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Relevant Verses: Genesis 22

Theme: Abraham’s Test

Leading Question: What is Abraham’s test?

At the opening of Genesis 12, God called on Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, and promised him, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you” (Gen 12:2).

Another promise followed, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted” (Gen 13:16).

Then a third promise, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them . . . so shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5).

And the fourth promise, “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you” (Gen 17:5–6).

Four ascending promises: a great nation, as many as the dust of the earth, as the stars of the sky; not one nation but many nations. Abraham heard these promises and had faith in them.

The next times God spoke, He had painful news for Abraham. He should let go of his son by Hagar, of Ishmael, for he would not be his heir. God would bless him and make him a great nation, “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year” (Gen 17:21).

It is against this background of four promises of countless children, and a further promise that Abraham’s covenant would be continued by Isaac, that we must read the chilling words that open the trial in Genesis 22: “Take your son, your only son, the son that you love—Isaac—and offer him up.”

Commentators throughout the ages have characterized this story as an example of the heights of faith. Abraham loved God so much he was willing to give up the child he waited so long to bear.

Question: Why does an omniscient God, who knows Abraham very well, require such a test?

Many Christians have been taught that faith devoid of reason is a good and godly thing. Abraham believed God and raised the knife to kill his son just because God asked him to do it. The American theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer explains how this interpretation found its way unto our Christian pulpits, “Kierkegaard said this was an act of faith with nothing rational to base it upon or to which to relate it. Out of this came the modern concept of a ‘leap of faith’ and the total separation of rationality and faith.” 1Frances A. Schaeffer, “The God Who is There” in The Frances A. Schaeffer Trilogy: Three Essential Books in One Volume (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 15.Preachers have often used Genesis 22 to extol Abraham as the ultimate exemplar of blind faith. The audience is then assured that God stopped the knife for Abraham and that God will ensure that no harm comes to the obedient Christian. Some have taken this argument as a reason to perform radically immoral and evil actions in the name of God (see, this recent news about a man who claimed God was telling him to kill:

Question: How should we think of the story of Isaac’s sacrifice?

For a more consistent reading of Genesis 22 consider the following:

  1. It is important to note that the Old Testament rejects and condemns sacrificing children. Micah asks rhetorically, “Shall I give my firstborn for my sin, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:7) and replies, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
  2. The kings who offered their sons as a ritual sacrifice to please or appease a deity such as Molech are recorded as the most cruel and evil, Mesha, the king of Moab (2 Kings 3:27), Ahaz of Judah (2 Kings 16:1–3), and Manasseh, king of of Judah (2 Kings 21:6-8). In Judges, we read of Jephthah who offered his daughter as a burnt offering because of a vow so God would give him victory over the Ammonites (Judg 11).
  3. Abraham was chosen “so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Gen 18:19). How could Abraham serve as a model father if he was willing to kill his child?
  4. Contrary to Abraham’s strong interjection against the killing of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah pointing out the immorality of such an act (Genesis 18:16–33), when it comes to Isaac, Abraham fails to interject, to ask questions, and point out the contradictions and the immorality of sacrificing children to a deity.
  5. Sarah is not mentioned in Genesis 22. Her absence adds to the tragic nature of nearly sacrificing Isaac; and, right after Abraham came down from the mountain, we read about her death (Gen 23:1–2). What follows in Genesis 23 is one of the great paradoxes of Abraham’s story. The disconnect between God’s promises and the reality of Abraham’s life is perplexing. Seven times, God had promised Abraham that he would inherit the land. Yet when Sarah died, Abraham owned not even an inch of land. He engages in an elaborate negotiation with the local people to buy a cave for a high price in which to bury his wife (Gen 23:1–20).

After considering these observations, could we say that the trial in Genesis 22 was not to see whether Abraham had the courage to sacrifice his son? As the Bible shows, evil kings like Mesha, Ahaz, and Manasseh had that courage and it was abhorrent and rejected by Israel’s God. The trial was not to see whether Abraham had the strength to give up something he loved. He had shown this time and time again. At the very beginning of his story, he gave up his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, everything that was familiar to him, everything that spoke of home. In Genesis 21 we learn that he gave up his firstborn son Ishmael whom he also loved. Was there even the slightest doubt that he would give up Isaac, who was God’s miraculous gift to parents who were too old to have a child?

“The trial was to see whether Abraham could live with what seemed to be a clear contradiction between God’s word now, and God’s word on five previous occasions, promising him children and a covenant that would be continued by Isaac” (Sacks, “The Binding of Isaac”).

The principle upon which the birth and the sacrifice of Isaac rests, is that a child is not the property of the father, the parents. Abraham is to renounce ownership of his son, hand over the child—not to the god of death—but to the God of life. In the New Testament, this principle seems to be applied when the writer of Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17–19).

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