Lot’s Daughters—Sodom and Gomorrah, Part 4

***Advisory: This post touches on topics of incest, child sacrifice, and prostitution. You’ve been warned***

In the previous scene, two angels told Lot he and his family needed to run to the hills for safety, because they were about to destroy all the cities of the Plain. Zoar (previously called Bela), however, was spared because Lot asked if he could go there instead of the hills. Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Lot is left now with only his two daughters. We pick up the story from there.

Now Lot went up out of Zoar and settled in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar; so he lived in a cave with his two daughters.

(Gen 19:30 NRS)

He settled in the hills… and lived in a cave. That’s what he was trying to avoid earlier (vv. 19-22). I got the feeling earlier Lot did not want to go back to non-urban living. I imagine his daughters were not thrilled about it either. But he was afraid to stay in Zoar. The people there must have been as bad as Sodom. Now they are living in a cave with no one else around.

Not If You Were the Last Man on Earth!

And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.”

(Gen 19:31-32 NRS)

I hardly know what to say now. Why does the firstborn daughter propose this to the younger? She says, “There is not a man on earth to come in to us….” Some commentators say this shows how important the command to “be fruitful and multiply” was. It was so important to people in the ancient world to procreate and pass on their name to the next generation, more so than today. Everyone was expected to bear children unless they physically couldn’t. They had to be sure their family would survive after their deaths, even if it meant they had to sleep with their father. All of that is true. But was fooling their father into making them pregnant the only option?

They say there is not a man on earth. True, they had witnessed widespread devastation upon the whole plain of the Jordan. Did they really think this was the whole earth? Even if it was, Zoar survived. Were there no men in Zoar? If not, why was Lot afraid to stay there? Of course there were men in Zoar. Lot moved them out of the city, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t sneak off, hang around and pretend to be prostitutes like Tamar (Gen 38:13-26).

Why didn’t they share their concerns with their father? Could it be they did not trust their father after he almost threw them to the wolves (v. 8)? That would be understandable. But they never voice any such concerns when they hatch this plan. Compare that to the detail about Tamar’s motivations to trick her father-in-law into sleeping with her, because he would not honor his obligations of Levirate marriage to her (Gen 38). And even with that consideration, their only concern appears to be to preserve offspring, even if it has to be through our father.

There are no other men living in their cave, but that cave is not the whole earth. At this point, I am tempted to joke that they must have been teenagers, because they think anything outside the world they know doesn’t exist. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

What if they were correct? Women sometimes say of a certain man they would not date him if he were “the last man on earth.” What if Lot really was the last man on earth? And they were the last women on earth? If he dies without impregnating them, the whole human race dies with them. And they felt pressured to do it quickly, because our father is now old. In that case, their plan probably would be justified. But they are not the last people on earth, are they?

The Daughters’ March to Folly

In her book, The March to Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Barbara W. Tuchman analyzes some of the greatest acts of folly nations have committed in history. She defines folly as having three characteristics:

  1. The leader/nation pursued a course of action clearly against their self-interests.
  2. The actions prompted warnings from wise people, but they were ignored.
  3. A clear and reasonable alternative existed.

Was this clearly against their self-interest? Yes, but if they were stupid enough to believe their father was the last man on earth, they probably never thought that far ahead. Did they ignore warnings against it? No one could warn them, because they did not share their plans with anyone. Even so, I believe they still had a warning. I believe (this is just me) they must have had a still small voice inside them saying, “You don’t have to do this. The world is a big place. Find another man.” Did a clear and reasonable alternative exist? YES! In fact, several alternatives existed.

For one thing, they could have shared their concerns with their father, as I said before. I don’t mean, “Father, there is no man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the world. Will you do it, so we can have children?” They could have eased into it, like, “It looks like we are the last people on earth. Are we?” Maybe they didn’t know the destruction was targeted against specific cities, not the whole earth, but Lot did. So he could have told them, “No, we are not the last people on earth.”

“But where is a man who can produce offspring for us?”

He could have told them, “There are men beyond Zoar and beyond these hills. In fact, Uncle Abraham and Aunt Sarah are out there in Canaan. They will certainly be able to find husbands for you.”

