The great Jehovah had made great promises to Abraham and had also led Abraham through many periods of testing. Some of those tests he passed; some of the tests he failed, but in all of them he learned to lean more and more on the sovereign God who had brought him into the land of Canaan. At last the promise given so many years earlier had been fulfilled: he and Sarah had a son, the son of the promise. Abraham had arrived at a time in his life when for several years he lived quietly, rejoicing in the Lord’s faithfulness, while watching with delight the growth and development of the promised son.
Suddenly, the quiet rhythm of the passing days and years was interrupted by a test that was more severe than any that Abraham had gone through before. It took the Lord sixty years to prepare Abraham for this event. The Lord never puts a person through a test before that person is ready for it; He never sends a trial unless He first makes preparations for the person to come through it victoriously (1 Corinthians 10:13). For sixty years the Lord had led Abraham through trials of fire, one after the other, until Abraham was ready to gain the victory and truly wear the name “Father of the Faithful” and to be called “A Friend of God.”
Take Your Son
In a culture that valued a man by the number of his children, Abraham had to wait until he was one hundred years old to have Isaac. God had promised Abraham several times during his pilgrimage that he would become the father of a great nation. Jehovah had gone so far as to change the patriarch’s name from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of a multitude).
Yet from the time Abraham turned seventy to the time he was in his nineties, instead of adding to the family, he watched as his family grew smaller. First, his father died; then his nephew, Lot, abandoned him for the greener pastures of Sodom. God even told him to send his son, Ishmael, away. All that was left was one boy born to him when he was one hundred years old.
Then God came with the instructions, “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.” How each word must have felt like another bolt of lightning striking the heart of Abraham. “Take your son . . .” not Eliezer, who Abraham had once thought would be the sole heir of his wealth (Genesis 15). “Your only son . . .” not Ishmael, who had been sent away. “Isaac . . .” the son of the promise. “Whom you love . . .” and for whom you had waited all these long years.
Isaac was the one that God was telling the patriarch to sacrifice. Abraham was to be fully aware of that fact and the fact that God was fully aware of what He was asking His servant to do. How old Isaac was at the time cannot be determined. Some commentaries put Isaac in his early thirties, others as a young teenager. The only thing we can know for certain is that it happened after Isaac was weaned (Genesis 21:28) and before the death of Sarah (Genesis 23:1). That would put Isaac somewhere between three and thirty-seven years old. The fact that he could talk, reason, and carry a bundle of sticks up Mount Moriah certainly makes him older than three years. In addition, Abraham refers to him as a “boy” or “lad,” which would place him not yet at the start of manhood, which, according to Jewish tradition, began at age twelve.
While sacrificing one’s child was a prevalent practice in Canaan for the pagan gods, Abraham must have wondered how Jehovah could demand such a thing from him. Not only did Abraham love his son, but what was even more important was that God had promised that all the future blessings of salvation were to come through this particular child. God had told Abraham that Isaac was to live, marry, have a family, inherit the land, and that through his family would come the great deliverer. Now, before Isaac was even married or had any children, God told Abraham, “Sacrifice him to Me.”
In all the other tests, Abraham had to respond by relying on the faithfulness of God. Could God provide during a famine (Genesis 12)? Could he survive in the mountains (Genesis 13)? Could God give him the victory over the kings (Genesis 14)? And, overarching all the other tests of trust, could God provide a son to Abraham and Sarah in their old age? At times they had wavered in their testing, but they believed, and Isaac was born. Indeed, the God Abraham served had proven to be a God faithful to His promises.
Now, however, the test involved what appeared to be an apparent conflict within the very words God had spoken. There was a direct contradiction between the command of God and the promises of God. Very clearly God had promised prosperity through Isaac; equally clear, however, was the command that Isaac be killed.
Two options presented themselves to Abraham. He would have to decide which of the two options he would choose. His choice would reveal what he believed about God. Abraham could have believed that God was an erratic, wavering God who changed his plans from one day to the next, an arbitrary God who was not sure Himself what He wanted and therefore would one day promise one thing and the next day demand another. Such were the gods of Ur and Canaan. Such is the god of Islam. The other option was to believe that, although Abraham may not have seen a clear solution to the conflict between the promise and the command, God did. Therefore, God could be trusted and needed to be obeyed.
