Genesis 22 is one of most well-known and – if we are honest – strangest stories in the book of Genesis. After the joy and blessing that runs through chapter 21, the text tells us of an instance in which God commanded Abraham to sacrifice the promised son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. The story is one of intense emotion and suspense, but that is not its main purpose. Ultimately, it is a story about faith, obedience, and salvation.
The basic details are clear. God – as a test – told Abraham to take Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering (v. 1-2). Abraham obeyed and journeyed to the mountain God identified – taking with him everything necessary to do what God had commanded (v. 3-8). When they got to the place, Abraham laid Isaac on the altar and took the knife to kill him (v. 9-10). But at the last moment, the angel of the Lord intervened and stopped Abraham because the test had been passed (v. 11-12). Instead of Isaac, God provided a ram for the sacrifice instead (v. 13-14). Then, in light of Abraham’s obedience, the angel of the Lord reiterated God’s promise of blessing upon Abraham (15-19).
The story is gripping in many ways, but we must remember that it is not in the Bible for entertainment purposes. As with all of God’s revelation in Scripture, it is given to teach us, rebuke us, correct us, and train us. So how does this story do those things? What is its point and purpose?
First, it shows us the importance of faith. Though Abraham’s actions might seem insane to our modern minds, the Bible makes clear that his actions were motivated not by insanity but by faith. The author of Hebrews makes this clear: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:17-19). Abraham did this because He believed God would keep His word. This is a critical issue because faith is central throughout the Bible. Ultimately, the righteous man lives not primarily because he is righteous but because he has faith (Hab. 2:4). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). We must take the promises of God and receive them as if they are true. We must rely entirely on God and put every bit of our trust in Him. Do we have faith? Do we truly receive all of God’s words and promises as certainly, absolutely true? Do we have complete confidence that what God has said will happen? We should.
Second, on a similar note, the story shows us the nature of faith as well – namely: true faith demonstrates itself in obedient action. This was a “test” – of what? Of faith! Could God not see Abraham’s heart and know that he believed? Of course He could, but the issue is whether Abraham believed to the point of obedience. Not all faith is true faith, and the distinguishing mark is that true faith is demonstrated in our actions. James uses this story from Genesis to make this very point: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ – and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:21-24). The point is not that Abraham was brought into a right relationship with God because of his actions rather than his faith. The point is that Abraham’s faith – which put him in right relationship with God – was proven to be genuine by his actions. And that is the nature of all true faith. If we truly believe, then that faith will be seen in our actions. And if faith is not demonstrated in action, then it is a worthless, useless faith that will profit nothing. Can our faith be seen in our actions? Do we demonstrate our trust and dependence by the way we live? We should.
Third, the story points us forward to the ultimate salvation found in Christ. Even though Abraham and his faith are the main focus of the chapter, God does use this episode to point us forward to Jesus and salvation. We see it clearly in the ram who becomes a substitute for Isaac. Even though Isaac was “supposed” to die, “God provided” (v. 14) a ram instead. This was a glimpse of the work Christ would do later. All of us – like sheep – have gone astray, but God provided a “lamb” – Jesus Christ – and laid on him all of our sins so that we – like Isaac – could go free (Isa. 53:4-7). Jesus is the “propitiation” for our sins – the true burnt offering (v. 2) that takes away the wrath of God (Rom. 3:21-26). If we will believe, a substitute is offered, and the judgment that we deserve falls on Him instead. This is true not only for Isaac but for those from every nation who will believe and be blessed (v. 18).
Ultimately, the promises of God – which were given to Abraham because he believed (v. 15-19) – find their fulfillment in Jesus. And if we believe in Jesus, we become recipients of those promised blessings as well (Gal. 3:9,29; Eph. 3:6).