This is an enormously complicated and difficult and even painful passage. It has been the subject of contentious debated since forever, perhaps from the first time that anyone passed it down from one generation to the next. In terms of preaching and teaching, there are usually three fairly consistent popular interpretations of it.
First is the one on its face. Abraham is tempted by God to see how faithful he would be. To see if he would be willing to sacrifice everything, including his own son and the promise of descendant blessings in order to obey God. This is the one most commonly used by preachers. Brueggemann stresses this point in his Interpretation: Genesis commentary. William Willimon followed this thinking in an old 2002 Pulpit Resource article.
The second is that the story was constructed by the Elohist writer to help combat the child sacrifice of his time. Child sacrifice was found in Judah during the time in which the Elohist was writing (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6 (“He made his son pass through fire”); 23:10 (“He defiled Topheth…so that no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech); Jer. 19:4,5 (“Because the people have…filled this place with the blood of the innocent, 5 and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree,…6Therefore…”). The so-called “Covenant Code” allows for the first born child to be “given” to the deity just as the first born animal was given. Cf. Exodus 22:29-30,
“You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. 30You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.”
So the theory was that the Abraham and Isaac story was written to help overcome child sacrifices in ancient Israel during the divided monarchy, when “E” was writing. And it’s true that subsequent ancient legislation contained clauses which provided for the replacement of a potential child sacrifice with an animal (such as a “ram”).
See for example, Exodus 13:13-16:
“But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem. 14When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’16It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead that by strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”
“So, it is possible that the E story, in which Abraham, the father of the people, with whom the descendants feel corporate responsibility, was meant to dramatize the deity’s demand for the substitutionary practice, and was one of the factors which brought about cultic reform and the abandonment of human sacrifice. The biblical prophets and the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus expressly forbid this practice, but that fact also implies strongly that it continued to occur. In fact, the story of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac suggests that Abraham was familiar with human sacrifice. He knew how to do it, and he was not surprised by Yahweh’s demand.” [a]
The third interpretation is that Abraham knew all the time that God was just testing him and there was really nothing particularly scary about the story. He was going along with it because he knew that God would never make him actually do it. The story of “faith” in this version is that he had enough faith in God to know that God wouldn’t actually do it (or, better, allow Abraham to do it). I personally think this is bunk. It’s demeaning and detracts from the pain the author or the real life participants went through in the story. However, I have, and I’m sure everyone has, heard a sermon on this text using this theme.
A fourth possibility is from Michael Lerner, which repeats some ancient thinking of the rabbis on the story. In it Abraham is internally torn because of things that had happened to him by his father in his own youth and he was repeating down to his child the habits and demonic voices of that pain. “The real task,” says Lerner, following this interpretation, “was for him to be able to separate out the voices within him and discern the voice of the one true God from the gods of the pain and destruction of his childhood.”
What follows is the gist of my sermon, based roughly on Lerner’s theory, but I’m not altogether happy with it.
SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
The story is basically from the Elohist, though there is some confusion over the use of the name YHWH (Yahweh) at vv. 11, 14, and 16. Some believe that vv. 14-18 are insertions from the hand of the Yahwist. But that doesn’t explain the first use of YHWH at v. 11, where the angel of the lord comes to Abraham again and tells him not to sacrifice Isaac. The insertions appear purposeful, and appear to make a statement. My guess is that it probably has to do with the primacy of Yahwist religion over Elohist religion. Exactly what is the key question of the passage.
Michael Lerner, in “Cruelty Is Not Destiny: Abraham and the Psychodynamics of Childhood” (Tikkun, n.d., p. 33 ff.) argues that Abraham is a man wracked with conflict over abuses in his own childhood, stories of which Lerner finds in early Rabbinic midrash on this passage. Abraham, according to the stories, grew up as a monotheist in a typically polytheistic society. His father was a maker of idols for the culture, and Abraham early on realized how useless they were for helping crops or love lives. In a very revealing story, once Abraham’s father went away for a while and left Abraham to sell the idols by himself. “A man came and wished to buy one. ‘How old are you”’ Abraham asked him. ‘Fifty years,’ was the reply. ‘Woe to such a man!’ he exclaimed, ‘you are fifty years old and would worship a day-old-object!’ At this the man became ashamed and departed.” (p. 33). According to the story, these exchanges continued, and finally the father, who made his living supporting these idols, turned Abraham over to the king, who tortured him to make him believe in the idols, and threw him into a fiery furnace. Abraham does not die from the occasion, but he comes out scarred both externally, and internally. His internal burns are probably deeper and more dangerous than his external ones. He never again lives in his father’s house, and eventually, when his father dies, he leaves the country altogether and travels north to Canaan becoming a wandering nomad. The root definition of the word ivri, which we translate as “Hebrew,” is one who crosses boundaries, who is rootless. It is to this troubled, boundary crossing, contradictory, sometimes violent, unhealed monotheist that God finally comes and chooses as the beginning of his new religion.
