We come now to the third and final perspective of the offering up of Isaac by Abraham, God’s. God was the only other Individual present when this event transpired, and His perspective is certainly the most relevant. What exactly did God have in mind when He commanded Abraham to do this in the first place? What did God feel would be accomplished by this test?
First of all, we understand that God, the Omniscient all-knowing One, did not gain any new information through this. The Lord says, “For now I know that thou fearest God” (Gen. 22:12), but we know that God was already aware of Abraham’s faith long before this (Gen. 15:6, Rom. 4:3). God was not asking Abraham to prove something to Him, He already knew. But in carrying this commandment out, Abraham demonstrated to himself, Isaac, and everyone else who would hear of this event thereafter that his faith was genuine. This is the “perfecting work of justification” in the life of Abraham spoken of by James (James 2:21-22). Justified before God? No. “For if Abraham were justified by works , he hath whereof to glory; but not before God” (Rom. 4:2). So how did this justify him? It justified that his faith was valid to everyone else. It was an outward evidence of an inward faith. It showed the reality through his actions of a trust that was already present inside of him. It proved to himself, Isaac, and everyone else that his trust in God was not merely something that he claimed to have, but was real. But the faith itself that he already possessed was known by God long before he climbed up Mt. Moriah. God did not need Abraham to prove it to Him.
One of the most peculiar statements made in this entire chapter is Abraham’s response to Isaac when asked about what would be sacrificed:
“And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.” (Genesis 22:8)
Yet in Verse 13, we see a ram is offered in the place of Isaac, not a lamb. But Abraham’s enigmatic prophecy would be fulfilled centuries later, as testified to by John the Baptist:
“The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
a ram was provided at this time as a temporary substitution for Isaac, but the Lord Jesus Christ was ultimately the Lamb which would be offered in his stead, and in the stead of any who will put their faith in Him. The sins of man consign each of us to a place atop that pile of wood and under the knife of execution, but there is One Who will take our rightful place there. Jesus Christ bore in Himself the punishment that each of us deserves, paying the price for our sins.
“And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen.” (Genesis 22:14)
Abraham called the place where this occurred “Jehovah-Jireh”, or, God will provide. We tend to take so many other lessons from this incident: Abraham’s unquestioning faith, Isaac’s obedience to his father, etc. But the significance that Abraham himself gave to the site was what God did there, and moreover what He would do there at a later time! He did not call the place “The Mountain of My Testing”, or “The Hill Where I Almost Lost Isaac.” He called it the place where God provides. Abraham’s offering up of Isaac was not ultimately about what either of these two giants of faith did there (although it was astounding), it was about the fact that God would provide the One Who would be the substitution for ALL of us!
One of the most often forgotten aspects of Abraham’s offering up of Isaac is the role of Isaac himself. Isaac is usually depicted as a young boy, or maybe an adolescent in his mid to late teens, in artwork dealing with the incident, as well as in the minds of those recounting or else hearing the story behind it. The logic seems to be that no young man having reached the age of maturity could have possibly willingly submitted himself under the knife of execution. He must have been a little tiny child, the reasoning goes, whom his father overpowered and tied down in order to carry out the sacrifice.
While the Genesis narrative does not tell us specifically how old Isaac was at the time, we know that his mother was 90 years old at his birth (Genesis 17:17). We also know that Sarah was 127 years old at the time of her death (Genesis 23:1), making Isaac 37 at the time. Since the very next event recorded after Abraham and Isaac return from Mt. Moriah is Sarah’s death, it would seem to make sense that the two events were at least somewhat close together chronologically. Personally, I believe that Isaac was 33 years old at the time, for reasons we shall see momentarily.
Regardless of Isaac’s exact age, we know that Abraham was an old man at this time, and we know that Isaac was at least old enough to bear upon his back the wood for the offering (Gen. 22:6). It would seem indisputable that Isaac was physically stronger than his elderly father. Had Isaac wanted to resist what his father was doing, he certainly could have done so. But Isaac did not. He was in complete trust and obedience to his father’s will, even unto the point of death. We speak so much of Abraham’s faith during this crisis, let us not forget Isaac’s!
“But [Jesus] made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8)
The details that make this incident on Mt. Moriah such a vivid portrait of the incident nearly two millenia later on Mt. Calvary are staggering. Both involve a father and a beloved, only begotten son whom the father does not withhold. Both sons are obedient unto their fathers, even unto death. Both sons are delivered unto death, as it were, and returned again to their fathers alive on the third day (Gen. 22:4). Both bore upon their own shoulders the “wood” upon which they would offer up their lives (Gen. 22:6, John 19:17). And both went willingly to the place of execution, esteeming their own lives not so precious as fulfilling the will of the Father. Tradition holds that “Mt. Moriah” was the actual mount upon which Solomon’s Temple would later be constructed. Consequently, the very same ridge upon which Isaac was offered up, Jesus would be offered up. All of these similarities lead me to believe that Isaac was very likely the precise same age as our Lord was at the time each was “sacrificed.”
