And "God Tested Abraham" (Genesis 22:1-14)
I. Abraham's Story
As we begin our time in God's word this morning, think with me about the following timeline of Abraham's life:
The first time we meet Abraham in Genesis 11, his name is still Abram. Acts 7:2 tells us that God appeared to him while he lived in the city of Ur, in Mesopotamia, and Joshua 24:14 points to the fact that he had served others gods up to that point. This is when God called him to go a new land, the land of Canaan, as we read about in the opening verses of Genesis 12.
When Abram finally makes that journey into Canaan he is 75 years old. At that age, he must have wondered about his name, which means “exalted father”. I point that out because 11:30 confirms that “Sarai [Abram's wife] was barren; she had no child.” They had no child. She is 65 and he is 75, and they are childless. But God's promise to Abram is clear in Genesis 12:2, “And I will make of you a great nation...”.
Again, as Abram obeys God and travels deeper into this new land in Genesis 12, God confirms his word (12:7), “To your offspring I will give this land.” This promise of offspring is repeated in 13:15 and 16. And when we arrive at chapter 15, even though it isn't clear how much time has elapsed, the issue of offspring is still pressing. When God commends Abram and assures him of reward, Abram's first concern is this (15:2): “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless... (15:3) “Behold, you have given me no offspring...” But God again reassures him in 15:4, “This man [Abram's servant] shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”
But eleven years after God's original call and promise, Sarai is still barren. So instead of continuing to wait on God, Sarai and Abram try to produce an heir using Sarai's servant girl, Hagar. The result is that when Abram is 86 years old, he becomes the father of Ishmael.
In chapter 17 we fast forward another 13 years and discover that as a couple, Abram (now called Abraham) and his wife (now called Sarah) are still childless. So for 89 years of her life, and 99 years of his life, they have been unable to have children. But in 17:16, God reassures Abraham that he will give him a son through Sarah. What is Abraham's response? 17:18–19...
And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!”  God said, “No, but 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.
And so the very next year, 25 years after God's first promise, Sarah gives birth to Isaac; their child; a child for whom they have waited decades; a child of promise; a child who not only represents God's faithfulness, but who carries with him the covenant blessings; a child who will be the fountainhead of a great nation, and the hope of divine blessing for all the families of the earth; a promised child whose descendants will occupy a promised land. Staggering, right?
II. The Passage: “The LORD Will Provide” (22:1-14)
Now, with the stage set, keeping Abraham's story in mind, look with me at Genesis 22:1–14. This is what we read, beginning in verse 1...
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  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.”
How was this possible? How could God ask him to do such a thing? Maybe Abraham concluded that he had somehow misheard God; or that he had imagined the divine voice. No. Look at v. 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.  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 [that's probably the best clue to Isaac's age; that he was old enough to carry a large bundle of wood on a hike like this]. And he [Abraham] took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.
It's clear from this text that Abraham heard God's disturbing command and took it seriously. Can you even imagine the thoughts and feelings with which Abraham wrestled the night before this journey? Can you even imagine how those thoughts and feelings intensified as Abraham and his son left the servants behind and (v. 6) “they went both of them together”? Listen to how anguish must have deepened as they walked together...
And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, 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.
What did Abraham have in mind when he said God will provide a lamb? Did he believe that God, in the end, would substitute an animal? Or was he speaking cryptically about Isaac as “the lamb” that God would provide? Either way, it didn't change their course. Verse 9...
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.
Notice there is no indication here that Abraham will not do precisely what God has commanded him to do, as agonizing, as dreadful as it must have been. And yet, there is relief in verse 11...
But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  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.”
Now, think with me about this story. Did it bother you as I read it? It should have. But if so, why? Why did it bother you? Was it an emotional issue, that is, were you grieved by the idea that a boy would lose his life and a father his son?
But maybe it was a moral issue, that is, you were horrified that God would command a father to kill his own child. I'm not sure there's any way to escape the heaviness of such a command, but verses like Deuteronomy 32:39, I Samuel 2:6, 2 Kings 5:7 remind us that God, as God, gives life and takes life as he sees fit. Anyone. Anywhere. And he can and does at times use human instruments to do that very thing. For example, any time that the death penalty has been carried out justly, that's God ending a life through human instruments. But Isaac was innocent, right? Well, for sinners like us, every breath we take is a gift of grace; something we don't deserve... since none of us are truly innocent. Listen: I don't think Abraham questioned God's character or prerogative in terms of life here, but I'm sure he asked why; why Isaac? Why now? Why me?
Maybe this story bothered you for logical reasons; because it seemed so radically at odds with everything God had been doing up to this point. God had made promises, time and time again, promises fulfilled in... and to be fulfilled through... this boy, Isaac. But it seemed like God was ready to flush all that down the toilet. Maybe it felt like erratic behavior from the One who is supposed to be our solid rock; the God who is, in himself, the ground of all existence. From one perspective, this command to this man could have seemed like nothing more than a cruel joke.
Brothers and sisters, you can be sure that at some level, Abraham wrestled with all these issues, the emotional, the moral, the logical (and even more). So how did Abraham find his way through all this? How can we? I think the key to making sense of this story is provided by the writer in the very first verse. Look again at verse 1: “After these things God tested Abraham...” That's not something Abraham knew. But it is what the first readers were told, and it's something we know. So was exactly was being tested here? Look back at verse 12. This is what God declares through his angel: “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.”
