Abraham and Isaac
in Genesis chapter 22 - a strange story of child sacrifice that points forward to the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
In Genesis chapter 22, verses 1-19, there is a strange story where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Please read this story before you go any further, as the rest of this article will make much more sense once you have read it.
To our eyes, this is a bizarre story. What is going on? Child sacrifice is something barbaric and primitive. It is even something that God commanded the Israelites not to do. So we read this story with surprise. Surely God is not like that!
This command came as a terrific challenge to Abraham: Isaac had been born in a very special way, long after Abraham and his wife could have expected to have children. There were special promises from God woven around his birth:
In Genesis chapter 12 verses 1-3, when Abraham is already 75 years old, God promises that he will be the father of a great nation - but he does not have any children. The promise is repeated in Genesis chapter 13 verses 14-16, but there is still no sign of children. In Genesis chapter 15 verses 4-5, when Abraham doubts, God renews the promise - but there are still no children. So when he is 86, Abraham decides to take things into his own hands, and fathers a child on one of his slave girls. In Genesis chapter 17 verses 17-19, thirteen years later, when Abraham is 99 and his wife is 90, God renews his promise.
Finally, in Genesis chapter 21 verses 1-2, the promised son finally arrives.
And then God says 'take him and kill him.'
Do not under-estimate how shocking this is. We can read ahead. We know the outcome. Abraham did not. And I am sure he asked: 'what on earth is God doing?'
Maybe you are a follower of Christ, and yet you have had this kind of experience. God seems to be acting out of character, in strange ways - ways that are disturbing and distressing.
Maybe you are not a follower of Christ today because of something that has happened in your life - something that seems tragic and senseless. And you think 'How could God let that happen to me? I can't believe in that kind of God.'
But what matters is not our tiny little opinions. What matters is the truth. And God has not left us to guess about the truth. He has made it known to us through the Bible.
The Bible tells us that God is a God of love. He cares about the things that happen to us. He cares far more than we realize. You matter to God, even if at times you feel as if you do not matter to anyone else.
But the Bible also tells us that God is not just a 'Father Christmas' figure. He is the ruler of the universe. He is great and he is powerful and he is sovereign - and he is working out his purposes. So many people today want a god who is 'there for them' - who will answer their prayers and meet their needs, but not a God who expects anything from them. But the Bible's picture of God is that he is the boss. He is Lord, and he rightfully expects us to bow to him. He had a right to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, however little this pleases us.
Have you ever read C S Lewis's 'Narnia' stories? In these stories, the central figure is the great lion, Aslan. And one of the key phrases in the books is: 'Aslan is not a tame lion.' In other words, we do not control him. And we do not control God. His purpose is not just to be 'there for us'. And we cannot explain all the things God does.
But we have to let God be God. How can we expect to understand him, with our tiny little minds. His ways are beyond us.
(In passing let me say that this is one of the things that convinces me that the message of the Bible really is true. There is so much about God that I cannot understand. If I could understand it all, that would make me suspicious that the whole thing was made up - a product of other human minds like my own. But there is a lot that does not make sense - and this is just what you would expect, if it is describing a reality that is beyond our thoughts, rather than just a man-made religion. As St. Augustine said, 'If you can understand it, it is not God' - 'Si comprehendis, non est Deus.')
God is beyond our understanding. I am sure he was beyond Abraham's understanding too.
How do we respond when God asks us to do something we do not want to to? Argue? Delay? Outright disobedience?
The Bible says 'Early the next morning...' Abraham set about doing what God had told him (verse 3). Abraham did not argue, and did not delay. He obeyed God. The Bible does not tell us how he felt or what he thought. It leaves that to our imagination. It deliberately puts in a lot of fiddling little details that drag out the story, and give us time to think about how Abraham felt while all this was going on.
Abraham obeyed. The Bible does not tell us, but I think he did it with a very heavy heart, and with a puzzled mind, and with dragging feet. If we imagine he was some kind of Biblical superhero, a spiritual Schwarzenegger who never had any problems, we are mistaken. He was a human being, just like the rest of us. If you were about to lose your only child, how would you feel?
That was an amazing thing to say. Abraham could obey God because he believed God. God had promised that Abraham's descendants would come through the line of Isaac, and Abraham believed that God would somehow 'work it out'. This is not just me reading something back into the story. This is what the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews says, in chapter 11 verses 17-19. I am sure Abraham did not know how God was going to sort it out, but he did believe that God would.
When we go through these distressing circumstances, where God seems to be acting in strange ways, when things are far from clear, we need to hold on to what is clear - God's promises in the Bible, and to trust him to work things out in ways we cannot understand - and we need to obey him, without arguing or delaying. Of course that is easier said than done.
