“Abraham and Meeting the Test”Dr. Gerald L. Borchert Genesis 22:1–14 Year A - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Among the best-known stories of the Old Testament is the account of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. Yet scarcely did I realized what an impact it would make upon me when I first read the story in Hebrew as a seminary student, Light bulbs of revelation began flashing in my head and I could hardly set the text down as I kept reading. It was all there in the English text but somehow, I had never realized the profundity of the story before those moments.
Yes, God had promised Abraham a son. And Abraham had waited not so patiently until he was an octogenarian for God to deliver on that promise. Then he even tried to fulfill the promise on his own, when his wife seemed incurably barren. And when he had a son by Hagar, God in no uncertain terms told him that his substitute plan would not work because Sarah would still have the son of promise. Yet even more than a decade later he was still waiting when finally, God said that Sarah would give birth to that son. And you remember that he could not help but laugh at that thought after so many years—which led God to name the son Isaac, which means “laughter.”
Now as we pick up the story, Isaac has been born, has been developing well, and Ishmael has been expelled from the camp. Then God once again approached Abraham, but scarcely did Abraham anticipate what would come next. God told him to take his son—his only son—Isaac, whom you love. Don’t miss the impact of those four drawn out statements: “son,” “only son,” “Isaac,” “you love” before you continue to read that God told him to sacrifice the lad (Gen 22:2). But it was not just a simple, quick offering. Abraham had to take his son on a long journey to Mt. Moriah, much like the Israelites would later take their beloved lambs and journey to Jerusalem’s “Moriah hill” for their sacrifices.
So, just imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind as he was making that excruciating journey. Too often in reading this story we miss the intense nature of Abraham’s painful experience by focusing simply on getting to the sacrifice. That is the reason we need to ponder step by step the Hebrew writer’s carefully selected words to prevent us from truncating the force or intensity of this powerful story. But when we have felt Abraham’s pain, then we can move forward with our fundamental question: Could God actually have asked Abraham to offer his son, his only son, who was the son of promise? And the answer is: Yes, that is exactly what the story tells us God required of Abraham.
Finally, on the third day, after that painful journey, Abraham spotted Mt. Moriah in the distance. And rather than taking his servants to assist him with the offering, Abraham left them behind and told them that he and the lad would go alone and then return after the sacrifice. When the Hebrew writer penned this story, he knew that Abraham did not expect the lad to return but are you beginning to sense the pathos in this story? And it only swells in force as the story continues.
Next, Abraham laid the wood on his son and he carried the knife and the fire. Ominously the text then tells us that “both of them went on together” (22:8). But like all astute children, Isaac saw the wood, and the fire, and asked his father the crucial question: “Where is the lamb?” That question must have pierced Abraham’s heart. What answer could he give except, “God will provide.”
Yet those words must have been very painful for him to utter. We can skip blissfully to the theological implications of “God will provide” but think what you would be feeling if you had to say them knowing that your son would be “the provision.” Your son was asking you the question about himself. He was about to die!
Well, as you probably remember, when they came to the place of sacrifice Abraham built an altar, carefully laid out the wood, tied up his son, placed him on the wood and with the knife ready, he was fully prepared to kill “his son.” It was then and only then that the Angel of the Lord finally stepped into this traumatic scene (22:9–11).
For those who may not be familiar with the expression— “the Angel of the Lord”—you should know that in the Old Testament that expression means God’s self. Yes, God finally— “Finally!”—made the critical appearance in the story and “provided” a ram which was caught in a nearby thicket for the offering.
I suppose all of us would want to ask: Could God not have acted earlier? The answer to such a question is not revealed but this story is a genuine “test.” Abraham did not know the outcome of the test, just as we do not know the outcomes of our lives or our tests before the end. But the climactic words in the story are not: “Whew, he made it.” They are: “Now I know clearly that you fear God, [since] you have not withheld from me, ‘your son, your only son!’” (22:12).
This story has been told and retold down through the centuries by Jews and Christians alike and the Muslims later significantly amended the story to fit their view of God and their understanding regarding Ishmael being Abraham’s elder and preferred son. But the story in Genesis is far more than a mere historical account.
Although it is an important reminiscence about Abraham, it is also a meta-narrative that speaks to all of us concerning the seriousness of our relationship with God. Yet it leaves us pondering a number of difficult issues, primary among them are the questions of: “Whether?” and “Why would God test us?”
