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by Al Maxey

Issue #780 ------- August 20, 2019
The value of a sentiment is the amount of
sacrifice you are prepared to make for it.

John Galsworthy [1867-1933]

Faith-Testing Near-Death Narrative
A Reflective Examination of Genesis 22:1-19

Okay, we've all heard the story. Even our little ones can recite all the particulars of this biblical account. Abraham, who at the time was 100+ years old, heard a voice (maybe a dream or vision in the night) telling him to take his son, the only one he had with his equally aged wife Sarah, make a three day journey to some hill that would be shown to him later, bind his beloved son's hands and feet, place him upon an altar, cut his throat, and then set his body on fire. Really?! But it gets better: Abraham gets up early the next morning, to our amazement, wasting no time in making all the necessary preparations to carry out these horrifying instructions. Seriously?!

We all know the story (which is found in Genesis 22:1-19). The voice Abraham heard was the voice of God. The beloved son he was told to slaughter and set ablaze was Isaac, the son of divine promise. Thousands of years later we can all sit here with blessed hindsight and piously, almost indifferently, ponder the "beauty" of this ancient episode in which we perceive many parallels to God's plan of redemption via the sacrifice of His own beloved Son. We "get it." We really do. It's a bit weird, but, yes, we "get it." God was just making a point. Nobody actually got killed; no dead body was set on fire. All the "players" got to go home. So, point made; message delivered. But, let's be honest here: you and I have the benefit of hindsight. We know the story; we know how it ended; we even know how to "tone it down" so it isn't so shocking in the retelling of it. BUT, Abraham didn't know any of that. Neither did Sarah, or the servants, or Isaac (especially Isaac). Our Sunday school story was their absolutely shocking reality. They lived it, and there was undoubtedly a lot of intense inner turmoil and anguish experienced by them that we today struggle to even imagine! Yes, you and I can grasp the theological point; we can see the many parallels reflective of God's redemptive plan. In spite of this hindsight, however, many disciples still struggle to understand the WHY? of God's teaching methodology on this occasion. We struggle to rationalize what seems to our enlightened modern minds to be so thoroughly irrational. How, we dare to ask, can we even begin to justify the infliction of so much inner anguish just to "make a point" (no matter how valid that point may be) that, frankly, could have been made in any number of less traumatic ways?!

Let's face it, there are a number of accounts found within the OT and NT writings that seriously challenge not only our faith, but also our credulity. Because we believe in God, and because we want to love and trust Him more and more each day, we either "shelve" such concerns and refuse to think about them ("ignorance is bliss," some say), or we stress ourselves out seeking to understand and/or rationalize that which may well be "above our pay grade." Remember poor old Job? He had finally had enough and declared he was going to demand some answers from God. Job had to learn, as most of us do, that genuine faith is neither attained nor maintained by the depth of our knowledge and understanding of something; indeed, faith is that quality which allows us to trust even in the complete absence of such knowledge and understanding. In other words, we can be convicted of something even though we may also be conflicted about it. The writer of Hebrews put it this way, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). I can trust even though I may not be able to prove, much less fully comprehend. I like the way The Message has rendered the above text from Hebrews: "The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see."

Our faith/trust undergoes its greatest testing when we are confronted with that which we least understand, and which we may deem utterly irrational. The Creator spoke and the universe appeared, having been formed from nothing (Hebrews 11:3). Can I prove this? Nope! But I can accept it ... by faith. Back to Job. When Job dared to question God, the response he was given was: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell Me, if you understand!" (Job 38:4). For two whole chapters (Job 38:1 - 40:1) God basically informs Job of the following fact: I am God; you are not! In Job 40 God makes it clear, to a now very humbled Job, that He knows what He is doing; that He has a plan for His creation, and that plan is being effected according to HIS timing and methodology, and He is under no obligation to "run it by" either Job or anyone else! Back to Abraham and the Genesis 22 narrative. God had a purpose and plan for what He commanded Abraham to do, and it was not essential to the fulfillment of that plan that Abraham fully grasp every aspect of that plan or purpose. Thus, "by faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac" (Hebrews 11:17). From a purely human point of view, God's command was irrational; from the perspective of Abraham, it made no sense; in fact, it seemed to be contrary to the very promise God had made to him: that He would bless him, and make a mighty nation of him, through Isaac. To kill this son, therefore, would seem to be counterproductive. It would undermine and negate the promise, would it not?! Yet, by faith Abraham obeyed; not because he understood, but because he believed (trusted; had faith).

