Abraham Places the Wood On Isaac’s Back

Abraham Places the Wood On Isaac’s Back  • 
Genesis Chapters 12 through 22, especially Chapter 22

We note a few things in the Genesis account of Abraham answering God’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Get Up and Go.  Lekh-Lekha.

First, the several chapters of Abraham’s life and actions, from 12 to 23, are bracket by two occurrences of “go to.”

Gen 12:1   The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (JPS Jewish Study Bible Tanakh)

Gen 22:1-2   1 Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” 2 And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (JPS S.B. Tanakh)

Jewish study has given this conventional expression the name “lekh-lekha.”  Here it is described by the Jewish Publication Society’s Jewish Study Bible:

The expression go to (“lekh-lekha”), which otherwise occurs only in 12:1, the initial command to Abraham, ties this narrative to the beginning of Abraham’s dealings with God. Note also the parallel of on one of the heights that I will point out to you with “to the land that I will show you” (12:1).  (note in JPS Study Bible at Gen 22:2)

Ten Tests for Abraham

Our second bit is the Jewish tradition which counts ten interactions of God with Abraham, with each of these involving testing of the patriarch.  That the number of these tests is ten is declared by commentary in what is called Pirkei Avot, which itself is a tractate in the larger body of Torah commentary called the Mishnah:

With ten tests Abraham, our father, was tested – and he withstood them all; in order to show how great was the love of Abraham, our father – peace be upon him.  (Pirkei Avot 5.3)

The writers of Pirkei Avot — a text settled around 200 AD — didn’t give us the list of the Abraham ten, and hundreds of years of subsequent Jewish rabbinic and scholarly has not produced an agreed-upon list.

We’ll go with the list given by Maimonides, the highly regarded 12th century Jewish scholar.  Living and working in Islamic Spain, this Jewish philosopher, scientist, and Bible commentator offers this in his commentary on Pirkei Avot:

The ten tests with which Abraham, our father, was tested are all [in] the words of Scripture. The first is his emigration by His statement, may He be blessed – “Go forth from your land, etc.” (Genesis 12:1). And the second one is the famine that was found in the Land of Canaan when he came there and it was [the land of] his destiny – “and I will make you into a great nation” (Genesis 12:2). And this was a great test, and it is its saying, “And there was a famine in the land” (Genesis 12:10). And the third was the injustice of the Egyptians towards him in the taking of Sarah to Pharaoh. The fourth is his fighting against the four kings. The fifth is his taking of Hagar as a wife after he despaired of giving birth through Sarah. The sixth is the circumcision that he was commanded about in the days of his old age. The seventh is the injustice of the king of Gerar towards him in his also taking Sarah. The eighth is the expulsion of Hagar after his being built (having a child) from her. The ninth is the distancing of his son, Yishmael, and that is His, may He be blessed, saying, “Let not it be bad in your eyes about the youth, etc.” (Genesis 21:12). And Scripture already testified how this thing was difficult in his eyes, in its stating, “And the thing was very bad in the eyes of Abraham” (Genesis 21:11). Yet he observed the commandment of God, may He be blessed, and expelled him. And the tenth is the binding of Yitzchak. (Rambam/Maimonides on Pirkei Avat 5.3, provided by the Sefaria website)

Maimonides pulls all of his items from scripture.  Other rabbis and scholars over many centuries of commentary point to events narrated in extra-Biblical sources.

By the way, here’s a good exercise:  Find the Pirkei Avat, read it, and you’ll see other lists of ten.

Behold!  Here I Am!  Here I Am, Lord!

The ninth or tenth test, depending on whose list you consult, is what Jewish tradition refers to as the “Akedah.”  This is God’s test of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Or third bit comes from this Akedah.

In the Akedah are three instances (depending on your translation) of the English phrase “here I am.”  We will show them from the New American Standard Bible translation:

Gen 22:1   Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am. (NASB)

Gen 22:7   Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (NASB)

Gen 22:11   But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”

In these places, the NASB translates the Hebrew הִנֵּֽנִי (hinneh) as “here I am.” This Hebrew word is used over 1000 times in the Old Testament, and in the majority of cases (at least in the NASB and KJV), it is translated as “behold.”  Only 22 times does the NASB choose the English “here I am.”

The nice interlinear at Scripture4all translates strictly hinneh at the end of Gen 22:1 with:

screen shot from Scipture4All, Genesis 22:1

which the word-for-word King James translates using supplied words “here” and “am:”

… Behold, [here] I [am]. (KJV)

The Jewish Publication Society’s Jewish Study Bible comments on hinneh (they transliterate it as hineni) as follows:

There is no good English equivalent for the Heb “hineni,” translated in this verse as Here I am. The term indicates readiness, alertness, attentiveness, receptivity, and responsiveness to instructions. It serves as a kind of refrain throughout the ‘Akedah. Abraham employs it in answer to God here, to Isaac in v.7 (where it is rendered as “Yes”), and to the angel of the LORD in v.11. (JPS Jewish Study Bible comment, Gen 22:1)

Here’s the JPS Tanakh verse 7:

Gen 22:7    7 Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (JPS Tanakh)

The King James handles verse 7’s hinneh with a tweaking of “here I am,” while the New English Translation supplies the more colloquial “what is it:”

 7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here [am] I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where [is] the lamb for a burnt offering? (KJV)

 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?” “What is it, my son?” he replied. “Here is the fire and the wood,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (NET)

Another notable place where hinneh becomes “here I am” is in the charming third chapter of 1 Samuel, when the young Samuel serves the aging prophet Eli:

1 Sam 3:1-10   1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD before Eli. And word from the LORD was rare in those days, visions were infrequent.
2 It happened at that time as Eli was lying down in his place (now his eyesight had begun to grow dim and he could not see well), 3 and the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was, 4 that the LORD called Samuel; and he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The LORD called yet again, “Samuel!” So Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he answered, “I did not call, my son, lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, nor had the word of the LORD yet been revealed to him. 8 So the LORD called Samuel again for the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli discerned that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 And Eli said to Samuel, “Go lie down, and it shall be if He calls you, that you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Then the LORD came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for Your servant is listening.” (NASB)

Carrying Wood to the Sacrifice

And finally, for our fourth bit, we observe something breathtakingly beautiful and breathtakingly Christian in Gen 22:6:

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac.  He himself took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked off together. (JPS Tanakh)

6 Avraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on Yitz’chak his son.  Then he took in his hand the fire and the knife, and they both went on together. (Stern’s CJB)

6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. (NASB)

Now where do we see this again?  Where again do we see a human, chosen by God, carrying wood up a hill for his own sacrifice?

Ancient image Abraham Isaac with wood unknown source

Christ carrying cross fresco hrist Carrying the Cross Michelino da Besozzo14th15th c

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