Few Bible passages will ever be more difficult to understand than today’s first lesson, Genesis 22:1-18.
Twenty-five years after promising a son to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac is born, the apple of their eyes. Isaac is to be the first in a long line of descendants to the couple. God has promised Abraham that he will be the father of many nations and that Israel would be a light to the nations. Today, we know that Israel was the means by which God would take on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, dying to pay for our sins, rising from the dead, and giving forgiveness of sin and everlasting life with God to all who repent and believe in Him.
So, what on earth is God doing, in today’s first lesson, telling Abraham to take his one and only son, the son that he loves, and offer him as a sacrifice?
Some atheists look at this passage and claim it shows that the God of the Bible is a barbaric fiction, the product of a vicious imagined God. But God isn’t barbarous. We know that God had told His people never to engage in the child sacrifice prevalent in surrounding the cultures surrounding His chosen ones, the Israelites. In Leviticus 18:21, for example, God tells His people: “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed…” God regarded child sacrifice as an abomination.
Some Christians look at this incident and, embarrassed and confused, say it’s not important. That would be an easy way out. But just because we don’t fully understand something in the Bible is no reason to try to erase it from its pages.
One of my professors at seminary told us about doing devotions with his wife. They were reading a lengthy and boring passage from Leviticus. “Ron,” she asked, “is this really that important?” “It must be,” he said. “It’s in there.”
Genesis 22:1-18 is “in there.” So, let’s consider this incident, knowing that we will never understand God completely and certain through Jesus Christ that God is no monster.
And let’s ask why is this passage “in there.”
Verse 1: “Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied. 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.’”
Up to this point in Genesis, we know that Abraham has been less than reliable, less than faithful, to God.
To save his own skin, he lied to two different kings about Sarah, saying she was his sister and not his wife.
When God didn’t seem to be working quickly enough to deliver on His promise of a son, he quickly accepted his wife Sarah’s plan of taking her servant to give them a son.
Abraham’s faith in God was a bit deficient. Imperfect. (A bit like yours and mine.)
Yet God had a mission for Abraham. But Abraham had many temptations ahead of him, including the temptation of turning his son into an idol to take the place of God as the most important consideration in his life.
God needed to test Abraham, to forge his faith. So, he devised a plan to do so.
God often forges the faith and characters of those who believe in Him through testing and discipline. It’s how we grow. It’s how we learn to depend on Him as our only God, our only source of meaningful help, our only source of hope.
Hebrews 12:6 tells us that, “...the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” So, maybe the first reason this account of Abraham and Isaac is in the Bible is to warn all of us who follow the God of Israel ultimately revealed in Christ that there will be times when God will test our faith, when we will be called out of our comfort zones, when we will have to grow up in our faith.
You know what happens next. Abraham takes Isaac to the region called Moriah, to a place that God was going to show him, carrying all that he would need to sacrifice his son.
Moriah is mentioned only twice in the Bible, here and in 2 Chronicles 3:1, which recounts something that happened centuries after the events of today’s lesson. Take a look at that passage now, if you would (page 300 in the sanctuary Bibles): “Then Solomon began to build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David. It was on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, the place provided by David.”
When the temple in Jerusalem was built by its third king, it was at the very place where Abraham took Isaac in our first lesson. God directed Abraham to the spot where, for centuries, believers in God would go to connect with God, offering sacrifices for their sins, their thankfulness, their joy.
I think that that’s the second reason that this account of Abraham and Isaac is in there. God had set aside that very spot to be the place where sacrifices of faith would be made to Him. Centuries later, of course, the need for those sacrifices would be eliminated when God sacrificed His Son on a cross. But for many centuries, Moriah was to be a site of sacrifice for God’s people.
I believe that there’s another important reason for the inclusion of this difficult text in Scripture. Please look at verse 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?’ Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’...”
Please look at Hebrews 11:17-19 (page 844). This passage is part of a New Testament chapter called, “the faith hall of fame.” The preacher says: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.”
When Abraham took Isaac to Moriah, he did so knowing that even if Isaac’s life was taken, God is the God of new life, the God of resurrection.
The impossible thing that God had commanded of Abraham was designed to deepen Abraham’s faith.
It’s like when Jesus commands that you and I be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. We know that we can’t be perfect; but when confronted by that command, in our helplessness, we learn to trust that God can impart His perfection and power to those who surrender to Him.
By faith, Abraham understood that not even death is an impediment to the God you and I are privileged to know through Jesus Christ. Abraham knew that God can give back life to the dead.
In Christ, we know that too. And that, in turn, can give us the freedom to live each day without fear.
Christians are like people who watch a really frightening movie, but have been told before going to the theater how it’s all going to turn out. The scary parts are still scary. Our hearts will still pound at some scenes. Our palms will sweat. We’ll wonder how we’re going to make it through. But we know that in the end, everything is going to be all right. This is a reality for all who believe in Jesus Christ.
That’s a third important reason our first lesson is in the Bible. But there is fourth and, I think, most important reason. Verse 11: “...the angel of the Lord [in the Old Testament, this phrase can mean the very voice or visage of God] called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied. ‘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.’” Then, in verse 16, we read: “‘I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’”
Listen: Because Abraham had not withheld what was most important to Him, God was able to give what was most important to Him.
What good and perfect gifts from God are we missing out on because we’re withholding our lives from Him?
When, by faith, we yield control over our lives to God, we’re ready to receive the new life, the constant help, and the eternal hope that God gives to all with faith in Christ.
God didn’t ultimately require Abraham to sacrifice His son.
The sacrifice of Isaac would have done nothing but bring grief and loss to Abraham and the human race.
But Abraham passed God’s test by his willingness to give his son to God.
What might God be asking us to be willing to surrender to Him in order to know God and His blessings, to be God’s blessings to others? Lent may be a good time for us to ask that question of ourselves and of God in prayer.
Abraham’s test is one that God Himself would later pass...painfully, but ultimately triumphantly. Paul writes of God giving His Son in Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare [some translations say, did not withhold] his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
The Lord who provided a ram for sacrifice to Abraham and Isaac on that day long ago provides the lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world for all who dare surrender their all to Christ alone.
It’s to point us to this fact that, I believe, among other reasons, this passage is in the Bible.
This is a difficult passage. I can’t explain everything about it.
It would make my life as a Christian and as a pastor a lot easier if I didn’t have to wrestle with it, if God would just eliminate it from His Word, the Bible.
But God never promised us easy lives.
Or lives in which we were always in control.
Instead, in Jesus Christ, God promised us new lives, lives filled with His blessings even in the midst of things we can’t understand or control here and now and then, beyond death, lives filled with perfect fellowship with Him and others in eternity for all who, like Abraham and Isaac, dare to surrender to Him.
Genesis 22:1-18 remains in our Bibles. May we glorify and thank God for the truths we can understand in these verses even as we wrestle with the mysteries in them that we will never understand this side of heaven. Amen