Can you discern the character of God?
Let’s face it: the death of a beloved child is always a grievous and horrible tragedy. To think that God would call a person to kill their beloved child intentionally is completely horrible and ugly.
The ancient Moabites and Ammonites worshiped a god, Chemosh, who demanded such a despicable thing from his followers. The very name, Chemosh, meant “Destroyer” or “Subduer.” The Moabites built great statues of Chemosh with an oven in his belly. The doors to his belly would be opened, and parents were required to throw their baby into his burning belly.
Sadly, we might expect the followers of a god named “Destroyer” or “Subduer” to demand such a heartless act from his subjects. But the God we meet through Abraham has been given the names El Roi (the God who sees me) and El Shaddai (the God who nourishes). Moreover, the child born to Abraham and Hagar was given the name Ishmael, meaning “God hears.” The God of Abraham is not a heartless god but a God who sees and who hears and who nourishes because he cares for us. Could the God of Abraham ever demand the death of a beloved child?
Yet Genesis 22 begins with the words, “After these things God tested Abraham.” Then God 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 that I shall show you.”
How are we to make sense of this? Is God really going to demand that Abraham kill his own beloved son? What is God testing in Abraham? Is God finding out whether Abraham will blindly obey a horribly ungodly demand? Or is God testing whether Abraham will rightly discern the character of God and the ways of God?
Abraham had previously faced and passed a similar test. When God revealed to Abraham (in Genesis 18) his plan to judge Sodom and Gomorrah for their evils, Abraham carried on a lengthy argument with God on behalf of the potential innocent citizens there, saying to God, “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Abraham discerned correctly that God is righteous and would judge in keeping with his righteousness. Where is Abraham’s argument with God in Genesis 22 when it comes to the potential murder of his own innocent son?
To blindly obey an ungodly demand that is contradictory to the character of God and the ways of God is not the way to pass a test of faith. As the chapter progresses, Abraham is in grave danger of flunking this test (and I hate to consider the trauma this caused Isaac). But we find indications in this chapter that Abraham rightly discerned the true character of God. In verse 5, Abraham promised the servants that he and Isaac would worship then the two of them would return. He didn’t believe their trip up the mountain would end with the death of Isaac. In verse 8, Abraham declares, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.” He recognized that the character of God is to provide what is good for his people rather than to demand what is evil from them.
Indeed, verse 14 looks ahead to the greatest provision God would make for his beloved children: “So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide;’ as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’” The true gift from God that would save Isaac’s life and our lives for eternity had not yet been provided, but on that mountain, many years later, it would be provided.
The ram in the thicket rescued Isaac that day, yet some decades later, Isaac still died. But God had a plan to provide a permanent solution to the tragedy of death, and God ordained that it would take place on that particular mountain. Many years after Isaac carried the wood for the offering up that mountain, Jesus took the wood for the sacrifice upon his own shoulders and walked up the very same hill—the mountain about which it had been repeated for so long, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the wood, then the cross was lifted into place. Three hours later, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “It is finished!” Then he breathed his last, and he died to overcome death for all who trust in him.
God does not want us to blindly obey demands that are contradictory to his character. What God wants is for us to know God’s true character and to act in accordance with his true character—and the key characteristic of God is that he loves us so much that he laid down his life for us on the very mountain where it was said, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”