A while ago, I asked the question “what is your Egypt?” It was a reference to a place we run to when the going gets tough. Repeatedly in Scripture, God’s people ran to Egypt when things got tough such as during famine or an invasion by another nation. Often, they did this despite being warned not to do so [see Jeremiah 42]. In addition to places of refuge we run to in times of trial, there are also things we hold onto too tightly. They are so dear to us that it seems impossible to imagine life without them. It could be a spouse, a child, a job, a house, wealth, etc. Is there such a thing or person in your life? What if God asks you to give it up?
I have written on numerous occasions about Abraham because I find his life so instructive [Genesis 12-25]. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, were barren and when He was 75 years old, God promised him a son. It took a further 25 years for Sarah to conceive and give birth to their son, Isaac. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Abraham to hold Isaac after waiting for him 100 years? Of course, he loved Isaac dearly and now that he had Isaac, it isn’t outrageous to suggest that he couldn’t imagine life without his son. Yet, Abraham had to face that terrifying prospect a few years later.
One day, God tested Abraham when He said to him: “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 NIV]. We are told that Abraham got up early the next morning and headed out to Moriah to sacrifice his son [v3]. The Bible is silent on how Abraham felt about losing Isaac and having to be the person to kill his precious son. However, he was human just like you and I. How would you have felt?
More importantly, how would you have responded to God? I know how I would have likely responded: “Lord, are you serious? I waited over a century for this child and now you want me to do what?! No chance!!” I have always been fascinated by Sarah’s role in this story. Did she know what was happening and where her husband was going with their son that morning? If so, how did she feel? What did she say to him? What would you have done in her shoes if your spouse came home one day and told you “God said we should sacrifice our only child”. “I’m sure you didn’t hear right!” and a few other choice words would be my probable response.
There are situations in life where you have no control. I think of parents watching their children die of terminal diseases as their prayers go unanswered. As a parent, I can’t imagine anything worse. In those scenarios, it is out of our hands and in God’s hands. For anyone going through a situation like that, I pray for courage and faith in a loving God who is no stranger to pain and suffering. One day He will destroy pain, suffering and death forever [Isaiah 65:17-25] and that is our ultimate hope. Yet, there are situations, like Abraham’s or the rich young ruler in Mark’s gospel [Mark 10:17-31], where you have a choice. For instance, how would you respond as a parent desperate for a grandchild if your only child decides to go serve God as a celibate missionary? What would you do if God calls you to walk away from a thriving career you love? How would you respond if God calls you to sell the home you’ve worked so hard to buy and use the money to fund a cause?
God never forces our hand when we have a choice. He would never have forced Abraham to sacrifice Isaac because it had to be an act of love and trust in God, and such an act cannot be compelled. We have to choose. However, if Abraham had not taken that leap of faith, trusting that God was able to give him Isaac back even from the dead [Hebrews 11:17-19], then he would never have experienced God’s provision and blessing [Genesis 22:9-17]. If he had not acted in faith, you and I would not have inherited the promised blessing of Abraham [Genesis 22:18-19, Galatians 3:14]. I find it utterly amazing that about 18 centuries later, God would give up his own Son on a cross near mount Moriah as a fulfilment of that blessing.
Maybe you don’t have an Isaac or as you read this, you know exactly what your Isaac is. Whatever our situation may be, if we are to keep God’s foremost commandment [Deuteronomy 6:5], then we cannot love anything or anyone more than we love God. As Christians, it is easy to profess our love for God and we sing of it but do we really mean it? As we see in scripture, sometimes God will test us to see what is in our hearts [Deuteronomy 8:2], just as He did with Hezekiah [2 Chronicles 32:31], because love is proved in actions, not words.
Something else worth remembering in Abraham’s story is that Isaac eventually died. The same fate awaits everything we hold dear in this world. One day, death will come and will separate us from the things we love. However, our choices in life will echo beyond death. If like Abraham, we choose to put our love for God above all else, we have a guaranteed that our choice will not go unrewarded.
Hello Charles. Thank you for (as ever) a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I am intrigued by some of the implications embedded within this paragraph in particular: “God never forces our hand when we have a choice. He would never have forced Abraham to sacrifice Isaac because it had to be an act of love and trust in God, and such an act cannot be compelled. We have to choose. However, if Abraham had not taken that leap of faith, trusting that God was able to give him Isaac back even from the dead [Hebrews 11:17-19], then he would never have experienced God’s provision and blessing [Genesis 22:9-17]. If he had not acted in faith, you and I would not have inherited the promised blessing of Abraham [Genesis 22:18-19, Galatians 3:14].”
