This week the women’s Bible study at my church is reading about God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. This story distresses many Christians because they question how it could possibly be fair or right for God to ask this. Let’s take a look at it..
The story begins: “Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about'” (Genesis 22:2).
Now the Law had not yet been given, so God was not asking Abraham to disobey a commandment. Still, this request must have torn Abraham’s heart. What purpose could it serve?
Let’s start with some background.
Abraham was a prophet. At times, God called prophets to perform actions that foreshadowed and explained future events. When God asked Abraham to offer his beloved son Isaac as a sacrifice, He was calling Abraham to be a portent: a foreshadowing of a momentous future event, God the Father’s offering of His beloved Son, Jesus, to save the world.
God carefully and lovingly prepared Abraham for this task. By the time of this event, Abraham had seen God’s miraculous intervention in the blazing torch and fire pot when He made His covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:17), the rescue of nephew Lot with only 318 men from the armies of four kings (Genesis 14), and the saving of Lot from the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19).
Most importantly, God had shown Himself faithful to His promise even when all looked impossible through the miraculous birth of Isaac to his wife Sarah, who was barren, past menopause, and 91 years old.
Abraham had talked with angels and God himself. God gave Abraham more evidence of His nature than He gives most people to prepare him for the position for which God chose him: the father of the nation that was to represent God on earth. But to whom much is given, much is required, and God required Abraham to demonstrate unwavering faith.
God had promised Abraham Isaac would be his heir: “Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him’” (Genesis 17:19).
God tested Abraham’s faith in this promise by asking him to do something that appeared to make the promise’s fulfillment impossible.
Because he believed God’s promise about Isaac, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). And so as Abraham took leave of his servants, he placed the wood for the offering on Isaac, took torch and knife in hand, and in faith told his servants, “We will come back to you” (v. 22:5). Turning, father and son climbed Mount Moriah together.
Abraham constructed an altar, piled the wood atop, and bound and laid Isaac on it. As his fingers wrapped around his knife, he heard the angel of the Lord call out: “’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’” (Genesis 22:12).
Abraham had passed the test. He saw a ram trapped in a thicket and sacrificed it instead.
What did this test achieve?
One, the test proved the strength of Abraham’s faith. Most of his life was materially and spiritually blessed; his faithful passing of the test demonstrated unbought love. Now his descendants could know they too could trust God, though they had less visible evidence than he. They would need this through the Egyptian captivity and at other difficult times. Abraham’s faith was realized and proven.
Two, it proved Abraham loved God more than anything on earth, including his son, and thereby set the example for his descendants. Jesus said anyone who loves son or daughter more than Him and refuses to take his cross and follow Him is not worthy of Him (Matthew 10:37-39). All of us have times in our lives where we must choose whom and what we love most, times we must face the loss of something dear to us and decide whether we will trust in God’s goodness through it. Abraham shows us we can trust God to keep His promises.
Three, Isaac’s willingness to trust his father and his God made him a foreshadowing of Jesus’ later willingness to die for the sins of the world. Isaac was at least an adolescent (Jewish tradition has him an adult) and Abraham was over 110, making Isaac the stronger and faster of the two, yet Isaac allowed his father to bind him and lay him on the altar. This differed significantly from the Canaanite practice of sacrificing young, defenseless children to the fire of Molech.
Four, this prevented the Canaanites from boasting that they were more devoted to their gods than Abraham was to his God because they were willing to sacrifice more.
Five, God stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, showing He did not want children sacrificed. Later through Moses God forbade child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2).
Six, the test foreshadowed the Father’s sending of his willing Son to be sacrificed for the sins of the world. When Jesus talked about the Father sending His Son to save the world (John 3:16) by paying for our sins like a sacrificial lamb (John 1:29), the Jews had a reference to relate to so they could understand Him better and have more evidence Jesus’ teaching came from God.
Seven, Abraham’s sacrifice of the ram caught in the thicket instead of Isaac foreshadows Jesus’ dying instead of those who deserve death, but receive life by trusting in Him. Abraham named the place, “The Lord Will Provide,” and indeed the Lord has provided a suitable substitute for us that we might live, like Isaac.
Eight, God greatly rewarded Abraham and Isaac, demonstrating His faithfulness to reward us when we trust in His goodness and love when we go through difficult times and experience loss.
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? ~Romans 8:32