord’s announcement of the coming judgment (20-21), Abraham’s discussion with God and case for mercy in justice (22-32), the Lord departs (33).
There is no story in all the Bible like this one, in which God in human form discusses his ways of justice with a mortal. Only in a few places does the Bible record the internal dialogue of God (his private thoughts, see Genesis 1:26; 2:18; 3:22; 6:6; 11:6-7 for other examples). How much more uncommon then to have God talking out a situation with a human being. This dialogue between God and Abraham is yet another example of the unique friendship between God and Abraham.
Why should God discuss with Abraham his plans for punitive justice on Sodom and Gomorrah? For one thing, Abraham is the father of a great nation. And that nation, Israel, will be about justice as its highest value. Another is that all the nations of the earth will be blessed by Abraham’s descendants, so the painful judgment of a nation for wickedness, a curse instead of a blessing, is something that ought to concern Abraham and Israel. The people of blessing, like God, will desire mercy and blessing for the world. Finally, God has known Abraham, or as Sarna translates it, has singled him out (in a relationship). Abraham’s intimacy with God is beyond the normal human-divine relationship and Abraham is privy to God’s reasons more so than others.
At first consideration it seems to Abraham that destroying Sodom and Gomorrah is inconsistent with God’s benevolence (“shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”). The problem of the righteous suffering along with the cruel mattered not only to Abraham, but to every generation which has contemplated the problem of faith in a benevolent God together with the reality of suffering in the world. This dialogue between Abraham and God does not attempt to answer the question philosophically, but simply affirms that God’s purposes are good and just. When we do not understand we can and should trust. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the problems of evil, we trust, will make more sense to us in the age to come when God brings a world of peace and justice from this world of suffering.
In the story of Lot and Sodom, the symbolic bad guy is city life. It is not really that the Bible endorses rural life and spurns the city, but rather it is the human propensity to mob violence that the Torah hates. History has shown us again and again that small, unfertilized seeds of hatred and resentment in a person suddenly bloom into a landscape of violence when the rain of herd mentality falls on them. The mass, the herd, the gang, the mob — our gatherings can turn into death in mere moments.
A mild-mannered person becomes a soldier. A relatively harmless bigot becomes a tyrant. An insecure hater finds psychological validation when he or she can stir a crowd to follow in radical action to harm others.
Abraham’s life and ways are rural. As a semi-nomadic pastoral herder, he practices the way of survival that is necessary for his kind: hospitality to strangers. Those who live in the desert-like steppe land cannot survive if strangers murder one another. Being isolated, people like Abraham have less people surrounding them to provide protection. But in a city people can feel secure without such practices of hospitality. They can rely on the accumulated power of the many for protection.
But protection is an illusion and “safety in numbers” is a myth. The process of urbanization has not delivered the human race from the tragedy of mass casualties and the fear of destruction. Instead we have developed larger and larger methods of demolishing territories and populations.
The Torah suggests a better form of protection: righteousness. The way Torah defines it, righteousness includes hospitality, compassion, justice, and loyal love.
We can expect that humanity will not embrace on a large scale the Torah’s advice. Yet even in our small circles we are better off practicing righteousness than not. Who knows what influence we might have if our religion starts looking like justice?
The two angels come from Abraham into Sodom (1), Lot compels them to accept hospitality (2-3), the townspeople gather and want to sexually molest the men (4-5), Lot offers his daughters in their place (6-9), the people attack and the angels blind them (10-11), Lot’s sons-in-law do not believe (12-14), the angels practically force reluctant Lot to leave (15-17), Lot asks to be allowed a shorter flight to a small town in the plain (18-20).
The contrast between Lot’s seeming riches and Abraham’s humble wealth continues. Abraham remains the migrant owner of flocks in the dry steppe land while Lot is the city dweller in a well-watered place. Lot has risen to some status, sitting in the city gate of Sodom. As in Genesis 18 Abraham virtually compelled visitors to accept hospitality, so does Lot. Something of his virtue remains in spite of the wickedness of this city and its vain worship of comfort and ease.