"Like many biblical narratives, the reader often knows information that the characters in the narrative do not" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 168]. You and I know, for example, that this was a test of Abraham's faith and devotion to God. Did this man trust God to do what He had previously promised to do through Isaac, or would Abraham begin doubting and second-guessing God and questioning the judgment of God? "Now it came about after these things that God tested Abraham" (Genesis 22:1). This extremely important fact is revealed to us again in Hebrews 11:17 - "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac." The insight which we have today, but which Abraham did not have, was that God had no intention whatsoever of allowing Isaac to be killed. Lacking this insight, however, Abraham was presented with a command from God that, if obeyed, would cost him his beloved son. He was asked to kill his son with his own hands. No reason why was given. Just do it. I'm not sure many of us would have passed that test. I'm afraid I would have argued with God; perhaps even refused. Abraham did the "unthinkable," however: he obeyed without questioning the wisdom or purpose of God. God commanded it, and that was sufficient. That is a strength of faith and devotion to God that is quite extraordinary, and you and I probably have difficulty rationalizing how a father could do what Abraham was committing himself to do: slaughter his only son, and to do this solely on the "say so" of God! You and I can sit back in the comfort of our greater insight and perspective, and we can applaud his faith and praise his love for God, but I doubt very many of us would dare to imitate that faith. It is simply far too mind-boggling to even contemplate.

There are many things about this ancient biblical narrative that trouble us. What was Sarah thinking? If she even knew. Did Abraham hide this from her? That is very possible. Not even Isaac was aware of what his father intended. As they walked up the mount of sacrifice, with Isaac carrying the very wood for the fire that would consume his flesh, he said to his father, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Even at this last moment, Abraham did not let his son know what was about to happen. Was this deception? Was he being less than honest with Isaac, as perhaps he had previously been with Sarah? In Abraham's defense, we can point to the fact that his faith and trust in God was so strong that he genuinely believed God would reverse the effect of his obedience: i.e., "he considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead" (Hebrews 11:19). This assurance within the heart and mind of Abraham prompted him to tell his servants, just before he and Isaac headed up the mount to the place of sacrifice, "Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder, and WE will worship and RETURN to you" (Genesis 22:5). Talk about "trust and obey." Abraham was going to kill Isaac. That decision had already been made in his heart. In his own mind, the deadly deed had already been committed. Notice the wording in Hebrews 11:17 - "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac." For Abraham, it was a "done deal" before they had even left on the three days journey to the mount of sacrifice God would show him. In other words, Abraham had obeyed God before he actually performed the commanded act. Although our visible actions in response to the commands of God have their place, the obedience God seeks of each of us (and this was true of Abraham) is of the heart. For both God and Abraham it was a "done deal" before it was a done deal. God sees and judges hearts, which explains why the Lord commends Abraham even though, in reality, Abraham did NOT actually carry out the command of God. Genesis 22:12, 16, 18 all reveal that God saw the intent of this good man's heart, and that intent He regarded as the fullness of compliance with His command. This is a truth, by the way, which many legalistic brethren might do well to seriously ponder (especially those who have sacramentalized the act of baptism in water). The OT scholars Drs. Keil and Delitzsch rightly observed, "The sacrifice was already accomplished in his heart, and he had fully satisfied the requirements of God" [Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1, p. 250].

Yet another aspect of this narrative that troubles many disciples is: although this was a test of Abraham's faith and resolve, was it not also a major test of the faith and resolve of Isaac?! After all, it was Isaac who was to be slaughtered on the altar, not Abraham. It would seem that sacrifice was at least equal to, if not greater, than the sacrifice made by the father. What was Isaac thinking? Was he a consenting participant? Could he have said "No"? To some degree this hinges on how old, as well as how mature, Isaac was at the time of the "sacrifice story." If he was just a small child (some sources speculate he had just been weaned), then we can suggest that his level of innocent ignorance was likely quite high. It seems unlikely to most scholars, however, that Isaac could have been that young. After all, he is the one who carried the wood for the offering up the hill. That would not be an easy task for a toddler. We are given some indication of age in Genesis 22:12 where the Angel of the Lord (the pre-incarnate Christ) says to Abraham, who is about to plunge the knife into Isaac, "Do not stretch out your hand to the lad." This is a Hebrew term that has a wide range of application, all the way from "child" to "young man." The word is used of Joseph (Gen. 37:2) when he was 17 years old, and then was used of him again years later (Genesis 41:12) when he was probably close to forty by some accounts. This Hebrew word is also used repeatedly in 1 Kings 20:14ff to describe 232 "young men" who were fierce warriors, and who slaughtered many of the enemy in battle! It seems most likely, therefore, in view of how Isaac is portrayed in Genesis 22, that he is probably in his twenties. Josephus wrote, "Now Isaac was twenty-five years old" [Antiquities of the Jews, book 1, chapter 13, section 2]. According to the Targum of Jonathan, the age of Isaac at this time was stated to be thirty-six. Since there is an obvious parallel between Isaac and Jesus (each offered up at the will of the father, each carried the wood of their own sacrifice, etc.), some scholars suggest the age thirty-three would be appropriate, as it is commonly presumed to be the age of Jesus at the time of His crucifixion.

