Abraham Offers Isaac (Gen 22:1-14)


"The LORD will provide" (Gen 22:14).

Theme: The Lord provides a sacrificial lamb so that his people may live.

Goal: To assure God's people that their faithful covenant Lord can be trusted to provide their redemption.

Application: Do we trust the Lord to provide, or do we go after what we want?

{A major challenge of teaching/preaching Genesis 22 is to avoid superficial applications by attaching practical remarks to verses in the text, without asking what message Israel received from this narrative. For example, as Abraham was called to sacrifice his son (Gen 22:2), "so we, in like manner, may be called upon to make sacrifices." Or "great trials are best entered upon with but little company" (Gen 22:5). Or "God delights to bring his people to the mount, to the very brow of the hill, till their feet slip, and then he delivers them" (Gen 22:11). Though not unbiblical, it misses the theme of the author. Similarly this title and "imperative" outline misses the theme of Genesis 22: Sermon title, "The Journey of Faith." Sermon points: 1. Be in relationship with the Most High God; 2. Risk it all; 3. Be prepared and obedient; 4. Trust God to provide; 5. Receive God's blessing.

When I reviewed Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller, I shared how I used to teach Gen 22: "Offer your Isaac to God, you sinner!" and how Keller, in his book, explained the narrative by pointing to Christ.}

Of this famous text, F.B. Meyer (1847-1929), Baptist pastor and evangelist in England, rightly said: “So long as men live in this world, they will turn to this story with unwaning interest. There is only one scene in history by which it is surpassed; that where the Great Father gave His Isaac to a death from which there was no deliverance.”

Gen 22:1-19 records the most famous incident in Abraham's life. The Hebrew word for this narrative is "Akedah," which means "the binding of Isaac." Robert Altar, in his Genesis: Translation and Commentary (1996) says, "The abrupt beginning and stark, emotion-fraught development of this troubling story have led many critics to celebrate it as one of the peaks of ancient narrative." It is one of the best told stories in all of ancient literature. It is absorbing, infuriating, and riveting. As a result, people have spent centuries debating all the various multiple levels of meaning in the text. Let's see if we might get to an understanding of this and hopefully be transformed by it by looking at these 3 points:

  1. The essence of the call
  2. The horror of the test
  3. The wonder of the lamb
I. The Essence of the Call (Gen 22:2)

"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'” (Gen 22:2). There are 3 similarities with the original call in Gen 12:1-3 with this call.

  1. The call to go: "Leave...and go" (Gen 12:1), and now: "Take your son...and go" (Gen 22:2).
  2. I will show you later: "...go to the land I will show you" (Gen 12:1), and "Sacrifice him ... on a mountain I will show you" (Gen 22:2).
  3. A call to offer/give up a lot: "country, people, father's household" (Gen 12:1)--his safety, status, culture, family--and now "your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac" (Gen 22:2). This was not God rubbing it in, but to restate the obvious that Isaac was his only son left, since Ishmael had already left. Isaac was the only bearer of his family inheritance, his only social hope. Isaac has become Abraham's emotional center. God was asking Abraham to offer up every finite source of hope and security.
What can we learn about the call of God from the entire life of Abraham (Genesis 12-25)? Paul said, "those he called he also justified" (Rom 8:30), and "I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you" (Eph 1:18). Paul essentially says that one is not a Christian unless they have heard the call of God, for God only justifies those he has called. The call of God does not happen just once, but it happens again and again through out one's Christian life. Hearing the call of God is also the way one grows as a Christian; we need to re-hear the call more deeply and intimately. The call not only makes us a Christian. It also grows us as a Christian.

What does it mean to hear the call? To rehear the call? The testimony of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a prominent British congregational minister, illustrates what it means to hear the call of God. In the 1920s, Lloyd-Jones was a rising young doctor in his late 20s. He was working under a top doctor in the best hospital. His future was bright and promising, and he was religiously indifferent. He knew a prominent doctor, one of the chiefs of medicine who had everything going for him economically and socially. He was dating a woman and she died suddenly. In a daze, he asked if he could sit in Lloyd-Jones' room, and he sat staring at the fire for 2 hours without saying anything. This event shook Lloyd-Jones greatly, not because his behavior and grief was inappropriate, but because he realized that no matter how powerful or prominent one is, yet the foundation of one's life was so vulnerable and so shaky. When Lloyd-Jones he saw that man staring in the fire, he realized the vanity of all human greatness. He heard the call.

