Faith, and Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac

We’re talking about faith, the third element in Jesus’s triad of weightier matters of the law. We’ve been trying to find a functional, working, operational definition of faith. We’ve been dancing around many questions about faith—about where it comes from and what it does and so forth. Last week, we heard a binary definition of faith, whereby you either have it or you don’t. According to that view, there’s no such thing as either qualitative or quantitative faith. You either have faith or you don’t. This is a concept supported by Paul, who wrote:

For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

So the concept that we have faith, that it’s been given to us, and that each man has a measure, is supported by scripture. But the concept of little faith and great faith is also used by Jesus suggesting that there is some kind of qualitative or quantitative component to faith as well.

Christians seem intuitively to link qualitative faith with response from God. If we have great faith. God will do wonders in our lives, bring us prosperity, healing, peace, contentment, grace, etc. Is faith useful primarily in this life or his faith primarily useful for the life to come? How useful is your faith today? Now?

We tend to see faith as a commodity. It’s like currency, like money. We can accumulate it, save it for a rainy day, when we’re most distressed. In a recent chat with a colleague concerning the pandemic, the topic turned to faith, and what effect fear and isolation and the lockdown and so forth has done to faith, especially in light of the closure of all the houses of worship. How has this affected our faith? I turned to Pew Research and was surprised to see that they had already done a survey concerning this, between April 20 and 26.

They looked at the issue of what was the effect of the pandemic on faith, to find out how US adults’ religious faith maybe changing, and how houses of worship are adapting. They surveyed 10,000 US citizens between April 20 and 26. (A summary of the research can be found here.) Opinions on this question varied based on respondents’ religious affiliation, and how religious they actually are.

Christians were more likely than any other religious group to say that their faith had grown stronger as a result of the pandemic, a feeling that was reported by 56% of Protestants in the historically black tradition, as well as four in 10 evangelicals (42%) and roughly one quarter of Catholics (27%). The number for mainline Protestants was 22%. These are percentages of people who said that their faith had grown stronger in the pandemic.

Jews, on the other hand, were more likely (70%) to say their faith had not changed much, while 22% said the question was not applicable to them because they were not religious anyway. Among the religiously unaffiliated, roughly a quarter of those who said their religion was agnostic or atheist or nothing in particularly said their faith had not changed much, but the majority said that they were not religious to begin with. The most religious Americans, those who frequently pray and attend services (at least in typical times) and who rate religion as important to them were far more likely than others to say that their faith had grown stronger as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

And then there are differences based on ethnicity, gender, and age. Women had more faith-strengthening in the pandemic than men and older people than younger people. It remains to be seen whether the strengthened faith will translate to greater attendance at houses of worship when they reopen. Most houses of worship are still closed. Indeed, among US adults who say they typically attend religious service at least once or twice a month, only 3% said that their congregation was still holding in-person services.

So there is a sizable number of Americans who say that faith is not simply for the afterlife, not simply for another life, but that faith has a role to play in this life. It seems that in times of stress and fear and isolation there is a sense that faith—and the crisis that goes with faith—are growing in the minds of many. We need faith in a crisis. It seems as if somehow there is a correlation between growth of faith and the crisis.

Last week we looked briefly at the stories of Cain and Abel, and of Enoch. We saw that it was faith that cost Abel his life and faith that saved the life of Enoch, leading us to conclude that we may be misguided when we ascribe prosperity and safety to faith in this life, and that my patient Elizabeth (whom I told you about last week) should have her cancer disappear and then recur, should not in either case be influenced by her faith. Her faith instead gave her the lens through which she could see God working for her good regardless of the physical outcome.

Today, as we continue to look at the stories of faith using Hebrews 11 as our curriculum guide, we turn to the life of Abraham. Here we find one of the most bizarre stories in all the Bible, a story that frankly many wish were not in it. And I must say, in years past I’ve had that same wish myself. Many point to this story as an evidence against God. It’s the story of the binding of Isaac. But first, let’s go back to Hebrews 11 and read the passage concerning Abraham’s faith

 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called.” He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

In Romans 4 there is an allusion to this story and faith as well:

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:…

 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.
 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, … (Romans 4:1-6, 13-16)

This passage links faith with righteousness—sometimes referred to as “righteousness by faith.” This concept was emphasized by Martin Luther and is a core concept of the Protestant Reformation. As I was rereading the passage in the book of Romans 4 about righteousness by faith, a new viewpoint emerged in my mind about the story of the binding of Isaac. I thought I would share that with you, based on this concept of righteousness by faith alone. The story of the binding of Isaac is found in Genesis chapter 22. You know, the story well. I don’t think I’m going to take time to read the entire story, but it contains three key principles.

Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. (Genesis 22:1-3)

The first key point has to do with where it takes place: Mount Moriah. Moriah means a place of teaching. It’s very clear that there is an educational element that’s to be seen with this story. It is not simply a literal story—it has an educational value. The question is, what is being taught?

The second key point is what the story says about God, not about Abraham (which is always how we how we look at the story.)

And third, at the conclusion of the story, after Abraham binds Isaac to the altar, raises his hand, is stopped by the angel and sees the ram caught in the thicket, we see that the story concludes,

 Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. Abraham called the name of that place The Lord Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lord it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:13-14)

“The Lord will provide” is another key concept in trying to help understand the story. The Bible says that God was testing Abraham but the test was not what I believe we commonly think. It was not simply a test of whether Abraham loved God more than he loved his son, Isaac. The test was whether Abraham would allow God to provide the sacrifice. Isaac represents the very best that we can bring to the altar of sacrifice. For Abraham, Isaac was of greater value than anything he had in his household: His animals, his money, his servants, his possessions, even his wife. For Abraham, Isaac was everything and was more valuable then his own life. When it comes to sacrifice, nothing he brought to the altar could have been more valuable than Isaac.

But when we come to the mountaintop with our sacrifice, what we bring on our own is never enough. To lay it all on the altar is never enough. The only sacrifice worthy enough is the sacrifice provided by God. The symbolism with the sacrifice of Jesus is unmistakable in the story. The test for Abraham was whether he would allow the Lord to provide the sacrifice. This is clear from scripture:

Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, … (Romans 4:4-5)

For Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (his most valuable possession in the world, the work of his hand to be sure) is not recorded as a favor (verse 4). When it was due, he gave God everything of value. Then God gave him back his due. But learning the lesson that when it comes to our sacrifices we are worthless before God, Abraham understood that God would provide the sacrifice. It is to turn, as Romans says, our faith into righteousness. Even our very best, our most valued, our most highly esteemed possession—even our life itself is not a sacrifice which is ever enough. It takes faith to accept that the Lord will provide the sacrifice. This concept adds meaning to this passage:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; (Ephesians 2:8).

And this:

…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

Jesus is the author of our faith and the faith is a gift. It is not our sacrifice that is important. It is not even our faith which is important because our faith has been given to us. Men can build an altar. They can build any number of altars. But only God can produce the sacrifice. In the Hebrew language the word “altar” means “to offer.” But it is my faith that allows me to see that we have nothing to offer. Faith opens our eyes to see the ram in the thicket. Faith opens our eyes to see the sacrifice. Faith opens our eyes to realize that nothing we bring is ever enough.

Donald: it’s troubling because it’s kind of backwards, it seems to me. What does “Jesus, the author of our faith” mean? God provides a sacrifice. Is it my sacrifice? No! So why wouldn’t God have told Abraham “I will provide a sacrifice for you when you get to the mountain” rather than asking him to go through the trauma of thinking that he needed to sacrifice his own son? When I have thought about this story before, I’ve thought about it in the context of “no other God before me.” So this is a representation of his loving his son so much that he asked Abraham to sacrifice his son to see if Abraham was willing to do that. It seems to be a very difficult thing for me to process.

We pray “Thy will be done.” What does that mean in this context? Should we consider anything that comes our way as “Thy will”? If God provides a sacrifice, is it my sacrifice in reality? And if Jesus is the author of my faith is it my faith? And when I say “Thy will be done” I may be showing faith in what will transpire in my life but how does that relate to sacrifice? Maybe the word “sacrifice” is an interesting one to even consider. Why are we sacrificing? Why would God want us to sacrifice?

David: I think you’re asking exactly the questions that Job asked.

