Teaching series from Genesis

Abraham and Isaac

Genesis 21:1-22:13

Teaching t13914

Intro

We’ve spent the past several months studying through the first book of the Bible – the book of Genesis, the book of beginnings. After learning about the beginning of the universe and humanity, we have spent four weeks tracing the life of a man named Abraham, one of the most important men who has ever lived. God called on Abraham to leave his homeland and to go to a land that God wanted to give him. God also promised he would make Abraham into a great nation, even though he and wife, Sarah, were reaching the end of their childbearing years and still didn’t even have one child.

They waited on God to provide them a son. And God made them wait and wait and wait. And Abraham wondered if his nephew Lot would be his heir, and then Lot left, and we saw what happened to him last week. And then he wondered if his servant Eliezer would be his heir. And God said, “No, not him either. You’re going to have a son Abraham.”

When Abraham was 85 and Sarah was 75 they felt they had waited long enough, and Sarah suggested they try a surrogate mom. So, Abraham had Ishmael through a woman named Hagar. And they raised Ishmael as their own son. But when Ishmael turned 13, and Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 89, God said, “I will bless Ishmael, but he’s not the son I promised. You and Sarah will have a son by this time next year!”

And they both laughed, because that idea was so ridiculous. And God said, “I want you to name your son Isaac, which means, laughter. And every time you say the boy’s name, you will remember how long you longed for a son and how impossible this was for you. And that nothing is too hard for God Almighty.”

Genesis 21

1 Yahweh kept his word and did for Sarah exactly what he had promised. 2 She became pregnant, and she gave birth to a son for Abraham in his old age. This happened at just the time God had said it would. 3 And Abraham named their son Isaac. 4 Eight days after Isaac was born, Abraham circumcised him as God had commanded. 5 Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born.

6 And Sarah declared, “God has brought me laughter. All who hear about this will laugh with me. 7 Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse a baby? Yet I have given Abraham a son in his old age!”

Finally, after all of these years of waiting, Abraham and Sarah have the son God promised them. And if you’ve ever had to wait on God for anything, you know that the waiting seems like it’s taking forever. But then when God finally answers your prayer and brings the time of waiting to an end, it ends quickly. And he won’t make you wait longer than necessary. But with Abraham and Sarah he wanted to make sure they knew this son wasn’t something they did. It was something God did.

Well, there was already tension in that household between Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael. Remember how Hagar tried to run away when she got pregnant because of her fighting with Sarah? Remember how God told Hagar to go back and have her baby and raise him there with Abraham and Sarah?

Well, once Isaac was born and it became clear that 14 year old Ishmael was not going to be the heir, the tension ratcheted up even more. And after more three years of strife, when Ishmael was 17 or 18, God tells Abraham that it’s finally time to let Hagar and Ishmael go off and make a new life for themselves. God promises that he will protect them. He says:

Gen 21:12b-13

12 “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted. 13 But I will also make a nation of the descendants of Hagar’s son because he is your son, too.”

And so, Abraham says goodbye to Hagar and his oldest son, Ishmael. This would have been sad for Abraham. He loved Ishmael. He raised Ishmael. And now they part ways, and as far as we know, they never see each other again until Ishmael comes back for Abraham’s funeral.

But, at least Abraham has little Isaac, toddling around, falling down, learning his words, laughing, losing his baby teeth, drooling, and doing all the other things that toddlers do. I’m sure Abraham and Sarah got more than a little worn out chasing him around, being as old as they were! And they would tell Isaac they loved him and they would tickle him and he would laugh and they would laugh too. I’m sure there was a lot of laughter in that household and a lot of gratitude for God’s gift to them.

And Abraham would say, “Sarah, do you think he looks more like me or you?” And she’d say, “Well, I’m your half-sister. So I think he looks like both of us! But he definitely has your personality. Do you think he’d ever try to give his wife away to a local king? Like those two times you tried to give me away?” And Abraham would say, “Honey, can we not talk about that? God has given us a son!”

As Isaac grew up, I can see Abraham teaching him about God. He’d say, “Isaac, your mother and I come from a long line of idol worshippers. But God picked us and brought us here to this land. We never thought we would be able to have a son, but God gave us you. Your name means laughter, because when God told us about you, we laughed in unbelief, but now we’re laughing all the time because we are so happy.”

Abraham would have told him the promise of the great nation that would come through Isaac’s descendants.

Abraham would have lived without many of the worries that plague parents. Back then, if your child got sick, you didn’t know if he was going to live or die. But Abraham could say with confidence, “Honey, we don’t need to worry. We know he’ll live. Remember God’s promise? Isaac will grow to be an adult and have a son of his own someday.”

