Abraham tested, 1-19

Gen 22:1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied.

Some time later – ‘After these things’ (ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, AV, NKJV, HCSV, New Century Bible, etc.).  After what things?  ‘God’s plans for bringing good to the inhabitants of the world depend on Abraham (Gen 12:3). However, certain things have happened that give God reason to doubt Abraham, making it necessary to test him, to see if Abraham can bear the weight of that immense trust. Twice Abraham has let his wife Sarah go into the harem of a foreign king (Gen 12 and Gen 20); he did it to protect himself, evidently not trusting God to see them through their dangerous sojourns among foreigners. So what is at stake is not obedience merely but total mutual trust. The point of the test is to see whether Abraham trusts God even to the point of relinquishing the child on whom the blessing, the covenant, and his own happiness depend.’ (Ellen F. Davis)

J.I. Packer:

‘No clearer illustrations of the wisdom of God ordering human lives can be found than in some of the scriptural narratives. Take, for instance, the life of Abraham. Abraham was capable of repeated shabby deceptions which actually endangered his wife’s chastity. (Gen 12:10-20) Plainly, then, he was by nature a man of little moral courage, altogether too anxious about his own personal security. (Gen 12:12-13 20:11) Also, he was vulnerable to pressure; at his wife’s insistence he fathered a child upon her maid, Hagar, and when Sarai reacted to Hagar’s pride in her pregnancy with hysterical recriminations he let Sarai drive Hagar out of the house. (Gen 16:5-6)

‘Plainly, then, Abraham was not by nature a man of strong principle, and his sense of responsibility was somewhat deficient. But God in wisdom dealt with this easygoing, unheroic figure to such good effect that not merely did he faithfully fulfill his appointed role on the stage of church history, as pioneer occupant of Canaan, first recipient of God’s covenant, (Gen 18:17) and father of Isaac, the miracle child; he also became a new man.

‘What Abraham needed most of all was to learn the practice of living in God’s presence, seeing all life in relation to him, and looking to him, and him alone, as Commander, Defender and Rewarder. This was the great lesson which God in wisdom concentrated on teaching him. “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Gen 15:1) “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless [single-eyed and sincere].” (Gen 17:1) Again and again God confronted Abraham with himself, and so led Abraham to the point where his heart could say, with the psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you…God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Ps 73:25-26) And as the story proceeds, we see in Abraham’s life the results of his learning this lesson. The old weaknesses still sometimes reappear, but alongside there emerges a new nobility and independence, the outworking of Abraham’s developed habit of walking with God, resting in his revealed will, relying on him, waiting for him, bowing to his providence, obeying him even when he commands something odd and unconventional. From being a man of the world, Abraham becomes a man of God.

‘Thus, as he responds to God’s call, leaves home, and travels through the land which his descendants are to possess (Gen 12:7) -though not he himself, note: Abraham never possessed any more of Canaan than a grave (Gen 25:9-10) – we observe in him a new meekness, as he declines to claim his due precedence over his nephew Lot (Gen 13:8-9). We see also a new courage, as he sets off with a mere three hundred men to rescue Lot from the combined forces of four kings (Gen 14:14-15). We see a new dignity, as he deprecates keeping the recaptured booty, lest it should seem to have been the king of Sodom, rather than God most high, who made him rich (Gen 14:22-23). We see a new patience, as he waits a quarter of a century, from the age of seventy-five to one hundred, for the birth of his promised heir (Gen 12:4; 21:5). We see him becoming a man of prayer, an importunate intercessor burdened with a sense of responsibility before God for others’ welfare (Gen 18:23-32). We see him at the end so utterly devoted to God’s will, and so confident that God knows what he is doing, that he is willing at God’s command to kill his own son, the heir for whose birth he waited so long (Gen 22). How wisely God had taught him his lesson! And how well Abraham had learned it!’

(Knowing God)

Gen 22:2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

“Your son, your only, Isaac, whom you love” – Each description becomes more intense.