Rheinhard: When Abraham took his son to Mount Moriah I don’t think he already knew that God would provide a ram as a substitute. I believe he totally surrendered. Perhaps he believed that one way or the other, after he killed his son, God would raise him from the dead or give him another son later on. I don’t know. Abraham would known that God might replace children who pass away. So when Abraham went up to the mountain, he didn’t expect a replacement.

The role of Jesus also as a sacrificial lamb to save us has some similarity to this story but on the other hand God is the author of our faith. To me, the sacrifice of Isaac was just to show the faith of Abraham, but the sacrifice of Jesus was to save the world. So there’s some similarity but it is still different.

Dion: The story always brings to me one thought about the providence of God and our faith in respect to that. My parents told me as a child that during the anti-Tamil pogrom and riots in Sri Lanka in July 1983, our family of 14 was literally running for its life and hiding in different neighbors’ houses. Warned that a mob was coming to kill us, we looked for a new hiding place and the only place left was a burnt-out building with a terrace littered with broken glass. None of us had footwear but the house was the only place left to hide. So in we went, walking on the broken glass. None of us got a single cut. Explain that!

After about a year hiding there, one evening somebody called out my grandfather’s name. We were still doubting God’s providence, because we did not know the voice. But the voice turned out to come from a rescue vehicle that God provided for us. The point is that God does provide, God does look after these things. But sometimes even when God is providing for us miraculously, we still doubt God’s providence. Where then is our faith? I think there is a disconnect between our faith and God’s providence.

Don: One of the things that keeps troubling me and what triggered my rethinking of this whole story this week is again the passage in Romans 4 where work is linked to getting paid for what you do. If Abraham is being blessed because he’s doing the right thing by sacrificing his son because that’s what God told him to do, then that’s really just getting his due. It’s not the righteousness by faith which is spoken of in verse 5, where he gets his due by not doing what he’s supposed to be doing. And that, to me, is a very puzzling part about the linking between faith and righteousness; that faith somehow gets turned into righteousness, but not because of our doing anything.

Dion: Just as my story, Abraham had an event before he was called out of his father’s land, and then he was past his prime when Isaac was born, which was in itself a miracle. So God had shown him miraculous things leading towards Isaac. And so his faith was at a different level than many of us because they were part and parcel of his life where he could see God’s miraculous leanings and His providence on many occasions before. So he had faith that God would provide. Even when some questioned him on the way to Moriah, he said God would provide. And that seems to be the answer at the end of verse 14, too. So I think his faith was a better faith in the sense that he could connect it to things in his life. And because of God’s providence, historically, he could reach out and believe. Maybe we don’t have those elements in our life that we reflect upon, to get that aspect of it.

Donald: This really pushes one to the limits of ideas about God, it seems to me. When would we ever think that God is talking to us directly? Suppose you dream tonight that God is asking you to kill one of your children. You would dismiss it as just a dream. I don’t think you would ever think that God would ask that of you. But if God did ask that of you, you would be in the papers—and in jail—tomorrow. Today, people would say you’re not Christian—you’re just crazy. God would never expect it of you. So every aspect of this story, it seems to me, is very difficult to see as something that God would really put a person through.

Kiran: I agree. I would consider it contrary to the 10 Commandments and all the teachings of Moses, wherein human sacrifice is abolished. You’re not supposed to kill human beings. All this stuff is contrary to what the Bible says. One could argue that Moses came a long time after Isaac, but God never changes, so his Commandments never change.

But Cain and Abel had sacrifices. One brought his own handiwork, the other one brought something that was not his own handiwork. Seen from that perspective, Abraham brought his best sacrifice but God was providing something else. It makes sense along the lines that Abraham finally got the inner faith to kill his son, but when he lied about his wife as being his sister, God provided a provenance for his life to be delivered. But he lied about his wife again, so he didn’t learn the lesson, yet God promised to give him a child, but then he didn’t trust the Lord. And then he had a second child with his concubine.

So we may look at the life of Abraham as a man who was falling until finally he got enough faith to stand up. But in actuality, he was still falling. I think the only thing he did was to let God provide a sacrifice for him. This is problematic because there is nothing special about Abraham. He could have been anybody, yet God provided the sacrifice. That means that even though Abraham had all this experience with God, he still needed a sacrifice from God, which is grace. So it’s a great equalizer of all the people. It doesn’t matter how much your faith is, how much your work is, in the end your the same as everybody else requiring a sacrifice from God. That is grace.

