Today in our series, The Gospel According to Genesis, we reach one of the most difficult stories in the Bible: the story found in Genesis 22. In Judaism, it is known as “The Akedah” — “The Binding of Isaac.” But this challenging passage is also one of the most important stories in the entire Bible. It is one of the primary foreshadowings of what God will do through Jesus. Let’s look at God’s Word from Genesis 22.
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”Genesis 22:1-2
The Bible says that God “tested” Abraham here. There is a sense in which God is seeking to refine Abraham’s faith — more on that in just a minute. Abraham lived with God’s promise for many years — the promise that one day, God would give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens. And as we talked about last week, God fulfilled this promise when Abraham was 100 years old. But now, years later, God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
And this is difficult for us to hear. Our modern sensibilities are immediately offended. We think, “What is God up to in this story? Why does He make such a heart-rending request?” And we must remind ourselves that this is only a test. If we’re aware of the ending, we know that God does NOT actually require Isaac’s life. But that only prompts us to ask again, “What is going on here?”
We come up against an ugly reality of the ancient world: child sacrifice was common in many religious traditions of the Ancient Near East. And that is an important detail. I believe God’s test of Abraham is actually intended to reveal an important aspect of God’s character: namely, the He is NOT the kind of God who requires child sacrifice. In that regard, the Akedah is as much a test of God’s character as it is a test of Abraham’s faith.
At this point in the biblical story, we are introduced to a new word: the word “love.” God says, Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love… This is the first time the word “love” occurs in the Bible, as a description of what the father feels for the son. That’s an interesting detail.
With this test, God is refining Abraham’s faith. God asks Abraham to choose between the Giver and His gifts. James 1:17, Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. God is a Giver; but this test is about choosing the Giver over the gifts. And this is a thought worthy of our consideration.
Do I love God for who He is or simply for what He gives me?
Do I love the Giver more than the gifts?
In my life, I have experienced a sense of peace in my life that comes from the LORD. But I can’t love the peace that comes from God more than God Himself. To do so would be to make an idol out of God’s good gift.
This is the question we all must answer: Will I love the LORD with all of my heart, all of my soul, all of my mind, and all of my strength?
God tells Abraham to go to the land of Moriah, promising to give him further specifics pertaining to the mountain God has selected for the sacrifice. That lets us know that there is more to this episode than what we have recorded here. Now we look at Abraham’s response:
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And 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. So they went both of them together.And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.Genesis 22:3-8
The little details in these verses are so telling. V3, “Abraham rose early in the morning.” His obedience was immediate. God gives Abraham three simple imperatives: take, go, and sacrifice. And Abraham immediately obeyed God’s call. Immediate obedience is the best obedience.
We notice that the words “father” and “son” dominate this passage of Scripture, occurring a total of twelve times in Genesis 22. As we read this story, we’re repeatedly reminded of the relationship between Abraham and Isaac — but all of this points to an even deeper father / son connection.
Another important detail is found in v4, On the third day. The area God specified for this sacrifice to occur was a three day journey. When we’re reading the Bible and we come across something happening on the third day — that should grab our attention. So on the third day, Abraham tells his servants that he and Isaac will go over there and worship and come again to you. This is the first time the word “worship” is used in Scripture. Of course, Abraham knows that this worship will involve a tremendous sacrifice. Worship and sacrifice are intrinsically linked — as we were just reminded as Ron led our time around the table this morning.
Abraham takes the wood for the offering and he lays it on his son. Isaac carries the wood for the sacrifice. That’s yet another fascinating detail that foreshadows something far greater.
When Isaac asks about the lamb, Abraham replies: God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son. Hebrew scholars note that this phrase can be taken two different ways. Abraham may be saying, God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son. But since there is no punctuation in Hebrew, some argue that the phrase may also be interpreted: God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering: my son.
