Abraham and the Sacrifice of Faith (The Story Notes #3)

My church is, across all departments, going through The Story, a chronological, abridged edition of the Bible that takes you through the story of Scripture from Genesis to the end of Acts in 31, novel-like chapters. It’s a fun project that’s challenging me to deal with narrative sections, teach large chunks at a clip, and point my kids to Christ throughout the whole redemptive-historical story-line of the text.

That said, it seemed worth it to start posting my notes for these talks on a regular basis. It might happen every week, or not, depending on how helpful I think it is, or time constraints. My one request is that you remember these are pretty rough notes and I’m teaching my students, not a broader audience.

abraham and isaacText: Genesis 22 (Also, 12, 15)

One of the most terrifying and significant stories in western world, is God’s testing of Abraham with the sacrifice of Isaac. Soren Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about it, meditating on the ethical issues involved in obeying the command of God to sacrifice your child. What does faith look like in that situation? What horror must Abraham have felt as he thought of killing his own child. What a terrible ‘test’ that must have been.

Now, the word ‘test’ can mean test, or trial, or tempt. So, God is putting Abraham through a trial. It’s a trial of faith. A trial of sacrifice. God wants to teach Abraham, and us, something in this test. I’ll just say that Abraham was shocked by the test as well, but probably not for the same reasons as Kierkegaard was.

Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East – See, Abraham grew up in a world of child sacrifice. A lot of the neighboring gods had demanded them. Chemosh and Molech were two that famously consumed child after child after child. Abraham had probably grown up with neighbors who had offered up their children to the flames. We have archeaological digs with pits full of the bones of little children. What’s more he’d only been following this new God, for a while now. He still didn’t know much of his character. He knew he was surprising and powerful, but how different was he from the other gods? The Bible hadn’t been written yet, so he didn’t know that this God actually hated child-sacrifice. As horrifying as it sounds, with the pagan background that he had, I don’t feel that Abraham was shocked because of the kind of request it was.

What’s more, he knew he was a sinner. More than a couple of times, he had been a coward and tried to pimp out his wife. He had been an idolater for so long that he understood the principle involved in atoning for his life with the life of his firstborn son. If I had to guess, though he loved his son as any normal father would, perhaps even more because of how long he had to wait, the request wouldn’t have horrified him for the same reasons it horrifies us.

No, you see, I think the weird thing for Abraham, the thing that would have been running through his mind during those days of walking towards Moriah, would have been the promises. What would this mean for God’s promises?

The Call – Go to the beginning of Genesis chapter 12:1-3. See, after all that had come before, after creation, the fall of Adam and Eve there was a lot of history. Things went from bad to worse. Sin filled the earth and God caused a flood and only left few survivors to start over with. From there, humanity grew again, spread over the earth, and God began to set in motion a plan to fulfill his promise to Eve that one day he would save everything. He decided to start this plan by picking Abram, an idolater who had a wife who couldn’t conceive children.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation,  and I will bless you;I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

He told him to leave his family, and strike off and that one day, he would bless him in such a way that his blessing would bless the whole world. He would make his name great. So, Abraham struck out in faith and, yes, went on a good many adventures. One thing to note here is that God chose Abraham explicitly, not just for his own sake, but so that through him, somehow God would bless the wider world around him. God always blesses us to be a blessing to others. His particular choice of Abraham was always part of a global plan to bless all.

The Covenant – Now, beyond that first promise, came a second promise. As we said, Abraham was childless and so he expected that his servant would one day inherit all that he had been blessed with by God. At one point God comes to him and tells him he will bless him even more, but Abraham’s skeptical. “What can you give me since I don’t have a child?’

God at this point makes another great promise to him in Genesis 15:

4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

So here, he promises not only that he’d bless him, but he’d give him progeny, so many descendants that we wouldn’t even be able to count them. Abraham believes him, and the text says that it’s counted to him as righteousness.

Then, he goes through this weird ceremony where God has him cut up a bunch of animals, line them up in two lines with a corridor between the halves. Usually this was a covenant ceremony where both parties would walk through the animals and basically agree, “If I bail on this covenant, let me be cut in half like these animals.” Here’s the thing, God puts Abraham to sleep and then shows him a vision of himself going between the animals alone. God basically takes a death-curse on himself–if He doesn’t fulfill the covenant, then he accepts a curse. (Gen. 15:8-21) He tells Abraham to have the sign of the covenant be circumcision, yes, but basically he just promises “If I don’t make this happen, let me be cut in half.”

