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How Did an Angel Prevent Abraham From Sacrificing Isaac to God?

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Abraham Isaac

The painting "The Angel of the Lord Preventing Abraham from Sacrificing his Son Isaac" (1616) by Pieter Lastman

Photo © public domain
Question: How Did an Angel Prevent Abraham From Sacrificing Isaac to God?

God tests the prophet Abraham's faith in a famous story from the Bible and the Torah in which he calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (his only son), but then shows mercy just before Abraham is about to kill Isaac and promises to bless Abraham's family throughout coming generations because of Abraham's trust in God.

A major figure in the story is an angel who calls out twice to Abraham from heaven. The text identifies the angel as the Angel of the Lord (a manifestation of God in angelic form), but some people suggest that it could be Zadkiel, the archangel of mercy.

Answer:

Genesis 22:1-18 of both the Bible and the Torah tells the story: "Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, 'Abraham!'

'Here I am,' he replied.

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.'

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.

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.'

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, 'Father?'

'Yes, my son?' Abraham replied.

'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.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, 'Abraham! Abraham!'

'Here I am,' he replied.

'Do not lay a hand on the boy,' he said. 'Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.'

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place 'The LORD Will Provide.' And to this day it is said, 'On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.'

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, 'I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.'"

Who Was the Angel?

Many people believe that the angel in the passage is just who he declares himself to be: God, appearing in angelic form. The angel says "Now that I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me" in verse 12 and "I swear by myself, declares the Lord" in verse 16. When the Angel of the Lord appears throughout the Torah and Old Testament, he acts distinctly different than other angels -- more like the Creator than a created being.

Jill Shannon writes about this passage in Genesis in her book The Seduction of Christianity: Overcoming the Lukewarm Spirit of the Church that the angel here is clearly the Angel of the Lord: "In Genesis 22, we read the terrible account of Abraham’s greatest test: would he obey the Lord’s word and sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, although he was the promised son through whom all of Abraham’s descendants would come? ... We know that the Angel of the Lord stopped Abraham at the last second. This was as close as he could have come to slaying his own son."

However, some people believe that the angel in this passage is archangel Zadkiel, since he serves as the angel of mercy and the angel here is showing mercy to Abraham and Isaac.

Zadkiel is credited within the Jewish rabbinical tradition as the one showing mercy to Abraham and Isaac, write Stewart Pearce and Richard Crookes in their book The Angels of Atlantis: Twelve Mighty Forces to Transform Your Life Forever: "Zadkiel is revered within the rabbinical tradition for the vast compassion bestowed upon truly significant individuals. For example, it is suggested that Zadkiel is the angel who stayed the hand of Abraham from slaughtering his son, Isaac."

Gustav Davidson writes in his book A Dictionary of Angels, Including the Fallen Angels that people have sometimes credited other angels as well as Zadkiel: "To Zadkiel (as also to Michael, Tadhiel, and others) is ascribed by some writers the act of holding back Abraham’s arm when the patriarch was about to sacrifice his son Isaac."

Foreshadowing a Future Sacrifice?

Many Christians believe that the Angel of the Lord is Jesus Christ appearing prior to his incarnation later in history, and they say that this passage in the Bible's Old Testament (in which God mercifully provides a ram as a substitutionary sacrifice to pay for sins) foreshadows the New Testament's record of the sacrificial death of Christ (whom the Bible calls the "Lamb of God") on the cross to pay for sins.

Joseph Free and Howard Frederic Vos write in their book Archaeology and Bible History: "When Abraham went up to the mount and stretched forth his hand, he had already accomplished the sacrifice in his own heart and had fully met the testing of God. God therefore immediately had the Angel of the Lord intervene and show Abraham that the ram was the offering provided by God himself to be sacrificed in place of Isaac. The ram offered in Isaac’s stead is a beautiful illustration of Christ’s substitutionary death. Christ died on the cross not only to pay for our sins, but actually in our stead, in our place, just as the ram died for Isaac."

In The Seduction of Christianity, Shannon connects the mercy that God showed to Isaac with the mercy that God shows sinful people through Jesus Christ: "And so Isaac walked into his old age from that very moment in the fear of the Lord. In God’s mercy, a ram suddenly appeared in the thickets to save his life. ... If God rescued you at the last second from literal death, would you walk for the rest of your life in the fear of the Lord? Wouldn’t our petty offenses and selfishness fade away, under the shadow of death and the haven of rescue? But we are also rescued ones.We were under the death sentence of eternity in torment. ... But God provided a Lamb to die in our place, to save our life. Do we understand what the Lord did for us, and do we walk like Isaac?"

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