But testing is exactly the reason why this story is so powerful. The test was not designed by Abraham. It was a test that was given to him by God. And it came when everything finally seemed to be turning out as Abraham had hoped it would come to pass. Humans may think that they are in control of reality and that they can manipulate their circumstances and surroundings to fit their desires or goals.
Clearly, they may seem to succeed for a short or long period of time like Abraham did with having a son by Hagar. They may even experience the blessings of God as Abraham did when he finally had the promised son by Sarah.
But that son was never his possession, even though our text for today repeatedly refers to Isaac as “your son, your only son.” Instead, Abraham had to learn some very difficult lessons about God, his possessions and his goals in life—even when he was over a hundred years of age. Think about that implication for us! We are never too old to experience testing!
Abraham could quite obviously have reasoned to himself about whether he loved God more than those around him who may have been sacrificing their children to their gods for some reason like personal profit or other enhancement. Yet whatever was going through Abraham’s mind at the time, the text seems to affirm that God recognized that Abraham loved his son (22:2).
Moreover, throughout the long story in Genesis, Abraham has been pictured pretty much as a man who had been faithful to God—with perhaps a few exceptions such as his failure to claim Sarah as his wife in his contacts with Pharaoh and Abimelech or in his use of Hagar to gain a son.
So, if we agree that the story asserts that Abraham’s life was almost stellar, we are left asking some very unsettling questions. Did Abraham not leave his home and become a traveling nomad in response to God’s call on his life (12:1–2)? Did he not accept God’s command to circumcise his extended male household (including Ishmael) as a sign of his alignment with God’s promises, even though he recognized that it could mean that Ishmael was being rejected as the promised offspring (17:15–27)? The answer to both questions seems quite logically to be in the affirmative.
Now if those questions were not enough, then we humans are bound to ask another even more probing one. If Abraham had been almost a model of faithfulness and if God supplied the promised son: why did God then have to test Abraham by telling Abraham that he should sacrifice is son? Haven’t you asked that question? I am sure you know that this painful issue has been discussed by readers for centuries. Indeed, it is often viewed by some of our contemporaries as a purely primitive idea.
But we must not dismiss the issue too quickly because one aspect of this story is very telling. As Walter Brueggemann has noted (see Genesis in Interpretation, Atlanta: John Knox, 1982, 190–92), such a testing implies that there is only one God who is supreme and that humans are answerable to that one God. If there is an option among the gods or subjects which one reveres, then such a test becomes meaningless because of the innate possibility of the choice which one has.
The testing of Abraham is thus a testimony that for Abraham, the Lord God was supreme. And so, we should ask what does such testing imply about the testing of Jesus by the devil in the gospel stories (cf. Mark 1:12; Matt 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–14)? Notice that in those texts even the devil uses the biblical texts in an effort to trap Jesus into deviating from the way of God and God’s authority. But we all know that Jesus also answered the devil with biblical citations and finally dismissed the tempter with the imperatives that worship belongs only to God in Matthew 4:10 and trying to tempt God is clearly forbidden in Luke 4:12.
Many Christians, even those today, often are heard asking: Why does God seem to test or at least allow some of the most faithful people we know to be tested so rigorously? That question is at the heart of humans trying to understand both the inscrutable nature of God and the biblical message of being obedient, believing servants. We really do not know what Abraham thought might happen in our story with Isaac but we do know that Abraham did not deviate from his commitment to obeying God’s instructions.
The story of the faithful Abraham is not very different than the biblical story of Job who was commended as being a model of faithfulness and yet he was allowed to be tested severely (Job 1:1–22). Through many chapters of his story we hear Job’s desperate cries for answers to why he was being tested so severely.
Although his friends repeatedly challenged him to admit his disobedience to God, Job consistently refused to believe that his trials were the direct result of his disobedience. In the end, although Job admitted that he was merely human in the presence of God and although there was no answer to his ultimate question of “why?” Job’s trust in God was fully sustained while his friends were shown to be false representatives of God’s way and their severe critiques of him were judged to misconceptions for which those critics were instructed to repent.
When we turn to Paul’s assessment of Abraham, we see that he was convinced that Abraham’s faith did not waiver (Rom 4:30). But that evaluation did not mean, in our Western way of thinking, that Paul thought Abraham was perfect. Likewise, the writer to the Hebrews also regarded Abraham as a model of faithfulness and from his Christian post-resurrection perspective posited that Abraham’s willingness to offer “his only son,” must have meant that Abraham believed “that God was able to raise men from the dead” (Heb 11:19).