What does it mean to “fear God”? It means being overwhelmed by everything and anything that makes God God. It can mean reverence and awe, or dread and terror, depending on the individual's position before God. In Abraham's case, the command here clarifies the test: did he fear God more than he did losing Isaac? Was he in awe of God's plan above God himself? Did he believe God's will was higher than his own wants? Did he care more about what God was due than what he was due? Did he recognize the Giver as far more precious than the gift? The answer to all these questions is proven by the passage: yes, he did.
But the fear of God is always fueled by faith. And Abraham's faith (the same faith mentioned in 15:6, where it says, “he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness”; that faith) helped him believe that God would provide the Lamb (v. 8), and that (v. 5) he and Isaac would return to the servants after worshiping God. Hadn't he heard God himself say in 18:13, “Is anything too hard for YHWH?” What kind of faith did Abraham exemplify here? The kind of faith that believes God's command cannot change God's covenant, and that He can miraculously reconcile these when they seem radically at odds. This is confirmed in the New Testament...
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son,  of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”  He considered [in faith, right?] that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17–19)
III. In the Footsteps of Abraham's Faith
Believer, what should disturb you most about this story are not all the moral or theological questions it raises, but all the ways your faith, and my faith, are found wanting in light of it. In Romans 4:12 Paul commends those who “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had”. Is that you? Do you have faith like Abraham?
What does this hard but powerful story in Genesis 22 tell us about Abraham's faith? It confirms how God-centered his faith really was. Now that might sound like an overly obvious observation. Isn't all faith God-centered? Not necessarily. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that genuine faith means we “believe that [God] exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” But at times, that “rewards those who seek him” reality can color our faith to the point of distortion. What do I mean? I mean sometimes our faith is more about the what of our reward than the who of our trust. When that's the case, things that don't make sense to us, and/or involve radical sacrifice, hard and heavy things, become stumbling blocks rather than opportunities to glorify God.
But as we've seen this morning, a God-centered faith presses through even the worst-case scenarios of life, that His will may “be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” We've also seen that when God's word of command and his word of promise seem at odds, this God-centered faith recognizes that God is faithful, and big enough to reconcile the two. Maybe this morning, you find yourself in a similar place; maybe God has called you to something hard and heavy, something gut-wrenching, and your struggling to give over your 'Isaac'. Maybe he's called you to kill a dream, to sacrifice something precious, to a radical trust... but you're struggling.
Sometimes, like Abraham, we 'saddle the donkey' and 'cut the wood' in faith, but we won't take the first step. Or maybe we 'make the journey', but turn back when we “see the place from afar”. Or maybe our faith takes us up the path, but 'Isaac's question' deflates us. Or maybe we make it to that place of sacrifice and 'lay out the wood', believing God will relent, but we're not actually willing to 'bind our child' and 'raise the knife'. Brothers and sisters, Genesis 22 describes for us a faith that is intent on fully obeying God, no matter how hard or heavy. Listen to what one New Testament passage emphasizes about this story. This is James 2:21–23...
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;  and the Scripture was fulfilled that says [this is Genesis 15:6], “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.
Was Abraham really justified by his works? No, not in the way the Apostle Paul usually talks about. The point James is making is that Abraham's faith in a God who had called him, carried him, blessed him, humbled him, astounded him, and kept every single word, that faith was proven to be saving faith because it was clearly fruit-bearing faith.
You see, God's test took the faith declared in Genesis 15, and put it on display in Genesis 22. How is it on display in your life? How has he or how is he testing you... that your faith might be manifested in your obedience? Though God said “now I know that you fear God” in verse 12, the test was really for Abraham, and for everyone who would later hear this story; that includes us. This morning, remember what Jesus has called us to sacrifice...
“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)
“Hate” here means 'letting go of' in order to grasp Christ; that is, to love Him first in everything. Have you brought all these things to the altar? “...yes, and even [your] own life”? No, in regard to the words of Jesus, at the very last moment, God will not stop your sacrifice. But we can trust that God will give us everything we need when we are willing to give up everything for him.
But how can we know that? Because Abraham's faith has already instructed us (22:8): “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
And how does the story end? Verse 13: 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.
And what truth was treasured by every subsequent generation: Verse 14: 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 it was, wasn't it? Please hear this: our deep desire and our earnest prayer should be for a faith like Abraham's. Amen? Amen! But when we struggle in doubt, when our faith is weak, we can rest assured that God remains near us and for us. How? Why? Because God did provide for himself the Lamb; and just like this story, the Lamb God provided was sacrificed in our place. Abraham was willing to give up his “only son”. But God actually did...
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes [whoever trusts] in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Do you have that saving faith... in Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God? If you do, how has God tested that faith? How is he testing that faith? And what will the test reveal? Would you take a few minutes this morning and talk to God about “walk[ing] in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had”? Ask him to help you fully believe that God's will is higher than your own wants; that you would care more about what God is due than what you're due; that you would each day recognize the Giver as far more precious than any of his gifts. And like Abraham that your faith would be fulfilled in radical, even costly, obedience to God.
Finally, pray that you would do all of that, standing firm in Christ, standing firm in that place of faith. What is the name of that place? “The LORD will provide.”
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2022-2023)
January 29, 2023A Pure Worship of God (Deuteronomy 12:29-32)
January 22, 2023On a Scale From One to Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 4:12-14)
January 15, 2023Holiness and Love (Leviticus 19:1-2, 18)