Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22)

Iain M. Duguid
Wednesday, September 1st 2010
Sep/Oct 2010

Recovering the Message of Scripture

In this special section of our "Rightly Dividing the Word" issue, nine pastor-theologians help shed light on some popular texts of Scripture that tend to lose their true redemptive-historical significance in a culture of interpretive narcissism.

How do modern people relate to a narrative about a man whom God called to offer his only son as a sacrifice? One way would be to identify ourselves with Abraham in this story and see the parallels between this test of Abraham's faith and our daily struggle to put God first in various areas of our lives. Certainly Abraham is (in this case) a model for us in his faith. But Abraham's faith is not the main point of the story. Otherwise, at the conclusion of the story the mountain would have been named "Abraham passed the test." This story is about God and his ability to meet our deepest needs, which is why the mountain is named "The Lord will provide" (Gen. 22:14). This passage addresses us not by urging us to be people of faith like Abraham, but rather by pointing us to the way in which Abraham's God provided for his (and our) profoundest need.

In Genesis 12, God called Abram to sacrifice his past by leaving his relatives and going in faith to the land God would show him; now, the Lord calls Abraham again to go in faith to the place God would show him–this time to sacrifice his future. In asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son, his beloved son (v. 2), God was rubbing in the enormity of what he was asking. Killing Isaac not only meant sacrificing a beloved child, but also emptying his life of everything he had dreamed of these past twenty-five years, for Isaac was the one through whom blessing was to come to the nations. With his death, all meaning and purpose would be stripped away from Abraham's existence, leaving him without hope or future.

Yet Abraham responded by getting up early and setting about obedience immediately (Gen. 22:3). Did he have faith that God would somehow do a miracle? Strikingly, he told his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you" (v. 5). When Isaac inquired about the lamb, Abraham assured him, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering" (v. 8). Perhaps Abraham recognized that God could raise the dead, as the writer of Hebrews deduces (Heb. 11:19), but he had no commitment from God to that effect.

Indeed, God called Abraham to go to the very edge in his obedience. Father and son walked up the mountain together, with Isaac carrying the wood for his own funeral pyre. Isaac was bound and laid on the altar, ready to be sacrificed. But at the point when the knife was raised, about to descend on his beloved only son, the angel of the Lord called out to Abraham from heaven and told him to stay his hand. As Abraham looked up, he saw that God had indeed provided a lamb; there, trapped in the thicket, was a ram he could offer in his son's place. It was not only Abraham who passed the test that day; the Lord demonstrated that he was able to provide the offering necessary to atone for Abraham's sin, without taking away his beloved son. Through his experience of offering his son, Abraham gained a unique insight into God's plan of salvation–Jesus Christ (see John 8:56). God is always the one who provides the lamb that we need.

This lesson was played out in the lives of the first readers of Genesis, the generation who went into the wilderness with Moses. They too saw their beloved firstborn sons spared by the blood of the Passover lamb, daubed on the doorway of their houses, while the destroying angel struck down the firstborn of Egypt. They knew what it was for God to supply a lamb to take their place. Subsequent generations reenacted the key elements of the storyline each time they brought their own lambs to the temple in Jerusalem.

But all of these Old Testament sacrifices were merely pictures of the time when God himself would reenact this scene. God the Father filled the role of Abraham, bringing his Son, his only Son, the one whom he loved, and laying him on the altar. Jesus Christ became both willing son and willing sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Only this time, there was no voice from heaven saying, "Stay your hand." There was no angelic intervention at the last minute–only the spreading darkness of God's curse that surrounded the cross and centered upon the mangled and twisted body of the dead son. There was no substitute for him, for he had come to be the substitute for us. Jesus had to drink the cup of God's wrath to its dregs, if the promise of blessing to Abraham and his descendants was to become a reality. The knife descended; the cup was drained: that was the cost at which we were redeemed.

Just as Abraham's willingness to take obedience to the ultimate point demonstrated clearly his love for God, so too God's willingness to take his son's obedience all the way to the agonies on the cross demonstrates the depth and reality of his love for us. It was not just the son who was paying the price of sin on the cross: the Father too paid deeply for our sin as he laid it all on his beloved Son, bringing down the knife of his righteous judgment upon his defenseless head. Here lies our confidence as we face the complexities and difficulties of life in a fallen world. As Paul put it: "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Rom. 8:32). Why then are you and I so fearful of the cost that may be demanded of us as we follow Jesus? The God who providentially ordains every aspect of your life is the same God who sacrificed his own beloved Son to provide the perfect righteousness you need. His grace has brought us safe thus far, and his grace will lead us home.

Wednesday, September 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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