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A Brutal Test of Faith -- Abraham's Call in Genesis 22

Updated: Feb 29

His only son, whom he loves.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 22

This week, we are covering one of the most important (and most difficult) passages in the entire Bible -- Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac. It's difficult to talk about and difficult to process. Of course, we know that it has a happy ending and that it points to our salvation in Jesus Christ, but we have to go through some dark verses to get there.

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (22:8)


When We Studied This in 2015

I find the 2015 post to be pretty useful; it will be hard not to duplicate a lot of it.

Here are topics I covered in that post:

  • Plot twists in movies

  • The differences between "tests", "trials", and "temptations"

  • Why are "sheep" often the ones sacrificed?

  • Where is Mount Moriah?

  • What the Bible says about human sacrifice

  • The doctrine of "substitutionary atonement"

It's useful to skim through if it looks like I've gone light on a topic below.


Getting Started: Things to Think About

A Dark Moment with a Surprisingly Happy Outcome

I can't imagine too many darker moments than in our passage this week, and yet there was a happy outcome (depending on how you define that word). So, how about this for a discussion topic: what was a time in your life when things looked bleak, but they turned out okay?


This is probably going to take some explanation. Let's take this week's passage as an example -- Abraham and Isaac turned out "okay" as it were. But let's be honest -- they were both forever changed. Things don't have to "go back to normal" to turn out okay.


We've all had dark moments. And we've come through them all! But sometimes, we discover quicker than others all of the ways God was with us through it. Two old songs come to my mind --

Trials dark on ev'ry hand, and we cannot understand All the ways that God would lead us to that blessed Promised Land; But He'll guide us with His eye, and we'll follow till we die; We will understand it better by and by.

And this verse from "Farther Along" --

Faithful till death said our loving Master, a few more days to labor and wait; Toils of the road will then seem as nothing, as we sweep through the beautiful gate.

The theme of those songs is that we might not see God's hand in our dark times until we meet Him in glory, but we should continue to trust in His presence and guidance.


But maybe you've come far enough through your dark time to realize God's presence and you want to share that with your group. In other words, share part of your testimony!


A Most Upsetting Turn of Events in a Movie

I tend to watch movies for entertainment. And every once in a while, something happens in a movie that upsets me so much that I never want to watch that movie again. No matter if things turn out "okay" in the end -- I just don't want to watch it.


What's that movie for you? (And I think I would disqualify any movie where you knew going into it that things would get rough. So, like, no Schindler's List. I didn't plan on watching it twice even before I saw it the first time.)


This one is easy for me -- Old Yeller. We watched that in elementary school, and it scarred me deeply. And that was before we adopted Amos from the pound:

We're pretty sure he's a Black-Mouthed Cur mutt, and you can't research them without hearing about Old Yeller.


I'm not saying any more.


More generally, if anything happens to a dog in a movie, I'm out.


Anyway, this is a very upsetting passage this week. I read it and I deeply appreciate it because the New Testament reveals what it means, but it's a hard read.

 

Where We Are in Genesis

I like the way the Lifeway material describes this section of Genesis -- a series of tests for Abraham. I'll take it a little further:

  • Will he believe God's promise of a son? (18:1-15) (kinda passed)

  • How will he respond to God issuing judgment on Sodom? (18:16-33) (passed)

  • How will he handle is fear of a local king? (20:1-18) (failed)

  • Will he do right by Hagar and Ishmael? (21:8-20) (failed)

  • How will he handle conflict with his neighbors? (21:22-34) (passed)

  • The official" test" about Isaac (22:1-19) (passed)

I love this section of Genesis from the perspective of learning so much about Abraham. He made mistakes -- mistakes I imagine myself making. He also grew in his relationship with God. In other words, a hero of our faith was a fallen human like us. His walk with God grew in fits and spurts, just like ours.


This Week's Big Idea: Sacrificing Our Son???

There's really no getting away from this, so let's tackle it now. Isn't God against human sacrifice? WHAT'S GOING ON HERE??!?


We also can't get away from the fact that today, we not only have the benefit of hindsight, but we also have the New Testament. Abraham and Isaac did not.


The "point" is relatively straightforward -- it's the shock value. What father would willingly sacrifice his son? Boom, drop the mic. God did not allow Abraham to go through with that horrible sacrifice (God was never going to allow that), but God Himself endured it for Abraham's sake and for ours.


Even Moses' early Hebrew audience would have no alternative but to see this as a gut-wrenching test of Abraham. Today, we realize it was that, but more than that it was a picture of the salvation that would be provided through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.


It's an incredibly powerful illustration for us today, but what a horrible experience it must have been for Abraham and Isaac!


The New Testament talks about Abraham a lot. The New Testament does not talk about this event much at all.

