It is not a particularly comforting story, nor one amenable to our modern dispositions. We love the message of liberty from oppression exemplified by the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. We love to root for the underdog David when he meets the giant Goliah in battle. But most of us have to wrestle with Genesis 22:1-19. Most of us have to ask why. Why did God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?
Isaac was the promised child (cf. Genesis 17:1-19), the child born miraculously to an aging husband and barren wife – the child through whom God had promised to fulfill His covenant with Abraham, through whom Abraham’s offspring would be reckoned (cf. Genesis 21:12).
How Abraham must have rejoiced when Isaac was born! And how despondent he must have been when God said to him, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2, ESV). Take your son, Abraham. Your only son. Whom you love. The repetition must have been staggering.
Why? Why did God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?
And why did Abraham obey? Why did he not challenge God, as he had before (cf. Genesis 18:22-33)? God had promised Abraham innumerable descendants through Isaac! Had God forgotten His promise?
With the suspenseful austerity that characterizes much of the Old Testament, the narrative neglects to reveal to us Abraham’s innermost thoughts. In fact, Abraham appears to be entirely placid as he prepares to slay his son. When Isaac asks him where the lamb is for the burnt offering, Abraham merely says, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8, ESV).
Fortunately for Abraham, an angel intervenes and prevents the sacrifice. In Isaac’s stead, Abraham offers up a ram to God and (remarkably) names the mount where he came “The Lord Will Provide.”
There are a number of lessons we could draw from this passage. I could discuss the obvious foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, or the significance of the angel’s intervention in light of the ubiquity of human sacrifice in the ancient world. However, what interests me most about the Binding of Isaac is what it teaches us about faith.
In Hamlet, Polonius advises Laertes, “This above all,- to thine own self be true; / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man.” How many times have we been told to be true to ourselves? To be unique? To be our own people? The idea of loyalty to self is engrained within us. In fact, I would venture to say that many people value loyalty to self more than anything else. After all, to whom (or what) should we be loyal, if not to ourselves?
But Abraham was not loyal to himself. Abraham may have loved Isaac more than anyone else on Earth – he may have been willing to die for Isaac – yet when God tested Abraham, Abraham was loyal to God. He trusted in God – had faith in God – and God counted it to him as righteousness (cf. Genesis 15:6).
Why? Why the test of faith? Why the demand, the insistence, that we submit our will to His? Why can we not simply be “true to ourselves”?
Jesus asked very similar questions before he was crucified. But incredibly, even he, the Messiah, submitted to God in the Garden of Gethsemane: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 24:39, ESV; emphasis added). Not as I will, but as You will.
We learn from Jesus and Abraham that God’s will for us is never “easy.” Abraham was called to sacrifice his son, Jesus to sacrifice himself. This is the difficult lesson to learn, the lesson we instinctively dislike and ignore. After all, if God’s will for us is so difficult – so unnatural – why not follow our own devices?
One response to that question is that we rarely know what is best for us. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12, ESV). Be loyal to myself? Never! I am a sinful wretch with a proud and hard heart. And even if I were a better man, my advice to Hitler (for example) would never be “To thine own self be true.” On the contrary: rather than being loyal to myself, I should be loyal to who I ought to be. I should be loyal to Jesus’ example and teachings, not to my sinful desires.
But the real answer to the question is something that we are prone to forget, a lesson often overlooked when we ponder the Binding of Isaac or Jesus’ death on the cross. The lesson is that God will provide – “that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28a, ESV). In fact, God is so willing to provide “that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV). “He who did not spare His own Son but gave him up for us all, how will He not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32, ESV). The promise will never be broken; our faith will never go unrewarded.
“Faith,” said Martin Luther, “is a free surrender and joyous wager on the unseen, unknown, untested goodness of God.” It is the recognition that only in being true to God can we ever be true to ourselves. We can partake of God’s goodness – of real goodness – only if we are willing to put our faith in Him and submit to Him, leaning not on our own understanding (cf. Proverbs 3:5).
The question, then, is whether we will put our faith in God or in ourselves.