That interpretation of Abraham’s “God would provide the lamb” in Genesis 22:8 may be one way to interpret Abraham’s concern for the supremacy of God and his responsibility for obedience but I wonder if the Preacher of Hebrews actually knew what Abraham thought at the time. Moreover, we do not actually know the ultimate reasoning for any tests we might be called to endure. What we do know from experience is that hindsight is much clearer than foresight. After all the facts are in, it is much easier to assess what have been our motives and reasons for our earlier words and actions.
We may not be able to explain fully the meaning of Abraham’s reply to his son that “God will provide the lamb” (22:8). Was that statement given to indicate Abraham’s genuine sense of faith? Was it a conjecture about a possibility? Or, was it just a convenient put-off to Isaac so that he did not have to reveal the truth until it was absolutely necessary?
I would tend to argue that it might be a bit of all of those possibilities but like the story of Job it was an intentional part of the biblical message that forces us as the readers to seek answers to both the genuineness of our faith and the inscrutable nature of the God whom we say we serve.
Just as when God told Abraham he had to sacrifice “his son, his only son,” the response of Abraham was not argument but was an act of obedience and trust; so too, when Isaac asked his father the probing question, Abraham’s response was not really a satisfactory explanation to his son but was a message of trust and obedience.
I suppose the question that now confronts us is: Would we still be willing to serve God if the Lord or some other force or power pushed us to the limits of our faithfulness? Another way to put the question would be: Is our life and service really for God or for our own benefit and sense of well-being?
So, for a final reflection on that life question I would suggest we ponder for a brief moment the life of the Apostle Paul. While we have a good number of his letters, we actually know very little of the traumas he endured for Christ. Yet in the second letter which he wrote to the proud, “know-it all” Christians in Corinthian he gave us a hint of what he had endured when he said that he was “beaten five times with 39 lashes, three times with rods, once he was stoned, three times he was shipwrecked,” and that he encountered countless other dangers (2 Cor 11:23–29).
While most of us usually view Paul as a positive and dynamic spokesperson for Jesus, have you seriously reflected on the sense of defeatism that also assailed him when he wrote in that same letter “we were thoroughly crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability so that we despaired of life itself. In fact,” he continued, “we did not think we would survive because we felt we had received the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8–9).
Those are very gripping words that give us a slight hint at the intensity of Paul’s traumatic struggles in life. But we can thank God that he also indicated that like many other faithful servants of God before and after him, the apparent pit of despair for Paul also became the foundation for finding hope, deliverance and provision he needed from the Lord because he concluded those painful thoughts with the confession that the despair “made us trust not in ourselves but in God who raises the dead!” (2 Corinthians 1:9–10).
Well, if you think you are being tested, remember that you will not be abandoned. God did not leave Abraham, Job or Paul. And God did not leave Jesus when he was on the cross. God can and will “provide” the answer you need? That is not a question, it is the way of life with God who sent Jesus to make sure you understand that he is with you always to the end of time—and even beyond! (Matt 28:20).
About the writer: Gerald L. Borchert
Senior Professor at Carson-Newman University (TN); Former Trustee, Emeritus Professor & Thesis Director at the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies (FL) was a Canadian lawyer who holds an honors Ph.D. from Princeton in New Testament and did post-doctoral work in Jerusalem, Cambridge, Hamburg, Duke, Boston and San Francisco.
He has taught at many schools throughout the world and been the dean of two American theological seminaries. A translator for the New Living Translation, he has penned over 200 articles and over 30 books including commentaries on John, Revelation, Galatians and Thessalonians as well as other works on Jesus, Assurance and Warning, Worship, Evangelism, Counseling, etc., and two Guides to visiting the Bible lands.
Among his most recent works are Portraits of Jesus for an Age of Biblical illiteracy (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2016) and Christ and Chaos: Biblical Keys to Ethical Questions (Macon, GA: Nurturing Faith, Inc., 2020).
He is married to Doris Ann Cox, a retired seminary Professor of Christian Education and Ministry Supervision; the father of two sons: Mark and Tim (both of whom are ordained ministers and the focus for his latest book); two professional daughters-in-law; and four grandchildren.
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