Although S and J were very happily married, there was one thing they desired more than anything else, to have children. But despite lots of attempts, including IVF, they were unable to conceive. Over several years I and many others prayed that God would bless S and J with children.
It was therefore with immense joy, when one day S took out his phone and said “I have something to show you.” On the phone was a photo of an ultra sound scan, taken that same morning of not one, but two babies that his wife J was expecting. The birth of their twins brought immense joy.
Abraham and Sarah
For Abraham and Sarah the wait to have a child of their own took even longer. Abraham was 75 when he first received God’s call, and the promise that God would bless him and make him into a great nation (Genesis 12:2). But Abraham and his wife Sarah had to wait another 25 years, before their son Isaac was born, by which time Abraham was 100 years old.
When Isaac was born, there was much joy and celebrating.
Why therefore would God some years later say to Abraham “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2)
This passage of scripture has been wrestled over, and debated for centuries by Jewish and Christian theologians. Few Scriptures have provoked more anguish, more controversy and commentary, than this passage. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have even composed songs about it!
Child Sacrifice and The Bible
The Bible is clear in its denunciation of child sacrifice, which was common practice amongst the Canaanite religions. For example it states in Deuteronomy 12:31 “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” (see also Leviticus 20:1-5)
Why then would God test Abraham by telling him to do something which is so detestable? And why doesn’t Abraham question this instruction. In Genesis 18, Abraham pleads with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah, why therefore does he not plead for the life of his son? As a parent I would do everything in my power to protect my children from harm, why doesn’t Abraham turn round to God and say “No – this is something I will not do.” This passage raises lots of difficult and uncomfortable questions, which cannot be easily answered.
But because we find this story disturbing doesn’t mean we can simply dismiss it. In fact the more we look into it, the more it has to teach us, even if it does leave some unanswered questions.
Being Put To the Test
God was putting Abraham’s faithfulness and loyalty to the test. It is one thing to say you love God above all else, but do you really? But this was a test that was contrary both to human reason – there is nothing more abhorrent than the thought of a parent murdering their child – and divine promise, it was through Isaac that God had promised to bless Abraham.
Why did Abraham not simply refuse to go through with this test? Why did he not say to God, I’m not prepared to do this?
The answer I think lies in the fact that over the years Abraham had learned many tough lessons about the importance of obeying God. And he had also learnt that even if what God was calling him to do made no sense, GOD COULD BE TRUSTED. It was because he trusted God, that he was able to obey Him (see Hebrews 11:17-19).
But this story illustrates that obedience to God can be a struggle. Putting aside our will and submitting to God’s will is one of the hardest lessons we need to learn in the Christian faith. Obedience can only come once we’ve learnt to trust God.
The clue that Abraham trusted that God would somehow intervene, can be seen in the fact that he says to his servants “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (22:5) And when Isaac asks about the lack of sacrifice, Abraham responds “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” (22:8)
As Abraham journeyed to Mount Moriah, he would surely have remembered the promises God had given him to bless him (see Genesis 17:15-16), and the times when God had seen him through difficulties.
When times are tough, when God feels distant, or we are being called to do something that scares us, something that takes us out of our comfort zone, it’s good to remember the promises God has given us in the past, both in Scripture and personally. It helps to remind us that God is faithful, and will not fail us. As it says in Proverbs, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart.’ (Proverbs 3:5)
The test for Abraham was, is he willing to put God first, even above the love for his son? Jesus issued a similar challenge when he said "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26). God wants our total love, service and devotion. One of the questions this story asks us to consider is, how much would I be prepared to sacrifice for the sake of God? Where does God come in my life?
Isaac and Jesus
We’ve considered Abraham’s response, but what about Isaac? Isaac has a rather passive role in the story. I’m left wondering, why when it became apparent that he was to be the intended sacrifice, did he not struggle against his father, or call for help. Abraham was an old man, surely it wouldn’t have taken much for Isaac to escape his father’s grasp and flee. Could it be that Isaac submitted to all that was taking place? And if so why?
To understand the answer to this question, we need to look to the New Testament. Because the New Testament tells a very similar story to the one we are looking at today. That story is of course about Jesus.
There are striking similarities between the story of Abraham and Isaac and the story of Jesus.
Isaac is called ‘your son, your only son whom you love.’ At Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven declares “This is my beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17). Jesus is God’s only beloved son.
As Isaac carried the wood for the burnt offering. So Jesus’ carried his cross to the place of execution.
Abraham and Isaac travelled Mount Moriah, where the Jerusalem Temple would one day be built, and near to where Jesus would be crucified.
The journey to Mount Moriah took Abraham and Isaac three days. Jesus would spend three days in the tomb.
With the provision of a ram, as a substitute for Isaac, Abraham renames Mount Moriah Jehovah Jireh, ‘The Lord will provide’ (Genesis 22:14). It was in this same place two thousand years later that Jesus, sent by the Father, became our substitute by laying down his life for us on the cross.
It is Jesus’ death on the cross that ultimately enables me to make sense of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It was out of love for us, that God the Father sent his son Jesus into the world, and why Jesus was willing to submit to death on the cross.
Although the story of Abraham and Isaac still leaves many questions to be answered, it is a fundamentally a story about faithfulness, obedience and love, as shown by Abraham to God, and most importantly that God shows to us. Because ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16) As God provided us with a saviour in Jesus, so he continues to provide for us. As Paul writes, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
Let us pray.