Heb 11:17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and yet he was offering his one and only son, 18 the one to whom it had been said, Your offspring will be traced through Isaac. 19 He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead; therefore, he received him back, figuratively speaking.
Jam 2:20 Senseless person! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? 21 Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works in offering Isaac his son on the altar?

I think that's it. It's too raw of a topic even for Paul!


Is Jesus Isaac or the Ram?

If you Google this topic, you'll find a lot of "parallels between Isaac and Jesus". Some of the lists are good; some are a stretch. Here's a page I like --

What I like about it is that it explains that Jesus is both Isaac and the ram. He is the willing sacrifice and He is the substitute. The other pages I read online missed that.


We will cover this again in the passage, but note that Isaac is almost certainly in his teens for this event. He's the one carrying the wood up the mountain. This clearly means that Isaac had to cooperate with Abraham. 100-yr-old Abraham is not likely overpowering a teen and holding him in place on an altar of wood. Isaac trusted his father that his father knew what he was doing.


Plenty of strong illustrative parallels between Isaac and Jesus.


But it's also quite clear (with the benefit of hindsight) that Jesus is also the ram -- the substitute for the sacrifice. This is a well-made video:


So, the New Testament clearly sets Jesus up as the final substitute sacrifice. But there's still a very important question: why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in the first place? Why was there a need for a substitute sacrifice at all?


We can imagine a scenario in which God did not ask this of Abraham at all, can't we?


It comes back to the shock value I mentioned above. But this shock value serves at least three purposes:

  1. Following God demands wholehearted commitment. (Note that God didn't ask Abraham to do this when God first introduced Himself!) Think of the shocking things Jesus said about following Him.

  2. Being in right relationship with God demands sacrifice. Moses explains to the Hebrews that this includes a sacrifice of atonement (see video above). Abraham was going to have to learn this sooner or later.

  3. Revealing to the Hebrews that God was going to sacrifice His own Son was going to be shocking and unbelievable no matter what (isn't that why many Jews rejected that possibility that Jesus was God's Son?), so God chose to begin the slow buildup of imagery here, and it would trickle through the rest of the Old Testament.


This is the bulk of the content of the lesson. It seemed like it would be useful to summarize the big picture in one place.

 

Part 1: The Test (Genesis 22:1-3)

22 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he answered. 2 “Take your son,” he said, “your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” 3 So Abraham got up early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his young men and his son Isaac. He split wood for a burnt offering and set out to go to the place God had told him about.

The verb for "test" means "to try or to prove". If you need to, take a look at my 2015 post for a breakdown of the difference between "tests", "trials", and "temptations". In a nutshell, temptations are toward evil, and temptations never come from God. But tests, even if they seem terrible (we often call those "trials"), are presented to us by God to

  • reveal our faith

  • strength our faith

  • focus our faith

We talked about such tests in our own lives when we studied James:

Here's how I distinguished between tests and temptations in that post:


  Test —> perseverance —> maturity

  Temptation —> sin —> death


So, this might be another good testimony time; what kinds of tests has God put in your life?


As I hope I made clear above, none of you will ever face a test like this one. God abhors human sacrifice. This event serves as the ultimate "object lesson", much like the difficult things God commanded of the prophets during the time of the fall of Samaria and Jerusalem.


Can we face similar types of tests, though? Maybe giving up something that's incredibly important to you? Maybe for some of you, that might be letting your child go into harm's way in the military or on the mission field. What other ideas come to mind?

“Take your son,” he said, “your only son Isaac, whom you love.”

God is being very clear that He understands what He is asking of Abraham. What are times in the New Testament where God uses similar language to this of Jesus?


Go to Moriah. According to 2 Chron 3:1 ("Then Solomon began to build the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah where the Lord had appeared to his father David"), this was the site of the future temple. The imagery is obviously thick. The phrase "land of Moriah" suggests more than one mount, so there is plenty of debate about this; some Christian scholars like to say that this part of Moriah was actually what became Golgotha. The imagery is just as thick there. The exact location of Mount Moriah does not change what happened there.


Assuming that Abraham was still in Beersheba, and that Moriah was near Jerusalem, this is a full 50+ miles through rugged terrain. The word for "young men" is the same used of Isaac in verse 5 ("boy"). The contextual clues suggest that these are strong teens, maybe even in their early 20s.


As far as I can tell, this is only the second reference to a "burnt offering" (the first is by Noah). The idea of a burnt offering would have been common in that day; "appeasing the anger of the gods through sacrifice" was consistent in all of the ancient religions. God would codify this practice (Number 28-29) and give it meaning -- burnt offerings were to atone for sin so as to restore your relationship with God.


