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(These are some initial observations on the various aspects of love which have their genesis in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac)

Genesis 22 contains one of the strangest stories in the Bible. God has called Abraham to the land of Canaan and has promised that the land will be left to Abraham’s “seed”. God makes plain that Abraham will have a son by Sarah and that this son will inherent. God then gives a perplexing commandment:

Genesis 22:1–6 (ESV)

22 After these things God tested Abraham and 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 of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.

This passage is remarkable also for the fact that it is the first place in the Bible which mentions “love.” And the first love mentioned in the Bible is the love of a father for his son. This does not mean that there was not love between spouses or anything of the sort. But it is interesting in terms of the function of the Bible as a whole.

Caravaggio 1598

There is another strange thing: What is Abraham thinking: not merely the perplexity of killing one’s own son; but also the end of the promise of God which has controlled Abraham’s entire life. The book of Hebrews provides this insight into Abraham’s decision:

Hebrews 11:17–19 (ESV)

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Abraham does take his son up the mountain only to have him rescued by a substitute:

Genesis 22:7–14 (ESV)

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He 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.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 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.”

Thus, Isaac’s life is spared by God providing a substitute for the death to which God has sentenced Isaac.

This first reference to love thus brings together many different strands of love which will be developed over the course of the Bible to culminated in Christ.

First, there is the love of a Father for a Son. As Jesus says:

John 10:17

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.

The Father loves the Son – and also that love is in the context of the Son laying down his life.

Second, this love takes place in the context of a covenant, the covenant between God and Abraham. God is sworn to fulfill a promise to Abraham by means of this son. The concept of God’s love being expressed by covenant is a theme which will be developed at length in the rest of the Bible. For those who have heard some Hebrew, this is the matter of “hesed”, covenant or loyal love.

Third, there is the love of the substitute:

John 15:13

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

God shows love for us by providing the substitute to save us from death:

John 3:16

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

Fourth, this love foreshadows the resurrection which will make even the death of the substitute “right.”

Fifth, the love of the substitute for us, becomes the predicate of our love:

John 15:9

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.

Sixth, that love which has for us, becomes the basis for another command:

John 15:17

These things I command you, so that you will love one another.


John 14:15

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.