Whatever the age of Isaac might have been at the time of this account, he was almost certainly old enough, mature enough, and certainly strong enough to have resisted the will of his father in this matter. If Isaac was 33, for example, Abraham would have been 133 years old, for "Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born to him" (Genesis 21:5). Thus, Isaac could indeed have said "No," just as Jesus also could have said "No." Each had the power to do so, each questioned their father as the moment drew near, and each obviously consented to surrender their own will to that of the father as the moment came for the sacrifice to be made. This was not an easy moment for either the son or the father (and that is true in both the Isaac/Abraham and Jesus/God narratives). We can't even pretend to know the depth of the agonizing that must have surely been taking place in the hearts and minds of father and son. The moment had come; the summit of the mount God had selected had been reached; the victim had carried his own wood to the place of the dreaded bloody sacrifice. "Isaac, when the trying moment came, seems to have made no resistance to his father's will" [Albert Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Jesus also, when that moment came, submitted: "Not My will, Father, but Thine be done!" (Luke 22:42).

It is interesting to note where this event took place. God clearly had a specific site in mind, and even called Abraham to undertake a three day journey to get to it (Genesis 22:4). It was in "the land of Moriah, on one of the mountains of which I will tell you" (Genesis 22:2). What many may not realize is that this was the location where one would much later find the city of Jerusalem. Because of the many parallels between this ancient account and that of the offering of Jesus on a mount outside of Jerusalem, most scholars believe, and I concur, that the site of Isaac's near sacrifice would years later be the site of the actual sacrifice of Jesus. After the Angel of the Lord stopped the execution of Isaac, God provided a ram for the sacrifice in Isaac's place. "So Abraham called the name of that place, 'The Lord will provide'; as it is said to this day, 'On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided'" (Genesis 22:14). Virtually all biblical scholars believe this mount selected by God is the exact site where He would later offer up His own beloved Son as the ultimate sacrifice. We should also add at this point that this same site (after Isaac's near sacrifice and before the actual sacrifice of Jesus) would be the scene of yet another sacrifice. In 2 Samuel 24 (with a parallel account in 1 Chronicles 21) we find David called to offer a sacrifice at a specific location. For a study of why this sacrifice was offered, I would refer the reader to Reflections #273 ("Case of the Senseless Census: A Reflective Analysis of David's Sin").

"The threshing floor of Araunah was situated outside the city of Jerusalem on Mt. Moriah, a hill to the northeast of mount Zion" [Willard Winter, Studies in Samuel, p. 625]. This was "the same site where Abraham once held a knife over his son Isaac -- Genesis 22:1-19" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 1103]. Josephus wrote, "Now it happened that Abraham came and offered his son Isaac for a burnt-offering at that very place" [Antiquities of the Jews, book 7, chapter 14, section 3]. It was on one of these many series of hills that the Messiah would later shed His blood for the sins of mankind. Thus, this general area would long be regarded as a place of sacrifice unto the Lord God. When Araunah learned David's intent to make an offering on this site, which was owned by Araunah, he offered to give him, at no cost, the land, the animals for the sacrifice, and even the materials to construct the altar and the wood for the fire. However, in a statement that shows the depth of David's contrition and the character of this man after God's own heart, he replied, "No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price, for I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing!" (2 Samuel 24:24). "I will not take what is yours for the Lord, or offer a burnt offering which cost me nothing" (1 Chronicles 21:24).