They could have found men in Zoar, as I said before. If Lot forbade them, they could have got him drunk (first part of the plan). Then instead of sleeping with him, they could have gone back to Zoar for a night and snuck back before he was the wiser. Even that would have made more sense than what they planned. They could have asked to go to Haran, where Uncle Nahor still lived, or to find Uncle Abraham. Either of their great-uncles could have found men suitable as fathers and husbands.

But for some reason, they think the only option to “be fruitful and multiply” is to use wine as a “date rape drug” on their father. In spite of clear and reasonable alternatives, they went through with their folly.

So they made their father drink wine that night; and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.

On the next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Look, I lay last night with my father; let us make him drink wine tonight also; then you go in and lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.”

So they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger rose, and lay with him; and he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.

(Gen 19:33-36 NRS)

I wonder what they told their father when he saw they were pregnant. Next, we get to the point of this story.

An Origin Story of Two Rival Nations

The firstborn bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and named him Ben-ammi; he is the ancestor of the Ammonites to this day.

(Gen 19:37-38 NRS)

This begs the question, what kind of children will come from a union like this? Their names even hinted of ignoble origins. Moab means “from the father,” or perhaps even “from her father.” Whose father? Oh yeah. And it echoes the phrase “through our father” in verses 32 and 34 (Moabinu). Ben-ammi means “Son of my people.” ‘Ammi can refer specifically to a father’s relatives or one’s particular tribe, so it is often associated with close family ties. Only one man there is of her people. What happened when Lot heard the names, remembered the nights they got him drunk, and put two and two together? (AWKWARD!)

So this is an origin story of the Moabites and Ammonites. Moab and Ammon were two ancient enemies of Israel. This story portrays them as being founded in folly and sexual licentiousness, and that was in line with stereotypes the Israelites had of their neighbors east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

Don’t Know Much about Moabites

The territory of Moab lay east of the Dead Sea. The capital was Dibon. The Israelites encountered them during their forty years wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 22-25). Balak son of Zippor was king at the time. To sum up, Balak and the people were afraid of the Israelites, so Balak hired the prophet Balaam to curse them. That backfired. The LORD spoke through him, and the curse turned into a blessing. When Balak was like, “I paid you to curse them, not bless them,” Balaam said, “Must I not take care to say what the LORD puts into my mouth?” (Num 23:12 NRS).

When that didn’t work, they sent their women to seduce them. The Israelite men slept with the women and bowed down to their gods. They yoked themselves to their chief god, Baal of Peor (Num 25:3). Yes, this is after they received the Ten Commandments, and God almost wiped them out when they built a golden calf to be their god. This is what Moses told them after that incident.

You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice.

(Exo 34:15 NRS)

Yet for all this, they broke the first commandment again in a big way. They did all of that with the women of Moab, most likely the cult prostitutes of Baal of Peor. Not only that, when Moses told them to stop, they refused.

God sent a plague that started killing the Israelites. As it spread, the people came to the tent of meeting to repent before the LORD. But one man, Zimri son of Salu, flaunted God and his people by taking his woman into his tent right in front of everyone. Phinehas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, took it upon himself to stop the plague. He charged into the tent with his spear and killed them both in the same stroke. (So they were having sex right at that moment.) That is when the plague stopped. Once again, Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Bible.

This became a cautionary tale for every generation of Israelites and Jews. What kind of opinion do you think they had of the Moabites? They were treacherous, idolatrous, and sexually amoral. If anyone asked why they were that way, just look at their origin story. They are the product of incest between father and daughter, so what do you expect?

Don’t Know Much about Ammonites

The territory of Ammon was east of the Jordan River, between the valleys of Arnon and Jabbok, in the modern nation of Jordan. They once occupied the fertile eastern banks of the Jordan River, along with the Moabites, but Sihon king of the Amorites drove them out. Perhaps their greatest infamy was that they introduced their god Milcom, a.k.a. Molech, to the Israelites. His image showed the face of a bull and arms outstretched to receive babies for sacrifice. And like their god, the Ammonites themselves were cruel (1 Sam 11:1-2; Amo 1:13). Again, Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Bible.

