Now We Know
Genesis 22 is one of the great pieces of literature in history—not only one of the great pieces of biblical literature but of any literature. It is the climax of the relationship between God and Abraham. Ten chapters after his call, Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son whom God promised to give, the one who was to be a blessing to the world, the one through whom the ultimate Promised One would come. But here God is asking him to take this son and sacrifice him. He’s asking Abraham to remove the most important person on the planet. This is no minor story in the biblical plotline. This is a major event reaching deep into God’s promises and far into the future of mankind.
This chapter isn’t easy to read. One thinks of the difficulty of Abraham’s obedience. God calls with this remarkable command, and Abraham begins to obey immediately. It’s hard to believe we would have acted so quickly had God called us. But one also thinks of the offense of God’s command. Why would God tell his faithful servant to do such a heinous thing? What good could come from this? And then one thinks of the relationships surrounding the whole affair. Isaac is old enough to understand what’s going on. He realizes on his way up the mountain that the lamb for the offering is missing. Where would it come from? If Abraham goes through with the deed, what will he tell Sarah, his wife whom God provided for even after her laughing unbelief? How are the servants along for the journey to understand what Abraham has done? Would they continue on with him, or find in him something too repulsive to keep him alive on the journey home? And what of God’s goodness? How does one uphold the character of God in this? So many question swirl in the mind of the one who has read this passage carefully.
Thankfully, we have the entire canon of Scripture from which we can draw upon when reading such difficult passages. We can walk into the passage with the knowledge of God’s goodness, of his grace and mercy, of his steadfast love and faithfulness. But we can also walk into the passage with a fuller understanding of humanity. We know our need for forgiveness. We understand, at least as much as we are able, the impact of our sin on the relationship between God and man. We understand that the sacrificial system is God’s mercy in providing a way for man to come near to God again, to be reconciled to him. And so when we approach this passage, we bring with us the knowledge that the firstborn always belongs to God, and Isaac was the firstborn of Abraham and Sarah. As Abraham responded to God’s command, he understood it in the light of the sacrificial system. In particular, of the firstborn claim of God. Abraham was not, as we are prone to believe, following a line of thinking coming from left field. He was following the orders of the God who in mercy provided atonement from sins through a bloody sacrifice on an altar before him. Abraham was following God’s established priestly functions, not following a wild hair disconnected from all he knew of God.
The narrative flows quickly in the first five verses. Abraham hears God’s call, responds immediately, and begins his journey to Moriah and one of the mountains of which God would reveal to him later. But in verse six, the narrative slows down. The tension builds. The emotions are high. Abraham and Isaac begin their ascent up the mountain, as Abraham says in verse five, to worship the Lord.
Abraham lays the wood on Isaac his son—a foreshadowing of another Son who would carry wood up a nearby mountain. He takes the knife and the fire himself, as Tim Keller points out, he takes the dangerous stuff for himself. Abraham is not looking for a way out of this call. If he was, it would make sense to let the boy carry the knife or the fire. Perhaps he’d stumble on the way up and the job would be done for him. This only proves that Abraham did not receive this as a call to murder but to sacrifice. This is not something to be rushed and ended quickly. It is something to be done carefully and worshipfully.
That doesn’t mean Abraham has all the answers. He’s not sure how this will turn out. As they’re walking, Isaac asks his father, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham receives his son’s question and responds as honestly as he can. “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” There is tenderness in the response, perhaps mournfully so. The truth is, Abraham doesn’t know how God will provide. The Hebrew text points to this. It’s as if Abraham is saying, “We will have to see what God will do, but we know he’ll do something.” Abraham doesn’t have all the answers to the future, but he has enough trust in God to know whatever happens will work out for good.
Here is the wonder of this passage. The Bible doesn’t record a conversation between Isaac and Abraham anywhere else. This passage is all we have. We know Abraham loved Isaac. How could he not? He waited a lifetime to receive him. He was the one through whom God’s promise in the world was to continue. He was as dear to him as your son or daughter is to you. Isaac’s question must have been agonizing.
We learn in Hebrews 11:17-19 at least some of Abraham’s mindset as he scaled the mountain. “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” Abraham’s trust in God was big enough to include resurrection.
In the end, Isaac is spared. God does provide a sacrifice for himself. A ram is caught in a thicket. Issac is unbound and the ram is laid upon the altar. Isaac was not an idol in Abraham’s heart any longer. God alone was worshiped there. Abraham’s obedience leads the angel of the Lord to say, “Now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham and Isaac did worship on that mountain. But they only could because one day another Father led his Son up that same mountain range.
This story is not so much about how a faithful man follows God. It is far more about how a faithful God provides for his people. Tim Keller helps us see this in a profound passage in his book Counterfeit Gods.
This famous incident was also about something that Abraham could not see, or at least not see very well in his time. Why had Isaac not been sacrificed? This sins of Abraham and his family were still there. How could a holy and just God overlook them? Well, a substitute was offered, a ram. But was it the ram’s blood that took away the debt of the firstborn? No.
Many years later, in those same mountains, another firstborn son was stretched out on the wood to die. But there on Mount Calvary, when the beloved son of God cried, “My God, my God—why hast thou forsaken me?” there was no voice from heaven announcing deliverance. Instead, God the Father paid the price in silence. Why? The true substitute for Abraham’s son was God’s only Son, Jesus, who died to bear our punishment…
God saw Abraham’s sacrifice and said, “Now I know that you love me, because you did not withhold your only son from me.” But how much more can we look at his sacrifice on the Cross, and say to God, “Now, we know that you love us. For you did not withhold your son, your only son, whom you love, from us.” When the magnitude of what he did dawns on us, it makes it possible finally to rest our hearts in him rather than in anything else.
Jesus alone makes sense of this story. The only way that God can be both “just” (demanding payment of our debt of sin) and “justifier” (providing salvation and grace) is because years later another Father went up another “mount” called Calvary with his firstborn and offered him there for us all. You will never be as great, as secure in God, as courageous, as Abraham became simply by trying hard, but only by believing in the Savior to whom this event points. Only if Jesus lived and died for us can you have a God of infinite love and holiness at once. Then you can be absolutely sure he loves you.
In the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, we see something of the heart of God for his people. Abraham's faithfulness takes us into God's faithfulness. God has always been the provider for his people, and in this story, we see his provision to us. He preserved Isaac. And generations later, because Isaac was saved on that mountain, Jesus came to walk up his mountain and lay his life on the altar for us all.