‘From Abraham the harrowing demand evokes only love and faith, certain as he is that the “foolishness of God” is unexplored wisdom.’ (Kidner)

The region of Moriah – This is the place where God halted the plague of Jerusalem and where Solomon built the temple, 2 Chron 3:1. In the vicinity was the place known in the NT as Calvary.

Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering – ‘The biblical prophets and the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus expressly forbid [the practice of child sacrifice], but that also implies that it continued to occur. In fact, the story of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac suggests that Abraham was familiar with human sacrifice and was not surprised by Yahweh’s demand. However, the story also provides a model for the substitute of an animal for a human sacrifice that clearly draws a distinction between Israelite practice and that of other cultures.’ (IVP Background Commentary)

Spoiler title

The account (in Genesis 22) of how God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, is one of the most problematic in the whole of scripture.  It seems to teach that blind, irrational faith is a ‘good thing’, even the result is that you are willing to slaughter a member of your own family because you think that God has told you to do it.  Of, course, God prevented Abraham from killing Isaac in the end (Gen 22:12), but that does not seem to get us off the hook: we presume that Abraham would have gone through with the terrible deed if God had not intervened.

What sort of God would give such a command?  And what sort of person would have such a perverted religion to think that God would give such a command?

Dawkins (The God Delusion, p242) states the problem with his usual level of subtlety:-

By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ‘I was only obeying orders’.  Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.  [In Islamic teaching the story is told about Abraham’s other son, Ishmael].

So, what sense can we make of this dramatic account?

1.  The end of human sacrifice?

The OT everywhere regards human sacrifice with abhorrence.  The law explicitly prohibited it, Lev 18:21;20:2.  The sacrifice of  Jephthah’s daughter (Judg 11:30–40), the demands of Gibeon (2 Sam 21:8, 9, 14), and the practices of Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6, 2 Chron 33:6) are all held up as examples to avoid, not to emulate.  It was good king Josiah who abolished the practice of child sacrifice, 2 Kings 23:10.  The prophets condemned it, Jer 19:5; Ezek 20:30–31; 23:36–39.

‘The biblical prophets and the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus expressly forbid [the practice of child sacrifice], but that also implies that it continued to occur. In fact, the story of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac suggests that Abraham was familiar with human sacrifice and was not surprised by Yahweh’s demand. However, the story also provides a model for the substitute of an animal for a human sacrifice that clearly draws a distinction between Israelite practice and that of other cultures.’ (IVP Background Commentary)

Writing in Christianity magazine (July 2012) David Instone-Brewer sets out his view that the point of this account is not only to show how Abraham’s faith was tested, but also to provide an unforgettable and definitive rejection of child sacrifice.  It was an object lesson in what would later be made clear in precept (Lev 18:21; 1 Sam 15:22).

Instone-Brewer writes: ‘Human sacrifice has been found in many societies, and in some places it ended only fairly recently. It has been almost completely abolished today, apart from a few underground practices which are declared illegal in all countries. We may regret the way the Conquistadors destroyed the civilisations of the Mayans and Aztecs, but surely not that they ended the widespread practice of offering beating human hearts to the gods. Equally, few can regret the fact that missionaries stopped the daily child sacrifices for Kali in India in the 19th century. The most recent missionary-led campaign against human sacrifice was in Papua New Guinea, where tribal leaders apologised in 2007 for having eaten four Methodists in 1878.

‘It would be an exaggeration to say that the Bible and Christianity has been the only force behind this movement away from sacrifices, but it has certainly been the major cause of change. Starting with Abraham, continuing with Moses, and culminating in Jesus, there has been a continuing emphasis on reducing or ending blood sacrifice.

‘Today we rightly emphasise religious tolerance, but we shouldn’t let this blind us to unacceptable practices in some religions. The Indians put up statues in honour of William Carey, the missionary who helped expunge the practice of burning the widow on her husband’s pyre. South Africa put up a statue of Archbishop Tutu who helped persuade it to abandon apartheid. Perhaps one day Afghan women will be allowed to put up a statue to those who defeated the Taliban and enabled them to get an education.