"The idol Moloch with seven chambers or chapels"), from Johann Lund's Die Alten Jüdischen Heiligthümer (1711, 1738).
You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. (Lev 18:21 NRS)

So when the young generation asked what kind of people would do this, they could remind them of the origin story. The Ammonites, like the Moabites, were the product of incest between father and daughter. Whether or not the story of Lot and his daughters was true or another urban legend, I don’t know. But it was the kind of story they would tell young people to warn them not to intermarry with the Ammonites and Moabites, because they would entice them to bind them to their gods (Exo 34:16; Deu 7:3-4; Jos 23:12-13). The distrust of the Moabites and Ammonites was so great Moses forbade them from joining “the assembly of the LORD” for ten generations (Deu 23:3-4).

The LORD forbade the Israelites from sacrificing children to Molech or to any gods, including himself. That was supposed to be one of the lessons of when Abraham offered Isaac to the LORD. The angel stopped him, saying,

Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.

(Gen 22:12 NRS)

They would use this story to teach their young ones, “This is why we don’t sacrifice our children like people of other nations do.” But there is evidence from the Hebrew Bible they did it anyway (Lev 18:21; 20:2-3; Deu 12:31; Jdg 11:30-31; 1 Kg 11:7, 33). In fact, even the valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem had a shrine to Molech.

Blood Is (Still) Thicker Than Water

But in spite of all this, Moses told the Israelites not to harass or make war with Moab or Ammon, because God said, “I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot” (Deu 2:9; also v. 19 NRS). The Bible does not tell us how and when God made this promise to Moab and Ammon. Why would God do this? God blessed Ishmael and Esau because they were descendants of Abraham. Lot was not Abraham’s descendant, but he was kin by blood.

It’s never stated outright, but God seemed to have a stake in protecting anyone belonging to Abraham’s family. God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac, but God also provided land for the descendants of Moab, Ammon, Esau (Deu 2:5), and Ishmael (Gen 17:20), despite their inhospitable treatment of the Israelites (Num 20:18; Deu 23:4).

This is an example of the grace of God. One definition of grace is “unmerited favor.” We saw how God strong-armed Abimelech in order to protect Abraham and Sarah, even though their behavior was unworthy of a prophet and his wife. Unmerited favor. God granted favor to Ishmael, Moab, Ammon, and Esau, even though they were not worthy.

I said in an earlier post called The Meaning of the Wife-Sister Episodes, “From what I’ve gathered, God appears to Abraham for these reasons:

  1. To make promises to Abraham (usually through a covenant).
  2. To keep promises to Abraham
  3. To protect the bloodline of the Messiah.”

For God to tell Israel certain land did not belong to them because God promised it to someone else is in keeping with a God who keeps promises. And it is also in keeping with protecting the bloodline of the Messiah. Even though they were not Abraham’s seed, Moab would one day become part of the bloodline through Ruth (see below). This has led some Jewish commentators to portray Lot’s daughters in a much more positive fashion. On verse 32, Genesis Rabbah 51:8 says:

R. Tanhuma in the name of Samuel: “What is written is not, ‘So that we may keep a child alive from our father,’ but rather, ‘so we may preserve offspring through our father.’ That is to say, the king-messiah, who will come from another source.”

Sometimes in reading these Rabbinic commentaries, I feel a little stupid. I don’t see the difference between “So that we may keep a child alive from our father” and “So we may preserve offspring through our father,” but an article on The Torah website explained it this way:

According to this understanding, the daughters may not believe that they are part of the only family left on earth, but intuit that it is essential that Lot’s line continues, since the king-messiah is destined to come from this line.

Lot and His Daughters’ Motives for their Incestuous Union

Wow! I did not see that coming. Talk about things getting lost in translation. If they somehow intuited Lot’s line had to continue for the Messiah to be born, that would mean they were not just a couple of silly teenagers who showed extremely poor judgment. They were prophets who knew this unseemly act really was necessary. And (if the Rabbis are correct), it changes everything I said about their folly earlier.

Was it against their self-interest? Yes, but they understood the sacrifice they were making so that the Messiah could come into the world. Were there any warnings against it? No. When that still small voice spoke to them and said, “You can find another man,” they would have answered, “The Messiah has to come through our father. Now that Mother is gone, we are his last chance.” Did a reasonable alternative exist? If the issue was not just whether they would have children but whether all the pieces of the Messiah’s lineage would be in place, then no. And there is even evidence in the Hebrew text that Lot might have taken them away from Zoar to isolate them in a cave, so that the daughters would have no other alternative (Genesis Rabbah 51:8-9).