It’s comforting that the story has some meaning after all. Otherwise, I always thought: Would I actually give my child as a sacrifice to God,? I don’t think I would do that. I would keep coming up with reasons to say No, this is not God, this is somebody else.

David: So what if what if Abraham had responded: “OK, God, I believe in you, and I believe I’m hearing you, but I’m not going to do what you ask. I can’t. I love my son too much. I won’t do it, sorry. According to Romans 4, he would have a greater faith in defying God.

Kiran: If you think about the whole life of Abraham, God kept telling him to go somewhere where he did not know anybody. His whole life was a journey. His whole life was about putting himself in places where he would be uncomfortable. The only way he would be safe was by relying on God’s protection. It’s as if he were in a country without a visa and short of money yet God kept providing him with water, grass for his sheep, and so on. Throughout his whole life, Abraham was consistent in knowing that somehow God would provide and that he could not provide for himself.

Donald: I think we’d write this whole thing off as: “I’m not hearing from God—I’m hearing from something else. God would never ask that of me.”

Don: Because it violates the basic core ethics of God?

Donald: Yes.

Carolyn: I wonder about the compliance of Isaac. I don’t think he was a small child, easy to strap to the altar. I think he was a grown young man. God has said “Thou shalt not kill.” And then he’s turning around and telling you to kill? I’ve always had trouble with this story, as some of you have, and I’m thrilled that we may be able to get some insight on it.

Donald: Yes, this was not a child. I think Isaac would have had his own ideas in regards to this series of actions. So it is a difficult one. Was this showing extreme faith or little faith? Little faith is easy. Extreme faith is hard. Most of us have not lived lives that have required extreme faith (at least, speaking for myself.)

Carolyn: I look at Peter when he walked on the water. He had faith.

Donald: That was a lot easier to handle though.

Carolyn: It was a lot easier to handle, but it wasn’t verbal. And the point of that whole story was about taking your eyes off Jesus, it seems to me.

Donald: So that one works a lot better,

Carolyn: It works a lot better for me.

David: Peter sank because did not have faith. Was that not the point of the story?

Faith comes easy when based on the notion that anything fortuitous that happens to you is a gift from God. The Hebrew Worthies had received no such gift as they stood calmly roasting in the furnace. Their faith was pure and unconditional. They were about to die, but that did not matter to them. There is a God, and whatever God wanted was OK with them. Their pure faith was based simply on acceptance of God’s existence. It’s just belief in God, plain and simple. Same with Job, ultimately. Simple belief, with no explanation in the end. Yet here we are, trying so hard to explain it. Job told us there is no explanation—we are not going to understand this.

Rheinhard: I think people are saved by righteousness, by faith. That’s what the believer needs to receive life after death. But being righteous doesn’t mean we are always right. I think the key in the story of Abraham is what was expected after the sacrifice. I think God wanted to test his faith, his obedience, his loyalty to God’s will. I think that’s what Gods wants from us: Our obedience and our acceptance. I think that’s what God needs. God asks us to listen to him and to follow him and then our lives in the hereafter will be secure.

David: Righteous faith has led to a great deal of trouble in the world, though, with people who think they hear the word of God telling them to do something and acting on it. That’s a very different thing from faith as simple belief. I believe in God. I don’t have to do anything. That’s the message in Romans 4: You don’t have to do works. They’re kind of irrelevant.* All that matters is that you believe in God.

Don: The story of the binding of Isaac is one of those stories over which people have labored for years. It makes no sense, and a God who violates his own ethical norms as a test is not a very appealing God. People have struggled with it and skeptics point to this story as being an evidence that this couldn’t be God or that God doesn’t exist or if it is God then God is not a friendly chap.

But I think I see a window of light.

Rheinhard: The 10 Commandments came long after Abraham, during Moses time. “Thou shalt not kill.” There were rules, of course, and God detested the sacrifice of sons and daughters to the demons and false gods the people used to worship. I think God doesn’t like all this. He abhorred sacrifice.