From there, it’s years and years of waiting. Abraham tries to take things into his own hands and has a kid with a servant girl. God says, ‘no, that’s not the one. Sara will give you a child.’ And guess what? She does. After years, I mean, decades of waiting, God fulfills his promise to Abraham and gives him a son, Isaac, a name which means laughter because the thought of having a kid that late in life had caused them to laugh at the idea when God told them. Then God laughed them.

At that point Abraham had to be thinking “This, this is how it’s going to happen! Isaac! I get it now!” But then, Genesis 22.

What now? This, this is what I think was provoking confusion in Abraham’s heart. God had come through before. Why was he threatening his promise now? How is he going to bless the earth through his line if his line is dead?

Have you ever been in a place like that? In one of those situations where you’re looking up at God and thinking, “What the heck? How is this going to work? What are you doing? This isn’t what you said? You’re killing your promise and it makes no sense. Why would you ask me to give this up? Why would you take this from me? What purpose could this serve?”

So What Did Abraham Learn? Tests are about learning. Trials are about showing. So what did Abraham learn? What was this test about?

Read rest of Gen. 22

How Much Do I Love Him? Realize, to us this is horrifying, but here, God is asking him, ‘Will you sacrifice as much for me as your pagan neighbors will for their pagan gods?’ If you were worshipping those things, you would. Will you do that for me? What do you love more? What holds your heart? Because if he’s not willing to sacrifice it, then God is not as important. One thing he wants us to ask ourselves, what is most important?

Faith Rests in God’s Promises and Past Actions Now, in light of all of this, what was Abraham’s response? He said, “Here I am, Lord.” When Adam hid at the Lord’s call, Abraham answered with a faithful response. But how? How was he able to make that choice? Well, it seems to me that the text says in  Romans and Hebrews tell us that “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead.”. So while God’s promises were what was confusing about the situation, they were also what allowed him to be obedient.

See, it seems that Abraham reasoned, ‘Well, if God promised, and he’s come through on his promises in the past, despite the fact that there was no way life could come from our dead bodies, he’ll make life come from the dead again.’ Abraham trusted in God’s character and God’s promises despite his confusion at God’s request. God proved himself in the past, so he trusted him for the future.

He Rewards Faith? The next thing we see is that God rewards faith. Gen 22: 16 “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore…through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

You have to realize that at some point, God will probably test you. There will be something that you will be challenged to give up. Some way that you’ll be asked to follow God that will test whether you love that thing more than him. What this text shows us is, not that God won’t ever take it, but that you can trust him when he does. He’s looking to bless you in the sacrifice.

Either to replace it with something better, to prepare you for something greater, or to take something that will destroy you.

Ultimately Our Sacrifice Isn’t The One that Counts: What else does Abraham see? That God is the one who provides his own sacrifice. See, there are all kinds of linguistic issues here, but there is a deep pun going on “Abraham saw the place of sacrifice (v. 4); God will provide (see) a lamb (v.8); Abraham saw a ram (v.13); Yahweh provides (lit. “sees,” v. 14a); and Yahweh appears (“makes himself seen,” v. 14b).”[1] What’s more, the land of Moriah (land of vision) is also linguistically linked to the word.

The long and the short of it is that God shows himself to Abraham as the one who provides his own sacrifice. “You’re not the one making the big sacrifice for me, I’m the one who provides it for you.” Now, this should have been obvious given that so far, God has just been promising, promising, promising and so here, once again, God takes the responsibility.

The Great Sacrifice Now, there is a big difference here for us than there was with Abraham. Abraham was able to see God’s promises and had received his blessing and had his word, yes. But, what he didn’t have that we do is the surer promises of having seen Christ. See, we know in a way that Abraham could only dimly, that God had already made the great sacrifice.

But, of course, with Christian eyes and ears we can’t help but see that this is pointing ahead to something truer, something deeper: “For God so loved the World that he have his only-begotten Son.” Abraham points ahead to the great sacrifice when God provides the ram, the true Lamb who takes away sin. Only this time, it is God’s own Son of promise, the Only Son of God who goes under the Knife for sin. This is what we see, that Abraham could not.

And the crazy thing is, in doing so, this is how the promise to Abraham was eventually fulfilled. Paul tells us that God’s promises to Abraham were fulfilled, not only in physical nation of Israel that expanded to fill and make a great nation, but ultimately in his descendant, Jesus Christ, the one through whom all the families of the earth are blessed, and through whom he has descendants of all nations that outnumber the stars of the sky.

I could draw out the implications of this text for pages here, but at the end of the day:We can trust, we can give, we can sacrifice because the Son trusted, gave, and sacrificed himself for us.

Soli Deo Gloria

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