Jan Matsys's portrayal of Lot with his Daughters
“On the basis of what is said in the following verse: ‘He who separates himself seeks desire’ (Prov. 18:1), it is clear that Lot lusted after his daughter” (Genesis Rabbah 51:9).

Considering how conservative the Rabbis were about sex, I’m surprised they take such a positive view of Lot’s daughters. But one thing is clear. The Rabbis recognize that through Moab, Lot became a branch in the family tree of the Messiah, and they judge Lot’s daughters through that lens. It was because of Ruth that her ancestor, Moab, had to be born, so let’s see how she becomes part of the most important lineage in the Bible.

Forbidden Fruit Is Sometimes a Good Thing

In the time of the judges, an Israelite named Elimelech brought his wife, Naomi, and two sons to Moab to escape a famine (Rut 1:1), which indicates sometimes relations with Moabites and Ammonites were friendly. Ruth, a Moabitess, married one of Elimelech’s sons (despite Moses’ prohibition). When Elimelech and both his sons died, Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, decided to go back to her hometown of Bethlehem, alone. She urged Ruth to go back to her family, because there was no way as a widow she could take care of Ruth. But Ruth wondered who would take care of Naomi, so she insisted on going back with her. Her promise to Naomi has become one of the most famous expressions of loyalty in all of literature.

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die– there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

(Rut 1:16-17 NRS)

Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Jews call this type of conversion being “born again.” Because first, you are born as part of one people, and the gods of your people become your gods. It was that way in the ancient world, and Jews were no exception. Therefore, most Jews are simply born that way. But what if a Gentile wants to convert to Judaism? That means accepting the Jewish people as his/her own people and the Jewish God as his/her God. Thus, a convert is “born again” as a Jew.

Ruth, in effect, has just been born again to be part of Naomi’s people. It meant leaving her family, her nation, her gods, everything she was familiar with behind, so her mother-in-law would not be alone. That takes guts. When they made it to Bethlehem, they encountered a man named Boaz, who just happened to be related to Ruth’s dead husband. Under the rules of Levirate marriage, if a man dies without a son, his nearest male kin (usually a brother or cousin) must take care of his widow. His choices are

  1. Lie with her and give her a son, so she will have a share in her son’s inheritance.
  2. Marry her, and accept the obligations that come with it.

Ruth asks Boaz for option 2 based on his kinship with Naomi. There is one other man who is closer kin and has the first right of redemption. But Boaz convinces him not to claim it, clearing the way for him to marry Ruth.

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son.

(Rut 4:13 NRS)

And she bore a son, that was always the most important result of a Levirate marriage. However, since she became his wife, their relationship did not end there. And here’s the surprise ending. She became the great-grandmother of David, thus placing her in the chain of ancestry of the Messiah (Rut 4:17). For her loyalty to Naomi, the women of Bethlehem praised Ruth.

Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”

(Rut 4:14-15 NRS)

More to you than seven sons is truly remarkable praise for any woman, let alone a Moabitess, in such a patriarchal culture.

The next-of-kin, or “kinsman-redeemer” (see Translation Notes) refers to the son Ruth bore through Boaz, who loved Ruth not just for her outer beauty but recognized her inner beauty in how she cared for Naomi, his relative.

May his name be renowned in Israel! Considering his great-grandson would be King David, no one could deny that blessing came true. But it would not have happened if he had not had the courage to defy convention and marry a foreign woman, a Moabite no less.

Undoubtedly, the character of any Moabite or Ammonite would be suspect to the Jews until proven otherwise. They needed a story like this to show them the danger was not in marrying someone of the wrong ethnicity, race, nationality, or skin color. The danger was in marrying a woman who embodied the morality of Moabite or Ammonite culture. Ruth’s actions showed she was a valorous woman (Pro 31:10ff), no matter who her ancestors were.

References

Who were the Moabites?

Who were the Ammonites?

Who was Moloch/Molech?

Lot and his daughters’ motives for their incestuous union

Lot’s Daughters: Midrash and Aggadah

Wikipedia

If you or your library have a subscription to Biblical Archaeology Review, you can read this article: “Ammon, Moab, and Edom: Gods and Kingdoms East of the Jordan.”

