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I was reading the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 and something confused me. Abraham packs his donkey and brings with him his son and two servants to the hill God had designated.

My understanding is that the mainstream view is that Abraham did not know God was only testing Abraham, and Abraham rightly thought he would carry out the sacrifice and kill his son. My confusion is that he seems to say to his servants to wait until "we come back to you". I've read three versions of the Bible, let me cite the area that confuses me:

5.He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
New International Version

5.Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
New Revised Standard Version

5.And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
King James Version

In the first two versions it's quite clear he says "We will come back to you." In the King James Version it's less clear, but as I read it, it still implies he says they both will return.

Are these mistranslations of the original? If not, is it that Abraham knows that his son won't really die? Or is it only that he wishes to hide from his servants that he will kill his son? It struck me as really odd considering I always thought Abraham did not know he was being tested until the very end.

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    Welome to BH.SE, excellent question! – רבות מחשבות Mar 27 '18 at 15:14
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    I'm surprised that no one has bothered to do a full parsing of the Hebrew for the part of your question checking whether both are returning. In Hebrew the pronoun subject is almost always absent; "we" is built into the verb conjugation, which is indeed vnashuvah וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה "and we will return". Incidentally, this form is indistinguishable (for this verb) from the cohortative "may we return", expressing a wish, which should throw a helpful wrench into the certainty of some commentaries... – Luke Sawczak Mar 29 '18 at 1:42
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    @LukeSawczak see Lange's opinion that I brought in my answer. – רבות מחשבות Mar 29 '18 at 4:45
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Abraham told his servants that He and Isaac would return because He knew that God could raise Isaac from the dead.

Heb. 11:17-19,

"17 By faith Abraham hath offered up Isaac, being tried, and the only begotten he did offer up who did receive the promises,

18 of whom it was said -- `In Isaac shall a seed be called to thee;'

19 reckoning that even out of the dead God is able to raise up, whence also in a figure he did receive [him]." (YLT)

Abraham believed God, and obeyed God's command. He fully expected to sacrifice Isaac, but He also trusted God's promise that through Isaac should all nations be blessed.

Rom. 9:7,

"nor because they are seed of Abraham [are] all children, but -- `in Isaac shall a seed be called to thee;'" (YLT)

Abraham fully trusted that God would raise Isaac from the altar and that both he and Isaac would walk back down that hill.

21

First of all, to address your question of whether it is an accurate translation, it certainly is. As it can be seen here, the Hebrew word is ונשובה, which comes from the word שוב, to return (Strong 7725).

Secondly, you have suggested a number of excellent ways to understand such a statement, and I will try to source as many of them as I can:

The pulpit commentary to this verse offers the following interpretations:

An act of dissimulation on the part of Abraham (Knobel, Kalisch, Murphy); an unconscious prophecy (Lyra, Junius, Rashi); the expression of a hopeful wish (Lange); a somewhat confused utterance (Calvin, Keil); the voice of his all-conquering faith (Augustine, Calvin, Wordsworth, Bush, 'Speaker's Commentary,' Inglis), which last seems the teaching of Hebrews 11:19.

(Some Jewish Commentaries are available in Hebrew here: 22:2, 22:5. Some Christian Commentaries are available in English here: 22:5.)

Berlin (22:2) suggests that he did so in order to hide it from even the lads that had come with him.

Ibn Ezra (h/t to Bach above, 22:5 first edition) suggests that it was to hide it from Isaac, however, he adds a bit of a morbid layer, saying that Abraham actually intended to bring Isaac's bones back with him (see also R' Bahya ben Asher here).

Mecklenburg (22:5) makes a strange suggestion, that it means "if we worship, then we will return" with the implication being that if not, then not.

Elicott (22:5, h/t to Gina above) suggests that Abraham was certain that Isaac would be resurrected.

