The sacrifice of Isaac, part 3

In a previous post, I raised what is for me a difficult question personally: might it be that my discomfort with Genesis 22 stems, in part, from my failure to appreciate the nature of faith?  (Caveat emptor: it’s going to take one more post to sort this out.)

Abraham is, after all, held up in Scripture as an exemplar of faith (e.g., Gen 15:6; Rom 4; Gal 3:5-9).  Specifically, regarding the story in Genesis 22, the book of Hebrews says this:

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.  (Heb 12:17-19, NIV)

Abraham obeyed, even though what God told him to do seemed to contradict the promise.  Though it made no sense, Abraham figured that God was God and could somehow make everything come out right.

But this, of course, was not Abraham’s first act of faith.  Just a few verses earlier in Hebrews, we read this:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.  By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  (Heb 12:8-10, NIV)

Abraham–the patron saint of every man who didn’t ask for directions.  Imagine the conversation with Sarah, as they and the servants pack up their considerable belongings: “No, honey, I haven’t a clue where we’re going.  But I figure that voice I’ve been hearing will tell me when we’re there.”

Right.

Again, as suggested in part 2, God’s testing of Abraham in Genesis 22 is not an isolated incident, but one more event in an ongoing up-and-down story of faith.  Let’s not forget that between the call in chapter 12 and the test in chapter 22, Abraham shows himself to be not only a man of extraordinary faith, but a coward and a liar who’s willing to sell out his wife to save his own skin (Gen 20:1-13).   What seems to matter more is God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises, protecting and prospering Abraham, come what may.

The faithfulness of Abraham and the faithfulness of God are inextricably entwined, for the core of Abraham’s faith is an obedient and visionary trust that God will keep his promises.  One might say that in prospering Abraham after his shabby treatment of Sarah in Genesis 20, God encouraged his recklessness.  But in the larger scheme of things, it may also be that what Abraham needed first was the assurance of God’s covenant protection.

To the skeptical reader in all of us, the story seems to say, This is the one God has chosen.  You might have chosen another, someone who would have behaved in a more consistently respectable manner.  But Abraham isn’t the primary hero of the story–God is.  Abraham still has some character development to do.  And how can that happen unless he learns God’s character first?

Abraham was by no means a sinless man.  But can we accept that he could still be a man who trusted in God, and that to God, this was what mattered most?

His faith was a remarkable thing.  How remarkable?  That will be the subject of the fourth and final post.