Flesh vs Faith: God Tested Abraham

[Abraham] considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead(Hebrews 11:19)

We have come to the BIG event in Abraham’s life. It is the high point to which his life of faith carried him. Of course, it’s not quite as easy as the clichés make it sound. Biblically, this is the big one and through the centuries people heap praise on this event. But practically, the specific example is not one we would support anyone following. Were a Pastor to preach on this incident, and one of his listeners say “I have been greatly inspired by your sermon. This afternoon, Junior and I are going off to worship and later we will return.” The pastor would do everything in his power to dissuade the man. In fact, the intervention would be quite intense and final. If the guy could not be dissuaded, junior would not be allowed to go with him.

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 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.” 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. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba. (Genesis 22:1-19)

Clearly there is a lot going on here and as usual, I’m going to sprint through it. As the story of Abraham’s life has gone on, there have been many allusions and connections to this story. Here are some observations.

The timing of this event (After these things, looking back to the previous chapter with Birth of Isaac, his weaning and the subsequent banishment of Hagar and her son, and the treaty with Abimelech at Beersheba) is hard to nail down. Typically, it is thought that Isaac was early teens when this happened, given the physical task he performed. If so, that would make Abraham early teens plus 100 years.

It says God “tested” Abraham. The Hebrew word has a range of meanings: to test or try or prove. What seems to be tested is Abraham’s obedience. Given that one aspect of testing is perfecting, I would say that this testing was not to see if Abraham would obey so much as to push him into the step of growth where he came to understand that God would raise Isaac from the dead. In the previous blog (on Genesis 18) I talked about Abraham struggling with the thought that no matter how things may look, the Judge of the whole earth shall do right. Here, the judge of the whole earth will do right with Abraham’s covenant, promises and his son, his only son, whom he loves, Isaac.

The love for the son is a huge component in this event yet the story reads fairly devoid of emotional content. I think that any teaching of Jesus’ words, If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26) should include this passage in its analysis. Outside observers would say that Abraham must hate Isaac, but in reality Abraham’s love for Isaac was intense, as was his love for Ishmael, whom he sent away in chapter 21.

In an interesting echo, God says this was to be done on a mountain “of which I will tell you”. This goes all the way back to the first call of Abraham. Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1) Once again, there was a call to go but the specifics await a later revelation. He was to sacrifice on a mountain in Moriah (approximately 50 miles from where Abraham lived in Beersheba), which some say eventually became the Temple Mount, based on 2 Chronicles 3:1 Then Solomon began to build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah. It seems, however, that Jerusalem was already inhabited at that time (Melchizedek, in Chapter 14, was King of Salem, which many think may have been Jerusalem). The place Abraham went to seems more remote, but still in the land of Moriah.

Another parallel can be found with the previous chapter. In chapter 21, God had told Abraham to send away his son from Hagar. God coupled that command with the promise that Ishmael would become a great nation. Abraham’s response was immediate So Abraham rose early in the morning (Genesis 21:14) and we find an equal immediacy in chapter 22, So Abraham rose early in the morning (Genesis 22:3).

I would like to point something else out. A lot of times we read this story and Isaac is mainly background. We don’t know what he was thinking or when or if he caught on to what was going on. “Whatchya doing with the knife, dad?” I think the text offers a clue. It’s a phrase found in verses 6 and 8. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. (Genesis 22:6-8) It may be speculation on my part, but it seems that here is where Isaac came to understand what was going on. The repeated phrase “so they went both of them together” on each side of the interaction says more than they were walking together, but has the added weight that Isaac, now knowing the plan, submits in faith. Also, looking ahead to after the event, it says So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. (Genesis 22:19). The story emphasizes the unity of father and son in the event.

Upon reaching the place God revealed, it says that Abraham built the altar. Again, this is an echo from Abraham’s whole life. Whenever he went anywhere, he built an altar. In my article on Abraham’s call, I noted that in the Hebrew of Genesis 12:1-3 there were two imperatives, “go” (12:1) and “be a blessing” (12:2). Abraham went in obedience, but also in obedience to the second imperative, wherever he went, Abraham built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD. (Genesis 12:8) Here in chapter 22, Abraham’s altar was to sacrifice Isaac and it equally fulfills his calling to be a blessing.

In the end, God did provide a ram as substitute for Isaac. Note that Abraham looked and saw a ram. Similarly, Hagar looked and saw a well in the previous chapter (21:19). Abraham, who showed no expectation of a substitute, received his son back from the dead, as he believed he would.

God’s striking words, I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me. (Genesis 22:12), evokes for me another father who also did not withhold his son He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32) Speaking about false idols, the Psalmist says Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Psalms 115:8) From the life of Abraham, we see that the life of faith is a journey in becoming like the one we worship. We think like he thinks, and commit to his commitments.

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3 Responses to Flesh vs Faith: God Tested Abraham

  1. xulonjam says:

    In a conversation with a Jewish friend, it was pointed out that Jewish tradition says that Isaac was 37 years old at the time of this incident.

  2. Pingback: Worship begins in your heart | bummyla

  3. xulonjam says:

    A couple of more interactions for thought:

    In my conversation with the Jewish friend mentioned above, I observed that Scripturally, Isaac was 37 years-old when Sarah died and asked if Jewish tradition connects the two events. My friend replied yes, Jewish tradition has it that when Abraham and Isaac returned from the trip and explained what happened, Sarah was overcome with grief that something must have been wrong with Isaac’s purity that God would not accept his sacrifice and she died in mourning. This is an incredibly crass misreading and re-writing of the event which subtracts a lot but adds nothing to our understanding of the Revelation.

    I recently read a sermon which pointed out that verse 19 does not mention Isaac, but that Abraham and his servants “walked together” back home. The Sermon builds on this point so that Isaac was hurt and threatened by the attempted sacrifice, left Abraham and went his own way. Again, I don’t think this speculation adds anything to the text. Isaac was at least back with Abraham when it was time to get a wife.

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