Abraham’s Test: The Sacrifice of Isaac As a Burnt Offering

The latter three quarters of the book of Genesis is filled with stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. And none seem more challenging, at least to me, than God’s call for Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. This story is recorded in Genesis 22:1-19. But I do believe we need to look at a larger picture than just this isolated story if we are going to understand Abraham’s test as recorded here.

Who Is Abraham

Abram, later renamed to Abraham, is first introduced in Genesis 11:27-32. His family ancestry is defined along with the relevant members of his immediate family. Abraham was from Ur of the Chaldeans, located in what is today Iraq. The family migrated out of Ur, heading for Canaan, but stopped to settle in Harran, a city well north of Canaan.

No reason is given here as to why the family was migrating, although later we see that God’s call played at least a part in their decision. Nor is anything told us about Abraham’s character, beliefs, or occupation. Abraham was simply a man who, with his family, was leaving the big city of Ur, and heading for someplace new.

God’s Call and Covenant with Abraham

In Genesis 12:1-12 we see Abraham’s first recorded interaction with God. God called on Abraham to leave his country, his people, and his father’s family behind and to go to a place God would show him. It is unclear here if this call came before leaving Ur, or after his father died in Harran. But regardless, Abraham followed the Lord’s instruction and left Harran, heading for Canaan.

God’s call to Abraham is essentially a covenant. Abraham is to go where God leads. And God will bless him.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12:1-3 NIV

Why Abraham

God told Abraham that he would make him into a great nation, would make his name great, and that through him all peoples of the world would be blessed. Why did God choose Abraham for this? I have no idea other than God knew upfront that Abraham was a person who could, and would, respond in faith.

Up to this time, in the biblical account, humanity had been on a downward spiral, getting worse and worse. But now God stepped in to begin his long term plan for the redemption of humanity. And, for his own reasons, he chose Abraham as the starting point. And Abraham, not knowing what laid ahead for either himself, or the history of redemption, responded in faith. As Genesis 12:4 says, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.

The Covenant Reiterated

Several times through the story of Abraham we find God appearing and repeating his promise to Abraham. These come over a nearly 40 year period at significant times in Abraham’s life.

Separating from Lot

The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Genesis 13:14-17 NIV

This occurs some time after Abraham had come into Canaan. It is after his temporary sojourn in Egypt. And immediately after he and Lot divided the land between them and separated. God assured Abraham that the promises God made to him earlier remained in effect. Even the land that Abraham had surrendered to Lot would, in the end, be his.

Credited as Righteous

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:4-6 NIV

Sometime after Abraham’s rescue of Lot from his capture by the Mesopotamian kings, God again appeared to Abram and encouraged him not to fear. That God himself would be his great reward. But Abraham was confused. He had no children. And no prospect of children. And, according to the custom of the day, his chief steward would inherit all that he had once Abraham died.

But God assured him that Eliezer would not be his heir. Abraham would himself have a son. And more than just a son. Offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham’s response to God’s promise was to believe, in spite of the evidence (Heb. 11:8-12). And because of that belief, Abraham was counted as righteous before God.

The Covenant of Circumcision

When Abraham was 99 years old, and had been in Canaan for 24 years, God appeared to him again. He charged Abraham to walk faithfully before him. And then God would establish his covenant between Abraham and himself, greatly increasing his numbers. At first glance this seems strange. Had God not already established his covenant with Abraham? When you read the passage (below) that immediately follows this covenant charge, it is apparent that it is a repeat of the earlier promises to Abraham.

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Genesis 17:3-8 NIV

The difference

The difference is in what follows. In Genesis 17:10 God told Abraham, “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” The covenant now included the sign of circumcision. God’s promises to Abraham had not changed. Nor had Abraham’s faith wavered. Rather God added a condition to the covenant. And that was circumcision. Abraham was justified before circumcision (Rom. 4:9-11). But circumcision became a sign of obedience to that covenant with God.

The Result of the Test

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 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, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Genesis 22:15-18 NIV

This final affirmation of the covenant promises with Abraham comes immediately after Abraham’s obedience in the test that is the focus of this article. Here the covenant promises are given as a response to Abraham’s faithfulness to sacrifice Isaac. Here, the promises would appear to be conditional on Abraham’s having followed through on the sacrifice. The implication seems to be that if Abraham had failed this test, the deal would be off and God would look elsewhere. But is that the case?

Abraham’s Relationship With God

I believe that what Genesis has to say about God’s relationship with Abraham is instrumental to understanding this test. When was Abraham considered to have had a secure future with God? The words given to him after the test, taken by themselves, would seem to imply that it was a successful passing of the test with Isaac that secured his future.

Yet those same words are given to him at least three times prior to that. The first time the only condition seemed to be to go. The second time was with no discernable preconditions. The third time can be implied to involve ongoing obedience. It is only when we hit the fourth time that the promises made to him were dependent on his having passed a test of some sort.

In Genesis 15:4-6 it is clear that Abraham is justified before God, not because of his actions. But simply because he believed what God had told him. And that belief seemed active. Abraham responded to God with his belief, and with actions that came out of that belief. So it would seem that the passage in Genesis 22:15-18, which clearly come after Genesis 15:4-6, cannot be referring to Abraham’s justification. Abraham was justified prior to the test. This test did not change Abraham’s relationship with God.

The Significance of the Test

So then what was the significance of God testing Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering? There are some who suggest that since the future does not yet exist, God cannot know it. And if that is the case, then the test was to affirm to God that Abraham was indeed who God thought he would become. But that seems contrary to the bulk of the Scripture that indicates God knows the future. And it seems contrary to God’s earlier assurances to Abraham concerning descendents, land, and blessing. Also, it would provide no assurance to God that Abraham would not later fall.

Who Was the Test For?

So if this test was not for God’s edification, what was it for? The Scripture does not give us an explicit answer to that question. But the author of Hebrews gives us a clue.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

Hebrews 11:17-19 NIV

God had promised Abraham that his line, and all of the blessings, would flow through Isaac. Would Abraham be willing to give that up in order to obey God? In other words, which was more important to Abraham. The fulfillment of the promises made to him by God? Or living in obedience to God? It was a test of Abraham’s faith. And I believe it was for Abraham’s benefit.

How do I know what I will be willing to give up for the cause of Christ, until I am actually faced with that decision. And that was likely where Abraham was. He had Isaac. And he had God. And they both could have been at the top of his ‘most important’ list. God used this ‘test’ to help Abraham to come to grips with his true priorities. And Abraham choose God, reasoning that the God who gave him Isaac in the first place would be able to raise him from the dead.

Facing Trials

In 1 Peter 1:6-9 we find Peter talking about the trials we face. Trials that prove the genuineness of our faith. Abraham’s test, or trial, initiated by God, served to prove the genuineness of his faith. And, as Peter expresses, it brought glory to God. Abraham walked away from the experience knowing that there was nothing that would come between he and God.

And the words spoken to him afterwards were an affirmation of what God had been telling him all along. The blessings God had promised to him upon entering Canaan, and reaffirmed several times, were not dependant on this test, even though the language, taken in isolation, would seem to indicate otherwise.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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