So far this year I have been re-captured by the stories of the book of Genesis. One of those stories is the story of Abraham (Genesis 12-25). And one of the greatest scenes in Abraham’s life is in Genesis 22 when God gives the 100-year-old a final test.
A lot had happened in Abraham’s life before the events in Genesis 22. God had called Abraham (then Abram) away from his homeland and family, and God had promised to bless him greatly (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham would have offspring and land, according to God. But God’s promises unfolded rather strangely, and rather slowly in Genesis 13-21. Abram/Abraham showed signs of incredible faith in believing God’s promises, but also showed signs of incredible fear sometimes (Genesis 12:10-20; 20) and would try to take things into his own hands and fulfill God’s promises on his own (Genesis 16-17). Yet God would follow behind Abraham, helping him out of his troubles and fixing the messes Abraham made.
Finally, 25 years after God called Abraham out of his homeland, Abraham’s wife Sarah had a son, and they named him Isaac (Genesis 21:1-7). I can’t wait patiently for my food to get out of the microwave or for my internet page to load, and yet God took 25 years to fulfill His promise of offspring to Abraham!
And then the unthinkable happens in Genesis 22.
The author of the narrative gives us special insight by saying “God tested Abraham” at the beginning of the story (Genesis 22:1a). This reminds me of the times when I was a kid and my family would watch movies that would easily frighten me. My siblings would try to calm me by telling me, “This part is a little scary, but no one gets hurt in the end.” I think the author of this story is doing the same thing by telling us at the beginning that this is God’s test. Yes, it will be intense, yes there will be pathos, but in the end no one will get hurt.
God calls Abraham in verse 1, and we can see by Abraham’s response (“Here am I”) that this was as clear a Divine call as any Abraham had received (and Abraham had received several). This story would not be the result of the voices inside Abraham’s head. This was as clear a Divine call as the call to leave Abraham’s homeland back in Genesis 12. And perhaps the clarity of the call helped provide Abraham with the resolve he needed to carry out this call, since it would be a painful one. We find in verse 2 that God was calling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the beloved son and the representation of God’s promises.
And Abraham would take the necessary steps to obey. There is a deliberateness, an agonizing deliberateness even, in Abraham’s obedience. If we have to deal with something uncomfortable, like setting a bone or ripping off a bandage, we want to get it over with as quickly as possible. But that was not an option for Abraham’s obedience.
Abraham did not put it off but “rose early in the morning” (v.3). Abraham “saddled his donkey,” and the donkey was probably just as obstinate as before. The donkey would not have realized that he was helping Abraham fulfill a Divine call. Abraham “cut the wood” for the offering, and with each stroke he had time to think. Was he thinking about the sacrifice this obedience would require? Was he believing that God could be trusted?
Abraham traveled for three days before he got close to the mountain God had called him to sacrifice Isaac on. When Abraham arrived at the spot, he built an altar and bound Isaac, and Abraham took the knife to kill his son. Then the angel of God called down to Abraham and 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” (Genesis 22:12). Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket, and sacrificed the ram as a substitute for his son Isaac.
The angel then repeats God’s covenant promises to Abraham. God had made this promises to Abraham at other times, but here in Genesis 22 there is a new note of finality to the covenant promises. God invokes His own name to make clear to Abraham the certainty of the future blessings (v. 16). God would bless Abraham, give him a seemingly infinite number of offspring, and all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham’s obedience (v.17-18). Paradoxically, by being willing to sacrifice Isaac and the covenant promises that Isaac represented, Abraham gained a greater certainty of those covenant promises.
We may be surprised that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son. That might seem cruel to us. But we can remember from the beginning that this was only a test and God never intended Isaac to perish. Furthermore, God would never ask any other Biblical character to sacrifice their child in this way. This was a one-time occurrence.
The real surprise of this text is that God would ask Abraham to give up his best hope of the fulfillment of the covenant promises. During the 25 years of waiting, Abraham tried to take matters into his own hands and force the fulfillment of God’s promises. Finally God acted and gave Abraham a son as a living representation of the promises and their fulfillment. Now in Genesis 22, God wanted to know if Abraham’s faith had grown.
Had Abraham learned to trust that God would fulfill His good purposes in His own time and in His own way? And would Abraham want God Himself more than he wanted God’s promises?
In the end Abraham passed the test. And we may say, “good deal for Abraham! But I’m struggling to trust that God will provide food for the table and money for the rent!” Perhaps we are struggling to trust God in a relationship or in some area of our life as Christians. Maybe we look like the old Abraham, full of fear, taking matters into his own hands and only making messes of the situation.
But perhaps God has given us a clear call in the present. As we look to future promises, God has given us areas to stay obedient in for the present. This obedience does not have to be as drastic as Abraham’s, but it could be some kind of sacrifice. And perhaps as we pursue obedience, we will find fulfillment of God’s good purposes.
And here is an encouragement even that goes even deeper: as sure as God’s good purposes were to Abraham, they are sure to us even more! Abraham saw the beginning of the fulfillment in Isaac, but we see the completion of the fulfillment in Christ. We would see the love of God and the sacrifice of the Father even more clearly than Abraham when “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) We would see the true sacrifice as Jesus went willingly to the cross to secure the good purposes of God for all the peoples of the earth (John 10:14-18). Jesus would be the one to come to bless all peoples of the earth. Jesus would reverse the curse into blessings and change death into life.
This gives us encouragement. And if our faith is tested like Abraham’s faith was tested, let us also trust and obey.