God said “Please”; Abraham said “OK”

by Steve Ray on February 2, 2014

Studying Scripture like this is one of my favorite things to do in the whole world. Nice little tidbits pop out, like the one Which I share from you while visiting the sites related to Abraham in Hebron in the Palestinian a West Bank.

abraham-isaac2.jpgWhen God said to Abraham: “Take Isaac, your only son, the one whom you love, and offer him up on a mountain which I will show you,” he did not give Abraham a firm command, but rather a request. This being the case, it makes Abraham’s response all the more impressive. Abraham had been agonizing over a son for more than 25 years and well after childbearing years, 90 year old Sarah is finally granted the joy of a son.

We have no idea today of the importance of that son to Abraham; all of his hopes and dreams were centered on that son. All of God’s promises, his covenant, his possessions, the land — all that would be fulfilled through Isaac. And now God asks Isaac to sacrifice him on an altar and burn his body. )By the way, human sacrifice was not uncommon in Canaan at the time, though it was an abomination to God and he never intended Abraham to actually sacrifice his son.)

It is one thing to say OK when God when he gives a pure and deliberate command, but in the nuances of the Hebrew language, God’s “command” to Abraham actually have the effect of a request. It is like God is saying “Please.” And to a “please” one can say “no” without violating a law or incurring guilt. Here is what Jewish Publications Society commentary on Genesis says,

The Hebrew adds the participle na to the imperative which usually softens the command to an entreaty, as noted in Sanhedrin 89b, Genesis Rabba 55:7, and Rashi’s commentary. Abraham has absolute freedom of choice. Should he refuse, he would not incur any guilt. (For imperative with na cf. Num. 20:10; Judg. 13:4; 16:6, 10, 28; 18:5; Isa. 1:18; Amos 7:2, 5.) (The JPS Torah commentary (151). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.)

abraham-isaac3.jpgWord Biblical Commentary says,

The reader has been alerted by the verb “test” that something difficult is about to be asked of Abraham, while he [Abraham], of course, is quite in the dark. The way the command is put here tries to soften the blow for Abraham while maximizing our realization of its enormity. “Please take.” The use of the enclitic “please” is rare in a divine command and makes it more like an entreaty, another hint that the Lord appreciates the costliness of what he is asking. (Wenham, G. J. (2002). Vol. 2: Word Biblical Commentary : Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary (104). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.)

I was impressed with Abraham’s utter docility and obedience to God before, but even more so now. He said “Yes” to God’s request even when it was not commanded in strong terms. A descendant of Abraham, a young Jewish, a young girl also said “Yes” to God, as did her Son. She said, “Let it be done to me as you have spoken,” and he said, “Not my will but thine be done.”

These shining examples call us to a higher obedience and love for God. We must aspire to do — not only what he commands, but also what he wishes. In the end, we are the ones who are blessed beyond measure.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Dominic Barrios September 8, 2010 at 1:35 PM

Thanks Steve…. We just had a film showing about Abraham and Isaac last Friday and I really really admire Abraham for his obedience to God despite the pain/conflict that he was going through…. Im really at an awe of Abraham more when you posted this… Thanks again..

Sapphire October 31, 2011 at 5:28 PM

Thank you so muxh I had to answer it in class

Paul Frommer September 6, 2012 at 4:09 PM

The only defensible response when God or anyone else tells you to kill an innocent person is “NO, I WILL NOT!” So in that sense, if Abraham was being tested, he failed his exam.

What’s interesting in Gen. 22 is that Abraham does NOT say OK to God. There’s no verbal response from him whatsoever. He simply goes about the business of getting ready. He does indeed bind Isaac to the altar and lifts the knife, but whether he would have gone through with the deed is something we’ll never know. I certainly hope he would not have.