For their part, the angels have come to verify the wickedness of the city. Sarna interprets the intended rape as a policy of the town to molest all wayfarers and prevent new people from coming to the rich town and sharing its goods. The town’s crimes include violence, sexual assault, and failure to protect travelers in their gates.
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah becomes one of the Bible’s most repeated themes. Westermann (Genesis 12-36, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981) suggests that in looking at all later biblical references, there were multiple versions of the Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim destruction story. Alternate versions have been lost but hints of them remain in biblical allusions.
Was Lot’s offer of his daughters real or was it a hypothetical one intended to shame the violent townsmen? There is a parallel story in Judges 19:15-21, when a Levite and his concubine came to the Israelite town of Gibeah. Westermann compares the events: arrival of the guests, attack and repulse of the attackers, demand by attackers, householder offers his daughters, repulse of attack by guests. The difference in the Judges story is there were no angels to resolve that situation. So the woman in Judges 19 was gang-raped and killed.
In the Sodom story, Lot’s offer (whether real or hypothetical) is dismissed. The miraculous intervention of the angels alone saves them. Lot thought he had become a respected citizen, but his neighbors still resent him as an outsider. The city dwellers have a prosperous, easy life and they fiercely protect it, with brutality to any who dare come for hospitality.
The theme of urban vs. rural life has a purpose in the theology of Torah. The attraction of gathering into large population centers is self-reliance which does not breed faith or justice. We band together as humans to increase power. Yet our responsibility as a human race is not power, but justice. The problem is not the city, per se, but the way we use our collective power. The Torah endorses hospitality, social justice, and love as alternatives to the pursuit of wealth and power for their own sake.
Meanwhile, the angels announce coming destruction and Lot tries in vain to save his sons-in-law. The lure of city life — this story’s theme — prevents them from wisdom. Even Lot is so reluctant to leave his wealth and ease in the city that the angels must take hold of him and force him to leave. Lot begs to be allowed to settle in another small city, which would have to be spared by the angels from the coming destruction. He cannot imagine life in the desert hills. Westermann comments on the significance of this story in the Abraham cycle: “Abraham becomes a witness of the destruction of cities . . . the promise of blessing for the peoples has its line of demarcation in God’s action as judge, the ‘peoples of the earth’ remain exposed to disasters.”
GENESIS 19:21 – 21:4
Even with death approaching, Lot wants to continue having the benefits of city life. The ease and lure of Sodom have infected him. Faced with the news that he and his family must flee the valley immediately, he asks for safety in a small town that is still in the valley. “I cannot escape to the hills,” he complained (19:18), “lest the disaster overtake me and I die!” Lot worries that returning to rural life, semi-nomadic herding of flocks like his uncle Abraham, will be the death of him. He has grown used to their being a settled, urban family.
We often worry about the most unusual things in moments of major life change. It seems to us like the change will be our death. In Lot’s case, the opposite was actually true. Remaining in the city would mean his death. But the thought of a lifestyle change raised fears for him.
So he fixated on a small town on the border of the valley. Could the angels make sure the destruction did not go as far as that town? He could see his wife and family settling there. At least they would not have to brave the deserts once again and become animal herders like they used to be.
Speaking of the town he said וְהִיא מִצְעָר ve’hi mitz’ar, “it is a little one.” Repeating himself he says, “Is it not a little one, and my life will be saved?” In other words, “Do I have to leave behind this city life I’ve grown accustomed to? See that town there on the border, it’s a little one. Can I have a little bit of city life? Can you leave me a little something, O mighty angels?”
The angels grant his request. They allowed Lot and his family to escape to a small town, sparing that area on the conflagration. And the author says artfully, “Therefore the name of the city was called צוֹעַר Tzō’ar [Zoar].” The name is from the same root word in Lot’s earlier saying, “it is a little one” (מִצְעָר mitz’ar, “little one”).
All of this is a signal that the flight to a small city is not a minor detail of the story, but one of the points of the story. The tale not only explains how a city in the Jordan Valley came to be called Zoar, but also examines the fear and lack of trust people have concerning God’s hand in their lives. God was moving Lot out from one life to another. But his concern was to keep as much comfort as possible. Change is difficult. In fact, it was too much for Lot’s wife, who looked back during their flight and was caught up in the conflagration.
