No Patriarchs Were Harmed in the Making of this Covenant
Over the past several weeks Mike has been taking us through some of the highlights in the story of Genesis, starting right at the beginning with creation. And we also got to hear from Brandon about how the whole message of the bible can be tracked as a cohesive story of God’s redemptive plan for humanity, his mission of restoring people to himself. And we’ve been tracking the theme of “Representation and Relationship” through the Bible, seeing how those are the two things humans were created for, our true purpose
Today I am picking back up where Mike left us last week in the story of Abraham. We’ve seen how Abraham is a really pivotal figure, in that God has promised to use Abraham and his descendants to carry out this big redemptive plan that is going to end up blessing the entire world.
And we’re going to continue this week focusing on Abraham’s story because now that Isaac has been born, we come to another defining event in Abraham’s life (and Isaacs). It’s an important event because it reveals a lot about the character of Abraham, and more importantly the character of God. It teaches us something about faith, and what it really means to trust God. And of course it also ties in well to the theme of “Representation and Relationship.” So I’m excited to go through this with you, but let’s pray first and ask God to prepare our minds and guide our spirit as we enter this time of study.
Our story today begins in Genesis 22, so go ahead and open to Genesis chapter 22 if you have a bible. Verse 1 starts off with this phrase “After these things…” or “Some time later…” so I want to just recap a little bit some of the events that have already happened.
First of all, God called Abram to leave his home and family and just “go.” God said in chapter 12
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Abram obeyed and left his home, and he had some adventures, but he and his wife Sarai also started to doubt that God’s blessing was really going to come true, because they were both super old but still had no kids!
Continued Pattern of Negative Behavior
But in Chapter 15 God promises again that his offspring would be come a great nation, innumerable as the stars and the sand. But even after that, Abram and Sarai both struggled to trust God to fulfill his promise, and instead took things into their own hands. They mistreated Hagar, really horribly, and we didn’t cover that part of the story in much detail, but just know that whole situation is just a huge failure on the part of Abram and Sarai. That happens in chapter 16.
Then in Chapter 17, God again reiterates his promise to Abram, this time also establishing this covenant of circumcision, and changing Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. And God tells him that Sarah is going to have a son and to call his name Isaac. So you see God actually named all three of them: Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.
But Abraham and Sarah continue in a pretty negative pattern of behavior: Sarah laughs at the thought of having a child, and Abraham gives away Sarah to save his own skin, for a SECOND time! And we see Abraham and Sarah trying to take things into their own hands instead of trusting God. Very reminiscent of Adam and Eve I might add.
So bear those things in mind as we come to chapter 22. “After these things” remember, so the writer wants you to have this kind of back story in mind.
Verse 1: Setting Up the Story
After these things, God tested Abraham and said to him “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”
And I want you to right away notice two things about this. First, we’re told right off the bat what this story is going to be about. God is about to test Abraham. After all this wishy-washy-waffling on Abrahams end, this is going to test, to prove once and for all whether Abraham really trusts in God. And we’ll come back to that later, but the second thing to notice in verse 1 is that it doesn’t just say “God spoke to Abraham” it specifically provides God’s exact line in the opening dialogue. And it’s just one word. “Abraham.” God said to him “Abraham.” God is approaching and calling Abraham by name, and it is the name that God gave to him last time they spoke. Not “Abram” but “Abraham.” And the fact that Abraham responds with “Here I am” acknowledges that Who he is is who God says he is. And of course the same is true of you and me. Who I am is who God says I am. Abraham, in this moment, acknowledges that.
Verse 2: God’s Command
And then we come to verse 2. Here we find the incredibly disturbing nature of God’s test.
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.”
God is telling Abraham to slaughter and burn his own son, his only son, whom he loves. And that alone is horrific enough, but on top of that, Isaac is specifically the son God named as the recipient and heir to the covenant. This is the son through whom a vast nation was to be produced! I would say that circumcision was a pretty intense way to outwardly show loyalty to God, but this new task would be way more difficult!
The inclusion of that phrase “whom you love” reinforces that Abraham was not unemotional or apathetic towards Isaac. He loves him! Loving someone is the opposite of wanting to kill someone! (Most of the time, anyway) But this is clearly the last thing Abraham wants to do. I don’t even have any kids yet, and I can’t imagine how painful it would be to receive this command from God.