Shawn February 2, 2013 at 10:24 AM

Paul, I get what you are saying, but respectfully I say you are incorrect regarding Abraham. Gen 22:10 tells us plainly that Abraham took the knife TO SLAY his son. (Emphasis mine). You make an interesting point about there being no verbal response – but it seems to me that Abraham was doing what James instructs us to do, namely, he is showing us his faith by his works. He rises early the next morning in obedience. he brooks no delay. He has come to a place where he can trust God even with the life of his own child, a place we must all come to with the lives of our own loved ones. God has patiently allowed Abraham’s faith to grow over the course of decades to get to this point. One of my mentors taught me that the best commentary we have on the Old Testament is the New Testament. In the 11th chapter of the book of Hebrews we are told that Abraham had concluded that God would have to raise Isaac from the dead. I am confident that this is why Abraham said to his young men in verse 5, “the lad and I will go younger and worship, and WE will come back to you.” (emphasis mine). Abraham fully intended to act in obedience, and fully believed in faith that both he and Isaac would return! I wish that I had that kind of faith. Abraham did not fail his exam, as you have said. He succeeded with flying colors, and so becomes an example for all of us. The faith of Abraham lives in every parent who has burried a child and yet hopes in God through Christ to meet their child again in the resurrection. With that said, I do like your advice. Abraham’s situation was a peculiar one. it is a picture of the sacrifice of Christ was to come. Now we have the fullness of Revelation, we no longer need more pictures, we need only realize that another father, the Heavenly Father offered His only Son, on very same hill, and did not stay his hand, but offered him up for us all! how marvelous! This is what is meant by Abraham saying to Isaac, “God will provide HIMSELF a Lamb for the sacrifice.” (emphasis mine). so I agree with you, if anyone, ANYONE, should command me to slay an innocent, my answer will be “NO” – instead, I would simply turn my heart back to that same hill where the only TRULY INNOCENT person was sacrificed for me. And I would worship!

abey February 3, 2015 at 3:35 AM

When Abraham offered his son unto God as instructed, God withheld his hand & instead offered His only Begotten Son, thus taking the instruction unto Himself. Even the words “I keep nothing from my servant Abraham> to the words of Jesus “Abraham rejoiced at seeing my day”. For He was revealed the Christ then & his rejoicing was at at seeing the salvation come unto mankind.

Joanne October 20, 2018 at 8:36 AM

Hello, I know this is not a new posting but I will add one additional thought here for any who might happen upon it. I too have struggled with this passage in the past, as it is a difficult one to understand and to reconcile this scene and request with that of what we perceive as a loving God. There is however another aspect that I have not seen mentioned here in the original article, thank you Steve Ray for a wonderful reflection, nor have I seen it mentioned in the comments, but I believe it is very important to understanding the whole story. The Jewish people believed that God had the power to resurrect and restore life and this was definitely at play here in this biblical story. In Hebrews 11:17-19 we see that this belief and trust in God’s ability to do this was there.

Hebrews 11:17-19 Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE)
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” 19 He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence he did receive him back, and this was a symbol.

Again, this like the other ideas that are being portrayed here ‘Issac carrying on his own back the wood that would be used in his death’, ‘Issac himself walking willingly to the the offering of his own self’, these all are setting the stage for what God will do with His own son in the future and what Jesus will do and offer for us. This scene is just a small picture, a preview if you will, of the depth, and level of trust and sacrifice that is involved in our salvation. This moment paints the picture for what an ultimate sacrifice God and Jesus are making for all of us men and the fact that God would never ask us to do anything that He Himself would not.
Abraham followed God’s request out of total trust and total obedience, not knowing what the outcome would be or having any guarantees, but out of total trust, very much like saying ‘His will be done’. Saying ‘yes’ whether through words and/or actions and following is what both Abraham, Mary, Jesus, all do and show us that we too are supposed to do this same thing. There are no guarantees that when we say yes that God will do things the way we want Him to or expect Him to, but we must trust that what He does do is what will be the ultimate good for ALL and it is through our cooperation that He accomplishes that. God bless.

Mark Nowak November 4, 2018 at 5:10 PM

If you consider the context, there is another interpretation worth considering. The author was basically starting out the story by going along with what was a common practice at the time in Canaan as if God wanted Abraham to stick with the local practices, and everyone at the time reading this would have this understanding and follow along expecting the normal ending, but then there is a twist for dramatic effect: “Stop! This practice ends here and now with us. We don’t sacrifice our own.” Usually people use this story as a tribute to Abraham’s great faith, but it’s really about a noteworthy shift in how we behave, worship and value life. It’s kind of like a sonnet where halfway through the poem the direction of the message changes, and the unexpected twist highlights the new paradigm. It’s really clever writing — art making a point: we’re different, we value life too much to sacrifice it … even to demonstrate faith.

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