By contrast, we see Abraham, who has endured many changes and waited patiently on Adonai. At last in chapter 21 we hear the long-hoped-for news: “Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age.” Change is difficult, but Genesis tells us, God can be trusted. Those who wait, see good things.
Zoar (21-23), Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed (24-26), Abraham looks on (27-29), Lot moves up into the hills, incest, origin of the Moabites and Ammonites (30-38), Abraham and Abimelech of Gerar (20:1-18), Isaac is born and circumcised (21:1-4).
The strange story of Lot raises questions. Why does the narrative bother to tell us about Zoar, the town he asked to stay at but which he abandoned quickly? Is the story of Lot’s wife being buried in salt (or turned into a pillar of salt) a traditional tale that had to be included?
It would seem the main point of the ending is to describe the origin of Moab and Ammon. Moab will be quite important for Israel’s unfolding history, especially in the story of Ruth and the origins of David as the messianic king.
Lot’s request to flee to the closer location of Zoar includes an origin story (an etiological tale) for its name (vs. 20, “behold, it is mitzar [little]” and “is it not mitzar [little]” and vs. 22, “there the name of the city was called Tzo’ar [Zoar]”). Many feel that the account of Lot’s wife becoming covered in salt is also an etiological tale (some of the salt outcroppings near the Dead Sea look like people). The story seems to be about believing God’s judgment, whereas Lot’s wife either looked back, looked longingly, or perhaps even delayed her flight out of longing for her old home. Her desire or delay caused her to be caught up in the effects of the judgment. We get the idea that Lot and his daughters had barely made it into Zoar when the conflagration happened, so that they barely escaped. Lot’s wife’s hesitation cost her her life. The moral is to get out from the place of divine judgment in faith keeping with the divine word.
Abraham (vss. 27-28) is a witness of this destruction, which he had debated God about. He is a believer in justice and the father of the people who will be (ideally) devoted to justice. God’s mercy on Lot is related to his favor for Abraham (vs. 29). Abraham has brought blessing to Moab and Ammon (to the nations as foretold), the peoples whom Lot will sire with his daughters (vss. 31-38). The origin story of Moab and Ammon is not flattering (incest) but explains Israel’s relationship to these people who will figure largely into their later history.
In chapter 20, returning to Abraham and Sarah, we see a repeat of the threat of Sarah being taken into a harem. Only this time around the account is more detailed and rich with theology, raising the issue of God’s justice in dealing with the nations in relation to Abraham. In spite of Abraham’s lie, Abimelech’s people is cursed for harming the chosen. Yet Abraham seeks to bless them, and they are healed. God’s justice, questioned rightfully by Abimelech, is satisfied by mutual blessing between the people of Gerar and Abraham. Questioning God while continuing to believe in his goodness is regarded as a commendable form of prayer.
Then suddenly, in 21:1-4, Isaac is born and the promise fulfilled after twenty-five long years of waiting.
God hears. We wonder if he will. Sometimes we are too discouraged to even pray. We are silent yet we hope he hears.
In the sixteenth benediction of the Jewish prayer known as the Amidah (also known as the Shemonei Esrei), we say שְׁמַע קוֹלנוּ יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ shema’ qōleinu Adonai Eloheinu “hear our voice, O Adonai our God!”
Ishmael is the unchosen. He becomes even the banished. In a scene filled with pathos he is being carried by his mother into exile from Abraham’s clan and she is in despair for his life. We hear nothing from the boy. Even his name is not mentioned. It seems to us that Ishmael is silent in the story.
But oddly, seemingly out of nowhere in the story, we read, “God heard the voice of the boy.” What voice, we might ask? The boy said nothing.
But the original audience could hear it in the Hebrew language: וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת־קוֹל הַנַּעַר va’yishma’ Elohim et-qōl hana’ar, “God heard the voice of the boy.” Va’yishma’ Elohim. Compare that with Yishma’el, the name of Ishmael in Hebrew.