We don't know if Abraham knew this, but we can guess that he did. Remember when we studied Job, which likely took place in a similar time?

Job 1:5 Whenever a round of banqueting was over, Job would send for his children and purify them, rising early in the morning to offer burnt offerings for all of them. For Job thought, “Perhaps my children have sinned, having cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular practice.

(We do know that there was plenty of sin in Abraham's life that needed atoning.)


The most important (and most shocking) part of this passage is verse 3 -- Abraham did. We can only assume that he had a terrible night. Isaac was the child of God's promise! But the author of Hebrews said that Abraham believed that God could give him Isaac back from the dead. That's a strong faith!


[Editor's addition -- I can't make it clear enough that God will never ask us to do something like this. The Abraham event is a once-in-history thing (which is why I think it points us to another once-in-history event on the cross). BUT God sometimes asks us to do things we don't understand, or that don't fully make sense to us at the time. Have you ever been through that? What did God ask you to do, what was confusing about it at the time, and how did it turn out?]

 

Part 2: The Preparation (Genesis 22:4-8)

4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac. In his hand he took the fire and the knife, and the two of them walked on together. 7 Then Isaac spoke to his father Abraham and said, “My father.” And he replied, “Here I am, my son.” Isaac said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Then the two of them walked on together.

Christians see the incredible imagery of the "third day". In Abrahan's mind, Isaac was dead the moment they set out on the journey of sacrifice. On this third day, Abraham received him "back from the dead" as the author of Hebrews put it.


That's why Abraham said "we will come back" -- he believed that somehow Isaac would be coming back with him.


Also note that Abraham associated this burnt offering with the worship of God. This was not a ritual or a mere act of obedience; he was worshiping.


Also also note that Isaac bore the wood up this mountain, just as Jesus would.


All of the details in this episode are crushingly calculated -- Abraham took the knife and the fire in his own hands to carry up the mountain.


The exchange between Isaac and Abraham is almost unbearable. I cannot begin to put myself into Abraham's head, hearing those words and responding as he did.


A weak approximation I can come up with is What's the hardest thing you've ever had to say to someone?

 

Part 3: The Moment (Genesis 22:9-12)

9 When they arrived at the place that God had told him about, Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood. He bound his son Isaac and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” He replied, “Here I am.” 12 Then he said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from me.”

When you look for artwork about Abraham and Isaac, this is the scene you will most often find (with lots of varying interpretive decisions).

We don't know how "close" Abraham was to slaughtering his son. All of the movies/paintings take creative license with this.


The Lifeway material notes that the word for "knife" only occurs four times in the Old Testament, two of those here.


This is the second time we have heard form "the angel of the Lord" -- the first time was when God spoke to Hagar in the wilderness. The "me" in verse 12 suggests that this is more than just an angel speaking. There are many Bible scholars who believe that any reference to "the angel of the Lord" is the Bible's way of indicating an appearance of God.


Remember how this passage started:

God said to Abraham, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he answered.

Try to imagine the differing circumstances of the two calls. Is Abraham relieved to hear God's voice the second time, or is he even more concerned?


The point is that Abraham "passed the test". Today, we know that God knew what Abraham would do. This test was not for God but for Abraham (and Isaac, and the readers of the Old Testament). Abraham (and Isaac) now knew that Abraham would put God before all else.


This is only the second time in the Bible we read about the "fear of God" (20:11 -

Abraham replied, “I thought, ‘There is absolutely no fear of God in this place. They will kill me because of my wife.’). But it is certainly not the last. I find the encounter between Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31 (which we aren't studying this quarter) to be incredibly telling:

51 Laban also said to Jacob, “Look at this mound and the marker I have set up between you and me. 52 This mound is a witness and the marker is a witness that I will not pass beyond this mound to you, and you will not pass beyond this mound and this marker to do me harm. 53 The God of Abraham, and the gods of Nahor—the gods of their father—will judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac. 54 Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain and invited his relatives to eat a meal. So they ate a meal and spent the night on the mountain. 55 Laban got up early in the morning, kissed his grandchildren and daughters, and blessed them. Then Laban left to return home.

"The Fear of Isaac" could also be translated "the one Isaac fears". In other words, this event had such a profound impact on Isaac that Isaac's children knew God as the one Isaac feared.


[Aside: until our children know God themselves, they will always have the wrong idea about why we "fear God". After Jacob encountered God for himself, his understanding of God changed profoundly.]


For our purposes in application, you would probably go back to everyone's testimonies: how did you know when you had "passed God's test"? What were the clues that God gave you that He was pleased with your response to the test?

 

Part 4: The Lesson (Genesis 22:13-14)

13 Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 And Abraham named that place The Lord Will Provide, so today it is said, “It will be provided on the Lord’s mountain.”

