47. Genesis 22:1-19

III. A. 3. continued

g) The Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19)

The narrative now skips another decade or so.  Abraham has settled down in the quiet life of a rich man enjoying his new son. It is about 2045 b.c. In the outside world, Shulgi the great king in Ur is dying and Ur is about to begin its long decline; and the Middle Kingdom in Egypt is on its way to a new pinnacle of glory. Isaac is a teenager. Abraham is at peace and the events of the rest of the world are of no concern to him. He is rich and powerful, secure and content. Now is the time for another visit from God Most High, and this time one that is utterly devastating.

The sacrifice of Isaac is nearly the last recorded episode of Abraham’s life. It was the last step, the last time God pushed Abraham to the limit of what he could believe. We outside observers may be incredulous that Abraham could actually believe God required a human sacrifice, but we have the advantage of knowing that God would condemn human sacrifice in very strong terms later on. And this was not the first time Abraham had been asked to sacrifice a son. When he gave the bread and water to Hagar and Ishmael, it was like sacrificing them. He knew the dangers of wandering in that land, and the fact that they nearly died shows he was not worried for nothing. Except for God’s promise to bless them, he was sending them to probable death. Obviously, though, the sacrifice of Isaac raised the emotional stakes greatly. Except for God’s promise to bless him, Abraham was taking, not sending, Isaac to his death.

The seventh appearance of God to Abraham, after one of God’s typical decades of silence, was very different from the previous ones. No renewed promises, no comforting reassurances of the glory of the future that awaited his descendants; just a demand of the most astonishing, confusing, horrifying nature. Abraham still did not know a great deal about God’s character. It was obviously not totally unthinkable to Abraham that God might require just such a human sacrifice. Some of the other gods required such sacrifices and Yahweh had never indicated to Abraham what He might want. God was being as hard on Abraham as He could have been, and He even emphasized His own hardness when He reminded Abraham how much he loved Isaac, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac…” It isn’t a sacrifice unless we love what we are giving; only what is of value should ever be brought to God, and God shows no hesitation in asking for what is best and most valued.

Mount Moriah was about fifty miles to the north of Beersheba (which is indicated in 22:19 as his current residence – he moved his herds around in that area for new pasture but he was still based at Hebron) and so the three days’ journey it took them would be what we would expect. Mount Moriah was associated with Salem and therefore with Melchizedek, though there is no mention of Melchizedek here. Isaac must have been old enough to carry the wood, probably a teenager. If so then Melchizedek had come out to meet Abraham returning from his victory about thirty years previously. It is just possible that Melchizedek was still alive. Further, it is natural to assume that Mount Moriah was the same as the Mount Moriah on which Solomon would later build the temple (II Chronicles 3:1). This links the sacrifice of Isaac deliberately to the burnt offerings that would be instituted under Moses and to all of the symbolism in the sacrificial system; but it also makes Melchizedek and Salem seem rather phantom like, so very near the place of sacrifice and yet making no appearance. Indeed this whole episode is dark and full of phantoms and clouds, like the mount of transfiguration. Mountains are always dark places for mortals to visit as they get closer to God with no protection or preparation.

Isaac is a type of Christ here, and the sacrifice of Isaac is a type of the sacrifice of Christ. First, Isaac is a type of Christ in his birth; his birth was not a virgin birth, but it was like one. Isaac’s birth seemed humanly impossible. Abraham knew that it would almost take a miracle for him to have a son with Sarah. God intervened and enabled the conception to happen, though in Sarah’s case the conception was within the natural possibilities and just needed a bit of encouragement. This was the first of a long series of almost miraculous births of sons to old childless couples, a repeated symbolic chorus of promise and miracle pointing to the culmination when He would intervene with Mary in a conception that contravened nature entirely.

Second, the sacrifice of Isaac began the metaphor of the sacrifice of the first-born son. It would be repeated with variations at the Passover, when the first born of every family in Israel would be spared. The theme was only waiting for the completion, the final One to fulfill the image, another Only Son sacrificed by His Father. The sacrifice of Isaac was an allegory for the sacrifice of the Messiah. The role of the ram as the substitute sacrifice was as vivid as possible, and perfectly in line with later sacrifices. The ram was a substitute for Isaac, just as the later animal sacrifices in the Law would be a substitute for the Messiah. The symbols all tie together in the neatest possible way, as might be expected when God is the Poet.