What is the call? Heb 11:8 says, "For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God." The essence of the call of God is the realization that without the call of God you have no foundation for life whatsoever. No matter who one is, religious or not, Christian or not, believes the Bible or not, goes to church or not, he or she has something that functions as an emotional center, without which one would feel completely stripped of his worth, significance, security and value. Without that something, they will have no meaning and joy of life. That is the object of the soul's deepest faith. It doesn't matter what it is, life will one day strip it away: family, looks, sex appeal, career, etc. Until we realize that whatever means the most to me, whatever keeps me from jumping off the bridge is nothing but a sand bar in a rising river. Until I realize that unless I have God I have nothing, I have still not heard the call of God. When Abraham heard the call, he went because he sought "the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God." One who hears the call of God realizes deeply that his only foundation is God, and without it, he has nothing.

How does the call of God grow you? When we become a Christian we grant that God must be our foundation. But in the course of Christian life, we soon realize that though we intellectually acknowledge that Christ is our foundation, functionally and practically we know that it is not the case. Though we say that God's love is everything, yet certain forms of human approval, love and power are still the emotional foundation of our heart. We will never live the big life that Abraham lived and make progress in the Christian life and maturity. If we are still devastated by criticism or failure, or living in fear of losing something, our practical functional foundation is still not Christ, but something else. Life will eventually strip everything away, including whatever we put our hope in. Whenever we encounter something being stripped away, it is God saying, "Listen to the call." Your heart still says that you have to have this to be happy, to feel loved, significant, important. But all we need is Jesus. The call comes to us every time there is a difficulty in life. Whatever we resist losing, someday we will lose it anyway; it will be ripped away from us: family, children, friends, youth, power, etc. When we hear the call, God enables us to let it go. Our heart screams, "My heart needs it, but all I need is Jesus." When we can let these things go, then God enables us to be the man we were meant to be. We will be a master of life, rather than be mastered by life.

To be a Christian is to hear the call of God, until our life's foundations change from "something" to Christ. To grow as a Christian is to re-hear the call of God and to keep letting go of things that bind to us as though we cannot live without them. This is the essence of the call.

2 practical applications:

  1. People ask/think: If I become a Christian, do I have to do this/that, give up this/that, stop this/that? One who asks this is not coming to God at all. They are not coming to God as God. God/the call of God always says, "Go, and I will show you." A working definition of God: God (god) is the absolutely sacred non-negotiable thing in your life.
  2. Sometimes it feels as though the God who is trying to save you is killing you. Elizabeth Elliot visited a sheep farm in Wales. She saw the shepherd put the sheep into an antiseptic tank to keep them from getting parasites/worms that would kill them. The shepherd forced their head into the water, while the sheep struggled to get out. To save them, it felt as though their shepherd was trying to kill them.
II. The Horror of the Test

The traditional approach of the church (and of the Koran) to this difficult passage is this: No matter how difficult/outrageous/stupid/pointless/crazy the command, do it anyway. The moral of the story is "Just obey." Unconditional obedience is taught in the Bible. But there is a problem with seeing this text in this way. There is a problem if the emphasis is Abraham's obedience.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote "Fear and Trembling" (1943). Though many Christians told him that they felt inspired by this story, it bothered him because this text terrified him to death. It created in him fear and trembling. In the book he imagines a preacher teaching from this story that man must obey God no matter how outrageous the command. Then a man in the congregation goes back and kills his son. The next week the preacher rails about what kind of a monster of a father would do such a thing. Kierkegaard's question is that if that man was condemned why wasn't Abraham condemned. His point is that at a strictly ethical level the story does not work. Some eventually said that Abraham failed the test because he should have refused to obey God's outrageous command. But they still haven't grasped the true horror of the test. They still do not know what this test meant to Abraham in his context.