Abraham learned an incredibly powerful lesson from this event -- God will provide for him in his need.


Today, on this side of Jesus, we realize that God's provision is even greater than Abraham realized. And what could be greater than receiving your son back from death?


The repetition of "Abraham saw" in this passage is intended to invite us to experience this with him. Was the ram there the whole time? Even if it was, Abraham didn't see it until now. And when he did see it, he clearly saw it as a substitute for Isaac.


And I think that's what Christians can uniquely appreciate about this ordeal. Jews understood that the animal sacrifices in the book of the law were stand-ins to pay the penalty for their sins against God. But Christians realize that there was one perfect once-for-all substitute who was actually God's Son. Both Isaac and the ram point to Jesus.


[Argument Time about the King James Bible. Many of you probably think of this name as "Jehovah Jireh" (the Lord will provide). There are all kinds of kids' songs about Jehovah Jireh (including a great VBS song from 2005). Well, we get that name from the King James Bible. The Hebrew is "Yahweh Yireh". It became Jehovah Jireh through the influence of William Tyndale, who studied in Germany. (In German, the "y" sounds are pronounced with a "j".) The King James Bible based its transliterations on Tyndale's work. The best argument I have heard defending the use of the pronunciation "Jehovah" is from the Wikipedia article (of all places) -- we pronounce the names "Jerusalem" and "Jeremiah" even though both of those start with a Y in the Hebrew.]


"It will be provided on the Lord's mountain" means a lot more than the early Hebrews would have realized. This, of course, is why some Christians want to associate Mount Moriah with Golgotha -- but again, the two locations do not have to be the exact same peak for the meaning to be clear.


Salvation itself will be provided on the Lord's mountain.


Closing Topic

Your theological homework is to brush up on the doctrine of atonement, focusing on substitutionary atonement. Here are two paragraphs from the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:

In the OT sin is dealt with by the offering of sacrifice. Thus the burnt offering will be accepted 'to make atonement' (Lev 1:4), as also the sin offering and the guilt offering (4:20, 7:7) and especially the sacrifices on the day of atonement (ch 16). Of course, sacrifice is ineffective if offered in the wrong spirit. To sin 'with a high hand' (Num 15:30), that is, proudly and presumptuously, is to place oneself outside the sphere of God's forgiveness.
This truth is repeated and enlarged upon in the NT, where it is made clear that all are sinners (Rom 3:23) and that hell awaits them (Mark 9:43, Luke 12:5). But it is just as clear that God wills to brings salvation and that he has brought it in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son. The love of God is the mainspring (John :16, Rom 5:8). We are not to think of a loving Son wringing salvation from a just but stern Father. It is the will of the Father that all be saved, and salvation is accomplished -- not with a wave of the hand, so to speak -- but by what God has done in Christ: 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself' (2 Cor 5:19), a reconciliation brought about by the death of Christ (Rom 5:10)

A common emphasis of this doctrine is the idea of "penal substitution" which emphasizes the punishment we deserve, as in this Gospel Coalition article:

If you Google "penal substitutionary atonement", you will find a large number of articles of people who claim to be Christian but reject that doctrine. If you pull back the curtain (and I don't know that you need to take the time), you'll find that many of these people associate with the more liberal views of Christianity -- God is a God of love who would never send anyone to hell (and He would certainly never take His anger out on His Son), that forgiveness does not require sacrifice.


You'll find the Getty song "In Christ Alone" still at the epicenter of this debate after 20 years. Consider this Gospel Coalition interview:

Mainstream churches wanted to change the line “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.”


Keith Getty said no. The mainstream churches chose not to include the song in their hymnals.


In addition to the obvious rejection of the idea that sin needs to be punished, people who reject "penal substitutionary atonement" also (rightly) say that the cross teaches so much more than that.


It does! Any good Christian scholar would agree.


In my 2015 post, I note specifically that the cross illustrates punishment / sacrifice / substitution / victory. The dictionary article I quoted also mentions redemption / covenant / propitiation / reconciliation / endurance. The Jesus' death on the cross shows us all of that and more! But it does teach us the idea of penal substitution.


What usually happens here is that critics will say that the sacrifice of Isaac doesn't show all of those things. Once again, I have to agree. The sacrifice of Isaac points us to Jesus, and the sacrifice of Jesus demonstrates all of those other things.


So, yes, I'm talking about two different things, and that might be confusing. If (when!) you talk about Jesus' death on the cross, do make it clear that Jesus' death was about much, much more than this picture in Genesis 22. Our passage in Genesis, and the other passages we read in the Old Testament, point us ahead to that lifechanging event.


If you have any questions about this, please get in touch with me.

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