David's statement in the above passage is most enlightening, for it helps us to understand something extremely important about the mindset of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. David vowed to offer up to God no sacrifice that cost him nothing. He would not take the easy way out. God called Abraham to make a sacrifice that would cost him everything he held dear. Such a sacrifice is inconceivable to most of us for that very reason. "Lord, I would love to obey You, but the cost is too high! I'll have to pass." The very promises of God were invested in this "son of promise" (Isaac). Was Abraham willing to make that sacrifice? What if you were called by God to give up the one thing in life you treasured most?! Would you? Even if this divine request happened to appear absurd to your way of thinking?! How much do you TRUST God? Enough to do the unthinkable?! Enough to do the irrational?! As the English novelist and playwright John Galsworthy [1867-1933] noted in the quote at the top of this Reflections, "The value of a sentiment is the amount of sacrifice you are prepared to make for it." Abraham was willing to sacrifice everything! What Abraham didn't know at the time, but what you and I know through blessed hindsight, is that God Himself made that same sacrifice on that same mount! He offered up His one and only beloved Son. That Son carried the wood to the site of execution. That Son yielded His own will to the will of the Father. God asks nothing of us that He isn't willing to do Himself. Yes, "the cross is foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:18) to those who have chosen to follow the course of this world and to resist the gift of God, just as the unspiritual, unenlightened ones of this world will see Abraham's actions, as well as those of his son, as foolish and repulsive. On the other hand, for those willing to gaze more deeply into these narratives with the eyes of faith, they will perceive eternal truths utterly incomprehensible to the worldly-minded.

What you and I must understand, and it is a difficult lesson to learn, is that the purposes of God Almighty transcend the questions and doubts of mere men. Abraham most certainly saw only a glimpse of what God was seeking to accomplish through this call to sacrifice his son, but that lack of perception of the full purpose of the Father did not deter him from obeying. How could he do this? Because he trusted God; he had faith. The writer of Hebrews tells us, after speaking of people like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and many others, that "all these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance" (Hebrews 11:13). Jesus told some of His Jewish critics, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). Abraham and Isaac were participants in an event that prefigured the sacrifice of God's beloved Son. Through that act they were granted a glimpse into God's eternal purpose, and they rejoiced at the glimmer of grace they beheld. Yes, sometimes God's purposes are perceived, and even put into action, through a process of acts that may well be personally painful. He may call us to sacrifice, and it may not make sense to our human intellects, but with eyes of faith and hearts devoted to Him, we may find a joy and peace that truly transcends our doubts and fears.

"The picture of Isaac sensing the solemnity of the occasion (as noted in the question he posed to Abraham) and yet walking in perfect obedience, while carrying the wood upon which he is to be sacrificed, ranks among the most Christological portraits found in the OT" [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 729]. Let me close this study with these thoughts from Dr. Charles Ellicott, "Meekly, as befitted the type of Christ, Isaac submitted to his father's will, and the life restored to him was henceforth dedicated to God. But there was a higher purpose in the command than the spiritual good of these two saints. The sacrifice had for its object the instruction of the whole Church of God. If the act had possessed no typical value, it would have been difficult for us to reconcile to our consciences a command which might have seemed, indirectly at least, to have authorized human sacrifices. But there was in it the setting forth of the mystery of the Father giving the Son to die for the sins of the world; and therein lies both the value and the justification of Abraham's conduct and of the divine command" [Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, p. 86].


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Readers' Reflections

From an Author in Arizona:

Brother Al, "Paul's Toast to His Host: An Apostolic Tribute to Gaius of Corinth" (Reflections #779) was another good column. As to Paul's statement to the Corinthians, "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel," he seems to me to be saying, "For Christ did not send me to immerse only but to preach the gospel primarily." In essence that is what you seem to be saying, so I guess we're still on the same channel. The core of his mission - always - was to broadcast Christ and Him crucified. Immersion in water testifies to our having accepted Jesus as our Savior, and the act of immersion in water itself reflects that fact. Cheers in Jesus!

From a Reader in Texas:

Good Afternoon Bro. Maxey, I hope you are doing well, and I am thankful to see that Shelly is doing well following her surgery at the Mayo Clinic. I have a question which I hope you can help me understand. As you know, I have studied for years on MDR because of my past marriage. Some years ago I read an article on the Olan Hicks web site in which he stated that in the Greek language 1st Corinthians 7:27-28 is worded in such a way that the teaching is that the man was divorced BY the woman, and therefore he does not sin if he remarries. In your study would you say that this would also apply to a man who divorced his wife? Thank you! As always, I appreciate your scholarship and time.

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