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Abraham and Isaac -- understanding a test of faith in Genesis 22

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

God keeps His promises and can be trusted.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 22

God tested Abraham’s faith just as He does ours; our faith is proven and strengthened by obeying God. But in our testing, God never forces us to sin. Indeed, Jesus (as the ram foreshadowed) is the sacrifice for our sin; God would never bring greater punishment on His own Son!

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

This weekly post started as a resource for Bible study leaders; I am slowing adding older posts for reference.


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Plot Twists.

This is a heavy, heavy lesson. It is also the evangelistic emphasis for the quarter. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to get serious! Your leader guide recommends giving a test, which is fine. With my group, I like the illustration of the narrative plot twist. There are some great “I didn’t see that coming” moments. And if you haven’t seen these movies, I try to keep the secret safe. (You might want to warn your class before spoiling anything for them . . .)


Planet of the Apes. After traveling at light speed for 2000 years, Moses, er Charleton Heston, lands on a planet ruled by apes, only to discover . . .


The Empire Strikes Back. “Luke, I am your father.” Yeah, didn’t see that coming. Indeed, neither did any of the crew because George Lucas hadn’t told anyone!


The Sixth Sense. I know I’ve used this before in a similar exercise, but the plot twist in this movie is truly a classic; one that makes you stop and think.


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This is a lower-grade twist, but it really does change your view of James Stewart’s character.


Soylent Green. One of my favorites (I first watched it in high school), as classic as the premise is, I still didn’t see it coming.


A Beautiful Mind. A brilliant mathematician agrees to help a top-secret program for national security and, yeah, I didn’t see that twist coming.


There are some rougher ones out there that might come up, including Psycho, Fight Club, The Prestige, and The Usual Suspects. And lots of others. I’m very comfortable talking about movies in small groups because that gives me a chance to help my group members practice watching them with a Christian mindset. When someone brings up a movie (or other pop culture reference) that is too rough for Sunday School, we can talk about that difficult “line” between appropriate and non-appropriate. Importantly, we can see how even the most liberal Hollywood writer can’t get away from certain key Christian principles that have embedded themselves in our culture.


The purpose of this exercise would be to prepare us for the second-greatest plot twist in human history. God has worked miracles to bring Abraham a son through which He would bless the world, and now Isaac is to be sacrificed. Didn’t see that coming! (The greatest? That God would do the same with His own Son.)


Where We Are in Genesis

It’s pretty simple, really. Remember that Abraham has sent away Hagar and Ishmael, leaving Isaac as his only son. That makes God’s demand so much more jarring. Then, after this episode, we learn that Abraham’s brother Nahor also had twelve sons (one of his granddaughters was named Rebekah, but more on that later). Then we read about Sarah’s death. My assumption is that the last decades of her life were “uneventful” in the sense that she simply was able to enjoy them.

 

This Week's Big Idea: Tests, Trials, and Temptations

A lot of cynics and anti-Christians, when they talk about Abraham (and most everybody knows about Abraham), immediately talk about how it was wrong for God to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son. I will leave the mechanics of what this meant to Abraham for the commentary; the truth is that God would never ask any of us today to sacrifice our child because we all understand that to be contrary to God’s law. In other words, God would never “test” us in that way.


So how do we know the different between a God-given test (or trial) and a temptation? Doing a true word study on the subject is difficult because ancient Hebrew uses the same word for each of those meanings (nasa/nisa). God “tests” His people (Gen 22:2, Ex 16:4, Deut 8:2) with the same word as the people “challenge” God’s authority (Ex 17:2, Num 14:22). The word also refers to “attempts” and “ventures” and “temptations” although it is never applied to Satan. The same is basically true of Greek, which uses variants of peirazo to refer to “test,” “prove,” “try,” or “tempt.” Although there are some language clues to know if the author meant the word in a positive or negative sense, the translation of the word comes down to context. James 1 is usually where we go to learn about this subject, but realize that the words “trial” and “temptation” and “trouble” all come from the same peirazo. (The word “test” that appears twice in the chapter comes from a different word.)


To the Hebrews and the Greeks, “trials” and “temptations” seemed very similar. So just as scholars have to use context to determine how to translate nasa and peirazo, Christians have to use context to “translate” our experiences in life. James 1:13 says very clearly that if it is from God, it is not a temptation in the negative sense (an enticement to do evil). Satan tempts in that way by arranging circumstances to appeal to our sinful nature such that we choose the wrong over the right. James also says that God allows temptations in our lives to prove our faith; in fact, we should rejoice when we face temptation because that means that God counts us strong enough to be tested in that way. But God is never the author of temptation. And Paul makes it clear that God always provides a way out from temptation that is too strong for us (1 Cor 10:13).