  • +1 great answer, i edited your answer, feel free to reverse to your original. – Bach Mar 27 '18 at 15:50
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The answer is simple: Abraham was hiding his true intentions from Isaac - were he to know what he was trying to do with him he would surely protest. This is evident from verses 7-9:

The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

Abraham flatly denied his true intentions and lied to Isaac saying that he will find a lamb which God will miraculously provide for him. This is indeed how the story ended, and Abraham himself unaware that he was talking prophetically here and in the beginning as well when he said "and we will return to you" (see Rashi). Indeed they both returned in good condition but those were not his true intentions.

There is no evidence that Isaac went to his slaughter willingly, indeed Abraham had to bind him before he was going to sacrifice him; this strongly indicates that Isaac was protesting and had to be restrained.


This is what Ibn Ezra writes in his commentary to verse 4:

והקרוב אל הדעת שהי' קרוב לי"ג שנים. והכריחו אביו ועקדו שלא ברצונו והעד שאביו הסתיר הסוד ממנו ואמר אלהים יראה לו השה כי אילו אמר לו אתה העולה יתכן שיברח

It is most likely that [Isaac] was close to thirteen years of age, and that his father forced him and bound him against his will. Proof of this, that his father hid this secret from him and told him "God himself will provide the lamb", because if he would've told him 'you are the sacrifice' it is possible that he would have escaped

See also רבות מחשבות's answer, which cites another suggestion from Ibn Ezra (from the original version of his commentary).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Soldarnal Mar 28 '18 at 1:03
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    I've always struggled with this interpretation for the fact that Isaac was strong enough to carry the substantial wood required for a burnt offering up the mountain. Not withstanding the fact that Abraham is over a hundred years old, Isaac is strong at this point, be he 13 or 30, and would have been able to resist being bound if he truly wanted to. – JustAnotherSoul Mar 28 '18 at 21:16
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While I like various points from a number of highly upvoted answers here, I do not feel any one of them captures the whole picture, so I'll offer a compilation of what I see as the primary points to answer the question itself, some of which will obviously overlap certain of these other answers.

Possibilities

Are these mistranslations of the original?

It is not a mistranslation. The form of the Hebrew נָשׁ֥וּבָה is plural, evidenced by the plural prefix/form on the word; so "we will come back" is a proper translation.

If not, is it that Abraham knows that his son won't really die?

From the Genesis account, it is not revealed exactly what Abraham is thinking, other than in Gen 22:7c-8a he declares (ESV):

... He [Isaac] said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” ...

This declaration relates to the following question from the OP as well:

Or is it only that he wishes to hide from his servants that he will kill his son?

And by extension, in v.8, is Abraham hiding from Isaac the plan? So with Abraham's declaration to his servants in v.5, and then more specifically his direct reply to Isaac's question in v.8, one of these four possiblities must be intended for what Abraham is thinking:

  1. Abraham is lying to both: Abraham is expecting to sacrifice his son and is lying to both the two young men and his son about who will be returning and what God has provided for.
  2. Abraham is telling the truth to both, version A: Abraham is expecting (trusting by faith), but not sure how, that God is going to provide a substitute sacrifice of the herd (שֶׂה can be translated sheep or goat, essentially an animal from a flock) for his son Isaac, such that he and his son will be returning to the other two.
  3. Abraham is telling the truth to both, version B: Abraham is expecting (trusting by faith), but not sure how, that God is going to provide some way for Isaac to return from this experience to see the young men again, even though he is later disclosing to Isaac that you "my son" are the chosen one from the flock to be the burnt sacrifice; this could be the case, as the Hebrew "my son" (בְּנִ֑י) comes immediately after the declaration of "the lamb for a burnt offering" (הַשֶּׂ֛ה לְעֹלָ֖ה) and so could be construed as in apposition to it (i.e. the lamb = you my son).
  4. Abraham is lying to the young men, but telling Isaac the truth: If the apposition noted in #3 is correct for v.8, and so telling the truth to Isaac, but Abraham is not really expecting Isaac to return from this, then he was lying to the two young men.

Now from the Genesis 22 passage itself, the incident itself ends up matching to #2 (v.13). Yet at the same time, before that substitution was made, Abraham was following through with the request of God to offer Isaac as the burnt offering (v.2) as he took up the knife with his son on the altar (v.10), which matches the #1, 3, 4 of actually intending to sacrifice.

