[To learn more about the annual Evangelical Sunday School Lesson Commentary, visit www.pathwaybookstore.com.]
The reality that God tests His followers is among the most difficult to fathom fully in Scripture, especially the Old Testament. Although the New Testament gives us a clear picture of the enemy of our souls, the devil, who prowls around like "a roaring lion . . . seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8), the Old Testament includes only a few references to Satan at all. This directly confronts our tendency to view the world through the lenses of what theologians call dualism. A dualistic view considers God locked in a cosmic battle with Satan, with everything happening to us connected to that battle. This often results in trying times being blamed solely on the devil.
In Scripture, however, more often than not it is in fact God who sends trying times our way, or at least consciously allows them. It is God who allows the Israelites to be oppressed in Egypt for four centuries. It is God who approves the Babylonians' sacking of Jerusalem in the time of Jeremiah. It is God who lets the early church experience persecution under the Roman Empire. Even in Job, where Satan plays a leading role, he acts only under the authority and command of God. In fact, he still conducts himself like an angel, coming before God, asking permission. Whether we understand the theological intricacies of it or not, Scripture clearly communicates that God is usually the One who sends trials our way to test us.
The greater question has to do with the focus of the testing. Principally, does God test us in order to get insight into our spiritual maturity? Surely not! An all-knowing, all-powerful God lacks no knowledge about our lives. Instead, God's testing allows us to benefit through victoriously emerging after a trying time through His power. These victories, even small ones, go into a sort of "spiritual bank" in our hearts and minds to draw from when greater challenges come. God knows what is in us. He wants us to know as well, so we can be confident in His ability to bring us through. These truths are graphically illustrated in perhaps the most famous story associated with Abraham's life: the near-death experience of his son Isaac.
I. AN UNTHINKABLE COMMAND (Genesis 22:1-5)
In John 6:60, many followers of Jesus abandoned Him after a particularly difficult teaching, exclaiming that it was just too much of a "hard saying." Scripture has many hard words, but perhaps no one received one more difficult than Abraham. This uncharacteristic command of Yahweh threatened every sacrifice Abraham had made to follow His plan in the first place. Thus, Genesis 22 challenges not only Abraham's faith to a new level, but the Bible reader's also.
A. A Dreadful Journey (vv. 1-3)
1. And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
2. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
3. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
Even the opening of this story is different from what we've become used to while reading through the life of Abraham. Typically, each individual narrative begins with the word of God simply coming to Abraham either through a vision or through unspecified means (as do most similar narratives in the Old Testament). It is assumed that Abraham somehow hears God's voice loud and clear as the word is given. Here, however, God startles His wandering nomad with an abrupt call, perhaps belying the suddenness of the instruction.
Abraham wasted no time in responding to God. He had been remarkably blessed since their last encounter, not only enjoying his new son, Isaac, but also forming a strategic alliance with Abimelech, king of Gerar (Genesis 21:22-34). He finally had the raw material—Isaac—for the covenant promise of God to be fulfilled. He waited on God to explain this in further detail, but instead received an astonishing message from Yahweh: sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering.
It is almost impossible to imagine the shock that rattled through Abraham's mind and body at the hearing of these words. The God whom he had trusted completely appeared to be turning against him. Recall that the history of God's calling of Abraham had focused on his legitimate offspring. God entered into a sacred, unbreakable covenant with him in chapter 15, confirmed it with the sign of circumcision in chapter 17, and then finally brought it to pass in chapter 21. Now the entire foundation of their relationship was being unexpectedly threatened by God himself. We can only imagine the thoughts of Abraham. Perhaps he reckoned that he had been wrong about Yahweh and His covenant; it really was breakable. Perhaps he guessed that God was judging him for again using his wife to get ahead (Genesis 20), or for making a treaty at Beersheba (Genesis 21:31). Perhaps he sighed a long sigh at yet another dramatic twist in this covenant story and could only wonder what Yahweh would do next. Or, perhaps he had a burning faith even at the hearing of the command that God would come through somehow again—that even if Isaac were lost, God would miraculously provide another heir. But even that optimistic thought couldn't have made it much easier to plan to kill his and Sarah's only son.
The most difficult thoughts, however, that Abraham must have wrestled with centered on Yahweh himself. Child sacrifice was prevalent among the pagan religions in the ancient Near East of his day. Abraham knew of them and may have even witnessed them in his previous life of paganism. He had been drawn to Yahweh for His love, grace and compassion, but now his thoughts turned dark. Can Yahweh be just like those other gods? Is He any different? For Abraham, what was at stake was the very character, nature, and integrity of God. Would Yahweh prove Himself as He had in the past, or would this be the end of their covenant together?
With these questions, doubts and frustrations undoubtedly ringing in his brain, Abraham got up early and set out anyway. He even saddled his own donkey and chopped the wood himself, despite having plenty of servants who usually did these kinds of things for him. Perhaps he hoped that God would interrupt the process after Abraham got the donkey ready, or after the wood was cut. But he heard nothing—nothing except the details concerning the precise location Isaac was to be killed. Nonetheless, Abraham kept faith in the character of Yahweh, though he could not have understood what was going on, and headed toward the place of ultimate sacrifice.