And Isaac grows up and becomes a young man. He goes through puberty. He gets his camel driver’s license. He wrecks the first camel. And Abraham’s camel insurance rates go up. But it was totally worth it because God gave him a son!

And by the time we reach Genesis 22, Isaac has become a man. Maybe 20 years old, likely old enough to get married. He’s strong. And he’s learning how to lead the whole tribe of Abraham, preparing for the day when he will take over for Abraham completely.

You can be certain that most of the fondest memories in Abraham’s life were from the ages of 100 until about 120, as he watched their promised son grow from a baby into a man.

We don’t know how often Abraham heard directly from God during this time. We have no record of God speaking to Abraham between the time when Isaac was 3 and when he’s a full-grown man. But one day, Abraham hears that old familiar voice – the voice of God – his old friend. It was a voice he’d heard many times, so he knew it quite well.

Genesis 22

1 Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith.

“Abraham!” God called.

“Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.”

Yes Lord! The God who has always blessed my life! What other wonderful surprise could you have in store for me now?

And God says:

2 “Please…

Which isn’t there in our translations but is definitely there in form of the Hebrew.

Please, take your son,

your only son—

yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—

and go to the land of Moriah.

…50 miles away…

Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.”

And Abraham can’t believe what he’s just heard. He’s stunned. He’s shocked. He’s horrified. He’s furious. After all of that waiting! And then all those years watching Isaac grow into a man. Now, at the end of it all, he’s to take his son, his only son, the son whom he loves more than life itself, and journey 50 miles, to build an altar, tie him up, cut his throat with a knife and then burn the body until there’s nothing left but ashes!

It’s no wonder that atheists like Richard Dawkins call this story right here “disgraceful… divine child abuse and bullying.”

Well, the text doesn’t tell us what Abraham is thinking at this point. But we do know that there’s a lot that Abraham doesn’t know.

  1. He doesn’t know that God is vehemently opposed to child sacrifice.

You see, the local Canaanite religion said that a fruitful harvest and a fruitful womb came from the hands of the gods. But the gods needed you to pay for their services. So you’d offer up your first fruits from the harvest to ensure more harvest to come. And you’d also offer up your first fruits from the womb to ensure more children in the future. This was a savage practice. Later God would make this a capital crime!

Lev 20:2 – “If any of them offer their children as a sacrifice … they must be put to death”

Lev 18:21 – “You must not bring shame on the name of your God.”

Today, we could say, “Of course God would never command me to do something this horrific. He explicitly forbids this pagan savagery.” But Abraham did not know that yet.

  1. He doesn’t know how God will keep his promise to make Isaac into a great nation.

Throughout Isaac’s life, Abraham could face any danger or illness that would fall upon Isaac, claiming the promises of God and knowing this sickness will not end in death. But here he had a direct command from God to kill Isaac and burn the body completely!

Hebrews 11 says:

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son;

18 it was he to whom it was said, “IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED.”

19 He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead…

He believed that God would raise Isaac to life again – not just raising him from the dead, but raising him from the ashes of the burnt offering.

And I don’t want to tell you how this story ends, but please stay with us to see how God keeps his promise.

  1. He also didn’t know what God was accomplishing here

    1. God was testing Abraham’s faith

For one, he was testing Abraham’s faith (v. 1). Which raises this question: “Why would the God who knows all need to test anyone’s faith?”

Well, when your chemistry teacher reaches the end of the semester and gives you a test, it’s to see how much you know. That’s because your chemistry teacher is not omniscient. Well, God already knows how much faith you have, so he doesn’t need to test you to find out.

But when God tests our faith, it’s not because he doesn’t know how much faith we have. He has other reasons.

One reason is to grow our faith. In school, when do you really get serious about learning the material? The night before the exam! I will say that I never learned as much chemistry as I did the night before the test. And when God tests your faith, it’s a great opportunity to grow in your faith, much like a football team that faces many tests during the regular season on their way to win the championship. Those tests cause them to improve as a team and grow closer to one another, and make them into that championship team.

God’s tests force you back to God’s promises. You ask, “Do I really believe God enough to act?”

Another reason for God’s tests is to show me and other people what is really in my heart. Faith is an internal thing. As a later book in the Bible, the book of James says: it’s one thing to say you believe God. But it’s quite another to see Abraham trust God enough to obey this command right here.