BUT . . . outside of Hebrews 11:17 (in reference to Abraham), the New Testament does not speak of God “testing” (peirazo) someone (at least that I can find). I take that to mean that all of our temptations are kinds of tests. God allows us to face temptation because that’s how we learn to make right choices. Indeed, every temptation we have is allowed by God as a kind of test. Think of your life experiences in that way and you’ll take every temptation very seriously!

 

Part 1: The Test Presented (Genesis 22:1-2)

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he answered. “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.”

The good thing about narrative passages is they speak for themselves. There’s really not a lot of “teaching” you need to do today—maybe clarify a few things, maybe point out a couple of things—but you can simply sit back and let your group soak in the drama. The first thing you might have to point out is that the word for “test” also means “tempt” and I talk about that above.


In my opinion, these are some of the most ominous words in the Bible. I’m not sure what I would do with them. We know that God is against child sacrifice (more on that below), so you might want to start with the elephant in the room. Here’s how I explain this: God has to give the ultimate illustration, something that would truly wrench our heart and make us disgusted about the nature of a sacrifice/burnt offering. Why? Because it will set up for us just how horrible it was for God to sacrifice His own Son. I don’t think we could really appreciate the loss of one’s child until it is made a real possibility. (Abraham was willing to give up his child but God stopped him; God did give up His Child.) But the only way God could make a request such as this believable is if it were one of the first things He did, before the word got out that He abhorred such a sacrifice. Abraham lived in a world where child sacrifice was not uncommon, so he could take God’s command seriously (more on this on the next pages). Does that make sense? God needed to push this to the extreme for the illustration to work.

 

Aside: What’s Wrong with the Poor Ovine?

“Ovine” refers to the sheep family. In ancient Hebrew, related words were used for male and female sheep, goats, rams, and lambs. They are very important animals to pastoral herdsmen such as many Hebrews were. Abel was a keeper of sheep. Sheep were sources of food, milk, and clothing. Ram’s horns were used as trumpets and containers. So why do they keep getting slaughtered in Jewish culture? Abel sacrificed a sheep; Abraham sacrificed a ram; the Passover sacrifice was a spotless lamb. Think of it as being a turkey at Thanksgiving.


So what did the poor ovine do to deserve such a fate? It all comes down to imagery. God created sheep with important characteristics that would help teach the people why He would send His Son to be the perfect sacrifice.

  1. Sheep followed leadership, but when they did not have a shepherd to follow, they would inevitably scatter (1 Ki 22:17).

  2. Sheep are very nonviolent, meaning they would always be innocent of any aggression in the sheepfold (1 Chr 21:17).

  3. Sheep have no natural “weapons,” which means they are defenseless in the face of slaughter (Ps 44). They are even silent at their own slaughter (Isa 53:7).

In Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34, God makes it clear that such represents people. He is our Shepherd; He leads us to safe places and protects us from our enemies. Without Him, we cannot find our own way or defend ourselves. But we can learn that we can follow God, and when we stay near Him all will be well.


So to make a long story short, there’s nothing wrong with ovine. God created them to be a giant object lesson for us!

Bonus Aside: Where Is Moriah?

Moriah is never mentioned again in the Bible (it’s actually not mentioned in any other literature outside of Genesis), so we have to use clues to figure out its location. Abraham left Beersheba and traveled about 2 1/2 days through the Negev before seeing Moriah. The word might come from any of three different roots: “teach,” “worship,” and “vision,” so that doesn’t really help us. We know that the region they were is was lofty or mountainous. From Beersheba, the highlands are east, just before the Jordan River. From very early on, Jews connected Moriah with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (and so do most modern maps). It’s a reasonable distance from Beersheba, and it would have been visible from a long way away. And they saw great foreshadowing in Abraham sacrificing the ram on the same location that they would make their own sacrifices for generations. God is certainly capable of putting that level of detail into His plans!


The only problem with that is that a city likely already existed there: a city the Egyptians called Urushaltimu (which sounds a whole lot like Jerusalem). If this is the same city of which Melchizedek was king, and that David would later conquer as his capital, it seems strange that Abraham would go through this exercise and never mention it. There are two ways we can take it: Abraham did sacrifice the ram on the Temple Mount and the city was built on an adjacent mount, or (and this is the one I like), the city existed on the Temple Mount and Abraham sacrificed the ram on an adjacent mount. Who else was sacrificed on a mount just outside of Jerusalem? Could God not have directed Abraham to Golgotha?