Translation Notes



… or when she arose

וּבְק֗וּמָֽהּ׃ (Gen 19:33 WTT; ubiqumah) The dot over the qaph is an editorial mark called a Puncta Extraordinaria. It possibly changes the meaning from “[he did not know when she lay down] or when she arose,” to “[he did not know when she lay down], but he knew when she arose.”




Goel: The kinsman-redeemer.

גֹּאֵ֖ל (Rut 4:14 WTT) (go’el) = “Next-of-kin.”

In form, this is a masculine singular participle of the verb ga’al, meaning “to redeem.” Go’el in the NRSV is translated “next-of-kin,” but in other translations it is rendered “redeemer.” The term was often used in a specialized sense of the obligation of the nearest male kin to redeem a family member from slavery, to buy back family property lost through debt, and—in this case—to deliver a male relative’s widow from childlessness by marrying her and giving her a son. When used in the context of the obligations of the nearest male kin, I believe “kinsman-redeemer” is the best way to translate it.

Hol1362  גָּאַל (ga’al) verb qal participle masculine singular absolute homonym 1

make a claim for a person or thing > reclaim him/it, redeem; — 2. duty of the male relative of s.one who has died leaving a childless widow to deliver her from childlessness by marriage Ru 44•6, the man in question being called go’el, deliverer Ru 220.

-Halladay, p. 53.

Moab = “from (the) father”

The meaning of the name Moab is not certain. The name sounds like the Hebrew phrase “from our father” (‌מֵאָבִינוּ‎‏‎, meavinu) which the daughters used twice (vv. Gen 19:32, Gen 19:34). This account is probably included in the narrative in order to portray the Moabites, who later became enemies of God’s people, in a negative light.

NET Bible, Ref Gen 19:37, sn 102.

Strong’s Data

04124 מוֹאָב Mow’ab {mo-awb}

Meaning:  Moab = “of his father” n pr m 1) a son of Lot by his eldest daughter 2) the nation descended from the son of Lot n pr loc 3) the land inhabited by the descendants of the son of Lot

Origin:  from a prolonged form of the prepositional prefix m- and 01; from (her [the mother’s]) father; (TWOT – 1155 [emphasis mine]).

Usage:  AV – Moab 166, Moabites 15; 181.

Ben-Ammi = “Son of my people”

cf. Lo-Ammi = “Not my people” (Hos 1:9); `am = “people.”

The name Ben-Ammi means “son of my people.” Like the account of Moab’s birth, this story is probably included in the narrative to portray the Ammonites, another perennial enemy of Israel, in a negative light.

NET Bible, Ref Gen 19:38, sn 103.

Strong’s Data:

01151 בֶּן־עַמִּי Ben-`Ammiy {ben-am-mee’}

Meaning:  Ben-ami = “son of my people” 1) son of Lot, born to his second daughter, progenitor of the Ammonites

`Ammon = “tribal”

A nation believed to have originated from Ben-ammi.

Strong’s Data:

05983 עַמּוֹן `Ammown {am-mone’}

Meaning:  Ammon = “tribal” 1) a people dwelling in Transjordan descended from Lot through Ben-ammi

`am = “people”

6342  עַם

I עַם: sf. עַמִּי; pl. sf. עַמָּיו, עַמֶּיהָ, עַמֶּיךָ: [father’s brother, f.’s relative >] relative: sg. in name, Gn 1938; coll. father’s relatives Je 3712; pl. father’s relatives: Gn 258.

6343  עַם

II עַם: עָֽם, הָעָם; sf. 1. (a whole) people (emphasis on internal ethnic solidarity) Gn 116;…people to whom s.one belongs: benê ±ammim fellow-countrymen Lv 2017;… — 3. oft. not a whole people but a portion: people, inhabitants:…people attached to an individual Gn 328….

(Halladay, pg 275)
Angel stops Abraham from killing Isaac, ram shown

Sacrifice of Isaac

The 11th Chapter of Hebrews gives a lot of space to Abraham. Obviously he was an important figure not only in the history of Christian faith. All three major religions of the West (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) trace their origins to Abraham. The author of Hebrews speaks from the perspective of a Jew who converted to Christianity. He not only knows Abraham’s stories from the Torah, he also knows Jewish traditions that were taught in the first century.

