Today’s reading is one of the most difficult in Scripture. One commentator declares, “This chapter is among the best known and theologically most demanding in the Abraham tradition.” This morning’s reading is the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, Or as it is called in Scripture, the testing of Abraham.
In case you weren’t here last week, some background. God promised a son to Abraham and his wife, Sarah, who was barren. They became impatient, and Sarah took matters into her own hands. She told her maidservant Hagar to lie with Abraham; Hagar became pregnant, and Ishmael was born; Isaac was born, and Hagar and Ishmael were banned from the community.
Let’s get to our reading for today, Genesis 22:1-2: Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. 2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
How many are shocked by this? What kind of God would ask a loyal servant and loving father to sacrifice his only son? What about the promise? God said he would bless Abraham! God told him his offspring would be greater than the stars in the heavens! Now God wants Abraham to sacrifice his only son!
Even though most if not all of us are repelled by these opening verses, let’s be patient.
First, notice it says, “Some time later God tested Abraham.” We sit here and say to ourselves, “OK, for whatever reason, God decides to test Abraham in this particular way.” WE know what God is up to, but Abraham does not. This only adds to the tension – imagine what Abraham must be thinking!
Here is another possible reason why we are told it’s a test, but Abraham is kept in the dark. God did not wish Isaac to be sacrificed, but he wanted to see the loyalty of Abraham. God wanted Abraham’s complete surrender. God wanted Abraham to be willing to offer his only son, even to the point of death. For whatever reason, this was the way God decided to test Abraham’s loyalty and obedience.
Let’s continue, verses 3-8: Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
My friends, we all know Abraham was a man of faith. But now we see how truly great a man of faith he was. He got up the very next day and headed for the mountain!
How many of us are still back home, arguing with God?
Do you suppose Abraham even thought about what God was asking him to do? Do you suppose he told his wife where he was going? Did he hear God’s command in a dream? Was he out in the field, and heard God speak? Did he go into the house that evening and say, “You won’t believe what God told me to do today!”
To use a phrase, “The silence is deafening.”
As I have said many times before, the Bible is one of the greatest pieces of literature in the world.
Notice how the author draws out the narrative with extensive details of Abraham’s preparation for the journey, and the journey itself. Notice how the author forces us to follow one incidental and perfunctory act after another.
Abraham got up and saddled his donkey; he took with him two of his servants; hen he had cut enough wood, he set out…
The author gives us no hint as to the nature of Abraham’s thoughts – and the reason we get no hints is because no hints are necessary! Who cannot imagine what Abraham felt?
And when someone in the account finally speaks, it is not God, not Abraham, but Isaac who breaks the silence. The boy asks his father, “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Again, as so often happens in Scripture, we have information that Isaac doesn’t have. What is Isaac thinking? Does he have any idea what is about to happen to him?
Remember watching all those old horror movies? Why do folks always back up when they are afraid?
Why do folks always fall down when they are running? “I told you not to open that door!” “Hurry up! Your partner is about to be killed by the monster!”
When Abraham finally replies to Isaac, a hint is given. “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Now really, are any of us expecting this?
Abraham does not say, “Well, actually Isaac, it’s you!” Instead, he says lovingly, “God himself will provide.” He cannot bear to tell his son what is going to happen.
Without spending too much time, let’s talk about the original Hebrew and its structure. In the Hebrew account, the sentence we see as verse 8 is in the middle, and is significant – God will provide. Any reader of the original Hebrew will see verse 8 as being of extreme importance because of its location in the passage.
“God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”
Abraham does not know if God will provide something to replace Isaac; Abraham does not know if Isaac will end up being sacrificed; Abraham does not know…
but abraham trusts God completely
Abraham’s words give us a new appreciation of his silence. As we read the account, in the middle of our own anguish, because of Abraham’s silence, there is now also a silent confidence in the Lord who will provide. Abraham’s words are not just a feeble attempt to calm the curious Isaac.
But to us, as we hear the account, in light of the fact that they anticipate the actual outcome of the narrative, they are seen as a confident expression of his trust in God.
Verses 9-14: When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. 12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” 13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
Just like his preparations for the journey, Abraham’s every action is described in agonizing detail. It seems the writer wants to deliberately prolong the tension of both Abraham and US in his depiction of the last moments before God interrupts the action and calls the test to a halt.
So, what are we to make of this account? What does God want me to pass along today?
Let me read you a comment: “The [preacher]must take care not to explain, for it will not be explained. But without explanation, the text leads us to face the reality that God is God. The narrative concerns Abraham’s anguished acknowledgment that God is God.”
That’s right, God is God.
Remember a few minutes ago? Many of us were appalled that God would do such a thing! “You want me to do what, God?”
I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many here have said or thought just that same thing? “You want me to do what? Are you sure? Isn’t there some mistake? Why are you testing me like this? Should you be telling this to someone else?”
Let’s look at this passage this way: At the beginning, God is the tester; at the end, God is the provider.
These two statements provide the ultimate frame for the account.
What did I just say? God is God.
Do we all agree that God is freely sovereign? Is God allowed to do whatever he wants? Is God able to do whatever he wants? In this account, God is shown to be freely sovereign. He tested Abraham, not by our standards, but by his.
We all agree that God is sovereign, he can do whatever he wants. But let me ask you something else – can we all agree God is gracious and faithful? As we just said, this account shows the sovereignty of God. But thanks be to God, this account also shows that God provides. This account shows the gracious faithfulness of God.
The fact that God tests demonstrates his free sovereignty…
AND the fact that God provides…
Demonstrates his free grace.
How about this question – does God really, really test us in this way? The premise of our story today is that he does. And, like it or not, it’s bad theology if we insist that he is somehow different. Many of us have been guilty of suggesting that God has somehow changed over the years.
Testing is common in Scripture! God tested Israel all the time! As many of you know, God often allows Satan to test us (cf. Job 1-2). Also, it is no more evident than in the Lord’s Prayer. Remember, “Lead us not into temptation?” The Prayer infers that if we are tested, we will fail!
But what about God providing? Do we (or should we) always presume this?
As we just said, the account begins with the testing of God, but ends with the provision of God.
To insist or believe that God provides requires as much conviction and faith to assert that God tests.
The same God who tests in his sovereignty is the same God who provides in his graciousness.
How many of us simply want a God who provides, and not a God who tests? We all like to sit back and thank God for providing, but we resist, even pray that he won’t test us!
One more verse, 1 Corinthians 10:13: No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
My friends, we naturally praise God when he provides. But hard as it may seem, we should also praise God when he allows us to be tested. I just read, “But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
Think about it – is this passage about the faithfulness of Abraham?
Or is it about the faithfulness of God?
God is faithful.
Thanks be to God.