 

Part 2: The Test Preparation (Genesis 22:3-8)

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. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 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.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac. In his hand he took the fire and the sacrificial knife, and the two of them walked on together. 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?” Abraham answered, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Then the two of them walked on together.

In my group, I’m just going to try to put them in the mind of Abraham. Abraham has just received this awful command. He had all night to think about it and prepare. He (or any of the boys—the language is vague) had to take the time to prepare the firewood. Then he had three days of travel with his son to think about it. I can’t imagine. I have heard stories of parents keeping secrets from children for what they think is good (like bad news at work, something health related), but nothing like this. What’s the hardest secret you’ve ever kept?


There are some good verbal cues in here. The word for “young men” is the same word used of Isaac (“boy”) which is why most scholars believe Isaac would have been a teenager. Also, it took a little more than two days of heavy travel to get to their destination; Jerusalem is about 50 miles from Beersheba, which is reasonable. And don’t miss the plural “we”! Abraham fully believed that Isaac would come back with him somehow. In Hebrews 11, the author says that Abraham simply believed that God would resurrect Isaac from the dead, which makes more sense than anything I could have come up with! And also note the parallels to Abraham’s response here to Isaac and previously to God. These were intimate relationships filled with love, yet it seemed one called for the end of the other.


Finally, point out the focus on Abraham. God’s commands to Abraham in the previous section were second-person singular: you take, go, and offer. To hammer it in, it was emphasized, “your son, your only son, whom you love.” And so in these verses it’s all about Abraham. Even Isaac’s perceptive question puts us in the mind of Abraham. This is a test of Abraham’s faith alone. And my heart is wrenched at the repeated point that they walked on together—a brilliant narrative device that tests our faith as we imagine ourselves walking with them.

 

Part 3: The Test Passed (Genesis 22:9-12)

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. Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” He replied, “Here I am.” 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.”

Then we reach the climax, and we finally see what was happening. The “angel of the Lord” intervened. This is the same identifier for the person who spoke to Hagar (16:7-8) and Ishmael (21:17). If you think you have time, by all means send your group to look up other times the Bible specifically says “the angel of the Lord” and see what they all have in common. Quite a few scholars believe it is a reference to God Himself. As with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, did God really need to test Abraham’s faith? Of course not! God knew Abraham’s heart. But Abraham needed to know Abraham’s heart. And just as importantly, I think Isaac needed to know Abraham’s heart: his love for his son would always be second to his love for God. I think that could be a major application here: do your children or your parents know that God comes first in your life? God would never call us to neglect our family, but Jesus made it clear that He must come before our family (Matt 10:37). As with praying and giving and loving Jesus, we must teach our family how to prioritize our relationship with God.


As to why God felt the need to test Abraham, I go back to Jesus’ exchange with Peter in John 21. Peter rightly says, “You know everything, Jesus; You know I love You.” But the point was just as Peter had denied Jesus three times, he then had to affirm Jesus three times. Jesus knew Peter loved Him, but Peter needed to hear himself say it out loud (and with Jesus’ acknowledgement). Cf. my previous page on temptations, I believe that every temptation is allowed by God to prove our growing faithfulness. Every victory over temptation is affirmation and hope.


I have one other application here that might step on some toes. It’s hard to put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes. Or is it? I know some parents who had a really hard time allowing their child to go into the military, or moreso to become a missionary in a dangerous country. They could not trust God’s provision and protection. This is a hard one to get the parallel correct because God gave Abraham a unique command, but I think an application to us today would be if our child feels a strong calling to a place, line of work, or ministry that we otherwise find dangerous (disease, violence, you name it), and we try to prevent them from living that calling. Sometimes we have to play “protector” (and sometimes we have to speak sense to our kids), but sometimes we need to trust that God is the only true Protector. For me personally, this is the strongest and toughest application I can make. God has a better plan for my child than I do.

 

Aside: Human Sacrifice in the Bible

As I mentioned, a sad truth is that human sacrifice was not uncommon in biblical times. Even Jewish kings Ahaz and Manasseh offered children to the god Molech during times of great national crisis (2 Chr 28:3, 33:6). 2 Ki 3 speaks of the Moabites performing human sacrifices. They picked up these practices from surrounding cultures. African (certainly Egyptian) practice included killing a person’s slaves at his funeral so they could continue serving him in the afterlife (not to pick on anybody, but the Chinese were still doing this in the 1600s). We have archeological remains in Carthage and Petra of giant child-sacrifice sites. It seems that people would sacrifice their children for greater fertility (??!), that such a great sacrifice would impress the god by their commitment. Furthermore, blood was seen as the life-force (I talked about drinking blood when I preached on Acts 15), so human blood would be the ultimate sacrifice to give to a god.