‘Just because a ‘normal’ practice is a religious custom, it doesn’t make it acceptable. God used a painfully unforgettable method to teach this to Abraham. When we need to get similarly important messages heard, sometimes we may need to use a megaphone too.’

2.  An anticipation of the death of God’s own Son?

Steve Wells (compiler of The Annotated Sceptic’s Bible) thinks that the story of Abraham and Isaac is ‘obscene’.  But he is right about one thing: there is a close affinity between this account of (intended) sacrifice and that of God sacrificing his own Son:- ‘God supposedly tested himself, just like he did Abraham, only this time he went through with it. He killed his own son for some god-awful reason. I guess it was to keep himself from torturing others for stuff they didn’t  do or didn’t believe. Or something like that.  Believers call it Good Friday.’

It may well be God wished to give Abraham a prefiguration of the sacrifice by which his promise to bless all the families of the earth would be fulfilled (cf. Gen 12:3).  The words of Jesus himself lend support to this view, Jn 8:56 (“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”)  Isaac was not, of course, just ‘any son’: God had promised that it would be through him and his offspring that all the nations of the earth would be blessed.  Moreover, it is to be noted that the place that Abraham to Isaac to was “the region of Moriah”.  The distance was unexpectedly distant if God’s purpose was simply to test Abraham’s faith.   But the destination is less unexpected when we consider that this region includes Jerusalem and its environs.

3. Context is everything

Valid as the preceding observations may be, it is when we consider this story in the light of God’s dealings with Abraham up to this point that we can really start making good sense of it.

In a recent article in Themelios, Matthew Rowley comments that this passage has been misunderstood by believers and non-believers alike.  Taken on its own, Abraham’s experience as recorded in this chapter suggests that Abraham believes that the Lord has commanded him to commit a barbaric act, and that Abraham had no rational grounds (apart from the bare command) for doing so.  Thus understood, the passage seems to offer excuse to all those others who commit atrocities because they think that God has commanded them to do so.

Rowley’s argument is that the preceding chapters (Gen 12 onwards) record copious instances of God’s miraculous work, such that Abraham was well prepared for the test of chapter 22.  These miracles, says Rowley, were ‘large-scale, frequent, predicted, communal, variegated, long lasting, and multi-sensory’.

  • God had called Abram to leave his home country and to travel the land that he (the Lord) would show him,Gen 12:1.
  • God had supported his call with a set of remarkable promises, Gen 12:2-4.
  • God had appeared to Abram when he entered Canaan, Gen 12:7.
  • God had sent a plague on Pharaoh and his house, with the result that Pharaoh acknowledged the power of Abram’s God, Gen 12:10-20.
  • God had visited Abram on further occasions, Gen 13:14-18; 15.  He changed Abram’s name to Abraham, made a covenant with him, and assured him that the seed of promise would come through Sarah and Isaac,Gen 17.
  • God had appeared to Abraham again, at the oaks of Mamre, Gen 18.
  • God had visited Abimelech with a plague, and then revealed himself to him in a dream, with the result that Abraham was affirmed as a prophet by a foreign leader, Gen 20:1-7, 17f.
  • God had miraculously enabled Sarah to conceive and give birth to the son through him he would bless the world, after years of waiting, Gen 17:15–19; 18:10–14; 21:1–8.
  • God had appeared yet again to Abraham, promising to care for Hagar and Ishmael, Gen 21:8-21.

The greatest validation of Abraham’s faith comes in the narrative about the destruction of Sodom.  Gen 18:17faffirms that God has the right to take life, and that Abraham was able to correctly understand God’s revelation.  Moreover, all of this is tied to God’s promise to bless the entire world through Abraham.