You refer to Abraham having a choice, but if God’s desire (stated slightly over-simplistically) was that Abraham should indeed kill Isaac, because it was God’s “plan A” as it were, then would this really be true, for someone whose priority was to please God above all else? In that sense, then, if he wanted to be a person of faith and obedience, was there not an implication that he ought to do it? Therefore, not really a genuine choice, concerning which God genuinely was happy whichever decision Abraham made? When you say “because it had to be an act of love and trust in God” are you not in effect saying that “a person who loves and trusts God would make that particular choice …”? “We have to choose” suggests “we have to choose whether we want to be obedient or not …”
I have always wondered whether the purpose of the story is the opposite of what it appears to be saying at face value. In other words, whether the point was, in fact, a test of whether Abraham was hearing God right, given (1) the unequivocal prohibitions against child sacrifice in the later Law, clearly showing that God was implacably opposed to the practice (and rightly so), and (2) that the practices of the surrounding nations included child sacrifices to their gods, and hence, the lesson Abraham was supposed to learn was that this was NOT something that the one true God, the God of Israel, would ever ask of his people. In reckoning that God would/could bring him back from the dead, he was halfway there, but only halfway there!
Hence I wonder if the lesson for Abraham here was along the lines of his argument concerning Lot and his family: “Surely this isn’t the kind of God you are … ” — i.e. that he should have had the courage to ‘challenge’ what he thought God was saying (to challenge the generally accepted thinking as to what people at the time thought the gods asked of people) based on what he was learning of the nature and character of this very different, one true God.
Did God really ‘change his mind’ about Abraham sacrificing Isaac, or was it ‘just a test’ (will you or won’t you do it for me?) — neither of which appears to show God in a particularly good light — or was it all about Abraham learning more about what this God is (and in this case) isn’t like and doesn’t ask of his people?
Thank you Steve, you do raise some very valid and interesting points. I must confess, I struggle with the text and I would like to discuss that further. However, for this post I am taking the text at face value and trying to look at it from Abraham’s perspective. I believe he faced the real prospect of losing his son. He could have said no to God and refused to go to Moriah. So in that sense, he had a decision to make. I also believe, and there is nothing in the text to suggest otherwise, that if the angel hadn’t intervened, Abraham would have sacrificed Isaac. It seems Abraham made his choice between holding on to his blessing or offering it up to God. Genesis 22:12 tells us what God thought of his decision. Would the reverse of that verse have been true if he had refused to sacrifice Isaac? In the gospels, there is the rich young ruler Jesus told to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor and then, come and follow Him. He too had a choice, and albeit sorrowfully, he held onto his wealth. Would he have been one of the biblical heroes of faith if he had chosen otherwise?
I do believe that God does test us, the tests are real and our decisions incur real costs. I can’t profess to know why God tests individuals in every situation but sometimes it simply a case of obedience like it was with Saul [1 Samuel 15]. In my experience, I have found that I can easily make indispensable idols of things I value. So God may test me to see if I truly love Him above those things by asking me to give them up.
I do agree that some of the Bible stories are jarring and offend our sensitivities. They leave me asking why and often seeking alternate explanations but I do believe that God saw ahead to our time and the struggles we would have, and decided to keep them in the canon of Scripture. I am really looking forward to the day I will fully understand [1 Corinthians 13:9-10].
Interesting point of view Steve. I agree that that is one of the harder texts of the bible. I have never got why the test had to be something that God later explicitly prohibits. But the fact that Genesis 22:12 quotes God as saying “Now I know….”, in my mind we cannot but conclude it was indeed a test. And I believe Abraham really did have a choice, though I cannot say what the consequences of non-compliance would have been. But then in some ways, especially in His mind as someone who had come to have a complete trust in God, I guess it just gets to a point where trust in is God is such that the thought of not complying with a request or command of His does not even arise (hey, the man had seen his 90 year old wife have a baby – I think he was there or thereabouts!) so there was no real choice to be made. God commanded it, it had to be done. Abraham has form in this kind of thing too, I mean “get up and go, I’ll show you where once your on your way” and he goes!??!? Who does that :)?
Yes, all very well said!
I always look forward to Monday mornings as I know I’ll be blessed by great insight into God’s word and a reminder of some of the teaching I had in my early days as a christian.
Thank you Charles for another great topic, “What is your Isaac”.
I thank God for all I have been through (Testing). As I looked back, I now see the reasons why God put me through those times of testing. My faith and trust in Him is much stronger and deeper than before I was tested.
I believe God tests (not tempt) us, not for Himself but for ourselves, in order for us to see what we are made of. It was after Job was tested by God, (“Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” Job 1:8) that Job was able to say “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. Even so, I will defend my own ways before Him.” Job 13:15
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth;”
I believe Our God is a God of Love and He’s also God of Justice. Yes we are in the dispensation of Grace, but we need to be aware that God is Almighty and He can do whatsoever He likes. We need to believe His Word and not speculate. “ Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honour and another for dishonour?”
Thank you — yes, I agree, that’s an entirely reasonable view of the story, and you make some excellent points. Certainly, it is intriguing, and at the end of the day, God is fully entitled to ‘test’ someone, even if the ingredients he uses may be ideas we might struggle with!