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Top Ten Old Testament Stories: #3 Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19)

TIMING: Traditionally, Abraham was thought to live 2000 years before Christ, but this has been questioned recently by such books as Abraham in History and Tradition by biblical scholar John Van Seters (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_in_History_and_Tradition).

REASON TO READ: Prior to Abraham, God had individual relationships with people. He was close with Adam and Noah. There are other people we know of and potentially (likely) other people we do not know of that God approached on an individual basis. The unique thing about Abraham, is that God promised, not only to be close with him, but to all of his descendants also, which is a significant milestone in God beginning to form for Himself a "holy nation, His own special people, that ... who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy" (1 Peter 2:9-10).

BRIEF SUMMARY: Abraham has many stories found in Genesis 11-25, but here we are focused on when God asks him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. This story begins in Chapter 17 when God makes a promise to Abraham that he will be the father of many nations through his son Isaac. It is important to read this and see that God does not simply make a general statement that Abraham will be a patriarch, but rather a specific statement that Isaac will be part of the promise also. Therefore, when God asks Abraham in Genesis 22:2 to "sacrifice him on the fires of an altar," Abraham is faced with an apparent contradiction. On the one hand God is telling him that he will be the father of many nations through Isaac, and on the other hand He is asking for him to kill his son of promise.

The morning following the request, Abraham saddled his donkey and took Isaac with two servants on a three day walk to the land of Moriah, where God had asked him to perform the sacrifice. He then told his servants, "Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you" (verse 5). As Isaac carried the wood to the altar, he asked his father where the lamb is that they are to offer as a burnt offering, to which Abraham responds, saying "God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering" (verse 8). After Isaac was bound and placed upon the wood of the altar, Abraham raised his hand to slay his son, but the angel stopped him, saying "Abraham, Abraham! ... Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me" (verses 11-12). Abraham then looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns, which he offered up as a sacrifice instead of his son, and God confirms the promise he had made to Abraham that He will multiply his descendants.

HOW THIS FITS IN THE TOP TEN: One common question that people have is about the perceived difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. Why does He go from fire and brimstone to love and acceptance? This is a complex question that we will not answer completely, but the short answer is that it is not God that changed but rather it is we humans who matured in our understanding of God. This can be likened to a father treating his toddler different from his school age son, and his teenage daughter differently from her married older sister. Therefore, while it seems as though He is treating people in the Old Testament differently, God Himself is the same and His end goal of bringing all mankind back to Himself never changes.

We often hear about Abraham as a role model and there is certainly much to say about his faithfulness and friendship with God (Romans 4, Galatians 3, Hebrews 11:8-12, James 2:14-26), but if we want to construct an Old Testament story as a chronology, we must also pay attention to Abraham’s role as a patriarch, not only to the Hebrews, but to all "who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised" (Romans 4:12). God approaches Abraham, not just as an individual, but as a representative of the human race. When he is told that God will be his "shield, [his] exceedingly great reward," he is receiving this promise on behalf of us all. When Adam rejected God, he rejected life. When the people in the time of Noah refused to listen, they refused the salvation of the ark. In Abraham, God shows that He "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). Initially, this is not perfectly clear as at first glance it looks like God is approaching Abraham only as an individual, and at second glance it looks like He is approaching him only as the patriarch of the Hebrews. We must, however, appreciate that all that He says to Abraham applies to anyone who is a child of Abraham in faith.

Why are we specifically focusing on the sacrifice of Isaac and not the other thirteen chapters in Genesis dedicated to Abraham? Is it because Abraham shows us that we must sacrifice what is most important to us to be with God? Not really, at least not in this context. Is it because it is a great demonstration of faith? Maybe, kind of. The real significance of this story in the chronology of the Old Testament is that Abraham shows that he understands his place in God’s plan of redemption. In his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, we see that Abraham has power over death, and if necessary, is able to raise Isaac from the dead. God has promised an everlasting covenant with Abraham through his son Isaac "and his descendants after him" (Genesis 17:19). This is why when Abraham leaves his servant behind to go to the place of sacrifice, he tells the servant "we will come back to you," indicating that he has no doubt that Isaac will be coming back alive with him (Genesis 22:5). This faith in God’s commitment to His covenant is a major milestone in our story because Abraham trusts in God on our behalf. Just as Adam took us a step in the wrong direction by eating of the tree, Abraham took us a step in the right direction by trusting in God and His covenant. Just as Abraham offered his son to God on behalf of mankind, God offered His son to mankind.

Through Abraham the Old Covenant was established with circumcision and animal sacrifice, and through Christ the New Covenant was established with Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist (Hebrews 8).

Are we children of Abraham? Only in so far as we trust in God and His covenants with man, whether old or new. This trust is not optimism or hope but faith that He will fulfill his promises. Optimism is based on known information and sounds like "the weather forecast says that it will probably be sunny today so I am optimistic that we will have a nice day at the beach." Hope is based on no information, but also not based on a promise and sounds like "I have studied as hard as I can and I hope to do well on my test." Faith is based on a promise and sounds like "Michael said he would be here at 7 and I am sure that he will be here on time." Our relationship with God should be filled with optimism, hope and faith, but we should not confuse one of them for another. Abraham did not just have optimism or hope that Isaac would come back alive - he had faith because his belief was based on a promise.

May God help us all to have the faith of Abraham.

Series Name: Top 10 Old Testament Stories

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