(Please read Genesis 22:1-19 in your preferred Bible. I used the NIV to prepare this study.)
Professional baseball has been played in America since 1875, but on September 14, 1990, something happened that has never happened before or since. Late in his career, Ken Griffey, Sr., who had been a key member of the World Series champion Cincinnati Reds years before, was signed by the Seattle Mariners. His son Ken Griffey, Jr. was just starting his major league career. In the first inning of a game against the Angels, Griffey, Sr. hit a home run to left center field. His son followed him to the plate and hit another home run to almost exactly the same spot. It was the only time a father and son had hit back-to-back home runs in baseball history. Ken Griffey, Jr. said later that his father greeted him at the plate by saying, “That’s how you do it, son!”
There are few joys that can compare to seeing our children and grandchildren succeed. Whether it’s on a ball field, at a music recital, in an academic competition, or, most importantly, in a spiritual setting, seeing a child demonstrate character and competence is a true pleasure. But this victory is not something that just happens. Every right performance, every victory over temptation, every accomplishment is the result of a concerted effort to prepare for the moment of challenge.
As we so often see in the Bible, this moment of high drama is written in an understated way, devoid of lurid details or a psychological exploration of the characters. It’s easy to imagine Abraham’s feelings by projecting ourselves and our children into the narration, so we can guess at the surprise Abraham felt at the command, the dread he felt during the journey, the resolve he showed atop Mr. Moriah.
We need to remember that these things are not found in the Bible because the emphasis is not on any of the human beings, but on God. Remind yourself that God is the hero of every historical account. Though these verses are tense with drama, the point is that we do NOT center our attention on Abraham or Isaac, but upon God and what He is doing in them.
Just as the Bible is God-centered, so is biblical parenting. One of places the Church and the world have erred is in making children the center of family life. If we truly desire to have a home life that is at its healthiest and happiest, then we do the hard work of centering our focus on God and keeping Him in the middle of all we do in the home.
The best parenting is God-centered, not child-centered or self-centered.
Self-centered parenting reduces children to pawns we move about to inflate our ego. The typical example is that of “stage parent” or expectations that children will follow their parents in choices of college and/or vocation. Parents who are motivated to satisfy themselves through their children are prone to all kinds of abuse.
Though it sounds like a better situation, child-centered parenting is just as far from God’s will as self-centered parenting. Children have a place in most families but it is never first place. Children given too many choices, too much authority, and/or too much freedom are bound to be self-centered and godless adults. A husband & wife constitute a family; children are additions to it.
The biblical standard is God-centered parenting. It requires the most work and discipline, but provides the most joy and best results as well.
- Background: Isaac was the son of promise.
The promise was made in chapter eighteen when three angels came to announce to Abraham and Sarah that after decades of childlessness, they would be blessed with the birth of a son. Biologically speaking, this was a miracle.
The promise was kept 25 years later, in chapter twenty-one, when Isaac was born.
- God gave Abraham a weird command (1-2).
While child sacrifice was common in pagan cultures, it was not Abraham’s practice. For example, in Carthage, archaeologists have excavated a pagan temple to find remains of thousands of children sacrificed to false gods.
It was often a brutal, unmerciful form of killing: hollow metal statues were heated by internal fires and then the children set in the red-hot hands of the idol. Though we are at a time when God has not yet revealed His law forbidding child sacrifice, we can pretty safely assume it was not Abraham’s practice for two reasons: first, he had previously been childless; none to offer as sacrifices. Second, God chose Abraham because he was a good man and child sacrifice was not the kind of thing good men did.
God knew this command would come at a high cost to Abraham. We know this from what God said in verse two.
When He said, “YOUR SON, YOUR ONLY SON,” God is clearly not counting Ishmael, an illegitimate son born to Sarah’s maid, Hagar. That was Sarah and Abraham’s ill-advised attempt to fulfill God’s promise themselves. It led to bad blood (21:8-21). It’s idiotic to think of children of “spares;” the loss of any child is great grief. Can we assume then an only child is especially hard to lose as there are no others to love?
God added, “WHOM YOU LOVE.” How did God know this? Obviously, God knows all hearts. In Abraham’s heart He saw love for Isaac. Because Abraham had waited SO VERY LONG for this son, God knew the idea of losing him must’ve been more difficult. Add to all of this the fact that Isaac was understood to be the fulfillment of God’s promise. It is hard to receive a blessing and then have it unexpectedly taken away.
He clarified the means of offering Isaac: “AS A BURNT OFFERING.” Animal sacrifices were a universal part of cultures of this time, but they had not been made into law by God. Mercifully, the animal offered was killed first; not left alive to suffer being burned alive. The Law was still several generations away, awaiting Moses the Lawgiver. The procedure would have been something familiar to Abraham and Isaac too, as his question later indicates.
The reader is advised in verse one that this whole episode is God “testing” Abraham and we have the benefit of history to know how it turned out. But Abraham did not know that, so these costs were very real to him and his feelings may’ve been very intense.
