In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
This is the story of Abraham that most of us are probably most familiar with. It’s the story that’s most associated with Abraham’s “faith,” though as I hope we’ve seen, Abraham’s faith has been demonstrated in a number of ways (as has his faithlessness). Nevertheless, though the theme of Abraham’s faithfulness winds throughout his story, this is certainly the most dramatic demonstration of Abraham’s
Let’s take a look at some narrative elements that may be important (or hopefully, at least, helpful).
Victor Hamilton, citing Phyllis Trible, notes that this story seems to make some connections with the previous story (which we skipped) in which Abraham sends away Hagar and Ishmael. Most of these have to do with linguistic connections (word choice) and, without going into detail, seem to indicate a narrative connection between the two stories. It’s worth noting that:
- Ishmael, despite Abraham’s best human efforts, is not the child of promise.
- Nevertheless, Ishmael is the eldest son – important in that culture. Here, we might be seeing something of a common biblical motif where the obvious (oldest son) is not God’s choice.
- In sending Ishmael (and Hagar) away, Abraham is really having to put his faith in God regarding his descendants.
Now this may be obvious because, if we’ve followed the story so far, God explicitly said that this would be true (Isaac would be the child of promise). In Genesis 17:15-22, we read:
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. l I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
In our passage today, in verse 2, God says to Abraham:
2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
And we see an extremely high repetition of this, “son”, “my son”, “your son”, or “your son, your only son” throughout today’s passage. All of these things seem to serve to underscore exactly what God seems to be asking of Abraham. That he is to sacrifice his son, his only son, as an act of faith in God.
So it’s in this context that God speaks to Abraham and it’s in this context that Abraham obeys. Which is really remarkable, isn’t it? Who of us, if we were asked to do something like this, would willingly obey? And it says something about the journey of faith that we’ve seen Abraham take.
To reiterate, what we’ve seen in Abraham is great faith:
- At 75 years old, Abraham picks up, leaving behind everything he knew, to go to the land God commanded him to.
- We’ve seen him give Lot the first choice of land, trusting God for his promise and not in his position as the patriarch of the family.
- We’ve seen him refuse rewards from foreign kings believing instead that his reward would come from God.
But what we’ve also seen is that he’s as prone to human weakness, insecurity, and frankly sin, as any of us are.
- We’ve seen him tell Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister, not his wife, because of his fear.
- We’ve seen him taking Hagar as his wife, following human wisdom, because he could not see how God was going to work in his life and Sarah’s.
- We’ve seen him claim again that Sarah was his sister, this time to Abimelek.
So Abraham’s journey has been far from straightforward. It’s amazing, then, that Abraham is able to obey. It’s at this point that I want to make a couple of observations.
Firstly, that God’s call, the call (and promise) to be his people is a call for our complete selves. It’s a total call. And it’s an ultimate call. God’s request/command for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is a request for Abraham’s entire being.
In the same way, God’s call to us is for our complete lives. This may seem obvious but the simple fact of the matter is we don’t actually do this very well. We have become very good at compartmentalizing our lives in such a way that the one thing never has anything to do with another.
The second observation that I want to make is that we’re not called to be perfect in order to respond to God’s call. Abraham’s journey, as we’ve noted, seems very up and down. There’s no clear indication that his life was on a positive trajectory. Remember that right before the birth of Isaac is when we get the story of Abraham repeating his sin of presenting Sarah as his sister to Abimelek. And while we’ve certainly seen demonstrations of faithfulness, I think it’s fair to say that Abraham’s journey isn’t a straight trajectory of becoming better and better and better.
Sometimes we think that we, as Christians, have to work our way up to a certain level of spirituality in order to serve God or to live for God. We think that we’re not ready – when we’re older, more mature, know more, when we have gotten the sin out of our system – however we phrase it, we just need God to give us a little more time.
The third observation I want to make is kind of a question. Towards the end of this account, when Abraham is prepared to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, a ram appears in the bush and Abraham understands that the ram is to take the place of Isaac. And so Abraham, in thankfulness to God, calls the place
14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
This is the name of God, “Jehovah Jireh,” that we’re probably familiar with. But it strikes me as not an obvious name. According to how we tend to understand the story, as a story of Abraham’s faithfulness, why isn’t the name of the place “Abraham obeyed?” Or “God rewards” or something along those lines?
This is kind of conjecture on my part – based on how I understand the whole Abraham narrative we’ve been reading. But I think the name of the place, Jehovah Jireh, underscores the initiative of God in the story of redemption.
But what we see in the immediately following verses is that it is because Abraham acts with faithfulness that God has responded:
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, n because you have obeyed me.”
So in other words, we’ve seen throughout the story of Abraham that salvation/deliverance/God’s promise comes entirely by the will and grace of God. We’ve also seen, for example in the story of circumcision as well as our story today, that our response is required. It’s both/and.
So What Now…?
Wrapping up, here’s what I think we can take away from this (we’ll talk more about how this fits into the overall Abraham story next week):
- God desires to restore and rescue His creation and purposes to do this because it is His good will to do so (i.e. not because we deserve it in some (any) way).
- We are called to respond to God’s initiative. We are called to take hold of this promise and live according to it.
- We can’t do it halfway. We are called/invited to respond to God with our whole being and not hold anything back from him. We don’t do this perfectly. We never do this perfectly. Within that, there is always grace because it is only by grace. However, we are called to bring our all.