I lift up my eyes to the hills…
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

Weary pilgrims journeying up to the temple in Jerusalem doubtless drew rich spiritual encouragement from these Songs of Ascents(2) as they gazed up towards their goal. Yet ‘high points’ were to be both a blessing and a bane for Israel. On the one hand, Mount Moriah – God’s holy mountain;(3) on the other, successive kings failing to eliminate rival centres of sacrifice and worship on every high hill.(4)

Abraham’s ascent

What made Mount Moriah special was not its elevation – when Abraham first looked up to the hills, the ‘mountain’ was probably no higher than 2,400 feet, easily overlooked by nearby heights.(5) The difference was that God Himself appointed both the place – the region of Moriah – and the purpose: “your son, your only son, … Isaac … Sacrifice him there … on a mountain I will show you.”(6) We are drawn inexorably into the detail of the Genesis account – the increasing tension as they take everything necessary for the sacrifice; Abraham’s faithful determination expressed in the threefold ‘I/we will’ “go over there … worship … and then we will come back to you”,(7) fully believing that God would be able to salvage the situation;(8) the poignancy of father and son walking together, of Isaac’s curiosity about the absence of the lamb, of his submission to his aged father’s will; the father’s actions presented almost in slow motion as he prepares the sacrifice; and the dramatic conclusion. Our minds, understanding something of Abraham’s anguish and transfixed by the horror of impending tragedy, are flooded with relief – a substitute is found!

On a human level, it is masterly narration. For the Christian, comparison and contrast between Isaac’s near sacrifice and the actual sacrifice of the Son of God provide rich insight into the wonders of divine love and grace. Isaac was the unique son of divine promise,(9) whereas the Son whom he foreshadowed – the only begotten of the Father (10) was not to be spared through the provision of a substitutionary sacrifice, but was delivered … up for us all.(11) God’s provision greatly impressed Abraham – he named the mountain Jehovah-Jireh – ‘the Lord will provide’, or ‘the Lord will see to it’, and it became known as ‘the mountain of the Lord’.(12) There is a lesson here, too, for us as we reflect on the spiritual challenge to take the knife (metaphorically) to anything in our lives which would limit our faith in and obedience to our loving heavenly Father.

David’s discernment

Over centuries of Jewish tradition, the ‘mountain in the region of Moriah’ of Genesis became identified with Mount Moriah, facing the slightly higher Mount Zion across the Tyropoeon Valley. Excluding the years of the Captivity, from the time of King Solomon’s temple, Mount Moriah continued to be the focus of worship and sacrifice for the Jewish nation until the destruction of AD70.

The location of this central sanctuary came about by divine revelation to the heart of a man who was ready to receive it – King David. The circumstances – at the conclusion of a severe plague sent by God in punishment for David’s temerity in counting his warriors – were not propitious.(13) It was at the place where the plague stopped – the threshing floor of Ornan on Mount Moriah (14) – that David was commanded to build an altar; sin had been dealt with and worship could now be acceptable. Although not an Israelite, Ornan’s striking willingness to surrender his land and entire livelihood to enable the altar and its offerings to be instituted, continued the theme of sacrifice associated with the mountain. It must have been a tempting offer, but we savour David’s discerning response, the essence of any sacrifice pleasing to God – “I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.… The house of the LORD God is to be here, and also the altar of burnt offering for Israel.”(15)

References: (1) Ps. 121:1-2 (2) Ps. 120 to 134 (3) Ps. 48:1 (4) 2 Kings 17:10 (5) Under King Solomon, the mountain was raised considerably higher as a result of the great temple platform on its summit. (6) Gen. 22:2 (7) Gen. 22:5 (8) Heb. 11:19 (9) Gen. 21:12 (10) John 1:14 NKJV. As if to emphasise the comparison, Heb. 11:17 uses the same term – only begotten – to describe Isaac’s relationship to Abraham. (11) Rom. 8:32 NKJV (12) Gen. 22:14 (13) 2 Sam. 24; 1 Chron. 21 (14) Or Araunah the Jebusite – 2 Sam. 24:16 (15) 1 Chron. 21:24; 22:1

David Viles, Hayes, England

Quotations from the NIV (1984) unless otherwise stated