B. Faith in the Fire (vv. 4, 5)
4. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
5. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
To properly understand Abraham's next words, we must be careful to locate this story in the larger life of Abraham. Many times people are led to doubt God's character by reading this passage without its surrounding context. Recall that Abraham had been walking with Yahweh now for over 25 years. They had a great history together of ongoing fellowship through prayer and worship. Abraham had been obedient to God's commandments, and his household had prospered greatly as a result. His faith was no longer immature and fledgling; it was seasoned and rock-solid.
For three days Abraham had journeyed, hoping with every step that Yahweh would call the deal off and reward him for assenting to it up to that point. But such a word never came. Instead, the awful place of sacrifice came into view. Most ordinary men and women would never have even started the journey, much less remained strong to this point. Despite the questions swirling like a torrent in Abraham's mind, he would not discard his mature faith. Even in such a critical situation, it came through loud and clear. "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'" (v. 5, NIV).
What an incredible statement of faith! Neither the servants nor Isaac knew the commandment Abraham had received, so it meant nothing to them. They probably assumed this was a routine time of worship and sacrifice, and that Isaac was brought along so as to be introduced to the family religion. But the resounding cry of veteran faith lies in Abraham's announcement that both he and Isaac "will come back." Abraham made a choice to completely trust the character of God. He threw himself into the faithful arms of Yahweh, truly believing he would not fall to the ground.
II. WITHHOLD NOTHING (Genesis 22:6-12)
The stage has now been set for a wonderfully dramatic scene. The writer of Genesis draws the reader into the story with graphic details, such as the donkey's saddle, the wood for the fire, and the servants in the journey. Obviously, the passage calls us to slow down and read carefully. Genesis here is offering careful insight into what is involved in a spiritual journey with Yahweh. Although Abraham has proven himself faithful for over 25 years, God never stops shaping him, bringing him to a place of total reliance on Him.
A. Persistent Faith (vv. 6-8)
6. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
7. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
8. And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
Tension mounted as the unknowing, innocent boy noticed the strangeness of the situation. Abraham had prepared meticulously, bringing the wood, instruments of fire, and sharp knife. But they were missing the central ornament of sacrificial worship. Significantly, Isaac asked about the lamb for the burnt offering, denoting that this was the animal Abraham typically used for such sacrifices. In fact, this is the first reference to sacrificing a lamb in the Bible, and the messianic significance is potent. New windows of meaning are unlocked for the passage when we recognize that 2,000 years later, God would allow His own Son to be sacrificed as a spotless lamb for the sins of the world. Abraham, of course, likely knew nothing of this future aspect of salvation history, but he did not need to in order to trust God. He answered his son's question with another display of bold yet simple faith, declaring that God himself would provide the lamb.
Just as Abraham had spoken in faith to his servants by proclaiming that both he and the boy would be returning after their time of worship, he expressed the same faith to his son. Although he didn't know when or how, he knew Yahweh, and he believed that something great would happen. But even if it did not, he was bent on obeying the command of God. Abraham's maturity teaches us much about the vital balance between faith and obedience. While his faith likely wavered during the journey to the place of sacrifice, his obedience did not. As a result, his commitment to obedience positively influenced his level of faith, and he was able to make such pronouncements against all available evidence. Again, he had nothing but God to hope in.
B. Proven Faith (vv. 9-12)
9. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
10. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
11. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
12. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
The previous, innocent question is all the author records of the reaction of Isaac in the story. We aren't given his age or demeanor. We don't know if he was compliant in the act, or if he struggled tooth and nail to escape his father's grasp. By any and all means necessary, Abraham would obey God, even when he didn't understand the commandment.
The process for preparing such a sacrifice was quite involved. The altar was constructed from large stones, stacked precariously on top of one another. The wood had to then be arranged so it would properly burn the sacrifice without crumpling off of the altar. And the sacrifice itself was no small animal, but a boy who wanted to live. Abraham continued to listen for a stay of execution, but none was given. He went forward with the ritual.
Many notable painters have depicted this scene throughout the history of the church, such as Laurent de LaHire's "Abraham Sacrificing Isaac" in 1650. The paintings inevitably depict an elderly Abraham lifting the sharpened blade high above the boy Isaac's neck, beginning its downward motion just as an angel is rushing onto the scene in terror. The Hebrew word melek means either "angel" or "messenger," leading us to wonder if this angel/messenger of Yahweh could be a reappearance of one of the three visitors in chapter 18. However, this assumption and the depiction of the painters may be dead wrong, for the Scripture does not technically record an appearance of the angel. Instead, Abraham hears a solitary voice call his name just as in 22:1. He may have seen nothing at all. Only this voice cries out his name twice, indicating urgency. Abraham's response is identical to verse 1: the simple, humble reply, "Here I am." He probably exhaled deeply, trembling as he spoke these words. Yet in them his strong faith shone brightly. Even after this torturous experience, he was just as eager to hear the word of the Lord, and just as ready to receive His instruction.