There are, of course, some important distinctions between the two, as well. A substitution was found for Isaac (Gen. 22:13), while Jesus Christ was the Substitution for all mankind. Isaac’s life was spared, while the Lord Jesus’ life was not. Yet for all intents and purposes, Isaac was as good as dead. In Genesis 22:10, we see Abraham’s hand poised above his son, ready to plunge the knife that would end his life. When the writer to the Hebrews looks back on this event, he speaks as if Abraham had actually gone through with the sacrifice (Hebrews 11:17-19). He even adds that Isaac’s “resurrection” was a figure of Christ’s (v. 19). James also refers to this incident as indicative of the faith of Abraham, demonstrating the reality of the faith that he possessed (James 2:21). Although Abraham did not actually sacrifice his son, his willingness to obey God and do so was considered an act demonstrating his faith.
Abraham’s faith was mighty as he obeyed God and held not back his beloved son. But Isaac’s faith was also mighty as he submitted to the will of God and the will of his father.
There were but three individuals who were present atop Mt. Moriah when Abraham offered up his son Isaac. Abraham, Isaac, and God. There were no other witnesses present when this occurred. Each of the three had a very different perspective on what was planned to happen, and even a very different amount of insight as to what was going to actually transpire. God had revealed to Abraham what he was asking Him to do, but He obviously did not tell him that His commandment was a test, the which He had no intention of Abraham carrying out to completion. Isaac had been told by his father that they were going afar off from home to make a burnt-offering to the Lord, but Abraham did not divulge all of the Lord’s instructions until they arrived at their destination. All three of these individuals came at this crossroads from a different perspective. Let us now consider the first of these: Abraham’s.
I cannot imagine any commandment coming from God to Abraham that could have seemed more puzzling than what he is instructed to do in Genesis 22:2. When we consider all that has happened leading up to and even after the birth of Isaac, it is hard not to imagine Abraham’s utter perplexity over what God was now asking of him. God had repeatedly promised that through Isaac Abraham would become a father of many descendants (e.g., Gen. 17:19, 21:12), yet now God was asking him to put the young man to death himself, before Isaac had fathered a single child!
What a great difference we see between Abraham’s response here in Chapter 22 and that of Chapter 18: when God told him how he intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham knew with all certainty that the “Judge of all the Earth would do right.” We have no record here of Abraham pleading with God, bargaining with God, or even questioning God. His faith at this point has reached the level that he could say: God has promised that Isaac would have children to my posterity, yet now He is asking me to put my son to death. I know not how God will make good on His promises after Isaac is dead, but I know that He shall!
“By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.” (Hebrews 11:17-19)
Many centuries later, the writer to the Hebrews gives us a commentary providing insight into what Abraham was thinking as he and Isaac climbed up the mountain. So often the picture is painted of an angry, resentful Abraham reluctantly trudging up the mountain; uncertain whether or not he should go through with this. But this doesn’t really seem to be the idea that Scripture is giving us at all. Verse 3 of Genesis 22 says that Abraham got up early, there was no hesitation on his part. And then, he tells his servants in Verse 5 that he and Isaac both will return from the mountain. Someone might suggest: Well, Abraham probably knew deep inside that God would stay his hand and keep him from taking Isaac’s life, but there is certainly no indication of that. What Abraham was counting on is actually much more remarkable. He believed that God would raise Isaac back to life, resurrecting him after the sacrifice was made! Those of us living today might not believe that God is still in the “business of miracles”, but Abraham sure had no problem believing it.
We have seen several events up to this point of Genesis where Abraham’s faith either failed or was very shaky, to say the least. But here atop Mt. Moriah, his faith was as pure as refined gold. The idea that is so often taught in Sunday School classes about this incident that the underlying lesson is that Abraham was willing to follow God’s instructions, even when they were “unreasonable and cruel.” But we see so much more about the fiber of Abraham’s faith here than just “blind obedience.” Abraham had learned enough about the character of God to realize that God will make good on His promises no matter what. Abraham was not hoping for a miracle to bring Isaac safely through this event, he was counting on one!
So often we limit God in what He is able to do and question every instruction that He gives us. We ourselves seek to rectify the seeming paradoxes of His commandments rather than trusting Him to do so. We attempt to take into account all things in order to determine if we can safely obey what He is leading us to do, so as not to overturn some other area of our life. But Abraham knew better. God had promised that Isaac would have children and would carry on Abraham’s lineage, yet He also commanded Abraham to offer Isaac up as a sacrifice before a single offspring had been born. Abraham did not know exactly how God would harmonize these two statements, but he knew that He would. Even if it took a miracle.
Chapter 22 of Genesis is one of the most extraordinary chapters in the entire Book of Genesis, and also one of the most misunderstood. The skeptic as well as the sincere student of the Word of God has seldom found a field so fertile with seeming contradiction and perplexity. Yet when the spiritual truths of this astounding chapter are firmly grasped, there are fewer places in all of Scripture where more insight into the character of God Almighty can be more clearly seen.
