A Note on the Structure of Genesis 22, Part 2

In part 1 of this article we saw how various attempts to identify the underlying structure of Gen. 22:1-19 fell short and proposed a new structure for the passage. In part 2, we will look at how the sections of the chiasm relate and draw some conclusions from our investigation.

A Sections

In the a1 sections of the chiasm, God speaks to Abraham concerning the sacrifice of his son. God comes to Abraham (22:1-2) with the most shocking of tests—to sacrifice his son, his only son, Isaac, as an ascension offering. God tells him to make this sacrifice on one of the mountains of Moriah. We know from Hebrews 11:17-19 that Abraham expected God to raise Isaac. He reasoned that he would indeed have to sacrifice his beloved son, but God would keep the promise by resurrecting Isaac. This is the only solution to the dilemma between obedience to the command and faith in the promise.

In the corresponding a1 section (22:15-18), the Angel of Yahweh calls to Abraham and speaks to him concerning the thing he had done, viz, not withholding his son, his only son from him. The command of God at the beginning regarding Isaac is brought back up at the end. Because of Abraham’s obedience to God’s and the Angel of Yahweh’s voice and his belief in the promise, Abraham and his offspring will be blessed to become as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sand on the seashore.

In the a2 sections we have the parallels between Abraham’s departure (22:3a) and his return (22:19a). Abraham sets off for his journey early in the morning and departs with Isaac and two of his young men. Later in the corresponding section Abraham returns to his young men who had previously been left behind as he and Isaac continued on to their appointed destination. Here the themes of departure and return match, as well as the occurrence of the young men.

In the a3 sections Abraham embarks on his journey to the top of the mountain and then journeys back home to Beersheba. In 22:3b Abraham arises and goes to the place God had told him. In 22:19b Abraham is also said to arise and go to Beersheba. Thus, we have corresponding accounts of Abraham arising to travel to the appropriate destination. On the first trip Abraham gets the wood that he will need for the fire of the sacrifice, while on the return trip he goes to Beersheba and the well of the water. The correspondence is strengthened by the contrast between fire and water.

B Sections

Now we come to the main portion of the narrative concerning the events surrounding the mountain and what will soon take place on the mountain.

The b1 sections make mention of Abraham’s destination. In 22:4-5 he sees the place (~wqmh) from afar and proceeds with Isaac but without his two young men who have accompanied them. Verse 22:9a recounts Abraham and Isaac finally arrival at the place he had seen earlier. Abraham and Isaac go to the place to worship and build an altar. The offering up of Isaac as an ascension offering is an act of worship by Abraham to Yahweh.

The b2 sections center on Isaac and the wood (22:6a; 22:9b). Abraham brings along the wood that he will need in order to offer up Isaac, his son. In a dramatic act Abraham puts the wood on his son for him to carry up the slopes of the mountain. Isaac will bear the burden of the very wood that is intended to consume him on the altar. In an even more dramatic irony, the corresponding section forms a great inversion: Isaac, his son (wnb qxcy) is now bound and laid on top of the wood, which has been arranged on the altar. This must be seen as foreshadowing Christ’s own journey up Golgatha, led ultimately by the Father, carrying his own wooden cross upon which he will later be bound. Unlike Isaac, he is actually sacrificed as an ascension offering to God as the substitute for his own people.

The b3 sections are a little more complex. The first b3 sections, 22:6b and 22:8, are linked by the mention of Abraham and Isaac going, both of them together, ever onward toward their destination. The fire and knife will be the instruments used to offer the ascension offering that Abraham says God will provide. This pair of b3 sections is matched by another pair in 22:10 and 22:13-14. Verse 22:10 matches 22:6b. The knife in Abraham’s hand, spoken of in 22:6b, is the same knife he stretches forth in his hand in 22:10. Instead of slaughtering his son, a ram is caught in a thicket, which God had provided in place of Isaac. God had indeed chosen a lamb for himself for the sacrifice, but this is a replacement for Isaac. The ultimate lamb must be human, but not Isaac. Verse 22:13-14 is the fulfillment of 22:8.

The b4 sections offer another layer of complexity to the chiastic structure of the chapter. In the b4 sections of the journey narrative—22:7a and 22:7c —it is Isaac who speaks. Likewise, in the sacrifice narrative in the b4 sections, it is the Angel of Yahweh who speaks (22:11a and 22:12). This commonality of speaker links both b4 sections.

