We read in Gen 22:2 how Abraham is tested :

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”.

Note that God is using attributes of ' only son ' and ' whom you love" for Isaac, immediately followed by the command to sacrifice him. Was it a prophecy on the Redemptive Mission of Jesus ? Or, was God simply letting Abraham know that the latter's intense love for Isaac vis-a-vis that for his estranged son Ishmael, had been taken note of ? What is the explanation offered by Bible scholars ?

2 Answers 2


The question is two-fold:

  1. Isaac as Abraham's Son

We observe that when God speaks to Abraham in Gen 22:2, He uses several titles for Isaac:

  • "Your Son"
  • "Your only son"
  • "the one whom you love"
  • his name "Isaac"

Before proceeding further, we should recall that Abraham had many sons. However, Isaac was special for a variety of reasons:

  • Isaac was miraculously conceived and miraculously born (to a woman of 90 years of age without killing her!!)
  • Isaac was the child of promise (Gen 18) through whom would come (in earthly terms) the promised Messiah as per God's previous promises in Gen 12
  • Isaac was the recipient of Abraham's birthright

In this sense, Isaac was unique (Heb 11:17) and thus vastly more precious that Abraham's other children. Thus, Abraham was especially fond of Isaac. When God spoke to Abraham in Gen 22:2, all the above titles served to remind and reinforce to Abraham all these facts about how precious and important Isaac was.

This is the proverbial "set-up" for the ultimate test of faith to which Abraham was to be subjected and finally prevail. Among modern Jews, this incident is still recalled as the pre-eminent example of trust in God.

  1. Realization of Significance??

Now to the more difficult question which can be asked two different ways:

  • Did Abraham realize the prophetic and Messianic significance of what was going on?
  • Did subsequent Israelites realize the Messianic significance or Messianic nature of this story?

The answer to both is probably no; BUT, Abraham was more likely to understand the importance of this incident because of the previous promises in the Abrahamic covenant contained in Gen 12:1-3, 13:14-17, 15:1-17, 17:1-27, 18:9-15. It is significant that that these promises were repeated immediately after in Gen 22:15-18.

There are also elements of the messianic prophecies in these promises that would only be fulfilled through Isaac:

  • Gen 12:3 - ... and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you. (see Gal 3:8)
  • Gen 22:18 - And through your offspring all nations of the earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” (See Acts 3:25)

Both of these statements are clearly messianic. Commenting on Gen 12:3 Ellicott says this:

In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed — This promise crowned all the rest; for it pointed at the Messiah, “in whom all the promises are yea and amen.” Now, with what astonishing exactness has God fulfilled these promises, and yet how unlikely it was, at the time they were made, that they should be fulfilled! Surely we need no other proof that the historian wrote by inspiration of God!

The Cambridge commentary is similar:

“On account of thee the whole world shall be blessed.” In Abram is impersonated a blessing that shall become universal. The directly Messianic application of this rendering is obvious.

Thus, I believe that Abraham regarded the survival of Isaac as crucial. Indeed, Hebrews 11: 17-19 says this:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac on the altar. He who had received the promises was ready to offer his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “Through Isaac your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and in a sense, he did receive Isaac back from death.

This only serves to reinforce how important Abraham regarded Isaac and thus, how much he had to trust God.

APPENDIX - Abrahamic Covenant: Gen 12:1-3, 13:14-17, 15:1-17, 17:1-27, 18:9-15, 22:15-18

The Abrahamic Covenant is stated in two places, Gen 15 & 17, 13 years apart (and repeated in Gen 12:1-3, 13:14-17, 18:9-15, 22:15-18 without using the word “covenant” nor formal sacrifices) and was an eternal covenant, Gen 13:15, 17:9, 13, 19. The covenant consisted of the following:

Gen 15

  • God promises Abram a biological son
  • God promises Abram uncountable descendants
  • God promises Abram’s descendants the land of Canaan, “from the wadi of Egypt to the great river Euphrates”.
  • God promises to return Abram’s descendants to Canaan after Egyptian slavery of 400 years
  • God promises to punish the Egyptians
  • God promises great possessions to Abram’s descendants when they leave Egypt
  • The covenant was initiated and signified by a ceremony (significant to the culture of Abraham) of cutting several animals in half and God passing between the halves, and (and so solemnly promising) to keep the provisions of the covenant.