In the first two verses, we come across two “sticking points” that initially seem to make no sense whatsoever. First of all, we are told that God tempted Abraham. Many critics of the Bible have used this very statement as a springboard from which to hurl the most audacious of blasphemies toward a Holy God. Before we move any farther into the remarkable events of this chapter, it is prudent that we make sure that we understand exactly what God is doing here and what His intentions really are.
“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:” (James 1:13)
When we think of the word tempted, we think of an enticement to do that which is evil. James categorically states that God never does such to any man. What God is doing here is more accurately conveyed in most of the other Bible translations of Genesis 22:1 which render the word “tested.” Personally, I prefer the way that the American Standard Version of 1901 reads:
“And it came to pass after these things, that God did PROVE Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham. And he said, Here am I.” (emphasis added)
So often we think of tests as nothing but opportunities to fail. We seldom see that they are also opportunities to succeed. The school-child who has shirked her responsibilities and has neglected to study will fear the teacher’s test, knowing that they have not sufficiently learned the necessary material in order to pass the test. The student who has mastered the material will find the examination a blissful occasion as they are being afforded the chance to prove that they have learned what was presented to them. We can scarcely accuse the teacher of wrong-doing for even presenting the children with the test; it is their intention that all the students pass (although I had some teachers in school that I was not so sure of….but that’s another story :) ) No, the tests are designed to prove what the students have learned, to give them the opportunity to demonstrate, for the teacher and for themselves, their mastery of the skills which they have been learning.
Now, I recognize that, in light of what God is asking Abraham to do here, my analogy is very poor and trivial indeed. Abraham is being asked far more than to recite a memorized portion of a textbook, or rehearse his “multiplication tables.” His test is indisputably and quite literally a matter of life and death. But it is important for us to see the underlying motive of God in even presenting Abraham with this test, which he of course did not know was actually a test at the time. There can be no misunderstanding that, to Abraham, this was something that God was actually requiring of him. Little did he know at the time that this was to be a great turning point in his life, a mighty landmark which would be visible across the expanse of human history as a beacon of the kind of faith in which God is well pleased. Heretofore, we have seen that Abraham’s faith has been inconsistent and we have witnessed several occasions of failure in his trust of God. But here atop lonely Mt. Moriah, Abraham and Isaac both will pass “with flying colors” and demonstrate without a doubt how a life totally yielded to God should look. We will look more closely at these events in the coming days.
After Sarah witnesses Ishmael mocking her son Isaac, she tells her husband Abraham to cast out the bondwoman, Hagar, and her son. Abraham is distraught over the notion, after all, Ishmael is his son, too. Ishmael is about 17 years old when this event occurs, so he has lived in his father’s household a long time. Yet it has become apparent that there is no way for Ishmael and Isaac, not to mention their mothers, to live peacefully together in one household.
Genesis 21:14 tells us:
“And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.”
Years earlier, Hagar had left Abraham’s house voluntarily after a dispute between her and Sarah (Genesis 16:6). She had fled from her mistress and encountered the Angel of the Lord at the well of Beer-lahai-roi. This time is different. This time she is banished from the home, sent away through no choice of her own. She and her son Ishmael are given a little bread and a skin of water, and then sent away. God finds her once again, desperate and near a well of water. But unlike Beer-lahai-roi, Hagar does not see the well this time. She and Ishmael have reached the point of dehydration and she resolves herself to the idea that they will simply die of thirst in a barren land.
“Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.” (John 4:10)
This scene of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert is absolutely rich with spiritual imagery. It reminds us of a parallel instance where a desperate woman encountered God at a well; a Samaritan woman who came to draw water from Jacob’s well in John 4. This woman saw the well of water, but she didn’t see the Well of Living Water Who sat upon it. She, too, was”dying from thirst”, albeit a spiritual thirst that brought spiritual death. Like Hagar, the Samaritan woman’s eyes had to be opened to see the Well of life-giving water, a Well that was there all along.
“Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14)
Hagar and Ishmael carried with them into the barren desert a source of water of their own. But, alas, it was not enough. For our own sources of water shall always run empty and must be refilled. Yet like Hagar, the time comes when we are at the end of our own resources, when we must admit that we do not have anymore on which to rely. In desperation we fall to the ground, waiting for the embrace of death to finally bring an end to our hopelessness. But we, too, lie next to a Well that we cannot see, dying of thirst when the Well of Living water is nigh unto us. And we will never see it until the Spirit of God opens our own eyes and leads us to it.
It is no coincidence, in my opinion, that Genesis 21 ends with the account of another well, a well of which Abraham has had taken from him (v. 25). We have seen the great need of Hagar and Ishmael, the poor outcasts, for the Well of Living Water. Now we see that Abraham, the wealthy and successful man, has just as great of need for it. Rich, poor, man, woman, well-fed, hungry, confident, desperate: it makes no difference what condition we find ourselves in, our need for the Lord Jesus Christ is ever-present. Hagar could not live without the Well of Water, neither could Abraham. The Lord Jesus is ever-accessible to even the outcast and downtrodden, and He is ever-necessary for even the rich and mighty.