In the Abraham and Isaac story then, according to this interpretation, Abraham is a victim of “repetition compulsion,” a Freudian term which means he is repeating on his son the same horror he experienced by his father (remember “Corporate personality”? We pass it all down to our kids). The Rabbis theorized that the first message that Abraham receives in v. 1, is from Elohim, the many raging internal gods which tell him that he has done despicable things in the way he has treated Hagar, his wife, his child Ishmael, and deserves not to have the blessing of God, and now the best way to get out of the pain is to destroy the promise, to kill the child of laughter. He, Abraham, is a child of violence, and unable to deal with the world without violence, and now in his despair and misery with his life, he resorts to end everything with violence. The voice he hears from the beginning is the voice of the pain of his childhood which he projected into the voice of God, telling him to do to his own son what was done to him. As he was thrown into the fire, so he will pass the pain on to his own beloved. “Take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac, and offer him in burnt offering.…”
All of us do this. We act out of the fundamental traumas of our childhood. There is something about doing the things that were done to us as kids that somehow makes us think we can master them, or have control over them. In childhood events in which we were powerless or victimized, we attempt rightourselves as adults by repeating the sin on someone else. (“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” [Jeremiah 31:29]). We pass down or pain to our offspring as a prize of their inheritance. Then they despise us for it and pass it down to their offspring. All but a few of us hated something in our parents. And all but a few of us who have children have something in us that we have blotted them with that came from our childhoods and which they hate within us. We should put our wounds in our wills, for that is the largest thing that people inherit from us.
Whoever inserted “Yahweh” as the speaker in the second message, v. 11, intended it to be a different voice than the first. Lerner, following the Rabbis, believes that it was intended to represent a word that is truly from God. The task (“test”?) of Abraham was not that he was willing to take his son Isaac to a mountain and sacrifice him to God. The real task was for him to be able to separate out the voices within him and discern the voice of the one true God from the gods of the pain and destruction of his childhood. To separate out the voices of the gods of humiliation, and defeat, and abuse, and unlove, and to hear instead the voice of the God of the Covenant and the gift and the laughter, and the God who gives sight and vision to see the resources what will rescue us. the greatness of Abraham is not that he was tough enough to obey a God’s command to kill his own son; the greatness of Abraham is that he didn’t go through with it! “At that very last moment, Abraham hears the true voice of God, the voice that says, ‘Don’t send your hand onto the youth and don’t make any blemish.’” (Lerner) Don’t do it, God says, you don’t have to do it. You do not have to hurt others to get over your own hurts. You do not have to damage others to get over your own buried sense of damage.
The distinction of the voices is that the first one is plural, “the gods.” The many voices that Paul speaks of that torture us with threats and challenges. The second is YHWH, the one voice, the one God. The God who says the chain of pain can be broken, who the God of the redemption and liberation of Israelfrom Egypt.
Note that Jews read this story every year at Rosh Ha Shanah, the traditional time of atonement. It is the time when that which has been in our lives does not ultimately and completely have to bind us, limit us, make us less than we could be and should be. If Abraham can transcend the voices of his childhood, the ceremony says, then so can we.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 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.”
3 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. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then 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.” 6Abraham 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. 7Isaac 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?” 8Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
9 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. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill 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, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 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. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of theLord it shall be provided.”
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven,16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 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, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.
[a]Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
 “After these things”: A conventional opening to a new section, meaningsometime afterwards. See also 15:1; 22:20; 39:7; 40:1.
 “God” (’elohim ) Plural of 'elowahh, deity in general, or the Deity. In the ordinary sense it means “gods,” but usually used (when plural) of God.
 “Test” (נסה nâsâh) verb, to test, try, prove, tempt, assay, put to the proof or test (BDB Dictionary). “Testing, however, does not always suggest tempting or enticing someone to sin, as when the Queen of Sheba tested Solomon’s wisdom (1Ki. 10:1; 2Ch. 9:1); and Daniel’s physical appearance was tested after a ten-day vegetarian diet (Dan. 1:12, Dan. 1:14)….can refer to the testing of equipment, such as swords or armor (1Sa. 17:39)” (The Complete Word Study Dictionary).
“In most contexts nasa has the idea of testing or proving the quality of someone or something, often through adversity or hardship. The rendering ‘tempt’…generally means prove, test, put to the test, rather than the current English idea of “entice to do wrong.” In a number of passages nasa means to attempt to do something. It is used of attempting or venturing a word which might offend the hearer (Job. 4:2), of venturing to touch one’s foot to the ground (Deu. 28:56), and of trying to take a nation (Israel) from another nation (Egypt) (Deu. 4:34)….The largest number of references, however, deal with situations where a person or a nation is undergoing a trial or difficult time brought about by another. Though man is forbidden to put God to the test (Deu. 6:16), the OT records that he did so. The wilderness place of Massah (“trial”) becomes a byword in this regard, often combined in a play on words with nasa, “to try” (Exo. 17:2, Exo. 17:7; Deu. 6:16; Deu. 33:8; Psa. 95:8, Psa. 95:9; cf. Deu. 9:22). Those who put God to the proof in the wilderness would not see Canaan (Num. 14:22-23). The hymns of Israel reflect this defiant attitude (see Psa. 78:18, Psa. 78:41, Psa. 78:56; Psa. 106:14)” (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament).