Verses 3-8: Abraham’s Response
Yet, we’re not told anything about Abraham’s emotional response. We’re just told that he obeyed, right away. As far as we know, he didn’t try to argue with God, or bargain with him (which he had done in the past, and successfully!) God’s command is just the end of the conversation. Picking up in verse 3 let’s read how it plays out:
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. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 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.” 6 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. 7 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?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
So, again, we don’t really know what was going on in Abraham’s head, or in Isaac’s, but notice it took them three days to even get to where they were going, which means there was a lot of time to think. And in verse 5 Abraham tells the young men that “I and the boy will go over there…AND come again to you.” Which implies that Abraham believed God would intervene in some way, even if it meant bringing Isaac back to life, after being offered as a sacrifice. So at this point we’re seeing a contrast to some of Abraham’s previous behavior, in that now he is demonstrating an amazing trust in God’s ability to fulfill his promise through Isaac, even though it makes no human sense in light of this crazy situation.
And Isaac has noticed now that something is off about this trip, because the most important element of a sacrifice, as far as he can tell, is missing! Abraham still doesn’t explain what’s happening, but instead makes this profoundly faithful statement that “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Abraham believed that God was in control, and that as long as he was being obedient, that’s all he or Isaac needed to know.
Verses 9-14: The Moment of Truth
Let’s read on now, as we come to the final moment of truth. Picking back up in verse 9:
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. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.
Here they are, the suspense has really built up to this point! Notice that Abraham had to build the altar himself; all that preparation, with just Abraham and Isaac there, I can just picture the suspense and the dread building up. But Abraham doesn’t back down. Right up to this moment, he has followed procedure, and his son is in front of him, tied up, and about to be killed with Abraham’s knife. The knife is raised, and that is the event horizon, the threshold for the point of no return, there are no more preparations or opportunities for delay. Isaac is just an arm’s length and a few seconds from death. And God has tested him right up to that final moment, because now there is no question that Abraham has every intention of following through with this task. Then, picking up in verse 11, we see the tension finally come to a breaking point.
11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 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.” 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. 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.”
Whew! What a relief! God stops him at the last second and provides a ram to sacrifice instead. Isaac was not harmed, and Abraham actually passed the test! And God swears to bless him in response. Abraham’s faith in God’s provision and power came to fruition.
Now, don’t take this to mean that Abraham was able to earn his blessing. Abraham didn’t actually do anything other than believe what God could do. Passing the test was a demonstration of faith in God’s power to redeem, it was not a purchase of redemption. In fact, Abraham didn’t actually end up sacrificing anything of his own! He demonstrated a willingness to give up what was most important to him, but it was God who provided the ram for his own sacrifice! All Abraham had to do was believe in God’s word, and accept God’s substitutionary provision as the wonderful, joyous, relieving gift that it was.
Now, for many of you I shouldn’t even have to mention all the connections to the gospel in what I just said, the parallels are just extraordinary, throughout the entire story! But we won’t go there today, as much as I really really want to. Mike won’t let me.
Just realize that the hero of this story is God, and the redemptive quality found in Abraham is faith.
Alright, now that we’ve gone through the whole story of this event, there are a few observations I’d like to make.
Literary Style of the Passage
My first observation is a literary one. I pointed out earlier that Abraham’s emotional response is not in here at all. In fact, other than that one little phrase “whom you love,” there is no mention of emotion in the rest of this passage. I think it is pretty safe to speculate that there was indeed a lot of emotion going on those few days, but none of those details are included.
At first that seemed really weird to me; this is a really dramatic story, but it doesn’t seem to be told very dramatically. Especially in our culture and in the Western tradition of literature, we expect those dramatic details, because that’s what makes for compelling stories, right? It’s drama and emotion that sucks people into any story, even stories that would otherwise be really and pointless and mediocre (I won’t name any specifically but I think you get my point)
But I realized that this bare-bones method of storytelling, which by the way is very typical of Biblical narrative, is really very brilliant! Because on the one hand, it invites you to interact with the story, putting yourself in that situation, and letting your imagination run wild. Filling in those gaps makes you an active participant in the text. And on the other hand, it indicates that all those details are not the most important element in the story. We’re only told what we really need to know, which is that Abraham obeyed God in the most difficult test, and that God intervened with heroic provision.
Theology of the Test
The second observation is a theological one, and it’s this concept of God testing people.
Tests are for Our Benefit
So first of all, why does God test people? This particular test revealed the true nature of Abraham’s faith, like a metal’s purity is revealed when it is tested in a furnace. That’s the nature of this test, and that’s not my analogy, it’s from Proverbs 17:3 which says :
“Fire tests the purity of silver and gold, but the LORD tests the heart.”