Abraham didn’t know God was testing his faith, to hold him up as an example for millions of people in the future. But what he also didn’t know was that…

  1. God was predicting the cross of Christ

God was about to have Abraham and Isaac, the father and the son, act out the most important event in the history of humanity – an event that would take place 2,000 years later between God the Father and God the Son. Abraham couldn’t have known that on a mountain outside of Jerusalem, God the Father would offer up God the Son on the cross, taking the penalty for the sins of the human race.

You see, Scripture describes the cross from a variety of perspectives:

  • Some parts describe the crucifixion from the perspective of the disciples – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And they are very brief: “and they crucified him.”
  • Other passages describe the crucifixion from the perspective of believers. Like Isaiah 53 – “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities” (53:5)
  • Others describe the crucifixion from the perspective of the Son of God, like Psalm 22 – “They have pierced my hands and my feet.” (22:16)
  • But Genesis 22 is the place in Scripture where God the Father tells us about the crucifixion from his own perspective. He says, “Abraham, my friend, I want to let you into my heart, so you, and others too, can see a glimpse of my love – not just my love for the Son, which we shared before the foundation of the world. But to also see that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son.”

And that’s why the first occurrence of the word “love” in Scripture is right here in Genesis 22:2.

God could have told us a lot about love before Genesis 22. But he saves it for this story, because nothing compares to the love of a parent for their child. And the reason for that is because nothing compares to the love that God the Father has for God the Son. All other loves flow from that love.

You see, I’ve tried to imagine what this would be like if God called me to offer up my son or my daughter. And I just can’t imagine it. Not only that, but I can’t imagine not doing everything in my power to protect my kids from harm.

I’ve installed smoke detectors in my house, including one in each of my kids bedrooms. And I’ve tried to envision a scenario where my house is on fire my children are inside and I’m outside on the front sidewalk. And I’ve thought to myself: “There is no force known to man that could keep me from plunging into that burning house to save my kids. You could chain me up. You could break all for of my limbs. You could put the entire U.S. Marine Corps on my front lawn. And I would still find a way to save my kids or die trying.”

That’s the kind of ravenous, mama-bear kind of love response that gets triggered when your child is in danger.

And now Abraham is called upon by God, not just to restrain himself from protecting Isaac, but to actively put an end to the life of his son. And God the Father says, “Now, Abraham, my friend, you are starting to enter into understanding one one-millionth of my love for the Son, and one one-millionth of my love for humanity.”

This is also why God sends Abraham to the region of Moriah.

If God were just looking to test Abraham’s faith, why send him 50 miles away “to the region of Moriah… on a mountain I will show you”? Abraham was living in the mountains. Why not just use one of those? What was so special about that mountain?

Well, in 2 Chron 3:1 we find the only other occurrence of the word “Moriah” in Scripture. There we learn that “Solomon began to build the Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah.” So it wasn’t just what Abraham was called to do, but where God asked him to do it. The place where Abraham builds the altar to offer up his only beloved son, is the same place where humans would one day build a cross so God the Father can offer up his only beloved Son.

So there’s a lot that Abraham doesn’t know. He doesn’t know that God detests and will later forbid human sacrifice. He doesn’t know how God will keep his promise to make a great nation out of Isaac (though he suspects resurrection). He doesn’t know that God is offering a picture of the ultimate act of love that he would one day accomplish through the cross.

Now, how does Abraham respond?

3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey.

He probably didn’t sleep that night anyway. And I imagine he’s hoping to get an early start, maybe before Sarah gets up.

3b He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.

There were plenty of trees for firewood in the land of Moriah, but apparently God said the wood must be carried there.

4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.

On the third day – Isn’t that interesting. It was a three day journey. At this point, Isaac has already been dead in Abraham’s mind for three days.

And finally, he looks up with dread and he sees the place off in the distance.

5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there.

He says, “My servants, you’ve done well, you’ve come far enough. But you can’t go any further with us. You can stand here and watch from a distance, but only the father and the son can go beyond this point. We must settle something between just the two of us.”

5b We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Yes. This would be an act of worship. Abraham and Isaac offering up their lives as a living sacrifice. And believing that “we will worship and then we will come back”

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac

Like Christ, Isaac will carry the wood.

6b and he himself carried the fire and the knife.

But the judgment belonged to the father.

6c As the two of them went on together,

Isaac is really wondering what is going on. He knew how sacrifices worked – that the innocent animal would die as a symbolic substitute for the guilty human. This wasn’t how they usually did it. They have the wood, the fire, the knife, but where is the blood?

7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Here I am, my son.” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham gets the question he knew was coming. And with trembling voice he answers, speaking even more truly than he realized:

8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”

Where will the lamb come from? God himself.