Genesis has said that Abraham’s family will bring blessing to all the families of the earth. Ishmael’s family does not appear to be receiving that promise. Are the unchosen ones forgotten?
The story reminds us, none of us are forgotten. Not even when we neglect to ask to be heard. God hears. Nothing escapes his notice, even the inner thoughts of the powerless and maltreated. We may come to accept that we will not always be delivered from our troubles in the short term. We may find ourselves put out, rejected, desolate.
But one thing we can know: we are heard. Shema qōleinu Adonai Eloheinu. And he does.
Sarah’s joy in her son (5-7), Sarah wants Ishmael banished (8-11), God speaks and promises to care for Ishmael (12-13), Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away with bread and water (14), Hagar weeps thinking they will die (15-16), God speaks to Hagar (17-19), God blesses Ishmael in the wilderness (20-21).
Several oddities lead the reader to ask questions about this tale of fleeing Hagar and her son, Ishmael. If Abraham loves Ishmael, why does he send him away with so little? If Ishmael is older than thirteen, why is he described as though an infant (carried along with the bread and water by Hagar in vs 14, hidden under a bush in vs. 15)? Why is it that when Hagar cries out, God hears the boy and not Hagar?
Nahum Sarna (JPS Commentary) explains that at least some of the oddities are the result of wordplays. The source of Ishmael’s trouble is laughter, perhaps mocking. The reader is supposed to get this with very little explanation because Isaac’s name is related to the word for laughter (Isaac = Yitzchak יִצְחָק, Gen 21:6, “God has made laughter for me,” tzechōk ‘asah li Elōhim צְחֹק עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים).
As for Ishmael, we hear nothing from him. He is not even named, but is called simply “the child.” He says nothing. We do not even hear that the boy, like his mother, is crying. So it comes as a surprise when God hears the boy, the silent, unnamed boy, crying. But the reader is to understand this is because his name means “God hears” (Yishma’el יִשְׁמָעֵאל, from yishma’ יִשְׁמָע “he hears” and El אֵל “God”).
Another wordplay is found in the note that Hagar had put Ishmael under a bush a bow’s shot away. The boy will become a bowman (Sarna).
As happens many times in the Abraham cycle of stories, the characters represent peoples who will be important in Israel’s later history, as is the case here with the Ishmaelites, desert nomads like modern day Bedouins. Such stories reveal that God’s providential care extends to other nations besides Israel and that their blessing is related to God’s promise to Abraham (Walton, NIV Application Commentary). God hears and his blessing is available to those who cry out. The nameless Ishmael is heard by God and his origin in the Abraham clan brings blessing to his descendants for many generations.
God is not as concerned with correct form and exact beliefs as many think. Right standing with God is a path and the steps we take on the beginning of this path are as precious to him as the more advanced travels of those who have come further along.
We read in Genesis 21:33 וַיִּקְרָא־שָׁם בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה אֵל עוֹלָם vayiqra’-sham beshem Adonai, El Ōlam, “And he called there on the name of Adonai, Everlasting God.”
El is the Canaanite name for a chief deity, but is also a general term for designating a deity. It is similar linguistically to the way the word Ba’al functions. Many readers assume “Ba’al” is the name of a specific god, but often the name is paired with a place, such as “Ba’al Tzaphon,” which is “the Lord of Tzaphon.” Ba’al is not a name, but a title, and in Hebrew can even mean “husband.”
Similarly, El, as used in the title El Ōlam, is not the specific name of a deity. El Ōlam could be translated “God of Eternity.”
We will read later in Exodus 6:3, “By my name, Adonai, I did not make myself known to them.” Yet here in Genesis 21:33 we read, “he called on the name of Adonai.” Which is it? The probable meaning is this: Abraham was unaware of the personal name of God (yōd-hey-vav-hey in Hebrew, usually translated LORD or Adonai in English Bibles). Genesis 21:33 is one of many examples in which the later author uses the name Adonai in telling the story, but it is an anachronism, a story element out of its place in time.