But did God need to test Abraham because he didn’t know what was in Abraham’s heart? Of course not, God knew! And he knew exactly how it was going to play out!
So it was for Abraham’s benefit. It provided an opportunity for Abraham to make a decision to follow God, take part in the provision of God, and through all of that come to a deeper understanding of the nature of God. And of course, now even we benefit by learning about God second-hand!
So we see that God tests his people for their sake.
Tests are Expected
And he does it often! This is very characteristic of how God parents his children. There are dozens of verses and examples I could give, and I already quoted Proverbs 17:3, but here’s one more similar one, Psalm 66:10:
For you, God, tested us; you refined us as silver is refined.
It’s that same analogy, of metal being refined through testing.
And as uncomfortable as it may be, we should be thankful for it, because again, it’s for our own good. David even pleads for it in Psalms 26:2
Test me, LORD, and try me; examine my heart and mind.
And James, the brother of Jesus tells us, as if it’s just the simplest thing in the world, in James 1:2-3
Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.
Well, that’s a lot easier said than done, isn’t it! When we’re in this season of Thanksgiving, and sharing what we’re thankful for, “various trials” isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind is it? But when we realize that it strengthens and refines us when our faith is in our creator, it is something to be thankful for!
This Was a VERY UNIQUE Test!
So, we see tests from God are expected and even appreciated. BUT I do want to take a moment to acknowledge how unique this particular test was.
I want to be clear that nowhere else in the Bible does God ever ask someone to do something like this, let alone actually go through with it. The idea seems very abhorrent to us, and for good reason! We find out later on in the Bible that God is very much against the idea of child sacrifice. An idea that was unfortunately was not uncommon to some of the peoples and cultures of that time and place, so God did have to address it later on.
Generations after Abraham, the Israelites often ended up copying their neighbors’ various customs, including the practice of child sacrifice. And in Jeremiah 32:35 we see God’s response to this:
They have built the high places of Baal in Ben Hinnom Valley to sacrifice their sons and daughters in the fire to Molech--something I had not commanded them. I had never entertained the thought that they do this detestable act causing Judah to sin!
And there are other verses like that one. So, the bottom line is don’t ever consider such a thing, and if anyone ever thinks God is telling them to do such a thing, they’re very wrong! I know I don’t have to tell you all that, but I couldn’t preach through this passage without making that clear.
Let’s take a step back and look at how we can apply these observations. I told Mike to keep this title slide of “We are created for representation and relationship.” Because it’s such a great reminder and such a great lens with which to apply our observations in scripture to our purpose in life. I haven’t brought those words up specifically much, but really it’s at the heart of what we’re talking about.
The test was ultimately about whether or not Abraham was willing to prioritize his relationship with God above everything else, including his relationship with his own son, whom he loved.
If we are to be a worthy representation of God to the world, we must be willing to prioritize him above everything and anything else. That has always been God’s requirement for his people, and it hasn’t changed. In Matthew 10:37 Jesus said:
The one who loves a father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; the one who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
Is that not the exact moral of Abraham and Isaac’s story? Jesus tells us to put him first. To love him more than we love our own family. We have to be willing to trust and obey God, even at all costs.
Trust God to Provide
But realize that when you do that, you DO represent God in your relationships with other people. And one of the most powerful ways your faith can become evident to other people is if you trust God to provide for you.
When Abraham answered Isaac confidently that “God will provide for himself a lamb for the offering, my son” he was putting his faith on display. He was setting a precedent, an example, for his son. And I can just about guarantee that Isaac never forgot that.
When we represent God in our relationships, people will notice. If you trust God to provide for you, that faith will be a witness to your family, your friends, your coworkers, and so on.
So, to wrap up what we learned from this story:
We learn that God tests and refines us for our benefit, and that even when our situation seems impossibly difficult, irrational, or counter-intuitive, God is in control, and the only thing we need to worry about is obeying him.
We also learned that we should never ever kill our children.
But we should prioritize our relationship with God over every other relationship in our life.
And finally that we should trust God to provide for us, because we know he can, and we know he loves us. And even though we, like Abraham and Sarah, may fail a LOT, we don’t have to worry, because it’s by our faith in GOD’s provision that we are redeemed.
So place your faith in God today, not in yourself, and follow him wherever he takes you, even if it’s scary! Because God’s plan for you is way better than anything you could come up with for yourself.