The execution is stayed and the drama is over. Now it is clearly known that Abraham honors God completely, even to the point of offering his only son.
The angel of the Lord said, "Do not lay a hand on the boy" (v. 12, NIV). Of course, Abraham's faith was not new information for God. He did not need to test him in order to discern his faith. The test was not for God's benefit, but for Abraham's. His performance, though, impressed even the angel of the Lord, who applauded his remarkable faith.
III. GOD PROVIDES (Genesis 22:13-18)
Interestingly, the passage does not end at verse 12. It certainly could, with the result that Abraham would once again be lifted up as a model of mature faith. But God was not yet finished teaching Abraham and Isaac through this experience. Also, He had a special reward for this choice servant's heart of total obedience.
A. Animal Sacrifice Preferred (v. 13)
13. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son.
While they were reeling from this close call, even as Isaac was still bound and lying on the altar, they heard some rustling close by. Though Isaac had expected a lamb in verse 7, these did not typically roam free in the mountains. And even if they did, they could be hard to catch. Wild rams, however, could easily be caught with their horns snagging them in thorns, and this is exactly what God provided. Interestingly, the Scripture does not explicitly say God had anything to do with the ram, but Abraham was convinced it was the provision of Yahweh. Therefore, he offered it as a sacrifice. Notice the descriptive language of the sacrifice. The writer deliberately spells out the gravity of the situation: the ram was sacrificed in the direct place of Isaac, Abraham's son. Historically, this text has been taken by the Jews to function as God explicitly setting the standard of animal sacrifice for His people Israel, as opposed to human or child sacrifice. As previously mentioned, human sacrifice was prevalent among pagan religions in the Old Testament age. By the time of the later books of the Torah, it was popular enough in Canaan to be expressly forbidden by God (Leviticus 18:21). The story of Abraham's testing provides a narrative example for all such commandments, and sets Israel apart as a community that is holy to Yahweh. Just as the sacrifice of Abel proved that Yahweh preferred costly animal sacrifices over less expensive plant offerings, so this passage proves His preference of animal rather than human sacrifice. Instead of sacrificing their firstborn son, they would consecrate him by virtue of an offering (Numbers 18:15). With the burnt offering of the ram, then, Abraham's original promise to his servants in Genesis 22:5 comes full circle. Both he and Isaac take the opportunity to express heartfelt worship to Yahweh before returning home.
B. Ultimate Trust Expressed (vv. 14-18)
14. And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.
15. And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,
16. And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
17. That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
18. And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
In response to the gift of the ram, which was sacrificed in place of Isaac, Abraham resounds in praise to God. It was typical to honor God by naming a place where He had been given glory, which Abraham quickly does. He also begins a tradition associated with Mount Moriah that continues through the Old Testament history. He calls that place Jehovah-jireh, or "The Lord Will Provide" (v. 14, NIV).
The marvel of this text in the history of the Old Testament is that Solomon's temple is built in this precise location: "Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord at Jerusalem in Mount Moriah" (2 Chronicles 3:1). The place where Abraham's ancient obedience was thoroughly tested and proved eventually became the place where Israel would meet with God day after day, century after century—the place of God's holy temple.
Because of Abraham's obedience to the Lord, the angel called to him again. He introduced his word with an oath formula from Yahweh himself. As had been said before, Abraham's descendants would be innumerable. God added the analogy of the sand on the seashore to the previous comparisons to dust and stars. God would bless them not only with fruitfulness but with authority also. They would rule the cities of the Promised Land. And most significantly, the entire earth would be blessed because Abraham was completely obedient. This final promise is a direct messianic reference. Paul proclaimed that this promise to Abraham was nothing short of "the gospel in advance" (NIV) in Galatians 3:8. The lineage of Abraham would result in the One who would ultimately bless all the nations.
Faith must be adequately tested in order to reach full maturity. This testing is laborious, difficult, and even stressful. However, in the end it results in a harvest of righteousness. The story of Abraham's close call with Isaac is the perfect illustration of this truth. After enduring the harsh word of Yahweh, he was rewarded with blessing upon blessing, and his faith reached completeness. He would go to his grave knowing that the entire earth for all generations would be a better place because of his obedience.
GOLDEN TEXT CHALLENGE
"HE SAID, LAY NOT THINE HAND UPON THE LAD, NEITHER DO THOU ANY THING UNTO HIM: FOR NOW I KNOW THAT THOU FEAREST GOD, SEEING THOU HAST NOT WITHHELD THY SON, THINE ONLY SON FROM ME" (Genesis 22:12).
The fear of the Lord is revealed to be behind the testing of Abraham and the provision of God. Ironically Abraham's obedience shifted the focus of the situation. Abraham provided obedience and God was put to the test!
In both instances, God and Abraham were faithful. God was faithful to His covenant word and Abraham was faithful to God.
To learn more about the annual Evangelical Sunday School Lesson Commentary, visit www.pathwaybookstore.com.