Freeze the scene. The knife gleams in the blinding sun. Lifted high above his head, his hand firmly grips the handle, knuckles bulging. His eyes, open, are intensely focused on the object of his aim. Isaac bound, looks up in fear, knowing his father has made up his mind. A little further out, a ram sniffing about in a bush gets its horns entangled. Still further down the slope of the mountain, sit Abraham’s servants with their donkeys, waiting. Heaven itself is waiting, waiting to see what this man will do.
This is the moment—the moment when Abraham proved that humanity could put God first above even a beloved child. With the knife hanging in the air, that determined look on Abraham’s face, and the horror of child sacrifice nearly committed, God said to the angel, “Go.” And he went. In just the nick of time, the messenger cried out, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.” The mighty angel of the LORD continued, “For now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen 22:11-12).
What is this act of man? Who is this hero of faith? How did he summit the pinnacle of loyalty? His story began long ago, maybe as many as fifty years before when God said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). God further promised to make him a great nation, make his name great, cause him to become a blessing, and protect him. Abraham went. He was seventy-five years of age when he stepped out on everything he knew for the unknown walk of faith along rough ground in a strange land—all because this God had made him promises. This is the beginning; this is his origin story. Abraham believed God, and so he went. This began the chain of events that culminated on that fateful day when he bound Isaac all those decades later. Abraham’s leaving his family behind in Haran for a land he did not know was his mustard-sized seed that became a great tree of faith.
God promised him that he would have descendants—many descendants—like the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore or the dust of the earth, yet he had no child. Twenty-four years later, still with no child, Abraham dwelled in the land of Canaan, holding onto a promise God had made so long ago and that now seemed more impossible than it was the day he heard it. God appeared to Abraham when he was 99 and entered into a covenant with him. This covenant required the shedding of blood, his own blood, in the act of circumcision. God asked Abraham to circumcise himself, his teenage son, Ishmael, and all the boys and men in his entourage. When I pause and consider this request, I’m struck by how unreasonable it was. Come to think of it, asking Abraham to leave Haran and his family behind to go to a foreign land was also unreasonable, especially in a land devoid of paved roads, police, or hotels. All it would take for Abraham to lose his life would be for one powerful man to cast his eye upon his beautiful Sarah, and that would be it. “Kill him, and bring me his woman,” would be the command. Abraham knew his limitations, and if this God didn’t truly curse those who cursed him, he would never survive to receive the blessing.
Abraham had done all that. He had cowered in the face of Pharaoh and then Abimelech, forcing God to intervene and return Sarah safely to him. Months passed, then years, then decades. Now at 99, Abraham still had no child by Sarah. He had fathered a son with Hagar, but this one was not to be the child of promise. At 99 years old, Abraham was told by God to go through surgery, a dangerous proposition in any era, and that the promise was still on. Oh, how I wish I could have heard the discussion between Abraham and Sarah that night after the deed was done. “Sarah, I’ve got something to show you.” What would she have thought? “God told you to do that?” Still the deed was even bigger, for Abraham had mandated all the males be circumcised. In fact, from now on, to be part of Abraham’s household, all baby boys would have to undergo the procedure on the eighth day. When Abraham agreed to this, he took a leap of faith and trusted that the God who promised him a child would in fact deliver on that promise even though he had cut away part of his reproductive organ.
A year later, Abraham laughed; Sarah laughed; everyone laughed compelled by joy because Isaac was born. Who had ever heard of a 90-year-old woman giving birth? It was impossible, and yet God came through on His promise. Twenty-five years they waited for this day. Sarah’s lifetime of shame and grief for her barrenness dissipated in a moment. The midwives delivered the infant, and the cry went out that Abraham and Sarah had a healthy son. This child must’ve been the most spoiled kid in all human history. How everyone from his parents right down to the servants must have doted over him! How they must have rejoiced when he took his first steps or began talking! How they must have delighted in telling Isaac his own origin story, beginning with the fateful day they decided to leave Haran and go to the land God had promised!
But then years later, God had said to Abraham, “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” (Gen 22:1). What? How could Abraham slaughter his son as an offering? And yet, early the very next morning, Abraham saddled his donkey, grabbed a couple of his young men, cut the wood, got Isaac, and left. Three days, he bounced along the path on his donkey until he at last arrived at the location. He had three days to second guess himself, to question if God had really spoken, to wonder if this was all just some nightmare he could wake up from. We don’t know what was going through his mind; we only see his actions. He took the wood and laid it on Isaac to carry. He took the fire and knife, and together they went up the mountain. He built the altar, laid down the wood in order, bound Isaac, and laid him on top of it all. He reached out his hand and took the knife and suddenly the voice commanded him to stop.
God had endured so many disappointments prior to the days of Abraham. His original creation fell to pieces because Adam and Eve decided to trust the serpent over their creator. The second generation gave birth to fratricide when Cain spurned God’s warning and slew Abel. By the sixth chapter of Genesis, we read, “every intention of the thoughts of his [mankind’s] heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). God’s creation project had so degenerated that the only way to fix it was to reboot the system and start over with Noah and his family. After the waters receded, the new world proved to have the same old problems as Noah got drunk, and his son “uncovered his nakedness” (whatever that means). Next humanity defied God by building a tower to heaven, resulting in the elimination of their ability to collaborate when God confused their languages. Then, at long last, Abraham and Sarah entered the scene. After so many heartbreaking disappointments when people chose their own ambition for knowledge over God, their wounded pride over God’s command, their lust for power and selfishness instead of God, finally, He had a couple who agree to trust Him. When He asked them to leave Haran, they went. When He asked Abraham to institute circumcision, he obeyed. Now, He put Abraham through the greatest test of loyalty. He had him choose between his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loved and God. Abraham chose God and changed the world forever.
After this supreme act of fidelity, God imprinted Himself with Abraham’s name. Like a marriage covenant where one spouse takes on the other’s last name, God took Abraham’s name into His own identity. When He introduced Himself to Moses centuries later at the burning bush, He said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham” (Ex 3:6). Abraham proved something to God that day, and God followed through on His end to multiply his descendants, to give him the land, and to be their God.
Seeing this sterling example of faith, I feel challenged to be more like Abraham—to put God first in my own life. I don’t want to put the pursuit of money or financial security ahead of my God. I can’t prioritize sleep or comfort or health over communing with Him. I dare not turn my wife or children into idols, giving God second place in my heart. No, I am resolved. I want to be like Abraham. I want to trust God, put Him first, and let the chips fall where they may. Lord God, help me to be faithful to You!