In the last 20 years, critical commentators began to shed light on what this command meant to Abraham. It did not mean to Abraham what it means to us today. Why? The commentators are saying 2 things:

  1. God does not tell Abraham to murder his son, but to offer him up as an offering, not to just stab him.
  2. Because God told Abraham to offer him up as an offering, the command was not incomprehensible to Abraham.
To understand the true horror of the test, one has to understand the meaning of the firstborn. Jon Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, wrote "The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son." To understand how Abraham heard this command, we need to understand 2 things:
  1. Ancient cultures were not individualistic. Our hopes and dreams are of individual success and prosperity. In Abraham's time no one thought this way. Their hopes and dreams were for the family's success. They didn't think as individuals, but they thought as a family.
  2. The iron law of primogeniture. It was universally practiced by all ancient cultures. It meant that the oldest got all the marbles, he got almost all the inheritance. If the inheritance was divided up equally, the family would lose their status in the community. Thus the firstborn got everything, and he had to be the benefactor for everyone else.
In Genesis, God was continually undermining this law of primogeniture. God favored Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. God was not confirming this hierarchical pattern of society. But all ancient cultures looked to the firstborn as the ultimate hope of the family. What God repeatedly points out in the OT, which Abraham understood, is that the life of the firstborn is mine (Exo 22:28-29; Mic 6:7; Jud 11:29-40). The firstborn animal (Exo 13:2,11-13, 34:19-20), the first fruits of the grain, is God's. God repeatedly says that the life of the firstborn is forfeit, as in the Passover. The Jewish firstborn was also forfeit unless a lamb was slain. Even after the Passover, God continues to say in Exo 22, Num 3, 8 that the life of the firstborn is forfeit unless it is redeemed, unless a sacrifice was made, unless there was a payment of 5 shekels. The ancients understood this, which we do not.

When God says that the life of the firstborn is forfeit, Abraham understood God saying that there is a debt of sin that every family owes to God. Though this may make no sense to us, it did make sense to Abraham. If God told Abraham to kill Sarah, Abraham would not have done it. He would have thought he was hallucinating. God wouldn't have said it. When God asked Abraham to offer up his firstborn, Abraham understood it. Abraham and ancient Hebrews knew that God is a God of justice. They knew that we all have failed to live according to that law of justice, that we have all lived self-centered lives, that God cannot overlook it, and that a debt of sin must be paid and that every family and every human being owes. When Abraham heard this painful call (Gen 22:1), he knew that God was calling for this debt of sin to be paid. Though Abraham knew all this, it was a call that tore him apart and that caused him infinite pain and agony. What is the real horror of this test?

Heb 11:18-19 say, "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.'” The horror is this: The command of God apparently contradicts the promise of God. God is just. There is a debt of sin that needs to be paid. But the promise of God is that through Isaac the world would be saved. Abraham's conflict was how can a God of command also be a God of promise? How can a God of holiness also be a God of grace? How can a God who rightly can call in this debt of sin, also be a God who promises that through Isaac the whole world would be blessed? How would this happen? This is the horror of the test.

Gerhard Von Rad, one of the outstanding Christian interpreters of the OT in the 20th century, climaxes his exposition on the text by saying in his commentary on Genesis (3rd ed, 1972, p. 244), "Therefore, unfortunately, one can only answer all plaintive scruples about this narrative by saying that it concerns something much more frightful than child sacrifice. It has to do with a road out into Godforsakenness, a road on which Abraham does not know that God is only testing him. There is thus considerable religious experience behind these 19 verses: that Yahweh often seems to contradict himself, that he appears to want to remove the salvation began by him in history. But in this way Yahweh tests faith and obedience!”

The real horror of the test is, "How can a holy God be gracious? How can a gracious God be holy?" If God is not just what hope is there for the world? What are we going to do with all the evil? But if God is just what hope is there for us, for Abraham and Isaac, who are sinful? The real horror is how will God be both just and justifier of Abraham? How will God be both the holy God of the command and the gracious God of the promise?