So far, we have covered Hebrews 11:8-14 regarding Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, and the long, arduous journey to God’s fulfillment of the promise of a son, named Isaac. I have gone back to the stories in Genesis and tried to highlight the details that seem most revealing about them as characters.

Now we get to perhaps the most famous (or infamous) story about Abraham and Isaac. The author of Hebrews cites this as an example of Abraham’s great faith. But the story is disturbing. It raises questions about the character (or perhaps sanity) of Abraham. It even raises questions about the character of God. What kind of God would command a man to sacrifice his only son?

Angel stops Abraham from killing Isaac, ram shown
Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac

As I write this, I am not trying to justify Abraham’s or God’s actions, but rather to understand them. This is a character study. A writer must understand their characters, whether they agree with them or not. So in Hebrews chapter 11, we read:

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.”

 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead– and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

(Heb 11:17-19 NRS)

He Considered…that God is able even to raise someone from the dead

So according to the author of Hebrews, Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. He has already told us God’s resurrection power showed when God gave Abraham and Sarah both the power of procreation when they were both “as good as dead” (in terms of fertility, see vv. 11-12). Abraham experienced resurrection once. Why not again?

I am not sure where the author of Hebrews got this idea. There might have been a Jewish tradition for it. Or it may have been in the text, hiding in plain sight. Let’s look at the original story, in Genesis 22.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

(Gen 22:1-2 NRS)

Offer him as a burnt offering

The first thing you should notice, besides the horror of it, is this command makes no sense whatsoever. After all the trouble God went through to give a son to Abraham and Sarah (see parts 1, 2, and 3), God wants to do away with him? In a burnt offering, you kill the animal (that’s usually what they sacrificed) then set it up on an altar, torch it, and let it burn completely. Most sacrifices were eaten by the worshipper and the priest. The burnt offering, obviously, was an exception. It was considered the highest form of devotion to the deity, since the worshipper did not receive any benefit from it.

God tells Abraham to do this, not with calves or bulls or sheep, but with Isaac. God promised him and Sarah descendants so numerous they could not be counted, like the stars in heaven. Right now, Isaac is the only descendant they have, but when he grows up and has children of his own, and they have children, and they have children, he will indeed have a whole lot of descendants. That was how it was supposed to work, right? Did God change his mind?

Your only son…whom you love. If you’re a Christian, you probably hear the echo of this in John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

(NRS)

Neither Abraham nor Isaac had read the Gospel of John (obviously). What I’m looking for is what does this mean to Abraham and Isaac as the story is happening to them?

Child Sacrifice in Canaan

We should note that this was not unheard of to Abraham. He knew what a burnt offering was. And we know from documents recovered from that period that the Canaanites and other inhabitants of the land practiced child sacrifice to their gods. In some tribes, the first born son especially belonged to the deity, and so was doomed from the start.

Living among people like that, questions would naturally come up. Why didn’t Abraham sacrifice his first born son? Was he less devoted to his god than the Canaanites were to theirs?

People most likely pressured him about it. “Gods don’t like it when mortals don’t offer what belongs to them. Remember Zadok? He didn’t offer his son, and Ba’al struck him with leprosy.”

He must have been afraid that at some point God might ask this of him. “Don’t you fear your God? Your God must not be real if you don’t fear him.” All this is probably going through Abraham’s mind as he sets out on his journey.

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.

(Gen 22:3-4 NRS)

On the third day

Two of his young men, either slaves or hired hands, accompanied Abraham and Isaac. He heads for the place God showed him, but he doesn’t see it until three days of traveling? And even then it’s far away? How far away from his tent was he when God showed him the place? He would have to have traveled alone for several days. I guess he must have traveled away from his camp for some reason, God spoke to him, he came back and set out for the place far away. I wonder what he told Sarah to explain why he and Isaac would be gone so long.

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.”

(Gen 22:5 NRS)

We will come back to you…maybe

Some preachers say this is why the author of Hebrews drew the conclusion that Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead. He said, “We will come back to you.” That could only happen if God raised Isaac from the dead. Isaac’s birth happened because God gave the power of procreation to two people who were “as good as dead.” That was a resurrection of sorts. Why wouldn’t he believe God would do it again? Isaac was the child of the Promise. He couldn’t die without fulfilling his role in God’s promise. Therefore, in Abraham’s mind, God will raise him from the dead.

