Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Once upon a time God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey…. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” 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.

Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “I see the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and saw behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. Abraham called the name of that place The LORD Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the LORD it will be provided.” Then the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ” By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore….

What a story! It is fantastic and horrific at the same time. Fantastic to hear the unfolding of human faith and obedience and divine provision and promise; horrific to even think that God could make such a request of Abraham and to think that Abraham would even think about carrying it out! Many of the stories from the Bible have characters whom we should imitate; their faith, their actions, their motivations. Not this one! This isn’t a story you want to imitate. Even as bad as your kids may get from time to time you would never do anything like this to them. What if you thought God told you something but you weren’t actually hearing Him?

My wife and I are fans of American Idol. One time we saw a contestant who claimed that her voice was a gift from God and that the Holy Spirit told her that she should audition for the show, that God gave her a voice. When she stood in front of the judges she belted out the worst racket you have ever heard! It was so bad that Simon quipped, “Does He have a return policy?” We must be careful before we assign our behavior to God’s directive.

But we are told that Abraham received a directive. How could a good God, a God of justice, righteousness, and mercy, ask such a barbaric thing from a believer? What makes it even worse is that God seems to be breaking his own promise to Abraham. When Abraham hears from God for the 1st time (Genesis 12) God says:

Get up, leave your homeland and your family behind, and go to the place I show you. I will make your descendants into a great nation.

And now God is “contradicting this promise with a command to kill Isaac before Isaac even had a chance to beget any [children]. …God was not simply testing whether Abraham could love God above all else. The heart of the question was whether he could reconcile the contradiction of God’s word and continue to trust that God would remain faithful to keep his promise. “Not only was Abraham’s faithfulness on trial but so was God’s faithfulness.

But why is Abraham’s faithfulness on trial? Abraham never fully seems to connect with God’s promise. In fact, as Abraham and Sarah are passing through different countries, Abraham tells Sarah to pretend that she is his sister and not his wife so that other men will not kill him to take her. If Sarah had been taken by another man it would have thrown a major wrench in the machine! Fortunately God intervenes and Sarah ends up back with Abraham. Later on, as Abraham and Sarah are getting older, Sarah pushes Hagar on Abraham in order to produce an heir to the estate. Again, we see humans trying to force God’s promise to come to fruition. And what a mess Hagar and her son, Ishmael turned out to be! In fact, the whole life of Abraham could be called “How not to trust the promises of God.” And at every turn God says, “I have promised this – I will accomplish it. Why do you intervene? Why do you try by your own power?”

The sacrifice of Isaac almost seems to be God saying, “This is the last straw! Either you’re in or you’re out. What’s it gonna be?” And so God says, I want you to sacrifice your son. “What Abraham’s trial shows is that the world in which we live is full of spiritual trials behind which God hides himself.” Is Abraham “able to trust in the faithfulness and benevolence of God even when God appeared utterly untrustworthy and even antagonistic toward him.”

Have you ever been in a situation where God seems invisible? Or worse, have you been in a place where God seems to be against you? But is God ever really against you? Are you ever really cursed by God to suffer? Does it matter if you can’t see Him or what He has in mind?

And so God says, “Take your son….” You can almost hear Abraham involved in dialogue with God:

God: Take your son
Abraham: I have two sons
God: Your only one
Abraham: This one is the only son to his mother and this one is the only son to his mother
God: The one you love
Abraham: I love them both
God: Isaac!

However the conversation went, Abraham decides that he will listen to God’s direction at this point. And so the journey begins, towards a mountain in Moriah. For 3 days they’re on the road. 3 days Abraham has to wrestle with this decision. As they see the mountain in the distance, Abraham tells his servants to wait while he and Isaac worship God. Note the language that Abraham uses: “We will worship and return….” This has led some to believe that Abraham knew that God would not take Isaac. Or perhaps, even if Isaac did die, God could raise him back to life. But this most certainly cannot be what Abraham was thinking. If Abraham had full certainty that God would intervene then there is no real test, is there? Abraham would just be going through the motions – there is not real faith without the real fear that Abraham will never again see his son, never see Isaac grow, never see Isaac marry, never see grandchildren. No, Abraham thought that this was the end, and that’s what makes this story sickening – the fact that a cruel God would ask for such a sacrifice.

We see echoes of Calvary here in this story. The fathers have to sacrifice the sons, the only sons, the ones they love. Both sons are children of promise; Isaac the promise for future generations and Jesus the promise of salvation. Both sons know that they have a role to play in God’s plan. Jesus was no fool – he knew the call upon His life and knew how it had to play out. Thus He prayed, “Let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but Yours.”

Similarly, Isaac is no fool. As they make their way up the mountain he asks Abraham, “I see the elements for the sacrifice, but where is the ram?” And Abraham, mustering what faith he could, can only reply, “God himself will provide the ram.” Yet the next thing you know, Isaac is bound hand and foot and is placed on the alter about to be killed. Think about this – Isaac is a young teenager. Abraham is over 100 years old. Is there anyway that Old Father Abe could have subdued, bound, and hoisted Isaac up onto the alter if Isaac was struggling? It appears that Isaac, like Christ, was a willing participant, knowing that following God’s call and will is the highest good.

Think about the feelings of abandonment and agony Jesus faced when he realized that this was the sacrifice God required. Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Have you ever felt that what He is doing isn’t what he should be doing for your best interest? This is what Jesus knew: the power and purpose of God were working through the evil and cruelty of the men who would kill of him. So many times we want God to take away the cruelty, to take away the hardship. Even Jesus wanted this. He prayed, “God, if it’s at all possible, let this pass me by!”

Would Isaac have felt any different as Abraham says, “This is what I need you to do?” When’s the last time you prayed for a difficulty or obstacle to be removed? Often we want all the difficulties and evil to be removed, but sometimes it is the difficulty that reveals God’s power and purpose. So Isaac ends up on the alter…. Sometimes it is necessary to make sacrifices in order to hold onto the promises and purposes to which God has originally called you.

As Abraham lifts the blade to strike the fatal blow, what’s going through his head? “God, you made a promise to me decades ago. We prayed for a child for so long, and just when you’ve given us what you promised, you’re making me sacrifice him!” And he lifts the blade and is stopped. God speaks and says, “Don’t strike. You’ve proved yourself.” And he looks up, and there in the brush is the ram. Abraham had told Isaac, maybe prophetically, maybe in hopeful desperation, “God himself will provide the ram,” and sure enough – there is the ram. In the end, Abraham rightfully decides that withholding from God is not something he can do.

Abraham’s act of obedience does not earn him the reward of the promise, but his wholehearted trust allows the promise to remain in God’s hands and so to be fulfilled by the only One who has the grace and power to bring about its fulfillment. Isaac may have lived if Abraham had disobeyed God, but the security of the promise would most certainly have been undermined. His choice not to try to control his son’s destiny, even while nearly slaying him, ensured Isaac’s place in the history of the promise.

Sometimes it seems that God is absent or even against us. The end result of the testing, of the sacrifice, is a deeper faith and a recommitment to the purpose and promise God 1st gave us. Our faith, like Abraham’s, requires that we let go of whatever we hold most precious, whatever we desire to control or protect, especially the gifts and promises of God.”

What do you need to let go of?