Imagine, if you will, praying and praying for God to work a miracle in your life. How long would you keep it up? A week? A month? A year? How about 25 years? One might, I think, if it had to do with family, as when parents continue to pray for their wayward children. And in one biblical case, it was the prayer for a child who at the time did not even exist.
Abraham was destined to be the father of a nation. But at the age of 75, he and his wife Sarah were still childless. God, unbelievably, promised Abraham that he would have more descendants than anyone could count (Gen 13:16; 15:5). And in response, Abraham simply “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6, NRSV).
Still, it would be another 25 years before Isaac was born (Gen 21:1-5). The name means “one who laughs” — for Abraham and Sarah knew that having a child at their age was utterly, joyously ridiculous.
We don’t know how much time passed between Genesis chapter 21, in which Isaac is born, and Genesis 22. But what we do know is that in chapter 22, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac — to give him as a burnt offering, no less. The command itself is horrifying, and doubly so when you think of how long Abraham had waited for the fulfillment of God’s promise and how much he cherished his son.
. . .
There’s no sugarcoating this horrific passage. To do so would be a disservice. We need to feel its tension, wrestle with its implications. and empathize, even if only tiniest bit, with Abraham’s situation. Over and over again throughout Genesis, God is faithful to Abraham, even when Abraham acts badly. And miracle of miracles, Abraham and Sarah finally have the son for whom they’ve longed and prayed.
Abraham would be the father of the nation that would be identified as God’s people. Could he be an example of faith to the generations to come? Would he trust God enough to do what God told him to do, even if he didn’t understand why, even if it seemed absurd, even if it cost him what he loved most dearly?
Thus, God “tested” Abraham (Gen 22:1): he told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. You know the story. We’re told nothing of what Abraham felt, only what he did. He obeyed, to the letter. And only at the last second — with Abraham’s knife poised to kill his son — did God stop him from going through with the deed.
Abraham passed the test, and God renewed his covenant promise: “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Gen 22:16-17).
This is why James, in arguing for the unity of faith and works, cites the story:
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. (James 2:21-23)
In James’ view, the faithful action of Genesis 22 “fulfilled” the faithful trust and belief of Genesis 15. Faith is “brought to completion” by Abraham’s obedience; James uses the same language as he did in 1:14 to describe how faithful endurance in the face of trials brings us to our own spiritual completion and maturity. And because of this, Abraham is called “the friend of God” (cf. Isa 41:8). God isn’t simply satisfied with Abraham’s behavior; God is delighted with Abraham’s character.
The writer of the book of Hebrews gives us an additional peek into the inner landscape of the story:
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Heb 11:17-19)
Abraham’s faith is demonstrated by his obedience to God’s command, even though it made no sense to him. Clinging to the promise that his descendants would come through Isaac, Abraham reasoned, God hasn’t failed me yet. I suppose even if I went through with it, God could still raise my beloved Isaac from the dead, and fulfill the promise anyway. There’s nothing God can’t do.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that we can claim anything we like as God’s “promise” and then rationalize away bad behavior. We have here a clear and direct promise, a clear and direct command, and a man destined to be the head of a great nation. None of that is true of the sometimes blithe ways we take inklings and out-of-context Bible verses as “promises.”
Instead, what both James and the author of Hebrews are giving us is a well-known example of faith at work, with Hebrews giving us a look at the faithful thought process that comes between belief and behavior. For James, this is in the service of his primary point: Don’t tell me you have faith if your life doesn’t show it.
And as we’ll see, he’s not done with the examples yet.