Abraham likely called on “El Ōlam” and similar epithets for God, such as “El Shaddai.” These titles for God are very much like the kind used by the people in Abraham’s time, the people who believed in many gods and whose definition of deity was much smaller than would actually fit with the realization of the Omnipotent Eternal Creator. And we see yet other indications of Abraham’s religion being colored by his time and culture. He plants a tamarisk tree at the place where he will worship God. The use of trees as sacred places is something specifically forbidden later in the Torah.
Abraham was on the path. He was a forerunner, a trailblazer. He did not have the benefit of the Exodus and Sinai experiences, nor the words of Torah to guide him into more advanced places on the journey. And we see that God was not concerned about this at all. He did not correct Abraham. Whereas religion often emphasizes correct form and right belief, God is relaxed about this. What matters is movement in the right direction, not exactness. When Abraham prayed to “El Ōlam,” he was calling “on the name of Adonai.”
Perhaps we must also look around at people in our world struggling to find meaning and be more affirming of movements toward God even when they are less than theologically precise. And we can relax, forgiving ourselves for partial knowledge and blindly walking along the way with God. He beckons us nearer without criticizing us in the details.
Abimelech makes a covenant with Abraham (21-24), dispute over a well (25-26), Abraham makes a covenant over a new well at Beersheba (27-34).
The author stylizes this story with uses of the number seven (Nahum Sarna). The reader will find the names Abraham and Abimelech seven times each. There are seven lambs. The verb about swearing an oath is related in Hebrew to the number seven. Even the place name, Beersheba, has in it the word for seven (which is also the verb for swearing an oath).
The overall effect of the story is to show that Abraham has become an equal with kings in the land. He acquires his first piece of land in Beersheba, a well to which his flocks have exclusive rights. Canaan (Israel) is semi-arid, steppe land close to desert conditions. Keepers of flocks are often found on steppe lands because they are unsuitable for agriculture on a large scale. Rights to the few sources of water in an area are key in the social structure and survival of dwellers in these regions.
Abraham’s travels and adventures end up explaining the origin of names of places that are important in Israel’s later history (Beersheba, “well of the oath,” is a southern boundary town for later Israel).
That Abraham still has ties to his pagan past is evident in that he plants a tamarisk. Vs. 33 connects directly the tamarisk planting and Abraham’s worship, indicating that the tree (or grove) was a cultic object, thought by Abraham to be vital to worship.
Vs. 33 is the only use in the Bible of the term Everlasting God (el olam). Since el is grammatically in the construct state, it is clear that it is not a name, but the word for deity (the Canaanites called one of their deities El, but the word came to be a general designation for deity). Walton comments that El Olam (Enduring God) as a title focuses on God’s dominion over nations and the events of history that shape nations. Abraham is a shaper of Israel’s future as God ordains his course and blesses or curses nations based on relation to Abraham.
God wants to know. He gives Abraham a terrible test, the worst. What kind of god asks his devoted follower to sacrifice his son? What kind of person would kill his son for a god? Does Abraham fail the test or succeed in that he is willing to do the deed?
Every indication in the story of Genesis 22 is that Abraham passes the test. הָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם ha’Elōhim nisach et-‘Avraham, “That [same] God tested Abraham.” From God’s point of view, this test was real. And then after Abraham shows he is willing to kill his son, עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי־יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים ‘atah yada’ti ki-yerei’ ‘Elōhim, “Now I know that you revere God.” God’s purpose in the test was to know something [by experience, by seeing it in action] about Abraham’s trust and reverence.
How can we understand this test? For one thing, gods expecting mortals to offer up a child was a known thing in Abraham’s world. Also, we see from the story that God would not allow Abraham to actually offer his son. It’s bad enough, it seems to us, that God asked. At least we know God would not actually desire a child’s death to satisfy his need to be worshipped. But there is also one other implication in the way the story is told that can help us have confidence in God’s goodness.
The way the story is told, Abraham and Isaac are both struggling to understand what is about to happen. Abraham makes several statements which could be seen as lies, something we know he is capable of, or as hopeful expressions of trust that the situation will end without tragedy.
Abraham tells his attendants, “The boy and I, let us go there and worship and let us return to you” (the verbs are in the cohortative mood, though most translations ignore it). Abraham says Isaac will return with him.
