We are going to look at one of the most confounding and embarassing narratives in the Bible, and I’m going to make some suggestions on how we are to understand the story. As a back drop, Abraham has already been promised by God to have numerous offspring through Isaac. These promises came through angels as well as a dramatic experience of covenant in Genesis 15. Abraham has been growing in faith and trust in his relationship with God. Earlier in the scriptures, Abraham is called a friend of God.
Genesis 22:1-18 (ESV)
1After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He 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.” 3So 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. 4On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5Then 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.” 6And 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. 7And 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?” 8Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
9When 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. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He 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.” 13And 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. 14So 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.”
15And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
What? This is a crazy story, and if we’re honest we have trouble fathoming God testing Abraham like this. If we take an objective look at this, it appears that God is asking Abraham to murder his son. It’s premeditated. He has intention. He has the knife in his hand. Why would God do this, and what kind of God is this? It seems monstrous on the surface. For those of us with children, it’s really unthinkable. We could intellectually rationalize that this event occurred before the law of Moses was given which said do not murder, and therefore no transgression (violation of a law) was being committed. However, God makes it clear in Genesis, chapter 4, that murder is not OK. Later, in the book of Leviticus, we learn that child sacrifices to a foreign god like Molech are an abomination. We also have scriptures that say God doesn’t tempt anyone to sin, yet that seems exactly what God is asking of Abraham.
The other crazy thing in this narrative is that Abraham doesn’t question God at all. I would ask questions like “Is this you, God?”, “Am I hearing you right?”, “Are you sure about this?”, “Why?”, “Isn’t this the son of promise where our blessings are supposed to come from?” Most of us would ask these questions, even of our spouse or best friend. In the account with Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham bargained with God. Why wouldn’t he do this now, when the son whom he loves and his future offspring are on the line? ‘Olah’ is the Hebrew word used for burnt offering and really means whole burnt offering, but it can also mean to ascend. Did Abraham understand God’s instructions?
I read recently that Abraham’s obedience demonstrated the level of Abraham’s friendship with God, but that doesn’t help me understand it any better. What kind of friend would ask me to murder my son?
Additionally, what about Ishmael? God doesn’t even acknowledge him as being a son in this narrative even though he technically would be a first born. Didn’t Abraham love him, too? He seemed to care for him. I believe that the language is deliberately used to point us to something bigger and more important.
I believe there are three concepts that help us get any kind of resolve in this story.
1) Cultural context.
2) Abraham believed that God could raise him from the dead.
3) The central character of the story is God (not Abraham)
Let’s look at the first concept:
Abraham is in a culture from at least 3500 years ago which seems very foreign to ours. For example, how did Abraham know that he was to use a knife for a burnt offering? The instructions given to Moses in the book of Leviticus wouldn’t come until at least 400 years later. For that matter, how did any of the people before Moses know to bring an offering to God? Culturally, making offerings to appease their gods was common in ancient cultures. Sacrificing children was also common in this age, which is perhaps why we don’t see Abraham arguing with God. He was born into culture, as are we.
Let’s look at the procedure that was prescribed to Moses in Leviticus for preparing a burnt offering (Lev 1:1-9).
1) The offerer was to bring an unblemished male
2) The offerer was to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering so it can be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.
3) The offerer was to slaughter the male before the LORD.
4) The priests were to present and sprinkle blood on the four sides of the altar.
5) The offerer was to skin the burnt offering and cut it into pieces.
6) The priests were to prepare a fire, arrange the wood and pieces.
7) The offerer was to wash the entrails with water.
8) The priests were to burn all of it as a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the LORD.
I don’t know about you, but I would venture a guess that most of you haven’t done anything like this. Deer hunting is about as close to this as most of us get. I don’t even like preparing a turkey. This kind of procedure was fairly common to the culture.
As mentioned, ‘olah’ is a Hebrew word for whole burnt offering. How is the burning of animal flesh pleasing to God (it wasn’t bacon)? 🙂 In ancient cultures, animals were provision and a reflection of what you owned. You might say meat was money. This offering was essentially setting their money on fire and watching it burn and go up in smoke. This seems ridiculous to the world, but the kingdom of God is upside down. ‘Olah’ as mentioned, also means to ‘go up.’ In the book of Leviticus, when this burnt offering was made to God, the offerer would “watch the smoke and sparks ascend heavenward and know that God had accepted him as he identified himself with the sacrificial animal.” (Hebrew Word for the Day, Dr. J.D. Watson, p.110).
While our culture is now very different, the matters of the heart remain the same.
The burnt offering showed their love for God. They gave up something of value (essentially their money) for God, and in turn believed that God would accept their sacrifice as an expression of that love.
If you believe and follow Jesus, a new covenant has been presented where we don’t have to slaughter animals anymore to believe that God will accept our sacrifice. Jesus is the only sacrifice needed (by faith) to be acceptable and pleasing to God. Scripture also writes that obedience is better than sacrifice (Jesus was sacrificed once for all time).