To answer from the context, #1 is more likely than #4. If Abraham is going to lie, he might as well go all out. But Abraham had learned some lessons about how lying (or at least giving a half-truth, Gen 20:12) can cause great harm (Gen 20:9) because of lack of faith (Gen 20:11). He had established himself as a man of integrity after that (Gen 21:22-33). So lying, at this point of testing of his faith, does not appear to the idea being relayed in the context here in Gen 22:5 or 8.

If that logic is accepted, then neither #1 or #4 appear to be the best possiblity, and so the answer to the third question is "No," he is not lying to the servants.

Possibilities #2 & 3, however, point out that Abraham does not really "know" for sure "that his son won't really die," but only that by faith, he is "trusting" that God has something planned that He has not yet revealed. This trusting disposition seems strongly implied both:

  1. by God's declaration to Abraham when he stops him (v.12), as God sees Abraham's heart as willing to sacrifice Isaac for God:

He [YHWH] said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

  1. by Abraham's declaration that God followed through to provide (v.14):

So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.

Conclusion

Evidence from the passage suggests that Abraham was trusting God, expecting in some way that God was going to have Isaac return alive with him to his servants—whether by substitution of the sacrifice required, which did occur, or by some means of following through with the sacrifice.

As to the latter, if one holds to the New Testament commentary on that as being divinely inspired (as I do), then Hebrews 11:17-19 (as this answer, though incomplete in answering the OP's question because of jumping straight to the New Testament) expresses well that perspective of what Abraham was thinking if he did have to go through with sacrificing his son.

So I believe Abraham, at different times while pondering God's request on the journey to fulfill it, was thinking of at least the two possible solutions of #2 (substitute sacrifice) or #3 (resurrection from death) for God to keep His promise to him of Isaac's role (Gen 17:19).

But even if one does not want to consider #3 as valid (by rejecting the New Testament commentary on that), then #2 still is the better answer in the context of the book of Genesis than either #1 or #4.

In either case, the answer as to the main question of

Why did Abraham say “We shall return” before sacrificing Isaac?

appears to be that he, by faith, was expecting Isaac to in some way return, despite God's call for his son's sacrifice.

  • I greatly appreciate this answer. I especially like that you've not only given your belief, but enumerated the different interpretations. The only other answer that does this is the one by רבות מחשבות. I understand different people have interpretations, but with the topic so open to many readings I'd really like to get all the possibilities, which you have done. – Zebrafish Apr 3 '18 at 18:53
  • @Zebrafish Glad it was a blessing. My approach to any text is to try and consider all plausible options, then weed out by context (immediate historical/literary first, but for me, sometimes can come to include all of Scripture) options that do not "fit" (sometimes they are easier to declare as certainly "not an option" as other times). – ScottS Apr 4 '18 at 15:13
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Gersonides in his commentary to these verses notes that God's command to Abraham was ambiguous. Thus, it could have been fulfilled by going to the mountaintop with Isaac and offering an animal. But Abraham interpreted the command according to the default meaning (sacrifice Isaac) unless he could find evidence of another meaning. When Abraham told Isaac that God would provide the lamb, this was according to Gersonides actually a prayer that God should provide a lamb instead of Isaac and allow the command to be fulfilled in that way.

According to this explanation, it is plausible that when Abraham said that both of them would return, it was also a prayer or at least it was with the hope that he would be able to fulfill God's command without killing Isaac.

Elazar of Worms writes in his commentary that Abraham meant "We shall return if God wills it".

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Rashi comments that Abraham was prophesizing that they would both return.

ונשובה: נתנבא שישובו שניהם

And we will return: He prophesized that they would both return

(my translation)

  • What's the downvote for? – Daniel Mar 28 '18 at 14:28
  • I already included that in my answer, and sourced Rashi and others. – רבות מחשבות Mar 28 '18 at 14:28
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    But while we're at it, welcome to BH! (I happen to personally feel that MYers should contribute here if possible, although be wary that there will be a lot of Christian material being posted.) – רבות מחשבות Mar 28 '18 at 14:30

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