Later Abraham tells Isaac, who is becoming frightened, “God himself will provide the lamb.”
Abraham seems to trust that the outcome will be a good one. No doubt he is fearful. It’s possible he is lying to his son and the servants. The story is deliberately opaque, leaving us to consider multiple possibilities.
But we have to consider, perhaps the test was not “will Abraham kill his son to show how much he adores me, his God and benefactor?” but perhaps something else: “Will Abraham trust that I am not like other gods?”
Narrative prelude: God tests Abraham (1), the test: requiring the son of the promise (2), Abraham and Isaac journey to the mountain (3-8), Abraham’s offers Isaac but God substitutes a ram (9-14), the covenant reaffirmed and Abraham dwells in Beersheba (15-19), Abraham’s distant family (20-24).
Vs. 1 explains God’s purpose in asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. God is testing Abraham. For Abraham, perhaps the test is giving up the one thing that makes God’s promise work and thus lose all that God promised. If he accedes to Adonai’s request, he will have no offspring and thus he will no longer be a blessing after his death. For God, perhaps the motive is to see if a mortal can love him more than life, offspring, and blessings. Will Abraham continue with this deity who takes back the one thing he has desired?
As writer Skip Moen has emphasized in his book, Crossing, the request Adonai makes, “Take your son . . . and offer him,” is not a command. The verb take has the particle of entreaty נָא (na’) following it and should be rendered “take, please.” Abraham is not obeying a command from Adonai, but acceding to his request.
Vss. 7-8 are troubling. Does Isaac suspect? Does Abraham’s answer calm his fears at all? It cannot be, as some have said, that Abraham knew and intended by his words to say, that God would substitute a ram for Isaac. This was no true test if Abraham had no fear God would take back the child of the promise. Abraham is being deliberately obtuse to his son, deceiving him. Yet Abraham’s words are true in a way that the patriarch does not suspect.
God will save the boy though Abraham will not.
The meaning of the story is clarified greatly by vs. 12, when God says, “Now I know.” Readers have spun many theories over the centuries: Abraham knew Isaac would not die or he thought the boy would be resurrected or this was really just God teaching against human sacrifice. All of these theories crumble under the weight of vs. 12. God wanted to know if a mortal could love him with “disinterested love,” that is, love for God’s own sake and not for the things he can give.
The test was so that God could know Abraham’s heart truly. But isn’t God omniscient? Does he need to test us in order to know what is in our hearts? The story teaches us something wonderful about knowing: to know by experience is infinitely greater than to know by cognitive awareness. What good is it to know in our head that a beloved person loves us in return? We want them to show us or tell us. And this leads to a wonderful realization about God: he desires our love. We might imagine the Omnipotent is immune to such needs or think that they are weakness.
“Now I know that you revere God,” he says to Abraham (I am translating “fear” as “revere, hold in awe”). The positive message of this story fits with much we read elsewhere, especially Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (e.g., Deut 6:2; Prov 1:7; Eccles 12:13).
But there is no denying the story is upsetting. Would God have a father take the life of his son? How can we relate to a God who would ask such a thing?
This is not a contradiction of belief in divine omniscience. Knowledge is more than cognitive awareness. A higher kind of knowledge, which God seeks here, is experience. The purpose of Abraham’s test is that God would know by experience the depths of his trust and faith. Abraham is the father of faith and his great crisis story shows us what deep faith looks like, loving the Giver more than any gift. If God was willing to take away the very promise that drew Abraham out of his clan and away from his gods, what reason would Abraham have to love God? Only the awe of heaven could explain Abraham’s clinging in spite of God’s taking away. This is exactly what God says in response,
EXCURSUS ON “THE GOD”
God is referred to as “the God” or perhaps “that God” (haElohim) in vs. 1. Walton notes that haElohim tends to occur after an account in which God was referred to by a more specific name. Accordingly, in 21:33, Abraham had just called on El Olam (“the everlasting God”). Thus, in 22:1, haElohim has the force of “that [same] God.” Moriah (vs. 2) is the site of the future Temple (2 Chron 3:1).