Personally, I’m not sure it’s that simple. He might have said “we will come back” to avoid the objections the men (and probably Isaac) would have made, if he had said, “I will come back to you.”

Isaac following his father with the wood for the burnt offering on his back
Father, where is the lamb?

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.

 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!”

And he said, “Here I am, my son.”

He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

(Gen 22:6-8 NRS)

How much wood was Isaac carrying?

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac. How old was Isaac when this happened? In a lot of artistic renditions, Isaac is portrayed as a baby or a toddler. Very young, too naïve to understand what is happening.

That’s not what we see here. How much do you think the wood for a burnt offering weighs? One source (it was a while ago. I don’t remember the article) said you needed sixty pounds of wood for a burnt offering. Isaac is old and strong enough to carry a sixty-pound load of wood.

Isaac has seen burnt offerings before. He knows they need wood, a fire, and a lamb. He sees something is missing, so he asks, “Where is the lamb?”

His father said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

That satisfies Isaac. For whatever reason, Isaac didn’t ask any more questions after that. I wonder if Abraham had said that to him before. Maybe one day his son looked around and said, “Father, we need water, or the animals will die.”

Abraham said, “God will provide.” Then he dug a well, and lo and behold, there was enough water for everyone and all their flocks.

He bound his son Isaac

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

(Gen 22:9 NRS)

The author makes it sound like this was easy. Isaac, we have already seen, was young, strong, and spry. I’m guessing he would have been maybe fifteen or sixteen. It seems like he could get away from a hundred-and-some year old man if he wanted to. He was old enough to know what it means when the old man starts tying you to an altar built for a burnt offering. Jewish tradition (if I remember correctly) agrees that Isaac was a willing sacrifice. He would have to have been, given what this text tells us.

That, I think, was different from other child sacrifice practiced in Biblical times. The children were young, too young to put up any resistance. We have to assume then that Abraham told his son he would be the burnt offering and why. So far we haven’t seen it in this text, but if the author of Hebrews is correct, he would have also told Isaac God would raise him from the dead. That would explain why Isaac did not run away. If he believed his father earlier when he told him God would provide the lamb, if he believed his birth was a miracle akin to raising the dead, maybe he believed his father this time as well.

Abraham with Isaac at altar of burnt offering for him
Abraham tells Isaac he is the lamb

God himself will provide the lamb. Okay, a ram is just as good.

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

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

 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

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

(Gen 22:10-14 NRS)

So how did Isaac survive? The angel of the LORD stopped Abraham. God indeed provided the animal they needed for the burnt offering. Isaac expected a lamb, but a ram showed up instead (verse 8). I don’t think Isaac complained. “Father, you said God would provide a lamb, but that’s a ram.” No, I think he was happy to have anything take his place in that situation. Again, there is that link to John 3:16, …you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me. That negated the need to raise Isaac from the dead, but the author of Hebrews is correct in saying he did receive him back from the dead—figuratively speaking (Heb 11:19).

Angel prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac on the altar
Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.

Now I know that you fear God

God didn’t know before? Of course God knew. So why did God say this? I think Abraham was feeling pressure not only from the neighbors but within himself. Had he sacrificed enough for God? It was hard to look his neighbors in the eye when they did not believe he feared his God.

This is my theory. I don’t know how to prove it. But I think by doing this – ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son and then stopping him – he took away the reproach Abraham felt from his neighbors and from himself. “Now I know that you fear God,” meant to Abraham, “You have proven to everyone—to God, to your neighbors, and to yourself—that you fear God. You never have to wonder again if you should sacrifice Isaac to the LORD.”

I will indeed bless you…

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

(Gen 22:15-19 NRS)

Somehow, I don’t think they told the young men what happened on the mount of the LORD. But the angel of the LORD repeated the promises that God would bless him, and would make his offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore (see Gen 12:2-3).

“Yeah, God, you already told me that, so I hope you’ve got more than that to explain making me do this.”

And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies

“Okay, that’s good.”

 … and by your offspring, all nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves.

“I think you said that before, but I can actually see that happening now that I have offspring.”

…Because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.

“Does it make it less of a sacrifice if I believed you would raise my son from the dead?”

No. You have obeyed my voice. You did not withhold your son, your only son, whom you love, from me.