And this opens up a trinitarian twist. Isaac says in 22:7a, “My father!” The Angel of Yahweh says, “Abraham, Abraham!” The parallelism suggests that the Angel of Yahweh, as the Second Person of the Trinity, will one day say, “My Father!”1 At that time, there will be no intervention by God because Jesus will be both a new Isaac and a new ram caught in the thicket. These corresponding members point toward the Incarnation of the Son of God, who will fulfill Isaac’s journey up the mountain to be offered as a sacrifice and substitute.

The other parallel members (22:7c and 22:12), where Isaac asks about the lamb, are matched by the Angel of Yahweh telling Abraham not to lay his hand on Isaac. This indirectly answers the question underlying the whole narrative—will Isaac actually be sacrificed? The answer is no: he, too, must yield to a substitute, which, as we have already seen, ultimately will be the Incarnate Son of God.

The last sections to be considered are the corresponding b5 sections. These two sections are almost identical. In 22:7b, Abraham says, “Behold, I, my son.” In 22:11b, he says simply, “Behold, I.” The first occurrence is in response to Isaac, while the second is in response to the Angel of Yahweh, thus placing once again Isaac and the Angel of Yahweh parallel to one another. Abraham responds to his son’s cry, but is nevertheless willing to continue on the path to slaughter his son because he is confident he will be resurrected from the dead. The Angel calls to Abraham and commands him not to lay his hand on the boy because he himself will one day be the new Isaac who will actually be slaughtered but will be assured of resurrection. Abraham reasoned the resurrection of the Messiah some 2,000 years before it actually happened.

Conclusion

It is clear from the chiastic structure that the parallel members point forward to a time when the Angel of Yahweh, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Son, will become Incarnate and, like Isaac, will walk up a mountain carrying his own wood to sacrifice himself as an act of worship and as a substitute for his people. This identification of the Angel with a future incarnate form is clearest in the particular connections between the Angel and Isaac. The divine author of Gen. 22:1-19 is pointing the reader ahead to a new future Isaac, who will be God in the flesh. Thus, we have a trinitarian and incarnational protology extending all the way back even to Genesis. “Abraham and Isaac are types of God the Father and Jesus.2

The Angel of Yahweh is certainly seen as God, especially in 22:12 when the Angel says to Abraham that he has not withheld Isaac from him, and as it was God who told Abraham to offer Isaac to himself, the Angel is identifying himself with God.3 Exactly how this future incarnation would be accomplished and when was no doubt a mystery to the author of this portion of Genesis, but nevertheless, the author does assert its reality by his structure. Even if we assume that the human author had no idea of the Trinity and a future Incarnation, the divine author certainly had such ideas and intentions that he was communicating through this structure.

This unified structure of Gen. 22:1-19 mitigates against any attempts to dissect it into various source components with different theologies, most particularly seeing vv. 15-18 as secondary to the whole passage. Waltke is correct, however, when he asserts “Such a reading. . . is unnecessary. As evidenced before . . . the names of God are carefully chosen to emphasize particular aspects of God’s relationship to his people.”4 Just as the author of this pericope took care when he chose the names of God, so he took care in the construction of its structure.

Lastly, the structure of Gen. 22:1-19 highlights the artistic beauty of the passage. Poignantly, Abraham places the wood on Isaac, his son, while in the corresponding section, Isaac is placed on top of the wood. The undulations in the structure match closely the crescendo and dimuendo of the narrative. The climax of both Isaac’s realization of the lack of a sacrifice and his attention-getting “My father!” is followed by Abraham’s response of “Behold, I.” The scene with the raised knife poised at the apex of its plummet downward is cut short by the intervention of the Angel of Yahweh by calling, “Abraham, Abraham!”, followed by Abraham’s response of “Behold, I.” The artistic skill of the writer is displayed by the fact that this structure is totally obscure, hiding in plain sight.

The Aqedah records a brilliantly structured and skillfully woven narrative scene of a seemingly unthinkable request by the God of the living to Abraham, who resolutely obeys this command and does so in a way that preserves the justice and promise of God. Abraham reasons the resurrection, but at the height of the tension, it is not Isaac who is to be offered, but another, Both Isaac and the ram point to the true atoning death and the true resurrection of the true Son. Abraham, Isaac and the recorded details are a type of the Father and Jesus.

Kelly Kerr teaches at Franklin Classical School in Franklin, Tennessee.

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References   [ + ]

1. Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34b.
2. ”Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 117. Contra R. W. L. Moberly, “Christ as the Key to Scripture: Genesis 22 Reconsidered,” in R. S. Hess, et al, eds., He Swore an Oath: Biblical Themes from Genesis 12-50 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1994), 143-173.
3. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis (OTL; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 241.
4. Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001), 303-304.
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