Abraham’s obedience was incredible. He got up early the next morning, saddled the donkey, cut the firewood, and made the trip to Moriah. From the very beginning to when he actually picked up the knife to slay his only son there was no reluctance, no hesitation, and no doubt. What went though Abraham’s mind during that three-day journey to Moriah? As he held Isaac in his hands to bind him on the altar, did he recall the first time he held his son as he came from Sarah’s womb? Did he recall the times that he would hold that same little body to feed him, bathe him, rock him, and laugh with him? Where was the laughter now? Before lifting the knife up into the air to destroy in a single move the life that carried all the promises given to him, did he have some parting words or a final kiss? How easy it is for me, as a father with a thirteen-year old son, to imagine how incredibly emotional this may have been for Abraham. And yet, not one word of Abraham’s feelings is expressed in this entire chapter.
More incredible than any emotion Abraham may have felt was his faith. Not only was Abraham exercising faith, he was working with it. Abraham was not brooding over the gruesome sacrifice that was about to take place; he was puzzling over the problem that the sacrifice presented: How can God be true to His promise if I sacrifice Isaac? What is God going to do to remain true to His Word? Those were the kinds of questions that Abraham must have considered all the way to Moriah.
Abraham never panicked. He did not raise an angry fist to God. He knew the character of God and entrusted his life and Isaac’s life into God’s care. In fact, by the time the two arrive at Moriah with the servants, Abraham had things pretty well figured out. He knew God would be faithful to His promises. He said to the servants in v. 5, “”Stay here with the donkeys while I and the boy go over there. We will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Did you catch that? Abraham intended to sacrifice his son as God had commanded him to do, but he also knew that after the two had worshiped on the mountain, the two of them would return—he and the boy. They would return and join the servants for the trip back to Beersheba.
Hebrews 11:19 tells us, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from the dead.” Abraham had faith enough to expect a resurrection. Certainly he had never seen a resurrection take place in his life. But he knew Jehovah was his God. He knew Jehovah was not a liar. He knew the promises that Jehovah had given him. And he knew the power of Jehovah. Had not this same God taken a barren woman and an old man (both as good as dead) and produced life through them? Abraham believed that God could also take his son, Isaac, whom he would sacrifice, and raise him from the dead.
Some would argue that it was a foolish logic on the part of Abraham to expect God to raise Isaac from the dead. Have you ever seen a resurrection? No? Does that mean you refuse to believe in it? Just because you have never seen a resurrection does not make it impossible for a God who is able to do all things. God is life. God is the author of life. It would be a small matter for the God who created heaven and earth by His word and then breathed the breath of life into Adam to breathe life back into Isaac. A resurrection is not impossible. Our Christian faith depends on it!
As Abraham and Isaac made their way up the mountain, Isaac broke the silence by asking, “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”
There is nothing in all of literature more touching or more sacred that this question innocently asked, and the father’s self-restraint in answering. The sad part is that many translations miss the beauty of it. Literally translated from the Hebrew, Abraham’s response is, “God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” It is a subtle difference, yet a very significant one. What is the object of the verb? In one “God Himself will provide a lamb . . .” in the other, “God will provide Himself . . .”
All that took place in Genesis 22 was done to foreshadow an event that would take place centuries later. At that time, a man from Galilee came to the lower end of the Jordan River to be baptized by a prophet who had been turning the country upside down through his preaching. As this man from Galilee was being baptized, the Spirit of God in the form of a dove came down and rested on Him. A voice was heard from heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The next day, John the Baptist was standing with two of his disciples when the same Man walked by. John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Three years later, this same Man went up to Mount Moriah, which was at that time called Jerusalem. While there, He was handed over to the authorities, tried, beaten, and sentenced to die. Like the thorn-crowned ram that God supplied to Abraham in place of Isaac, Jesus, the Son of God, was sacrificed in place of the sinner. God had provided Himself as the sacrifice. He did not have an angel stop proceedings at Calvary. The Father went through with the sacrifice and killed His only begotten Son. Jesus died on the cross as the true Lamb God provided.
The obedience of Abraham in offering up Isaac is a lively illustration of God’s great love to us. He delivered up His only Son to suffer and die on our behalf as a sacrifice for our sins. We are to follow in the footsteps of the patriarch who walked by faith and not by sight and who was willing to part with all for the sake of his Lord and God.
Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the co-pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and the editor of The Outlook.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. How would each word or phrase in God’s command to Abraham intensify the emotion, tension, and potential anguish Abraham might have felt?
2. From what you have learned about Abraham, why would this be an especially difficult test for the patriarch?
3. What was God asking Abraham to give up in sacrificing Isaac?
4. Throughout the chapter we read nothing of Abraham’s internal struggle. How do his actions reveal his obedience and faith?
5. Why must obedience and faith go hand in hand?
6. In what way does Abraham show faithfulness to God?
7. What stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son?
8. Why do you think that both Abraham and the author of Genesis repeatedly stress that “the Lord will provide”?
9. How does this chapter point to Jesus Christ?