And here, with the first occurrence of the word Hebrew word for “lamb” in the Old Testament, Isaac asks a question. And when we turn to the New Testament, to the first occurrence of the Greek word for “lamb,” God answers Isaac’s question more fully than Abraham through John the Baptist:

John 1:29-30 –John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

8b And the two of them went on together.

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there

Isaac may have been like, “Dad, can I help?” And Abraham was like, “No. I’ve got it.” Probably the slowest built altar in Abraham’s life.

9b and arranged the wood on it.

The time has come to place the sacrifice on the altar. The text doesn’t tell us what happened next, but I seriously doubt Abraham forced Isaac to do anything. If Isaac is strong enough to carry a bundle of firewood up the mountain, he’s strong enough to overpower 120 year old Abraham.

So I imagine that Abraham turned to Isaac and said, “Son, you noticed that we have the fire and the knife and the wood, but no lamb for the sacrifice. Well, God has come to me and told me that you are the lamb.”

And Isaac said, “But dad, what about the promise!”

“I know. And I don’t understand how the death of my one and only son fits in with God’s promise that through you all the nations of the world will be blessed. But I think it will become clear someday. We need to trust God.”

And Isaac said, “OK. I love you dad.”

And Abraham said, “I love you too, son.”

9c He bound his son Isaac and arranged him on the altar, on top of the wood.

And I don’t know whose heart is beating faster at this point.

  • Is it Isaac, looking up at his father who has always been with him, confused as to why he is being forsaken like this?
  • Or is it Abraham, looking down at his one and only son whom he has always loved, offering him up as part of God’s greater plan?
  • Or is it God the Father and God the Son, watching together a moment that they will one day spend apart?

10 Then he reached out his hand

and took the knife

and slew his son

[Pause here for a moment]

How do you feel right now? Horrified? Furious? Stunned?

Well, good. That’s how you should feel.

And I have some good news for you.

My first piece of good news is, it means that you’re starting to see the offense of the cross.

My second piece of good news is, that’s not actually how the story of Isaac ends.

Here’s what the text really says…

10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

11 But the angel of Yahweh called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

And Isaac said, “Dad! Your phone is ringing! Don’t you want to answer that first?”

11b “Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

How does God stop Abraham’s hand? He sends the Angel of the Lord. We’ve seen him before. He’s Jesus Christ.

  • This is why Jesus said: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56)
  • When did Abraham see Christ’s day? Right here on Mount Moriah.
  • Jesus knew that one day he would walk just a short distance from this very mountain, carrying the wood for his sacrifice. He heard Abraham say, “God himself will provide the lamb,” and he knew that Abraham spoke more truly than he realized. He knew on that day the hand of the father would grip the knife and there would be no last-minute intervention. But the son would willingly give his life as a substitute for the sins of mankind.

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns.

How convenient. God provides. This time it’s a ram. Only later will he provide the Lamb. It’s a good thing it’s caught by the horns, so it doesn’t get all scratched up and remains an unblemished sacrifice.

13b He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

And I wonder how Isaac felt as he stood there watching Abraham tie up the ram and lay him in the spot on the altar that was still warm from his body. As he saw the knife fall and watched the blood drip down the sides. As he saw the smoke rise from the animal that took his place, being reduced to nothing but ashes.

I think it wasn’t just Abraham who learned something that day about God that day.

14 So Abraham called that place Yahweh-Yireh (“which means Yahweh will provide”). And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of Yahweh it will be provided.”

Lessons

In Genesis 22…

We see the supreme example of faith in action.

  • Call to commitment?

We see incredible predictive prophecy.

In this divinely arranged drama God weaves together all of the elements: The Father offering up the Son as a voluntary sacrifice. The Son carrying his own lumber to the site of the sacrifice. The three days of grieving for Abraham as they marched to the spot. The journey to the mountain of the Lord, the very spot where Christ would be crucified. The prediction of the Lamb of God and the last-minute substitution of the ram for Isaac. And God had to do it with Abraham, the very first Jew, so he could make a statement to all of Abraham’s descendants that you are never allowed to sacrifice your children to God.

And we see the father love of Father God.

As we see Abraham’s father-love for his son Isaac, and as we get a glimpse into God the Father’s love for his Son, it’s surprising to see John 3:16. We expect this verse to read “For God so loved the Son…” but instead it says this:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

And again, in Romans 8:32…

He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

Next time you wonder if God loves you, look at the cross. If the Father loves the Son that much, think how much he loves you – so much that, if you are willing, no force known to man can stop him from coming to rescue you. He’s given everything.