I think Isaac was maybe eight or 12 years old, or maybe a young teen, at the time of the story. I think Abraham had already taught Isaac about God. Maybe he taught that God is the Creator, he loves us. So maybe when Isaac asked where was the lamb to be sacrifice and Abraham replied “God will provide,” deep inside he was aware of his duty, of his mission to offer his son as a sacrificial lamb.

God already knows the beginning and the end, of course. But Abraham had the power of choice and God wanted to see how deep was his faith. So the key is the obedience of Abraham. It’s unusual for God to ask for the sacrifice of a son but I think this was only a part of the story, and it was never going to happen, because God knows from the beginning to the end. This was just to test how consistent and obedient Abraham was.

Don: You don’t think God knew how much Abraham’s faith was?

Rheinhard: I believe God knew that he would do it but it still needed action by Abraham to show God how deep was his faith to God. I think God still wants to see in practice, not only in theory.

Donald: Who needed more faith—Isaac or Abraham? Isaac was the one whose life was at stake.

Dion: Abraham has a lot of weird stories in his life even before this. He called his wife his sister, and then he gives her to the Egyptian pharaoh and that happens twice with [Abimelech?] and with his son as well. But I see there’s a radical change in Abraham’s behavior after a weird story in Genesis:

And He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” He said, “O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?” He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. Genesis 15:7-12

And then he said, in verse 17,

It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates:…” (Genesis 15:17-18)

…and so on and so forth. It is a weird story, so I looked into the ritual that Abraham performed. The ritual was between two unrelated people wanting to be blood brothers. After performing the ritual, holding hands, they were considered blood brothers and each would implicitly trust the word of the other without question. And that was the pact that God made with Abraham. It’s just like Gideon and the fleece. Gideon asked God to put water on the fleece then not on the fleece but everywhere else…. It’s that kind of a story. And then Abraham’s faith grows. Even before that Abraham questioned God about so many things—about Lot’s of escape from Sodom, his own wife’s safety and so on. But you see a radical change after this episode towards the end of Abraham’s life. So there was a pivotal moment in Abraham’s life that changed his behavior towards God.

We all are in different journeys of faith, and I don’t think God expects us to be at the level of Abraham over the course of our life. Abraham lived a much longer life than us—he lived about 180 years and when he was being tested he was over 100 years old. I think the principle is trusting in God for providence and also making sure that your attitude towards that providence is not stagnant, not static. Your response to God becomes increasingly based on faith and grace and trusting in Him for providence.

Kiran: I always thought that story was weird, but the blood brother concept makes sense.

According to Google, some people give the age of Isaac as 17 to 20. Josephus said 25. Other people said 33. So he was not a boy at the time of the story.

Carolyn: If we believe God knows everything from beginning to end, he knew what was going to happen. And we believe that God never changes. God will be the same today and forever. I think it takes a lot of faith to derive any blessing from this story, because there’s so much bewilderment, to me, not so much in relation to Abraham’s acquiescence to the sacrifice, but to God’s even asking for it. And how do we talk to people who don’t believe in God when they say: “You say God is love.” I believe that to be true, but it’s pretty hard to tell or discuss this story with someone who has a problem believing in God

David: Did the convict on the cross next to Jesus—the “good” one—get faith in the end? In all his life, he never made a pact, he never went through some ritual to get in line with God and become blood brothers. He broke every commandment in the book, probably. I mean, that’s sort of what we’re led to believe about this convict. And yet we’re also told in no uncertain terms that he was saved. Again, all of these convolutions that we’re told about that will get you to that stage of faith where you’ll be saved do not appear to be necessary. That is what I conclude from Romans 4. All you have to do is believe. In the end, the convict believed.

Don: It is ironic that we see Abraham bargaining, trying to strike an ethical agreement with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but doesn’t raise a whisper about God’s command to destroy his son. It’s puzzling to me why he wouldn’t at least push back to some extent. He did so vigorously when it came to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah,

To me, there is a window here that we have to look through, and maybe a door that we have to walk through and maybe a complete re-thinking of this story. It does have educational value in that it takes place in “the place of teaching.” So there is something to be learned.

  • Postcript: David wishes to amend his statement. He no longer thinks that works are irrelevant, though he still thinks they are not necessary.

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