Either way, the point is still the same: Abraham is trusting that God will provide. Now we reach the climax of the story:
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide,” as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”Genesis 22:9-14
This story is so hard. I think this is one of the greatest proofs that the Bible is the Word of God and not the invention of man, because we would surely edit this story — or we’d choose to leave it out altogether. There are so many things that trouble us about this episode. But all we can do this morning is to acknowledge the discomfort this story provokes as evidence that it is truly a word to us from God.
Abraham builds an altar and prepares to offer his son — his lineage and his future. What must have been going through Abraham’s mind? The Genesis account doesn’t give us those details. But the writer of Hebrews tells us that Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead. In choosing the Giver over the gift, Abraham trusts that somehow, God would find a way to be faithful to him.
The biblical story bears witness that, even when it seems impossible, God always finds a way.
We might also ask what was going through Isaac’s mind. And we don’t have those details either, at least not stated explicitly. We don’t know Isaac’s precise age here. He is clearly old enough to carry a significant amount of wood for this sacrifice. Scholars believe Isaac could be a young teenager at the time of this story; perhaps even in his 20s or early 30s. There is a wide range of possibilities here.
The point worth making, though, is that Isaac was likely old enough — and strong enough — to contest being bound if he so desired. Pick a number: say Isaac was 17 years old; that puts Abraham at 117 years old. Who would you take in that fight? Who wins in a footrace back to the servants? As we noted earlier, there is more to this story than what we have recorded here.
I believe at some point, Abraham took Isaac aside and explained what God had asked. Based on what we read in Hebrews, maybe Abraham even told Isaac about his belief that God could raise the dead. And I believe Isaac acquiesces to the will of the father and agrees to go through with this sacrifice. I believe Isaac says, Your will be done, father.
And I believe this because of what this story represents. All of this took place on Mount Moriah, which eventually became the location for the Jewish temple. That is significant because in one way or another, every sacrifice in the Bible looks back to this event. This isn’t about what Abraham was willing to sacrifice, nor is it about the sacrifices of generations of Israelites at the temple hundreds of years later. The larger point focuses upon what God sacrifices, what God willingly provides on behalf of His people.
Which leads us back to Isaac’s willingness to comply with the will of the father. Isaac foreshadows another child who would be born years later — another child who was the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise. And this son, like Isaac, carried wood on his back — this time in the form of a cross, a Roman execution stake. And like Isaac, his will was aligned with the will of the Father.
One of the more common critiques of Christianity has to do with our view of atonement. The line of reasoning goes something like this: a god who would allow his own son to endure something as horrendous as the cross must be monstrous, not compassionate and loving. And that would be a valid way to look at the cross…if it weren’t for what’s actually recorded in the Bible. Because God’s Story is really clear — what happened to Jesus was not only the will of the Father, but it was the willful choice of Jesus himself. It is absolutely imperative that we follow the Bible’s lead toward a Trinitarian understanding of atonement. That means there is no choice of God the Father that is not also the choice of God the Son or God the Spirit — because they are three in one. God the Son made the willful choice to be obedient unto death, even death upon a cross. The Father doesn’t force anything upon the Son. And that’s why I believe Isaac was compliant with the will of his father.
When God calls from heaven a final time, Abraham replies with his customary response: Here am I. I’m here, LORD, ready to hear from you yet again. Abraham is praised for his fear of the LORD — which is just another way of saying that Abraham bases his life on God. He has chosen the Giver over the gift. And the Giver provides once more: Abraham turns and sees a ram caught in a thicket. And Abraham offers this sacrifice to the LORD.
Because of this episode, the Jewish people blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, in celebration of New Year. It’s a reminder that even when things appear to be most bleak, God will provide. God always finds a way.
The story in Genesis 22 cannot be understood apart from the 100 years of road-tested faith that make up Abraham’s story. And the “binding” of Jesus — Abraham’s most renown descendant — cannot be understood apart from centuries of God’s faithfulness and God’s love.
Genesis 22 is the first time the word “love” occurs in the Bible, but it only points us to the ultimate understanding of the word — another description of a father and a son. But this time, their love is directed not only toward one another, but toward us.
John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.