 “God tested Abraham”: Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, God tests the people Israel: see Exodus 15:26; 16:4; Deuteronomy 8:2, 16; 13:3; 33:8.
 “Here I am”: Often used to indicate readiness and availability with respect to God’s command. See also 31:11 (Jacob); 46:2 (Jacob); Exodus 3:4 (Moses); 1 Samuel 3:8 (Samuel). Used here three times, vv. 7 and 11. Especially interesting is v. 7, where Abraham says the words in response to being addressed by Isaac.
 “Whom you love.” This is the first time that love is ever mentioned at all in the Bible.
 Moriah (mountain) Traditional (but unlikely) site of Solomon's Temple atJerusalem, on the threshing floor of Araunah. Cf. 2 Chronicles 3:1 “Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, at the place that David had designated, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.” However, the image of Abraham sacrificing on Moriah Mountain was seen as a prototype to the Moriah temple and Isaac’s “sacrifice” was seen as the foundation of the sacrificial system. There is a substitutionary nature to sacrifice. As later in the Passover, a ram is slaughtered in place of a son (cf. Exo. 12), and over the centuries the blood of bulls and goats is added to the blood of the ram slain for Isaac. In the latter days, Jesus is the Passover sacrificed for us. Adapted from “Blogging toward Sunday,” Peter J. Leithart, Theolog(http://www.theolog.org/blog/2008/06/blogging-towa-3.html#more).
 “Go to the land of Moriah…on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Evidence of a redaction: Moriah is the name of a mountain, not a region. You can’t go a particular mountain and then wait for God to tell you which mountain to go to. The name “Moriah” was probably added to tie the story tothe founding of the Temple Moriah in Jerusalem, to imply that Abraham was the founder of that temple. But he clearly was not.
 Saw, yi’reh, a prim. root; “to see,” lit. or fig. Also, “provide,” “cause to (let) show (self).” The first of a series of plays on the word yi’reh, which continues the complex wordplay on “seeing,” which has been prominent throughout the Abrahamic stories, 16:13-14; 21:9. Seeing and providing are closely linked linguistically in Hebrew, and especially theologically in these passages. See especially below on 22:8, and 14.
 “Over there.” The IB notes that in accordance with Hebrew Scripture usage, if they were really going to Mount Moriah, then Abraham would not have said that we will “go over there,” but that we will “go up.” Another indication that Moriah was a redaction to the earlier story.
 The first and last conversation between Isaac and Abraham.
 God…will provide, ’elohim, yi’reh, same word as used in v. 4. Means in this case, “God will see to it” or God will make it visible.” Haslam suggests that the phrase may intend irony as in “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering - my son.”
 “Kill” (ָשַׁחט šāḥaṭ). Verb, to slaughter, to kill, to offer, to slay. Haslam says that “The Hebrew word is a technical term used specifically to describe animal sacrifice.”
Lord (yhwh, Yahweh). Note the change from Elohim to Yahweh. Some believe that it was inserted by the redactor to make a distinction between two gods. Others say it is two different understandings of the one God, or it is the merging together of writings by two authors (Elohist and Yahwist). If it is two writers, then vv. 14-18 are probably from the Yahwist, because they relate naming the place using Yahweh’s name. But that doesn’t explain v. 11, where Yahweh first appears. It is fairly clear that a redactor stuck it there for a reason. What the reason was, is the question. See below on Michael Lerner, who relates rabbinic Midrash that said it was two voices within Abraham’s head. The good God and the bad God.
 “Here I am” (ִהֵנּה hinnēh) Behold, or look. Continuing the theme of sightunderneath this passage. “An interjection meaning behold, look, now; if. It is used often and expresses strong feelings, surprise, hope, expectation, certainty, thus giving vividness depending on its surrounding context. Its main meanings can only be summarized briefly here: It stresses a following word referring to persons or things (Gen. 12:19; Gen. 15:17; Gen. 18:9). It is used to answer, with the first person suffix attached, when one is called (Gen. 22:1, Gen. 22:7).” (Complete word Study Dictionary)
 Saw a ram, yi’reh. Perhaps, “had provided for him a ram.”
 The Lord will provide, Yahweh yir’eh, literally, “Yahweh will see to it.”
 On the mount of the Lord…provided, yhwh …yi’reh. Either, “The mountain where Yahweh will provide (a ram)” or “…where Yahweh can be seen.” Either is possible.
 “The angel of the Lord.” For the angel’s role in story of the flight of Ishmael and Hagar, see 21:17-19. The J writer typically has God speak directly to humans. The E writer usually speaks through angels.
 God has made promises to Abraham six times: see 12:2-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15; 17; 18. Now the angel repeats for the seventh and climatic time (12:2-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15; 17; 18) the great promises in their most generous form. For the first time, Abraham is blessed because he has heeded God’s command. [NJBC]
 Beersheba. “This important city, often identified as the southern limit ofIsrael’s territory (Judg 20:1; 1 Sam 3:20), is traditionally located in the northern Negev at Tell es-Seba’ (three miles east of the modern city). Its name derives from its association with the wells dug to provide water for the people and flocks in this area (see Gen 26:23–33) (Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W.Chavalas and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).