For centuries perhaps no story from the Bible has drawn more attention than the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Issac at the apparent request of God in Genesis 22:1-19. And understandably so, it’s a complex narrative weaving together seemingly contradictory themes with implications that are far reaching.
If you’re familiar with the story you’ll likely agree that God’s request seems to come out of nowhere. In fact it enters the story so abruptly it’s hard not to be puzzled by the seeming incongruity between God’s request and the character we attribute to Him. Which is likely why so many enemies of the Bible believe this story to be among their most compelling and devastating arguments against not only the Bible but against God Himself.
Despite the attacks, accusations, and seeming complexity however, I firmly believe this story is not only beautiful in it’s simplicity, but powerful in it’s example of the Bible’s consistency and credibility. I also believe that every story in the Bible is meant to be understood, and that the Bible itself is one, albeit very long, coherent story. And my contention is this; if you are willing to read it that way, allowing it to prove that it does not contradict itself, then we just might find something completely unexpected and wonderful!
So, we should first rule out any idea that God is somehow tempting Abraham to break one of His own laws. After all the story of Abraham and Issac was written down by Moses in the desert for the instruction of Israel who had just received God’s 10 commandments including the 6th which says “thou shalt not kill”. But more importantly the author of the New Testament book of James, who history identifies as one of the brothers of Jesus, tells us the following about the character of God.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one [with evil].
Again, if the Bible is consistent with itself we cannot say that God is somehow tempting Abraham to do something evil. What we can say however, because its made explicit in the very opening sentence of the story, is that these events do constitute some kind of a test from God. Now, the purpose of a test is to reveal something about a given person or situation, but God is all-knowing, so whatever it is that’s revealed must clearly be for the benefit of the one being tested. And this is in fact the very reason for God’s request of the sacrifice of Issac. If God is testing Abraham, Then God is about to reveal something!
How do I know this for certain? Well… because Jesus told me. Not personally of course, but He did tell all of us in the book of John while responding to the challenges of an angry crowd demanding of Him “Are You greater than our father Abraham, who is dead… Whom do You make Yourself out to be?” To this He gave the following response.
“Your father Abraham rejoiced [desired] that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”
Now, the incredible implication of this statement is likely as obvious as it is mind bending! Not only is Jesus squarely telling the crowd that Abraham somehow personally communicated to Him his desire to see the coming of the Messiah, but that he in fact “saw it” and “was glad”!
But how did he see it? Well, I think we can rule out time travel, and although a dream or vision would be in line with the rest of the Bible, throughout Abraham’s life we find God almost exclusively communicating with him verbally. However the exchange took place, its difficult to believe Moses would leave something this important out of the story, without at least alluding to it.
If you din’t know it, God considered Abraham a friend, so much so that Genesis 18 tells us on one occasion He even came down and shared a meal with him. And while they sat face to face God warned Abraham of the coming destruction of Sodom, and even personally delivered the good news that despite his old age he would yet have a son. So unique was Abraham’s relationship with God that the Bible calls him “the friend of God”.
James 2:23 NLT
“And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God.”
So when this friend of God asked to see the Messiah’s Day, to understand it’s work and it’s cost, Jesus says God obliged, and that Abraham indeed SAW IT. How wonderful if that conversation had been written down for us! But we can imagine it must have gone something like “Lord, What will it be like when you redeem this world, How will you do it? Oh I so DESIRE to see it and experience what it is You are going to do”. If Moses was aware of this conversation, he chose not to include it. But I think we have good reason to believe that he quite strongly alludes to it and perhaps may even have had a very good reason for leaving it out. You may have noticed that both of these stories, God’s calling Abraham to sacrifice Issac, and Jesus responding to the angry crowd, seem to be missing some context, like stories missing a beginning or an ending. But if you look at them as part of the same story, something incredible begins to take shape.
Let’s go back to Genesis and take a closer at the events surrounding Abraham’s test.
- Isaac is called Abraham’s only son (22:2), even though we know that he had two, even if he did send one of them (Ishmael) away with his mother.
- Isaac was to be sacrificed in the “region of Moriah” on a mountain that God would point out to him. (22.2)
- The events surrounding Isaac’s sacrifice by Abraham lasted 3 days (22:4)
- Isaac chooses to submit to his father’s apparent will (22:9-11)
- God promises that because Abraham was willing to give up his only son, all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. (22:18)
With that in Mind now consider these events surrounding the life and death of Jesus.
- Jesus is called God’s “only begotten Son” (Jn 3:16)
- Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion all happened within walking distance of the Temple mount which according to 2 Chronicles 3:1 was built on a mountain in the region of Moriah.
- From the time Jesus was taken into custody until His resurrection was 3 days.
- Jesus asks for “this cup to be taken away from Him” but ends His prayer to His Father by saying “not My will, but Your will be done” (Luke 22:42).
- Through Jesus all nations of the earth, which is another way of saying all people, are blessed through His sacrifice for our sins (1 Tim 4:10) “[Jesus is] the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”
The similarities between these two events are unmistakable! And I doubt much explaining is necessary to see that Jesus’s own testimony about Abraham’s strong desire to actually “see” and understand how God would redeem the world through His Son was revealed to him through the events of Genesis 22. God apparently honored His friend’s request to see by doing the next best thing to being there, He re-created the entire event in a way that Abraham would be able to understand. God immersed Abraham into the story of the coming Messiah and his work, and put Abraham in a position to understand the experience of God the Father Himself.
In doing this God indeed “tested” Abraham, in that he tested just how badly he really desired to “see” and understand what his friend God was going to do. In completing the test Abraham not only came to see Jesus’s day and be glad for it, but also unknowingly left behind one of the clearest most compelling pictures of not only God’s plan of redemption, but of God’s great great love and sacrifice, from the perspectives of both the Father and the Son.
The only thing missing from the Biblical record in Genesis is this conversation between God and Abraham. You may be thinking if only Moses had included it, everything might have been clear, but I think we can now see that it was left out because it was still a story unfinished. The story of the Bible IS the story of Jesus and this conversation between friends probably wouldn’t really have made much sense to the rest of us until it could be compared to the life and death of Jesus.
With this, the story that Christians and Jews alike have struggled for generations to explain, and one very old conversation between two very good friends, is finally put into place. And the story that Moses began is brought to a close by apostle John. Two authors who never met, separated by nearly 4,000 years began and completed the greatest story ever told. Unexpected? perhaps… Wonderful? Absolutely!