Confusion and questions are often raised when we read or hear the story in Genesis 22. Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. And while God relents in the end, many wonder why God would even command such a thing. To ask a father to willingly kill his own son seems so out of character with the God we have come to know in the pages of the Bible.
It was way back in Genesis chapter twelve that God originally called Abraham in his old age commanding him and his wife Sarah to head west to a land of God's choosing. In Abraham's obedience, God will make of him a great nation, even though he and Sarah are well past child-bearing years and have no children. God will fulfill that promise in the birth of their son Isaac. But it will be years in between God's call of Abraham and the birth of Isaac. In the meantime both Abraham and Sarah attempt to force the fulfillment of God's promise in several different ways, the most notable being Sarah giving her handmaiden, Hagar to Abraham so that he might have a son with her. He will and the child will be named Ishmael.
So while Abraham and Sarah have certainly shown their faithfulness, at times they have also demonstrated their faithlessness in dramatic ways. At times, Abraham does not trust God, but neither does God trust Abraham to be obedient when it counts. God's command to Abraham in chapter 22 is for the purpose of finding out if Abraham's faith can stand the difficult test.
As we listen to this story we shudder to think that anyone would dare sacrifice a child, but let us not forget that in our own world children's lives are being sacrificed slowly by a rampant sex slave trade. There are parents in other parts of the world who even as we speak are selling their young children into forced prostitution—so much for human progress.
Even though the command to sacrifice Isaac sounds difficult to our ears, it really did not for Abraham. Abraham lived in a world where child sacrifice was not unknown. Abraham had contact with people who practiced religions where children were sacrificed. The fact that the Old Testament condemns such a practice demonstrates that it was happening. There is no doubt that Abraham was greatly grieved at the thought of losing his son whom he loved, but the practice itself was not unknown to him.
Abraham's faith is anguished. Here we see that faith is serious business. Abraham not only has to trust God that God will fulfill his promise to make of Abraham a great nation, even though the one through whom the promise will be fulfilled (Isaac) will be killed. On several occasions Abraham and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands and fulfill the promise themselves because they were too impatient to wait on God and perhaps didn’t even believe God would keep his word at certain times in their lives. Now Abraham has to trust that God will keep his promise even without Isaac, and continue to have faith even in the midst of indescribable grief as he mourns the death of his son.
Just as Abraham is about to do what God commands, God speaks and tells him to relent, "But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, 'Abraham, Abraham!' And he said, 'Here I am.' He said, 'Do not lay your hand on the boy 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.' And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place 'The LORD will provide'; as it is said to this day, 'On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided' (22:11-14).
We like to think that we are in control of our lives, and of course we need to take responsibility for our lives and our futures. We should buy insurance, we should save for retirement, but there is so much that comes to us that is beyond our control. The depth of our faith is not revealed in how we shape our present, but how we live in the present as we respond in faith to those things that come our way over which we have no control. Abraham had no control over his situation, but he responded in faith even as he struggled and anguished. We too must trust in God. Faith is easy when life is good; faith is deepened when the circumstances of life leave us in a shambles.
When the tests of life come our way, God does not desire that we be miserable. Indeed, God hurts when we hurt. But what God desires of us when life tests our faith is that when we are forced outside of our comfort zones, we will learn that we have to trust in God in all things and in all times and in all places.
God wants to be able to say to each and every one of us, "Now I know that you trust me."