Third, the sacrifice of Isaac was the first of many glimpses, glimpses that grow increasingly vivid as the revelation progresses, of the resurrection. If Abraham were thinking at all about the demand to sacrifice Isaac, some inkling of the resurrection would have had to cross his mind. At least, this seems to be what Paul was getting at in Romans 4:17. God had very specifically named Isaac as the heir, as the one who would continue the Covenant, as the one who would have descendants like the stars in the sky. And He had emphatically rejected the idea that any other descendant of Abraham would do.

God could fulfill His particular promises only if Isaac were alive, and therefore God must be either insane, or He had changed His mind about the promise and meant to do something different, or else He had the power to bring back the dead. The first possibility was incomprehensible. Only a modern skeptic would imagine an insane Creator of the universe. Granted, some ancient myths do portray the gods as playing with less than a full deck,  but these were derivative gods, second or third generation gods. The power behind the cosmic order, while never a creator in the biblical sense, was the opposite of insane. Those “creators” were infinitely remote but they stood up against chaos, against insanity, and put things in order. The second possibility was conceivable, but since God had repeated the promise so many times, and had gone to such trouble to make the birth of Isaac as nearly miraculous as possible, it was highly unlikely. That left the third possibility, which was nearly, but not quite, as unlikely. This was, after all, God Most High, who had a taste for arranging impossible events and promising impossible things. This was the God who answered Sarah’s laughter with “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

Perhaps it is this passage the Messiah was thinking of later when He said that we must hate our own spouses and children as compared to Him. Could you kill your child at God’s command even knowing, as we do now, how real the resurrection is? Belief in the resurrection changes all of our ideas about death and life, but it does not necessarily make it easier to make such choices. Death is no longer the ultimate disaster; life in this world is no longer the greatest possession to which we must cling. But the resurrection is a difficult hope to keep vividly before our imaginations. It is difficult to believe in it with more than a mere intellectual assent. To face death with a calm assurance of the resurrection is seldom required more than once of any of us who claim to believe it, but it is something that faces all of us sooner or later. Meanwhile to face life with a calm assurance of the resurrection is nearly as difficult, and to kill someone we love with faith in the resurrection would be as nearly impossible as a deed can be.

We have good reason to believe that God will not ask such a thing ever again. Today such a command from God to offer up our child as a burnt offering would not be believable for many reasons: there are too many specific passages expressing God’s hatred of such sacrifices to think that He might want such a thing for Himself. The sacrifice of Isaac is one of those events that God arranged in the past that are, by their nature, unrepeatable. The progress of His revelation has rendered some formerly common ideas unbelievable, and other previously unbelievable ideas have been transformed into the standard fare of faith. We should understand that we do not and can not stand in the same place as Abraham; we are at a different place in the stream of revelation, and what God says to us now comes at this point in revelation, acknowledging all that has gone before. Abraham stood at such a different point in the revelation that he was capable of hearing very different things than we can hear, just as we are capable of hearing things that he could not have heard.

But if Jesus was indeed thinking of this passage when He said that we must hate our children and spouses and parents compared to Him, then Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is an allegory of what we all must do on some level. To sacrifice someone we love is to put them into God’s hands, to not cling to them for ourselves, but to watch them be taken from us, whether literally or metaphorically, and let them go. There are any number of ways such a sacrifice might be required of us, and it may not be much less difficult than Abraham’s; sometimes a metaphorical deed is every bit as painful as a literal deed. An acquaintance of mine once remarked that he was not afraid of hell if it was only metaphorical, that metaphorical flames had no power to hurt. It seems to me now that such a view is silly. A wise person knows that the worst pain in life is exactly the one that fire is the best metaphor for. The pain that Abraham suffered in that long walk to Mt. Moriah with Isaac was a different kind of pain than the pain suffered by the men of Sodom, but it was just as severe, just as real. And so we see that both the evil and the good, both the excluded and the included, must suffer the pain of hell. The one suffers the pain for the destruction of evil, the other suffers the pain for the purification of good.

When Isaac asked his father where the lamb for the sacrifice was, Abraham’s answer was a summation of all he believed and hoped about God: “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” This one answer captures the point of everything that preceded, though Abraham could not know how prophetic it would prove. Abraham’s response to Isaac was not merely an evasion. Though it was certainly an evasion on one level, on another level it was the simplest and most essential truth. Even if Abraham had had to go through with the killing of Isaac, the sacrifice had certainly been provided by God. God had never before commanded such a thing as this sacrifice, but He had promised that Isaac would live to carry on the Covenant and somehow God would provide for that promise too. This is what Abraham’s reply really meant, that God would provide some way to keep His word.