Editor's note: we later cover this in a study in Ezekiel:


God later makes it clear that He abhorred human sacrifice (Deut 18). Paul, in turning the tables on this institution, said that we needed to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice (Rom 12).

There is one awful incident in the Bible that is difficult to handle. Jephthah (Judges 11) made a vow that if victorious he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house. Not surprisingly, his daughter rushed out to congratulate him on his victory. Sorrowfully (at least he was sad about it) he fulfilled his vow and sacrificed his daughter. What is difficult is that we find Jephthah’s name in the hall of faith in Hebrews 11. Maybe he spent his life repenting for such an awful act?

 

Part 4: The Test Provision (Genesis 22:13-14)

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. And Abraham named that place The Lord Will Provide, so today it is said: “It will be provided on the Lord’s mountain.”

Then here’s the payoff, and this is why I wanted us to try to imagine Abraham’s journey. We know the outcome; we know that God provided a substitute for Isaac. But Abraham didn’t know. I can’t imagine the relief, the emotional wash (or crash). God loves us to no end, but God also knows the importance of testing our faith. He sees who we are, and He also sees who we can be. “The Lord Will Provide” literally means “Yahweh sees” and that’s good news. He sees our trials, He sees our needs, He sees our opportunities, and He will never accept anything less than the best for and from us. Isn’t that what we want from our parents? Isn’t that what we should want for our children?


Last week, my group talked about celebrating answered prayers. We can add to that celebrating the times we know God was testing us (because it shows that we have grown enough to be tested). Everywhere Abraham went, he built an altar to Yahweh to remember what God had done for him. This altar would truly be special, for we can think of it as Abraham “passing” this life’s ultimate test. We can be grateful that we will never be tested quite in that way, but we must realize that God has plans and goals and opportunities for us if we will trust and obey.


If you have time, talk about the ways God has tested (is testing) you and see what your group members can do to help one another through these tests!

 

Closing Thoughts: Substitutionary Atonement

God clearly intended His call for Isaac’s sacrifice as a picture of the doctrine of atonement. The Hebrews thought it was fulfilled in their sacrifices of lambs, but God later showed us that the meaning was a lot more visceral in the sacrifice of His Son Jesus. Atonement is the doctrine that God has reconciled sinners to Himself through a sacrifice. There are four primary ways of looking at it:


Atonement is about punishment. From the beginning of humanity, we have committed sins that should separate us from God. Because He is holy and cannot tolerate sin, that sin must be punished. Unfortunately, because our sin is against an infinite God, the punishment must be infinite. This was illustrated through the sacrifices of truly innocent creatures (domestic animals). God’s wrath against the sin that has destroyed His beautiful creation must be satisfied.


Atonement as sacrifice. It quickly follows from above that atonement is closely tied with the idea of sacrifice. We have injured God (not literally, as if God could be hurt) and we must repent. We give something valuable to God as an offering demonstrating our sorrow and our commitment to remain His child.


Atonement as substitution. In the background of the idea of sacrifice is the truth that the poor lamb did nothing to deserve its fate! Why could the Hebrews not just bring money or the like as their offering? Because the sacrifice was also a substitution. The little lamb actually “took the place” of the Hebrew in absorbing the wrath of God. *That* is the emphasis we see in the Abraham story: the ram served as a substitute for Isaac. Clearly the only way such a foreshadowing could be fulfilled is if God somehow sacrificed His own Son (which is exactly what He did).


Atonement as victory. Jesus died for the sins of human beings, not dogs or cats or trees (whatever their sins are). But Paul makes it clear that through the cross Jesus has somehow reconciled all of creation to God (Col 1). If that is not through a substitutionary sacrifice, then the cross must also be a great victory. You’ll hear this called Christus Victor; it is the idea that through His death, Jesus conquered the powers of evil, even death itself. All of creation shares in that victory, as Revelation tells us that there will be a new heaven and a new earth that is no longer under the curse. So even though Jesus did not die for birds, birds still enjoy the fruit of His atonement.


This is the gospel. This is the message that we are to take to the nations. There is no other way to be right with God.

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