God knew Abraham’s heart; we rely on the text to show us that Abraham had deep love for his sons. One indicator is the way he reacted to Sarah’s demands that Ishmael, the illegitimate son, be sent away: THE MATTER DISTRESSED ABRAHAM GREATLY BECAUSE IT CONCERNED HIS SON (21:11).
God reassured Abraham that it was OK to send them away because his descendants would be enumerated from Isaac. God also reassured him with the promise that He would make a NATION out of Isaac too.
His distress may’ve been the thing that prompted God to TEST Abraham in this way. If he reacted so strongly to the loss of Ishmael, how would he react to the loss of the legitimate son, Isaac?
Let’s take a quick break for a geography lesson. Why go to MORIAH (2)? The name meant “place of Yahweh’s provision.” It was so named in verse fourteen.
The word “provide” figures prominently in this passage as it affirms our trust in God TO provide all we need. When confronted with the surprising command, Abraham must’ve wondered how God would provide descendants if Isaac would not live. For example, when Isaac asked about the sacrifice, Abraham affirmed his faith that God would provide one (8).
Why on a mountain (2)? In most ancient cultures, mountains were considered sacred spots. It was on mountain tops that altars were constructed, sacrifices were made and worship was offered.
Why end up in BEERSHEBA (19)? The name meant “Well of Seven” or “Well of Oath.” It was the place where Abraham made a treaty with Philistine leaders to ensure his family could live peacefully in the region (chapter 21). Having gone to all that trouble, he chose to remain there. It was “home.”
- Abraham prepared to obey (3-10).
EARLY THE NEXT MORNING (3) meant Abraham practiced obedience in time. He didn’t wait for a convenient time or procrastinate.
God promised to show Abraham the place (2) and he did (4). This revelation happened ON THE THIRD DAY after they left Beersheba. We should not miss this detail. Abraham kept the purpose of the long journey to himself and must’ve agonized inwardly over this long period. Wow!
When they arrived, Abraham kept the servants at a distance (5), perhaps to prevent their interference.
Isaac was involved but not informed in this sacrificial offering (6-8). I don’t know his age at this time, but Isaac was old enough to reason and express himself and had clearly been on these sacrificial trips before.
He went through a mental checklist:
The KNIFE (a special sacrificial one)? Check.
The lamb? Oops. No lamb – no check. Did dad forget the lamb? Seems kind of important – better ask him about it.
Abraham’s answer to Isaac’s question is a little evasive, but fits the theme perfectly: “God will PROVIDE the lamb, my son.” Isaac apparently trusted his father, as the text makes clear that there was no more conversation about it (8).
How was Abraham able to do this? Going by his actions, Abraham’s heart was resolved: his motive was to obey God . Going by what Paul and James were inspired to write about this event, Abraham’s rationalization was theological: he trusted God to have the power to fix this.
Actions count and Abraham acted in obedience all the way. He built the altar, piled the wood on it, tied Isaac up, the lifted him up on the wood and drew his knife. That’s a lot of work to do and there is no sign in the text that he did it with a conflicted heart or mind. He just obeyed.
- God blessed Abraham’s obedience (11-19).
God stayed Abraham’s hand at the last moment, sparing Isaac (11). Rembrandt’s painting captures this moment brilliantly: the angel intervened to save Isaac. Hundreds of years later, God would make this occasion part of His Law; in Exodus 13:1+15 he declared that the first-born were all His; a “sacrifice” that did not need to be executed because they were His already.
God explained Himself in vs. 12, 15-18. This event not only tested Abraham’s faith, but reinforced his conviction that God would use Isaac to bring about the many descendants he promised. The main point, however, is not about Isaac; it’s about Abraham and his faith. Because he demonstrated to God that he did not value his son above God, God confirms His promises to Abraham:
He will be blessed (12:2).
His descendants would be innumerable (13:16; 15:5; 17:2).
They will possess the CITIES OF THEIR ENEMIES (12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8).
God would bless the entire world through them (12:3; 18:18).
God provided a substitute sacrifice (13-14). Though a ram could naturally get caught by its horns in thorns, the fact that it was there exactly when and where it was needed, that is clearly supernatural.
Abraham perceived it this way and named the place to commemorate the event.
Theologically, we’re all in favor of the sovereignty of God until we have to change our plans or until we have to recognize that when God uses someone, it’s not always with their permission or approval. It’s comforting to know that God is in charge up until the moment we insist on being in charge.
We can’t have it both ways, folks. Since the Bible teaches us that God does not change and that he is in charge, we all have to face the fact that it is NOT all about me. While human beings are the pinnacle of His creation, we bend to follow HIS will, not Him to follow ours.
What learned from Samson in the last five weeks is that God’s plan will be completed. Whether we are pawns or a king, God is the hand that moves us.
In short, we need to build a bridge and get over ourselves.
James uses the account of Abraham offering Isaac as evidence to support his teaching that faith must be paired with works to be real. We read in James 2:20-24:
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
This quote also gives us a third interpretation of the life of Abraham, how it was faith that motivated his obedience to God. Even though Abraham could not, in the moment, see how God was going to work things out, he followed through and did everything God commanded. That is how disciples behave: obedience comes before understanding, if necessary.