When we come to Gen 22, both Abraham and Isaac know that the former has been miraculously set apart by God; hence the submissive faith of both.  In that chapter, Abraham’s faith is tested by the apparent contradiction between God’s promise and God’s command.  Although he would not have known how God would fulfil his promise, he had been brought to the point where he could trust God to be true to his word.  It is remarkable that Abraham had said to his servant, “I and the boy will come back to you” (Gen 22:5; see also Heb 11:17-19)

So Abraham is not guilty of a blind and irrational ‘leap of faith’, as some have supposed.  He had ample reasons for trusting God and for believing that he was correctly able to interpret God’s words to him.  To commit an atrocity simple because ‘God told me to do it’ is a sign of a deranged mind.  But the situation regarding Abraham was entirely different; he was a prophet who had received repeated miraculous validation from God.

‘Because God promised that he would bless the world through the offspring of childless Isaac, and because God commanded that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, the burden of responsibility rested on God to make good on all his promises. Because of the large deposits already in Abraham’s trust bank he knew with certainty that God would either stop the knife or raise Isaac up from the dead.’

Rowley concludes with some lessons for preachers:-

  1. Don’t separate Gen 22 from Gen 12-21.
  2. Don’t make Abraham an exemplar of blind, irrational faith.
  3. Don’t attempt to draw universal applications from those parts of the narrative that should be regarded as unique.
  4. Don’t make Abraham’s relationship with God normative (as if we can treat our own quiet prompting from the Holy Spirit as if they were on the same level as his miraculous validation).
  5. Don’t casually spiritualise Abraham’s actions (for us to raise a metaphorical knife over our idols is not the same as Abraham raising a real knife against his own son).

Gen 22:3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.

Gen 22:4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.

‘Not one word is said about that emotion-filled three-day journey. What were Abraham’s thoughts? Did he pray: “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me”?’ (ECB)

Gen 22:5 he said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

“We will worship and then we will come back to you” – An astonishing statement of faith, based on the promise of 21:12. According to Heb 11:17-19 Abraham believed that Isaac would resurrected.

The key to this extraordinary episode is surely in the Lord’s previous dealings with Abraham.  From tentative beginnings, Abraham had learned profound love and obedience toward God.  He is now ready for that love and obedience to be tested.

Gen 22:6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together,

Gen 22:7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Gen 22:8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

Gen 22:9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

Gen 22:10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

Gen 22:11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied.

Gen 22:12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

“Do not lay a hand on the boy”

Gen 22:13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

Substitution, resurrection, obedience, meekness, sacrifice, faith.

‘The substitutionary purpose of the sacrifice is evident, and points forward to the sacrifice of Christ who died in our stead (Mark 10:45; Rom. 8:32; 2 Cor. 5:21; Titus 2:14).’ (Reformation Study Bible)

Gen 22:14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”

Gen 22:15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time

Gen 22:16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,”

‘For the NT…there is more to the sacrifice of Isaac than the supreme example of someone committing himself to obey God completely (Heb. 11:17–19); it is a picture of God’s sacrificial love. Just as Abraham gave his only son as a sacrifice, so the Father ‘did not spare his own Son’ for the world (Rom. 8:32; Jn. 3:16). In Isaac’s ready submission to Abraham’s will we see an image of the Son who said ‘Father … not my will, but yours be done’ (Lk. 22:42).’ (NBC)

Gen 22:17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,

“I will…make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” – Many dispensationalists believe that God has two separate plans – a heavenly plan for the church, and an earthly plan for Israel.  John Hagee interprets the present verse accordingly, understanding the ‘stars’ to represent the church, spiritual Israel, and the ‘sand on the seashore’ to represent the earthly nation of Israel.  They co-exist; neither replaces the other.  Hagee’s interpretation is fanciful and unwarranted.  It is specifically undermined by Neh 9:23, where Nehemiah thanks God that the promise to Abraham had already been fulfilled, likening Jews, rather than Gentiles, to the stars in the sky.  (See Sizer, Zion’s Christian Soldiers, p41f).

Gen 22:18 “and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Gen 22:19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Nahor’s sons, 20-24

Gen 22:20 Some time later Abraham was told, “Milcah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor:”

Gen 22:21 Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram),

Gen 22:22 “Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.”

Gen 22:23 Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milcah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor.

Gen 22:24 his concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maacah.