I am working on a chapter for a Five Views of Christ in the OT book for Zondervan in which I defend the Premodern Approach to seeing Christ in the OT. We have to discuss three assigned passages to discuss in order to show how our view works out in practice. In this brief article I want to make some comments on Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac. I assume you are familiar with the story; if not read Genesis 22:1-19 before reading any further.
First, I want to make the point that the narrative is interpreted for us by the apostles and specifically Heb. 11:17, 19, where we are told that Abraham believed God could and would raise Isaac from the dead and that “figuratively speaking he did receive him back.” This tells us why Abraham was willing to obey the command of the LORD in spite of the fact that obedience would seem to have precluded the possibility of the promise of Genesis 12:1-3 being fulfilled.
Commentators have speculated wildly about what the story means and have posited imaginative, hypothetical, unprovable possible back stories for the story. How modern critics have the nerve to complain about the the allegorical exegesis of the fathers being too subjective when they engage in such wild speculations is beyond me. But we need not speculate; Hebrews tells us the basic meaning around and on the basis of which all our contemplation should center.
Abraham’s faith was no blind obedience; it was faith in the same God who caused Sarah to conceive miraculously. The miracle in her womb was similar to creatio ex nihilo and creatio ex nihilo is similar to the idea of resurrection. The similarity consists in the kind of creative power needed to perform each of the three acts: creation, miraculous conception and resurrection. This power is what Yahweh alone has and it distinguishes Yahweh from all other gods. It makes him unique. Paul confirms the link between the barrenness of Sarah’s womb, resurrection and creatio ex nihilo when he writes of Abraham as follows quoting Genesis 17:5:
“I have made you the father of many nations” - in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not waver in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old) or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. (Rom. 4:17-19)
Note that Paul brings together the themes of resurrection and creatio ex nihilo. The miraculous conception of Isaac was a kind of a resurrection. So, the author of Hebrews is not the only NT writer to view the concept of resurrection as central to Abraham’s theology and to the meaning of Genesis 22. Paul does the same.
The centrality of resurrection to the text draws our attention to a detail that may seem small and unimportant. In Genesis 22:4 we are told that “on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place.” The third day is a connection to the resurrection. In Luke 24:45-46 we are told that the risen Christ, appearing to the disciples, says:
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (emphasis mine)
We also remember Paul’s creed that he tells the Corinthians he received from others and delivered to them in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (emphasis mine)
Scholars have often wondered why the apostles seem to take for granted that the Scriptures say that the Messiah must be raised on the third day “according to the Scriptures.” Where do the Hebrew Scriptures say that? On what do the apostles base the idea that the Scriptures require that the resurrection must be on the third day? They seem to assume that “everybody knows that” yet they don’t cite a specific passage.
This puzzle led a good friend of mine, Dr. Stephen G. Dempster, to write an article entitled: “From Slight Peg to Cornerstone to Capstone: The Resurrection of Christ on “the third day” According to the Scriptures” (WJT, 76 (2014): 371-409). As he points out, the very birth of Isaac was like a resurrection, so for the author of Hebrews to say that Abraham believed that if he obeyed God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, he would receive Isaac back via a resurrection is not far-fetched at all. And, it is remarkable that, according to Gen. 22:4, it is on the third day that Abraham passes the test and figuratively receives his son back from the dead.
Dempster’s excellent article goes on to trace the concept of the third day as the day of resurrection all through the Hebrew Scriptures. The location (Mount Moriah) is a connection to the temple - where animals are slain and Israelites are released from their death sentence and figuratively raised to new life through the sacrificial ritual. The motif of the third day as a day of release from an ordeal appears all through Exodus. Moses asks Pharaoh for permission to go a three-day journey into the wilderness so they can worship Yahweh on the third day. The tenth plague, which includes the death of the first born of Egypt and the sacrifice of the lamb in place of believing Israelites, occurs “after three days.” In Exodus 19:11 the LORD comes down from Mount Sinai “on the third day.” These are just a few of the examples he discusses. Dempster stresses the centrality of the temple imagery from Eden to Exodus and beyond. All this does not exhaust the third day motif in the Pentateuch. Dempster goes on to trace the idea through the Prophets and the Writings as well.
I urge you to read Dempster’s article; it is most illuminating. But the only point I want to make here is this: the NT apostles expect us (and Jesus on the Road to Emmaus expected the disciples he met) to “get” the point that the resurrection on the third day was “according to the Scriptures.” The fact that many modern commentators do not “get” this is a result of the shortcomings of a hermeneutical method that focuses on the trees (or perhaps just the foliage of one species of tree!) and cannot see the forest. Analysis is good providing it does not pretend to have no need of synthesis.
The church fathers saw a connection between Genesis 22 and the resurrection of Christ and they interpreted it typologically. But they detected a common pattern of thought across vast tracts of the biblical material that allowed them to grasp what the apostles meant by the resurrection on the third day fitting a biblical pattern. In commenting on Genesis 22:4, Origen, for example, notes that: “The third day, however, is always applied to mysteries” (Homilies on Genesis 8.4). This is the sort of observation that Dempster makes over and over in seeking to understand how Jesus and the apostles understood the significance of resurrection on the third day according to the Scriptures.
My point in this brief article is not to do a complete exegesis of Genesis 22, but simply to point out that the fathers are correct in seeing that clearly teaches readers to be prepared for the Father to send his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for the world. It is the kind of text Jesus would have had in mind when he chided the disciples on the Emmaus road for not seeing that the Scripture predicted all that had happened that week in Jerusalem.
I am using the interpretation of Genesis 22:4 as an example of how different premodern exegesis is from modern historical critical exegesis. The difference is not that one engages in a close reading of the text while the other indulges in uncontrolled speculation. Rather, I am pointing out that canonical context is of first importance to the premodern approach, rather than being preoccupied with historical reconstruction and neglecting the text's own canonical context.
The premodern approach is characterized by the following principles:
There is an assumption that the Scriptures (OT + NT) constitute a unified book.
The best interpretation of text places that text in both its immediate and its canonical context.
Jesus Christ is the central theme of the Bible as a whole.
One part of Scripture can shed light upon another, so a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible as a whole is the most important skill an interpreter can bring to the interpretation of any text.
Patterns are to be expected in Scripture and are significant for understanding.