That said, there are things we can do in this present age and in light of a new covenant.
‘Qorban’ is the Hebrew word for any general kind of offering (Lev 6:13).
I believe we bring an offering to God whenever we walk in faith, hope, and love. Especially if it costs us something.
Obviously, we can bring an offering to God with how we give (with our money, time, resources, and gifting).
We can love God by how we steward our hearts, how we spend our lives, and our choices with our bodies.
Romans 12:1 (HSCB)
Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.
A sacrifice costs us something, but when directed by the spirit, brings God pleasure.
In a cultural context, perhaps God was inviting Abraham into a familiar experience (child sacrifice) to teach him first hand that child sacrifice is not the way any more, and that God will provide the Lamb needed to make atonement.
Secondly, let’s look deeper beyond the culture and the sacrifice. This is really about faith in a resurrection.
Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead.
The writer of Hebrews is speaking to a Jewish audience and writes this:
Hebrews 11:17-19 (ESV)
17By 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, 18of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
How do we know that Abraham knew that God could restore Isaac from the dead in the book of Genesis? We don’t, but I would suggest that it is only through Christ, that we see the possibility of a resurrection from this text.
Jesus suggests that Abraham actually was looking forward prophetically to the time of the lamb coming as a substitute.
Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.
In the 1970s there were toys for little kids called “Weebles”. Their tag line was that “weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” If you knocked a weeble over, it would wobble, but bounce right back up. Abraham somehow believed that God would make things right. Abraham had faith that God had resurrection power. Even toward the very end, Abraham is expecting God to provide a lamb in his place. He has to look “up” in order to see it.
One of the characteristics of God that we don’t hear much about any more is that God is a jealous God. He wants relationship with us above everything else. Jesus was angry with the Pharisees because of how difficult they were making it to have any kind of relationship with God. Above the people and things we love, and even above our understanding of the promises He’s made, God wants relationship with us.
Finally, let’s look at the even more profound idea that God is the main character of the story and not Abraham.
The central character of the story is God (not Abraham)
In this story, we will substitute our heavenly Father for Abraham and Jesus for Isaac.
In the Genesis 22 account, Abraham doesn’t finish the slaughter. In the case of God with his son Jesus, he does finish the slaughter, allowing him to be crucified. Rather than just being a burnt offering, Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Through this sacrifice, relationship with man can be restored.
John 1:20 “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”
Abram means exalted father. Abraham roughly means father of a multitude. Our Heavenly Father wanted to move from exalted Father to Father of a multitude.
John 1:12 (ESV)
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,
Isaac means laughter in Hebrew. I wonder if God the Father had to sacrifice the laughter and mirth He had with His Son in order to redeem mankind from his sin and in three days get it back.
In Genesis 22:2, the echoes of the “only son whom you love,” point to God’s love towards Jesus as revealed in the New Testament (Mark 1:11, Matthew 17:5). God reveals this in the baptism of Jesus (as well as his transfiguration), highlighting his divine nature and the quality of the relationship between them.
Mark 1:11 (NLT)
And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.”
We know Jesus wasn’t offered up as a burnt offering, but rather for the sins of the world (John 1:29, John 3:16). Additionally, Jesus was placed on an altar in the shape of a cross. Like Isaac, Jesus didn’t open up his mouth to complain (Is 53), and like Jesus, he seems to be innocent. While Jesus was innocent, we aren’t told of any sin that Isaac commited to warrant the death penalty.
Genesis 22:12 – “for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me”
It was God’s obedience to fulfill his word. Does God fear God in this context? It’s an interesting concept to think about. We know from Isaiah 11, that Jesus would delight in the fear of the LORD and would even have this as a double portion (Isaiah 11:3).
God, in obedience did not withhold his only son from the slaughter (in the form of a brutal crucifixion) (Gospel accounts, Romans 8:32).
We are blessed because of this obedience and what the sacrifice made possible.
In Christ, the New Testament reveals that we are grafted into being part of Abraham’s seed and part of the blessing.
Galatians 3:29 (HCSB)
And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.
Did Abraham have to sacrifice Isaac to receive this blessing? Studying out the previous chapters in Genesis, the blessing that God had already promised to Abraham was already pronounced, with one exception. The additional blessing reads “And your offspring will possess the gate of his enemies and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” We have these as an additional blessing because of Abraham’s obedience and God’s fulfillment of this blessing through Christ.
We are blessed because of Abraham’s faith in God’s ability to raise his son from the dead. We are blessed because Jesus’ resurrection made a way for us to be grafted in to the seed of Abraham, regardless of lineage.
In Christ, you are blessed. Your family name is blessed because of it. You are blessed because of Abraham and God’s obedience (yes, I know that sounds funny). You have authority over entry points of the enemy (gates). Give thanks for the blessings you have received. Walk in them. Use them for His glory. In realization of the blessings that we have received, we can go and be a blessing to others. That is our calling.