1 After these things God tested Abraham and 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 of which I shall tell 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. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. – Genesis 22:1-3 ESV
Due to over-familiarity and poor hermeneutics, this well-known biblical story has lost a lot of its impact on many Christians. It has been turned into nothing more than a simplistic tale of one man’s struggle with maintaining his faith in God against all odds. There is a tendency to make the story prescriptive rather than descriptive. In other words, we want to find some aspect of Abraham’s difficult encounter with God and use it as a model for our own faith journey. But this story was not intended to provide us with a do-as-Abraham-did moralistic lesson that we can simply emulate and expect similar results.
Yes, this chapter recounts the story of Abraham’s faith being put to the test, but because we know how the story ends, we fail to recognize and appreciate the gravity of the situation he faced. One must always keep in mind that the original audience for whom Moses recorded this story would have been familiar with its outcome. They were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and so they would have known that this story has a happy ending. But they would have found the details surrounding Abraham’s encounter with God to be both shocking and sobering.
As the descendants of Abraham, they had inherited the God of Abraham, and this story was meant to focus their attention on Him. Their God was great and fully expected His chosen people to live in obedience to His commands. But chapter 22 of Genesis is less about the faith-filled exploits of Abraham than it is about the faithfulness of God. As we do with so many of the stories found in the Scriptures, we tend to make this one about us. Because we’re human, we seek out the moral lessons, both good and bad, that we can learn from the human characters found in the stories the Bible contains. We teach our children to “dare to be a Daniel,” using his faithfulness in the face of difficult circumstances as a model for our own godliness. We read about Joseph and assume that if we emulate his can-do attitude in the midst of trials, we will enjoy similar blessings from God. And while there certainly are valuable lessons to be learned from the lives of the characters found in the Scriptures, the real hero of each of the stories is God.
Moses opens chapter 22 with the simple statement: “After these things.” This likely refers to all the events found in the preceding chapters, including the birth and weaning of Isaac, the disinheriting and casting out of Ishmael, and the purchase of the well by Abraham. But, in a sense, it points all the way back to God’s original call of Abraham found in chapter 12. In the ten chapters that follow, Moses has recorded the unique and constantly evolving relationship between Yahweh and this man from Ur of the Chaldees. The one consistent factor in this decades-long relationship is God’s unwavering commitment to bless Abraham.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV
“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” – Genesis 15:5 ESV
“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” – Genesis 17:4 ESV
For more than 25 years, Abraham waited to see these promises fulfilled. But as the years passed, he grew older and his wife’s barrenness remained an insurmountable obstacle. Yet, Moses records that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he [God} counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6 ESV). Abraham truly believed that God would do what He had promised to do, even though he had doubts concerning how and when. At one time, he had considered Lot to be a viable means by which God would fulfill the promise. But God had eliminated that possibility. Then, Abraham had shifted his hope to Ishmael, the son born to him through Hagar, his wife’s Egyptian handmaid. But God had removed Ishmael as an option.
And then, when Abraham was 100 and his wife was 90, God had miraculously opened Sarah’s womb and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And this highly improbable and physically impossible blessing occurred just as God had promised.
“I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” – Genesis 17:16 ESV
“Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:19 ESV
And God kept His word.
The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. – Genesis 21:1-3 ESV
What a happy ending. After all the years of waiting and hoping, Abraham and Sarah finally had that for which they had so anxiously and eagerly longed: A son. Their dream had come true. And it’s not difficult to spot the high value they placed in this miracle baby. Sarah’s pregnancy and delivery had left her filled with joy over the dramatic shift in her fortunes.
“God has brought me laughter. All who hear about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse a baby? Yet I have given Abraham a son in his old age!” – Genesis 21:6-7 NLT
On the day that Isaac was weaned, Abraham had celebrated the occasion with a feast. He was beside himself with pride and wanted everyone to join him in honoring his son and future heir.
But Sarah, driven by her maternal instincts and her strong dislike for Abraham’s other son, ordered the immediate expulsion of Ishmael and his mother.
“Get rid of that slave woman and her son. He is not going to share the inheritance with my son, Isaac. I won’t have it!” – Genesis 21:10 NLT
She was taking no risks. In her mind, Isaac was the only legitimate heir to the family inheritance, and, with Ishmael out of the way, all competition had been effectively eliminated.
But to understand what is happening here, one has to return to the command that God had issued to Abraham in his 90th year.
“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” – Genesis 17:1-2 ESV
God was calling Abraham to a life of integrity or moral wholeness. Every area of his life was to be dedicated to God and he was to live with the constant awareness that God was always watching. In other words, God was to be the sole focus of his life. And what is interesting to note is that, shortly after issuing this command, God declared, “I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5 ESV). The Hebrew word is what is known as a Qal Perfect verb, which generally designates a completed action. In other words, it expresses an event in the past tense. It has already taken place. Long before Isaac was born, God declared that He had already made Abraham the father of a multitude of nations. It was a future event that was as good as fulfilled because it was guaranteed by God.
So, what’s the point? In demanding that Abraham conduct his life with moral integrity and a constant awareness of His presence, God was issuing a call to total dependence and reliance upon Him. God didn’t need Isaac to exist to prove His faithfulness. The assurance that God’s will would be done was not to be found in Isaac. This young boy was not to be mistaken as the promise. He was simply a conduit through whom God would fulfill His covenant commitment to make from Abraham a great nation. But even that aspect of the promise was not dependent upon Isaac. God had already made it clear that Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, would produce a multitude of offspring. He had told Hagar, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude” (Genesis 16:10 ESV). And God had reiterated that promise to Abraham.
“As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.” – Genesis 17:20 ESV
There was more to God’s promise than the guarantee of many descendants. He could and would fulfill that aspect of the promise through Ishmael. No, God had something far greater in mind and it all goes back to the original call of Abraham.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV
God was going to do something great and it would be accomplished through Abraham and his offspring. And the apostle Paul provides a Spirit-inspired insight into this future fulfillment of God’s promise.
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV
God did not need Abraham to father a lot of descendants in order that He might bless the nations. There was only one offspring necessary for God to fulfill His covenant commitment. But because the arrival of that one offspring was scheduled for centuries later, there would be many other descendants of Abraham born along the way, including Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and David. Isaac was not the fulfillment of the promise. And yet, Abraham and Sarah had managed to make Isaac the focal point of their lives. With his birth, Isaac had become the center of their universe and the focus of their future hopes. So, God decided to test Abraham’s allegiance and realign his priorities. And He did so in a jaw-dropping, faith-shaking manner.
“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 of which I shall tell you.” – Genesis 22:2 ESV
Don’t miss the gravity of this moment. God was commanding Abraham to sacrifice his hope, to put to death the one in whom all his dreams and ambitions for the future were based. Or so he thought. Would Abraham be willing to walk before God and be blameless? Would he trust the God who made the promise or place his hope in the son who seemed to be the key to the promise being fulfilled? Was God dependent upon Isaac? Would Abraham allow this young boy to become an indispensable necessity for God’s future blessings? Or would he put His hope and trust in God?
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.