One of the most bewildering, nonsensical, and unthinkable passages in the Bible is Genesis 22. And I’m sure there are many other adjectives you could use to describe this passage. The passage is bewildering because the command seems contrary to what we know of the Lord. It’s nonsensical because Abraham already feared and obeyed God, and Isaac was his offspring on whom all the promises depended. Finally, it’s unthinkable because of what he commanded him to do. How can we make sense of such a challenging text?

This is an excerpt from the Welwyn Commentary Series by Evangelical Press, a series designed for pastoral ministry and preaching as it is dedicated to the practical exposition and exhortation of Scripture.

The Promise Sacrificed (Genesis 22:1-19)

No other narrative in Genesis quite matches this account. It is brilliantly written. Beyond its literary merits, this true story contains deep theological truth. The only event to surpass it is the one to which it points, the story of the Christ who died for us.

1. Abraham’s Faith Proved

Abraham’s testing experience falls into three main scenes. Each scene begins with a call to Abraham and his reply, “Here I am” (22:1,7,11).

We are told that “God tested Abraham” (22:1) but Abraham was not informed of this. The situation is not dissimilar to Job’s great trial. Neither Job nor his comforters knew that his sufferings were a special test of his faith in God. We do not always see the evils that befall us as tests. Tragedies are not packaged like examination papers with the word ‘test’ written on the envelope. We may never know the reason why we should suffer in a particularly distressing way. The Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “God is to be trusted when his providences seem to run contrary to his promises.” Job said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15).

This call to sacrifice Isaac was not some sudden impulse which Abraham thought had come from God. There are people who imagine that God has spoken to them and they convince themselves and others that it is right for them to do something outrageous. Anything we might feel God is personally saying to us must be tested by his written Word. This call to Abraham came from outside himself. It was a divine test. The word ‘tempt’ used to include the idea of testing (see the AV, ‘God did tempt Abraham’). In modern English it conveys only a bad sense. God never incites people to do wrong, as James reminds us (James 1:12-15). It is Satan who tempts us to sin. God tests us for our good and for his glory.

An Unthinkable Command

What a dreadful command Abraham received from God! He was being asked to give up his pride and joy. Not only that, God was directing him to act contrary to all that God had previously said. Isaac was the son of promise. Abraham had dismissed his other son on God’s instructions and now he was being asked to sacrifice this unique son in whom all God’s promises rested.

It is quite remarkable how Abraham obeyed so readily. When he left the servants with the donkey at the foot of the mountain, Abraham told them to wait there: “The lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you” (22:5). What faith! He was going to worship by offering Isaac on the altar. Though he believed God concerning his son, he was prepared to commit him to God. At the same time, he expected that they would both come down the mountain and meet up again with the servants. Abraham reasoned that “God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense” (Hebrews 11:17-19).

Where is the Offering?

The last stage of the journey would have been the hardest. Imagine the old man with the fire in his hand and his young teenage son carrying the wood making their way silently up the mountain. Eventually Isaac breaks the silence with a question that must have pierced his father’s heart: “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (22:7). How was Abraham to answer? Some have assumed he merely evaded the issue with a pious reply—”Don’t worry, it is all in God’s hands”—in the hope that Isaac would not ask any more awkward questions. But that is not how the text reads. It is a statement of faith at an important turning-point in the story: “My son, God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (22:8).

At that crucial moment when Abraham’s hand was raised to cut Isaac’s throat, God intervened, saying, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him” (22:11-12). Abraham had passed the test. Like Job he was a man who feared God. The testing experience proved that his faith was genuine (22:12). James uses this example to show that his faith was living and active. Abraham’s obedience indicated that he was in a right position before God (James 2:20-23).

2. God’s Pledge to Abraham

This unique experience not only tested his faith; it also informed his faith. For the last time and in a most emphatic way the promises first made when Abraham left Haran (12:1-3) are confirmed.

God’s promises are always the expression of his grace but they are presented here in the context of Abraham’s trustful obedience. It is, God says, “because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son…because you have obeyed my voice” (22:16,18), that the promises are renewed. Abraham’s obedient response was used in God’s overall purposes. Divine grace and human responsibility come together. The same was true when the Son of God came into the world. Mary and Joseph were obedient servants of God through whom the great promise was finally and completely fulfilled. There is every encouragement to live the life of faith and to do what is pleasing to God.

