Summary: Real faith is demonstrated when we have confidence without evidence.
Believing even when God wants the unreasonable
Faith is trusting that which we cannot understand. This is why Jesus demands the faith of a child. Because children are called upon all the time to trust their parents in situations they don’t understand. And they do it well. Abraham’s trust in God, and Isaac’s trust in Abraham illustrate this idea better than any other story I know.
I have never met anyone who was not taken aback by this story. God is clearly asking the unreasonable. And God knows that what He is demanding is unreasonable. I like the translations that maintain the climatic word order:
Take your son
your only son
whom you love
Abraham has two sons, after all, but God is not leaving anything to question. He is driving home just how much He knows Isaac means to Abraham.
We think of this event too much in theological terms:
• Isaac was the son of promise
• God hates human sacrifice
• God would not contradict Himself by saying Isaac will be the heir and then taking the heir away
There are all kinds of theological dilemmas here for us to noodle over, and we can try to explain them, address them, and mitigate them all day long. But God knew that for Abraham, his theology was very wrapped up in his personal life. It had less to do with Abraham’s conception of God than it had to do with his feeling for his son
Take your son
your only son
whom you love
How old was Isaac? We really don’t know. The story begins with the vague phrase: "Some time later." So it fits in between the time he was weaned and the death of his mother at the age of 127. That means that sometime between the time Isaac was about 3 years old, and when he was about 37, this event happened. There is something reprehensible about it at any age:
• If he was a confused adolescent
• If he was a young man in his active prime
• If he was a responsible adult
We know that he had the strength to carry the wood for the fire himself. He was not a toddler. The way Abraham called him "lad" or "boy" suggests a youth, the same way the word is used of someone in the service industry, like a "pool boy". He may be quite young, but he is also strong and able, responsible.
We know he was capable of reasoning, because he questioned his father about the procedure and knew something was missing. This may even mean that he was old enough to be doing sacrifices himself.
In the end, his age is not so important. In his earlier years, he would have been a child betrayed by the father he trusted. In his later years he would have been a thinking, active man who needed to be convinced to give up his life to go along with the plan.
What can we learn from Abraham?
Abraham was willing to give God everything
This is, as far as I can tell, the unanimous, primary interpretation of the passage. Both Christians and Jews observe that the account demonstrates Abraham’s willingness to abandon everything for God. He had already
• given up his home
• given up the best pastures
• given up his own plan for success
• given up his first son
Now he was being called to give up the son of promise. For Abraham, nothing was as valuable as what God wanted. He was willing to keep nothing back. Thomas Hooker, one of the early preachers of Hartford CT says of this episode:
If God would have anything, He should have it, whatsoever it were, tho it were his own life, for no question Isaac was dearer to him than his own life (Hooker, The World’s Great Sermons - Vol 2, 15).
Abraham did everything his understanding of the situation demanded
He did not go into the situation half cocked, simply because he did not understand it all. He had wood, a knife, and a torch. He outfitted a week long excursion: three days out, and three days back. He had provisions, baggage and servants.
There were things about God’s command that he did not understand.
• He did not know why God was doing this
• He trusted that God would save Isaac, but he did not know how
• He didn’t even know exactly where he was going, just to the hill country
And yet, he did not allow his incomplete knowledge to affect the thoroughness of his obedience. He took all the information he had and he followed through completely, the best he could.
Abraham trusted God and distrusted his own understanding