III. The Wonder of the Lamb

All commentators are agreed that the climax of this text is when the narrator slows down the action from Gen 22:6-11. The only dialogue between father and son in Genesis occur in Gen 22:7-8, which seems to be in slow motion. Notice Abraham's answer. What pushed Abraham up that mountain? Was he going up the mountain saying, "I can do it. I must do it. I will do it. I will just obey." This is not what is driving him. He is not driven by his obedience. His answer is "God will do it. God will provide. God will see to it." The Hebrew word for "provide" is "see for himself." Abraham is saying, "You can't see the lamb. I can't see the lamb. But God will see to the lamb." He is saying, "I don't know how God will be both holy and gracious. I don't know how God is going to have the debt of sin paid, and still be the God of promise who says that through Isaac all nations will be blessed/saved." This is what is getting Abraham up the mountain. The testimony is not, "On the mountain of the Lord it will be obeyed," but "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided" (Gen 22:14). It is not "on the mountain I will do it," but "on the mountain God will do it." Abraham doesn't know how. But he knows that God will find some way to pay the debt of sin and still be the God of promise to bless the world.

We know what Abraham could only intuit. We know that Abraham's little lamb Isaac cannot pay the debt of sin for the family. Neither can the ram caught in the bushes. Heb 10:4 says, "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." Then why did Abraham have to offer Isaac? 2 Chron 3:1 says, "Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to his father David." Calvary was part of the mountains of Moriah. Why did Abraham not have to bring the knife down on his son? How can God be both a God of justice, holiness and command, and the God of grace and promise?

Centuries later, the Father let his Son up the same mountain, where he let the Son be put up on the wood again. Edmond Clowney, in Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, wrote, "The Son paid the price on Calvary. So did the Father. In mystery beyond mystery, the eternal God was silent as the incarnate Son cried, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' Not just at the Incarnation did God give his Son. He gave him also in the darkness, in the silence, as he forsook his Beloved." Paul applies the words of Genesis 22 to Jesus when he said, "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Rom 8:32)

Abraham could not have walked up this mountain as a traditional moralistic person, which says, "If you obey well God will bless you." If Abraham believed that God was the God of Justice only (and not a God of grace as well), he would not have gone up the mountain. He would have given up, saying, "I cannot kill my son." He couldn't have gone up the mountain without hope.

On the other hand, a modernist or a liberal person who does not believe in the depth or debt of sin, and who only believes in a God of love, but not a God of justice, he would not have gone up the mountain either, saying, "I don't owe God anything!"

If one believes in a God of love, but not holiness, or who believes in a God of holiness/justice, but not love, both would not go up the mountain. We need both hope and duty to go up the mountain. We need to have both a sense of a debt of sin of what I owe, and to know a God of incredible love and grace. We need both. It is only the Cross that God can be both. If we do not believe in the cross, if we do not believe in what Jesus did, if we do not believe in the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, we will not be able to climb the mountains that we will face in life.

We need to have a sense of duty which the moralist has, but which the modernist does not have, and we need to have a sense of love and grace which the modernist sort of has, but which the moralist doesn't. It is only the cross where we can have both a sense of duty and a sense of love.

Life will come and take away the things we love and value. We experience it more the older we get. Whatever we find our value, significance and worth in, will be taken away bit by bit. How are we going to be able to deal with it? We have to turn to God and say, "You are my love. You are my hope. You are my approval." But how do we do this? It doesn't happen by telling ourselves, "I have to trust God. I can get up the mountain. I will get up the mountain. I must get up the mountain." This does not work.

We have this story so that we can have some understanding of what the Father did with the Son. If Abrahan had been at the foot of Calvary and saw the moment when Jesus died, he would have taken the very words that God had said to him on Moriah in Gen 22:12, and he would have turned it around. Before the cross, he would look up and say to God the Father, "Now I know ... that you love me, because you did not withhold your son, your only son, whom you love, from me."

Until and unless we know this, we can never be free from the enslavement to people, enslavement to circumstances/situations. No one can ever live a great life like that of Abraham by trying. We must first believe in the one to whom Abraham points, even when he points to a point of utter Godforsakenness. We can never overcome our own pseudo salvations simply by trying.

How can we know that God loves us and delights in us to such an extent, so that we truly rest in God and delight in his love for us? We can't just make ourselves to do so. We can't do so abstractly. But by the power of the Spirit, we may see that Abraham and Isaac going up the mountain was a picture of the price the Father paid for us on Calvary. Until we see that the ultimate sacrifice was paid for me, nothing will significantly or permanently change us organically. But when this moves us, touches us and transforms us by the Spirit, then and only then we can say, "Now I know...now I know...now I know..."

This is from a sermon by Tim Keller (Real Faith and the Only Son).

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