The fact that Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac upon the altar to God was praiseworthy according to Genesis 22:16-18, but why was it so? Sometimes we here of folks today who kill their children, saying either that God told them to do it, or they wanted to be assured their child would get to heaven, believing his or her present innocence was a guarantee for paradise. We know not only that such a thing is wrong, but that the people who do these terrible acts are deluded, because sacrificing the innocent is not a righteous thing to do. Moreover, God doesn’t require such a thing. He later calls the sacrificing of the innocent an abomination. What, then, did Abraham do that was so pleasing to God?
First of all, we know that something was going on in Abraham’s mind besides sacrificing his son, because Hebrews 11:17-19 (cp. Genesis 22:2, 5, 8) tells us that he understood that God was the Life Giver and would be able to raise Isaac from the dead, just as the Lord brought Isaac out of the dead womb of Sarah (Genesis 17:16-17, 19; 18:10; 21:1-3). Knowing this, didn’t remove Abraham’s sorrow in carrying out the act, but he believed that even though he sacrificed his son as a burnt offering before the Lord, Isaac would be returned to him. What, then, did Abraham sacrifice, if Isaac’s death would not be permanent?
Is there foundational context behind the reason for Abraham’s confidence? Yes, I believe there is and to understand what that is, we must consider “After these things…” in Genesis 22:1. Abraham has had an illuminating experience in Genesis 21 concerning God’s faithfulness, in contrast to that of men in the world. The Lord’s covenants or promises will be honored. What he promised to do, he will do no matter what it takes or how long the wait may be. In view of this growth in understanding, Abraham began to worship the ‘Everlasting God’ or the ‘God of the Ages’ (Genesis 21:33). God does not change, evidenced in Abraham’s planting the evergreen, Tamarack, tree. This was Abraham’s new understanding of God, and from the Lord’s point of view this had to be brought to the test. Abraham must **own** this knowledge of God, not merely know it intellectually. Intellectual understanding wouldn’t tell anything to the world or to Abraham’s descendents.
How far should the test be carried out in order to put flesh upon the concept? Although God knows all things, that is, not only what is in Abraham’s heart, but also what Abraham would do, Abraham couldn’t be judged by God or man by what was only in his heart or by what he intended to do. Everyone is judged by what he does do, and this is why the test couldn’t stop until Abraham raised up the knife to kill his son. Only at this point, could it be said without contradiction that Abraham would have carried out the act. What Abraham had purposed to do in his heart, he would definitely have carried out. God knew that, and now Abraham, Isaac and the world knows it.
Yet, what does all this prove? According to our standards, the fact that Abraham was willing to do the deed doesn’t make him righteous. The fact that he believed Isaac would be returned to him is irrelevant, because those who do such things today are not considered righteous, they are deluded. They’ve done something that should be thought of as terribly wrong. Nevertheless, this is the point. What we believe today in our culture is a product of what Christianity has taught western civilization. Human sacrifice is not wrong because we say it is wrong. It is wrong because God says so, and he showed this by stopping Abraham from carrying out the deed. This type of worship was accepted in Abraham’s culture, but God showed Abraham it was wrong. It wasn’t something he required, and it wasn’t something he would accept if offered.
This brings us back to my original question. If Abraham knew that in sacrificing Isaac, Isaac would be returned to him anyway, what did Abraham sacrifice? Notice that in Genesis 22:12 that God tells Abraham that now the Lord knows Abraham fears or respects God. What does this mean, and how does it tie in with Abraham’s willingness to go along with sacrificing his son? I believe what we can see in Abraham’s purpose flies in the face of the modern doctrine of ‘naming it and claiming it’. This type of attitude would never have done what Abraham was willing to do, and that strikes at the heart of Abraham’s test. The ‘name-and-claim-it’ doctrine would hold God to his word, and God would have no freedom. While it is true that God keeps his word—always, Abraham gave God the freedom to keep his word however he wished to do it. Abraham didn’t hold God to do what he promised in a way that Abraham understood or wanted, and that is the point of the test. If Abraham understood God to be the Everlasting God, then he could let God be free to keep his promises in a manner and in a time that Abraham does not understand or expect. Abraham sacrificed his hold on God, and simply trusted him to do what he promises. This was credited to him as righteousness.