God condescended to reach down to Abraham’s level by going on oath to fulfill his promises: “By myself I have sworn” (22:16). This is the first divine oath in the Bible and the only one in Genesis, one that Moses frequently refers to later (see 24:7; 26:3; 50:24).

Expanding Promises

The promises expand. “In blessing I will bless you and in multiplying I will multiply…” is a Hebrew way of emphasizing the verbs: “I will certainly bless and multiply you” (cf. 22:17). Abraham’s descendants will become extremely numerous, “as the stars of the heaven” (see 15:5; 17:2) “and as the sand which is on the sea-shore” (22:17). The promise that “Your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies” (22:17) reminds us of the time when Israel under Joshua conquered the land of Canaan. But beyond that it looks to victory over the serpent and his ‘seed’ when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God and his Christ. The ultimate blessing is that through the promised “seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (22:18).

3. The Gospel Proclaimed

The whole testing experience foreshadowed future developments in the life of the people of God and the coming ‘seed’.

Like Abraham, Israel was called to go on a three-day journey to sacrifice at a mountain (Exodus 3:18). There the Lord appeared and promised blessing to those who obeyed him. At the time of the Exodus we are told that every father in Israel was expected to dedicate his first-born son to the Lord and to redeem him by offering a sacrifice (Exodus 13:1-16). Redeeming the first-born sons of Israel recalled the night on which they left Egypt when all the first-born in Egypt died and all Israel were spared judgement on account of the blood of the Passover lamb. Isaac’s rescue from death was like the sparing of the first-born sons of Israel. The ram that Abraham eventually offered in place of his son was like the Passover lamb that was killed in place of the first-born.

A Sacrifice that Anticipates More Sacrifices

This is the first detailed account we have of Abraham offering sacrifice. We read that he offered a ram as a burnt offering, foreshadowing the practice laid down in the law of Moses. It anticipated the daily burnt offerings of lambs every morning and evening in the tabernacle. Is it a coincidence that the place where Abraham offered the ram—a mountain in “the land of Moriah” (22:2)—has the same name as the spot where Solomon’s built his temple? (2 Chronicles 3:1).

Isaac becomes a type of what is prophesied concerning Jesus, the Servant of the Lord. As Isaac did not resist his father, so the Servant was led like a lamb to the slaughter and actually became the offering for sin and rose bodily from the dead (Isaiah 53:7-12; Acts 8:32-35).

Through this great testing experience Abraham saw, in a symbolic way, the truth concerning Jesus Christ, the unique Son of the Father. “You have not withheld your son, your only son”, the Angel of the LORD said to Abraham (22:12,16). Likewise, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten [unique] Son” (John 3:16).

4. Divine Providence – The Great Provision

The Hebrew for “The LORD Will Provide” is well known—Jehovah-Jireh. This name meant much to Hudson Taylor. It became the motto of the China Inland Mission. As Jireh is from the verb ‘to see’ we could translate the name as ‘The LORD will see to it’. God ‘sees’ to the needs of his people. Abraham had said to Isaac, “God will provide for himself [Hebrew, ‘see for himself’] the lamb for a burnt offering” (22:8). God did see to it and did not allow Abraham to offer his son. The “ram caught in a thicket by its horns” was the Lord’s provision (22:13).

“As it is said to this day” (22:14) gives the whole story ‘a certain timelessness’. “In the Mount of the LORD it shall be provided” (or ‘seen’) looks back to the words of Abraham (22:8) and forwards to the time when the temple would stand on Mount Moriah. Jesus said to the Jews, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).

The Scottish preacher Robert Candlish wrote, “Thus the very transaction which so severely tried the faith of Abraham showed him all that his faith longed so much to see. He saw the day of Christ—the day of his humiliation and triumph.”

As we look to that mount called Calvary where the heavenly Lamb offered himself for sinners, we can praise God for his wonderful provision. This is the Lamb who stands on Mount Zion with his redeemed people (Revelation 14:1-5). If God has gone to these lengths to save us we can be sure he will provide for us through our earthly pilgrimage. If God did not spare his only Son, “How shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).

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