This ceremony of cutting sacrificed animals in half is a direct allusion of the word “berith” (= “covenant”), meaning, “to cut”. That this covenant was a covenant of grace is confirmed by Gen 15:6, “Abram believed the LORD and he credited it to him as righteousness”. (See also Rom 4:3, 22, Gal 3:6, James 2:23.)

Gen 17, 18:9-15

  • God promises a biological son by Sarah, viz. Isaac
  • God promises to greatly increase Abram’s numbers
  • God promises Abram that he would be the father of many nations
  • God promises Abraham the land of Canaan
  • God promises that Ishmael would also be fruitful
  • Abraham and his descendants must promise to be faithful to God
  • The covenant is signified by the token/sign (Heb: “oth”, Gen 17:10, 11, 13, Rom 4:11) of circumcision (= circular cut), Acts 7:8, and a change of name from Abram to Abraham.

It is immediately clear that this covenant is a re-statement, with only slight variations, of the covenant in Gen 15, and was an eternal covenant, Gen 17:7, 13.

In Gen 12:3 and 22:18, another element to the promises is added:

  • “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed”. This is obviously Messianic as Acts 3:25 points out. See also Gal 3:16, 19. Thus, Isaac was crucial (in earthly terms) for the birth and promise of Messiah.
  • Thanks, Dottard, for the detailed inputs. My query is on why God used the attributes for Isaac whereas they could have come from Abraham . For instance: God could have first told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, to which Abraham could have replied with a pleading like : God, Isaac is my only son and I love him most ; can't you spare him ? Mar 1 at 2:39
  • @KadalikattJosephSibichan - we only have what is recorded to work on. That conversation is only God speaking.
    – Dottard
    Mar 1 at 2:54

This question about the mission of Jesus depends on one's opinion. For Jews there is no messianic prophecy here, because the messiah's mission is to restore the throne of David, not to die for our sins. But for many Christians, the willingness of Isaac to allow himself to be sacrificed by Abraham indeed foreshadows Jesus' willingness to obey the Father's will that he die on the Cross. For a scholarly discussion of the differences and interplay between Jewish and Christian viewpoints on this, see Akedah – Meanings and Interpretations in the Dialogue between Christianity and Judaism by Ion Cordoneanu.

The OP also asks: "was God simply letting Abraham know that the latter's intense love for Isaac vis-a-vis that for his estranged son Ishmael, had been taken note of?" Answer: God did affirm the He knew of Abraham's love for Isaac. Whether or not Isaac foreshadowed Christ in this scene, God's affirmation of Abraham's love for his only son shows that God deeply empathized with Abraham here.

However it does not seem to be the case that Abraham love Isaac over Ishmael, as the OP suggests. In fact it seems the Abraham loved Ishmael, his first son, very deeply indeed. For years it was Ishmael who was literally Abraham's "only son." He even begged God to accept him. After the birth of Ishmael, when God told Abraham that Sarah would give birth to Isaac, this is how Abraham responded:

Gen 17

17 Then Abraham fell upon his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear?” 18 And Abraham said unto God, “O that Ishmael might live before Thee!”

Then, when Sarah demanded that Ishmael be sent away, Gen. 21:11 reports: "the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son (Ishmael)." This implies that Abraham did not actually prefer Isaac. It may even be the case that he preferred Ishmael, just as Isaac himself would later unwisely prefer Esau.

Genesis 25:28

And Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his venison; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

The matriarchs Sara and Rebekah, it seems, understood God's perspective on their sons better than their husbands did. Beyond this, we may ask, why God says that Isaac is Abraham's "only son?" This is because from God's viewpoint, Ishmael was disqualified.

Genesis 21:12

But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad [Ishmael] and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named.

Conclusions: there is a difference of opinion between Jews and Christians as to whether the sacrifice of Isaac foreshadowed Jesus' redemptive mission. God did take note of Abraham's love for Isaac, but it is not certain that Abraham preferred Isaac over Ishmael. (God certainly did.)

ADDENDUM: There is also a Christian argument against Isaac (the only son) foreshadowing Jesus. In the end, Abraham sacrificed a ram, not Isaac. Since both goats and sheep were acceptable sin-offerings, some believe that it was the ram who foreshadowed Jesus, and Isaac foreshadowed Christians, who are saved by the blood of Cross.

  • Dan Fefferman, your Addendum has a point. I once asked a question on CSE if the bush of thorns that Abraham's ram was cought by and the crown of thorns Jesus wore, had something in common. Mar 1 at 12:32

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