So we have this picture of them trudging across the rocky middle eastern hills under a hot sun. And in verse 7, Isaac challenges Abraham: 'Where is the sacrifice?'. We have brought wood and we've brought fire, but we have no animal to sacrifice. Abraham responds, in verse 8, 'God himself will provide one.' In other words, 'I don't know how God is going to work it out, but he is.'
So Abraham goes ahead, builds the altar, ties up Isaac, and is on the point of killing him (verses 9-10). At the very last moment, the angel calls out 'Stop! Don't hurt the boy... now I know that you honor and obey God, because you have not kept back your only son from me.' (verses 11-12). Abraham has passed the test!
He looks round, and sees a ram caught in a bush. His faith has been vindicated. God has provided a sacrifice himself (verse 13). The angel of the Lord renews and re-affirms the promised blessing (verses 15-18), and Abraham and Isaac return (verse 19).
A huge sigh of relief! At the last moment, everything turns out all right. But what is the story all about? What does it mean? Is it just an encouragement to trust God and obey him even when his ways seem strange and out of character?
Well, it is that. But it is much more too. If we want to understand what is going on under the surface, we need to focus our attention on the place where all this happened.
God tells Abraham: 'Go to the land of Moriah. There on a mountain that I will show you...' (verse 2). Why did Abraham have to go on this three-day journey? Why couldn't he have sacrificed Isaac right where he was? What difference would it make?
So what? What is so special about this place? We have never even heard of it, have we? It is just some mountain in the desert of Israel! In fact, we have all heard of it, and it is very familiar to us, under a different name. Mount Moriah was the place where Jerusalem was going to be!
In fact, it was the place where, about a thousand years later, the temple itself would be built - see 2 Chronicles chapter 3 verse 1. It was the place where sacrifices would be made. This verse refers not only to Mount Moriah, but also to the 'threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.' There is another special story woven round this particular place:
In 1 Chronicles chapter 21 verse 1 to 22 verse 1, there is a strange story about king David provoking God's anger, and God sending an angel as a messenger of his anger, who was killing thousands of people. The important point, as far as we are concerned, is that the threshing floor of Araunah was the place where God's anger was turned away, and the place where sacrifices were made.
So what is the point of this story for us? Understanding the special significance of the place is the key that unlocks the story. A special son had to be sacrificed. Where have we heard that before?
If we think it seems cruel, remember that God only asks Abraham to go through what he himself has gone through in sacrificing his own son for us. Abraham did not have to go all the way through with it, but God did.
Remember Abraham's words to Isaac, when Isaac asked him where the sacrifice was: 'God himself will provide a sacrifice.' Later, at the end of the story, Abraham would name the place 'The Lord will provide.' There is a profound meaning hidden in this name. Literally, God himself provides the sacrifice that is needed.
This strange incident, about two thousand years before Christ, is a picture that points forwards to the special Son who God himself would provide as the sacrifice for our sins, in the place where God's anger would be turned away.
All of this story was written down, and widely known, long before Jesus came. Yet he fulfilled it in an amazing way. This could not have been something humanly made up. It was something that only God could have done. God put it there in Genesis to show us something about what he is doing in the world.
In this story, we see something of God's amazing love for us, that he was prepared to give up his own son for us. (Compare what Paul says in the New Testament in Romans chapter 8 verse 32.)
How are we supposed to respond? Not just to the story of Abraham and Isaac, but to the underlying reality that the story points to - the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, the special son of God, as a sacrifice for us, provided by God to turn away his anger?
The same way Abraham responded to God's challenge:
Faith: Abraham is described in the Bible as 'the man of faith' (Galatians chapter 3 verses 6-9). Abraham believed what God had said. He believed that God himself would provide a sacrifice, so that he would not have to lose Isaac. The Bible tells us that Abraham was accepted by God because he believed God.
Obedience: Abraham did what God told him, even though it seemed strange and beyond understanding. He did not argue, and he did not delay.
That was Abraham's response, and God is looking for the same response from us.
God gave up his special Son, his only Son, for you and me, as a sacrifice, in the place where his anger was turned away, so that we would not have to face eternal death and separation from him. He looks for us to respond by believing in him.
Maybe you have never believed in Jesus Christ. You just have so many questions. God is calling you to trust him and obey him, even where you cannot understand. This certainly does not mean that we switch off our minds!
Maybe, like Abraham, you have been a believer for a long time - perhaps it feels like 70 or 80 or 90 years! Yet today you are going through some difficult circumstance, where God's ways with you seem strange and beyond understanding. God is calling you to believe what is clear in the Bible, and to obey the commands you do understand, like Abraham - the commands that are clear in the Bible. And then we shall find, like Abraham, that God does keep his words, even when it looks like he is not going to.
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