Seems like a good time to re-read John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

(NRS)

The Christian belief is that the gift of God’s only Son was the fulfillment of the promise that through Abraham’s offspring, all nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves. Abraham and Isaac did not know this. Even so, I think somewhere in all the crazy sh—stuff God had him and Sarah do, they both sensed there was something big at stake. Something bigger than Abraham having a son to carry on his name and his inheritance. Something bigger than a son to give Sarah an inheritance and take away her reproach. And that’s why every time God spoke to them, they obeyed. I don’t believe it was obedience just for the sake of obedience. I believe it was obedience that comes from trust that the One who promised was faithful.

For comparison, Jesus and Isaac were both:

  • Their fathers’ only son (Gen 22:2; Joh 3:16)
  • A willing sacrifice (Gen 22:9; Phil 2:6-7)
  • A blessing to all nations (Gen 12:3; 17:19; 22:18; Luk 2:10, 32)
  • Fathers received them from the dead (Heb 11:19; Joh 20:17; Phil 2:9)
  • Birth began with a promise and a covenant (Gen 17:16; Gal 4:23; Luk 1:35-36, 55)
  • Birth looked impossible (Gen 17:17; Luk 1:34)
  • Mothers were told, “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luk 1:37; Gen 18:13)
  • Became symbols of resurrection.

All’s well that ends well, right?

Okay, if you’re still uneasy about this whole episode, that’s fine. If you’re thinking God better not tell you to sacrifice your child, I understand. That’s good. In fact, that points to the reason Abraham and Isaac needed this experience, not only for themselves but for all their descendants.

The people of that region sacrificed their children. Every generation of Abraham’s seed would have to answer the question, “Why don’t you sacrifice your children?” Because Abraham and Isaac already took that step, and God stopped them and said, “Now I know you fear the LORD,” they would never again have to sacrifice their children to prove their devotion to the LORD.

This is not a “go and do likewise” passage. For us, it is more of a cautionary tale against sacrificing the people we love to please God. It is against allowing the pressure of normalized wrongdoing to get to us and force us to take on their evil practices. And seeing the parallels between Isaac and Jesus, if you are a Christian, it should be obvious how this event pointed to the gift and the sacrifice of God’s only-begotten son for our sake.

Maybe this is why it took so long for God to find the right people to act this out. God needed a husband and wife who were as good as dead to give birth to a son, and God needed a father and son who would both obey the command to sacrifice the son and believe the son would rise from the dead. Try finding people strong enough–spiritually, mentally, and physically–for that through a want ad. I’d say they were all made of stronger stuff than me.

God himself will provide the lamb

After doing this study, I am blown away that even at this time, some 1,900 or 2,000 years before the birth of Jesus, God was already working out God’s plan for our redemption. Think about it. Almost as much time happened from the birth of Isaac to the birth of Jesus as from the birth of Jesus to today. God determined this was the beginning of the bloodline that would lead to the birth of the Messiah.

God orchestrated that beginning in a way that foreshadowed how the Messiah would redeem us, so we could recognize it when it happened. The Messiah would come from an impossible birth, would sacrifice his own life in our place, and he would rise from the dead.

Conclusion, sort of

We have come to the end of what Hebrews 11 says about Abraham, and there are still more stories to explore. I have already come to the conclusion that people just don’t know how fascinating these characters are. Abraham, the patriarch and prophet who becomes a nomad, a stranger and an alien with no land to call his own, so he can follow his God to the ends of the known world. Sarah, his wife (and half-sister, by the way), the beautiful princess who has everything she wants—except a son of her own. Hagar, the freedom fighter who sacrifices her liberty so her son can live. Ishmael, the answer to Abraham and Sarah’s prayers, but who is destined to make his way in the world without them. Isaac, born of two parents as good as dead, the youth who trusts his father and his God enough to allow himself to be sacrificed, and in doing so becomes the forerunner of the Messiah. And all of them living under one tent (figuratively speaking).

Where do I go from here? At some point I will talk about how Abraham’s saga illustrates some key storytelling points in the Biblical world. But in the next few character studies, I will get into the beginning of Abraham’s story, what his genealogy says about him, how and when he first heard God’s calling, and how he responded.

Now since we have talked so much about Abraham and how his line of descendants started, I’d like to leave you with this.

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

(Gal 3:29 NRS)