When, at the last possible moment, God stopped Abraham from actually killing Isaac and provided a ram for a substitute, the picture was complete. Consider carefully how the idea of a substitutionary death was portrayed in this allegory: the ram was the substitute for Isaac just as later under the Law the sacrificial animals at the Passover were substitutes for the first born of each family in Israel, and the animals sacrificed for the sin offerings were substitutes waiting for the Messiah, the Only Son of God. Thus the sacrifice of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son whom God loved, was the meaning of all the allegories, and the completion and end of all the sacrifices. We are accustomed to think of the Messiah as being the Substitute and that is true from a different metaphorical standpoint. The symbolism in this passage and in Law of Moses doesn’t work that way though; the sacrifices offered from Abel all the way to the New Testament were substitutes for the Messiah, waiting until the He came. He substituted for us, they substituted for Him.

It is impossible to imagine what effect this sacrifice must have had on Isaac psychologically. You might think he would have been permanently scarred by the experience, but in fact it does not seem to have harmed him. On the contrary, he seems to have been quietly devoted to God much as Abraham was. Isaac was the only one of the patriarchs who was mentioned as walking in the fields to meditate (in chapter 24, just as Rebekkah was arriving). To be sure, the experience of being placed on the altar by his own father would have been horrifying, but he also experienced the direct intervention of God to rescue him. Isaac must have inherited some of Abraham’s meekness. Although Isaac was a teenager by this time and Abraham was very old and slow, although there was no one else around, Isaac made no attempt to resist his father or to escape as his father tied him up and raised the knife. Just as Abraham chose to trust God and offer his son, Isaac chose to trust his father and God and offer himself. This is yet another way in which Isaac was a type of Christ.

The two servants had been left behind at the foot of the mountain because they might have tried to prevent Abraham from performing the sacrifice if they had been there. And why did he bring the servants along at all? Since he had no idea what was to be the outcome of the trip, I think he was preparing for the horrible climax that seemed unavoidable. I think Abraham knew he could not return home on his own, whether he carried Isaac back for burial or buried him there, physically or emotionally. He was going to need help.

The sacrifice of Isaac was a test of Abraham’s faith, a test whose result God knew but which needed to be revealed and displayed for all to see. In 22:15-18 we read, “Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.’ ” Here God’s promise to Abraham sounds conditional on his willing obedience in sacrificing Isaac, and some interpret this passage as proving that Abraham’s relationship to God had always been conditional on his obedience. It is against human nature to accept a righteousness that is just counted to us; we want to earn it.

In fact the passage can’t be interpreted to mean that Abraham’s faith was counted to him because he obeyed the command to sacrifice Isaac. First, God had already made these same promises repeatedly over nearly thirty years. It is surely a strange view of God to understand these verses as meaning that God would have gone back on His former promise if Abraham failed him here, as if God had begun by being gracious to Abram but had reconsidered the terms and decided to be demanding and ungracious instead. Secondly, the words of the passage say no such thing. Abraham’s astonishing willingness to trust God had made God all the more committed to fulfilling His promise to Abraham, and that is all His words actually say.

So what would have happened if Abraham had refused? I don’t know. What I do know is that God is faithful even if we are all unfaithful (see Romans 3:4). Even among men, trying to add conditions to a promise that had been previously made unconditionally is considered dishonest. Disobedience cannot nullify a previous and unconditional promise. The promise was not founded on the power of a man nor on the obedience of a man, and therefore it could not be cancelled by the power of a man nor by the disobedience of a man. But obedience can enhance the promise; obedience, even reluctant obedience, can be rewarded by an expansion of the promise. There is no limit to how far God can increase His blessing to us in response to faith and obedience, no limit to how much further God might choose to extend His blessing beyond what He had already promised.

There is no limit to God’s goodness, but there is a limit to His anger. His promises do not limit His generosity, but they do limit His wrath. It is sometimes suggested by well-intentioned preachers that there is a delicate balance in God, a delicate balance between His mercy on the one hand and His anger over sin on the other hand. Sometimes this is pictured as a balance that tips one way or the other based on how good or bad we are.  Sometimes it is pictured as a balance inside of God, the Father leaning down on anger and the Son balancing Him out on the side of mercy. Either way this is a horrible misrepresentation of God’s character. In truth there is no such balancing at all. His wrath is nothing in comparison to His mercy; there is no contest between the two. There is no limit, on the one hand, to His blessing and mercy and compassion and forgiveness, for they are part of His very heart; but He binds Himself with promises that limit His wrath because wrath has never been and never will be fundamental to His character. God is love. No verse ever says God is wrath.

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