Abraham failed the test… and so did God

Genesis 22:1-14

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. (Read the whole text)

Here we are back into the long season of green, the chance to explore the various stories the bible. The Gospel readings of this season tell about Jesus’s teachings and ministry. The Epistle readings take us through the various letters of the New Testament to explore what was happening in the early church. And the Old Testament readings give us the stories of God’s people.

Today, the story of Abraham and Isaac is simply too tempting to avoid exploring.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one we know well. It is a story that is not only familiar when we hear it, it is one whose themes are used over and over in literature, movies  and TV. How often is the hero in a movie faced with an impossible choice involving the sacrifice of someone that they love?

The reason that Christians know this story of Abraham so well is that it is often used as an example of faithfulness. Abraham is an example of unwavering faith, so the idea goes. And on the surface it is an idea that makes sense.

In order that Abraham demonstrate his faith, God orders Abraham to put his faith before everything. Before the love he has for Sarah and their only son. Before  the love that Abraham has for Isaac, the son who will be person who carries Abraham’s legacy into the future. Without Isaac, Abraham and Sarah are simply people who will be forgotten to the sands of time.

And Abraham delivers. He shows us what it means to be faithful. Abraham’s faith is so powerful an example that even the authors of the New Testament point to it as a model to follow.

Abraham is willing to sacrifice his own son if God asks. Unwavering faith.

Or perhaps blind faith.

Or perhaps radical faith.

Radical fanaticism even.

Because we don’t usually call people willing to kill for their faith great examples… we have other words for those people don’t we?

And what about God? In this story, God asks his chosen disciples and follower to sacrifice his son, the very son that is the fulfillment of the covenant.

Have we read this story right? Christians have been using Abraham as an example of faith for hundreds of years, and the Hebrew people for thousands before that.

But blind faith or radical fanaticism is not normally the kind of faith that we are trying to help grow in people, in ourselves.

And a God who toys with us simply to “test” our faith doesn’t seem very loving or caring.

So what is going on in this story?

Well, to understand how Abraham and Isaac arrive at this moment, we need to go back to the beginning.

The oldest part of the bible is not found in the stories of creation or the garden of Eden or in Noah’s flood. Rather Abraham’s is the oldest. And ten chapters before Abraham and Isaac, the story begins. Back when Abraham was Abram, and Sarah was Sarai, God called these two to take up everything they had to go to the land that God would show them.

Abraham’s story begins with a 3 part covenant made with God. God promises Abraham land, descendants and a relationship. And this 3 fold promise becomes the focus of the rest of the book of Genesis, and to some degree the rest of the Old Testament.

So Abraham and Sarah pack up everything and go. And when God says, “Go” Abraham is really good at going. He is always willing to go when God calls.

But it is this other part of the promise… the descendants one that Abraham has trouble with. Going is easy… when God commands it, Abraham does it either out of faithfulness or perhaps fear. But the promise of descendants is tougher. Faith in this promise cannot be rooted in obedience out of fearfulness. Believing that God will provide this barren couple with children takes hope, it takes faith in the future, and faith in the third promise, that Abraham and Sarah are indeed God’s chosen.

And so Abraham goes, but as soon as he encounters the powerful Pharaoh of Egypt he gives Sarah away to be a part of Pharaoh’s harem, claiming Sarah is his sister, not his wife. So God has to intervene to save the day.

And then Sarah, fearing that she will not provide a son, tells Abraham to have a child with the servant Hagar, who gives birth to Ishmael… but he is not the son that God promised.

Next God tells Abraham directly that Sarah will bear a son, and all Abraham can do is fall to the ground in laughter.

And two weeks ago we heard the story of God showing up again to tell Abraham and Sarah that she will bear a son and this time Sarah laughs.

And after all this, Abraham gives Sarah to King Abimelech for his harem, again requiring God to intervene.

So finally, after 9 chapters of Abraham’s struggle to believe the promise of children, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

And the long awaited, hard to believe promise has come to fruition.

Yet still Abraham still struggles to believe in the promise, in hope for a future. Even with Isaac in his arms now.

Some Rabbis suggest that the test that God gives Abraham is not one of obedience. That it isn’t a game of chicken that God is playing. In fact, God knows that Abraham will follow the commands, he has always been willing to go when called.

But does Abraham have faith in God’s future? Does he believe that God will make him the father of God’s chosen people?

So just one chapter after Isaac’s birth, God gives the command to sacrifice Isaac.

So Abraham goes and for three days – without a word of protest – walks to the mountain with Isaac. And when they arrive, Isaac asks where the lamb to be sacrificed is… and Abraham says something about God providing it, knowing full well that there isn’t a lamb. Abraham then leaves his servants and pack animals behind, and goes to the ritual place with Isaac. There he ties up his son, binds his son like lamb to be slaughtered and places him on the altar.

And without hesitation raises the knife.

In that moment, when you take into account everything that has happened in the ten chapters before this… Abraham has not passed the test.

He has failed.

And so has God.

For ten chapters, through rescuing Abraham from himself, from proving wrong Abraham’s laughter at what he and Sarah thought was impossible, God must have thought that Abraham would finally believe that promise, the promise of descendants, the promise of hope and a future.

And yet for 3 days Abraham marched to mountain without a word of protest. Abraham looked his son in the eye and lied about what or who would be sacrificed. Abraham tied up his son and placed him on an altar of sacrifice. God must have expected that Abraham would protest or bargain, just as he had for the people of Sodom. God must have thought that Abraham would demand that God live up to the covenant, that God certainly wouldn’t just arbitrarily take away Abraham’s future. God waited for the protest. But nothing.

And so Abraham fails the test… but so does God, for a good test is one a student can pass.

And yet there on mountain, standing above Isaac with his knife in hand… just maybe it is Abraham who teaches God something, maybe it is Abraham who tests God.

Perhaps after 10 chapters of trying to get Abraham to believe in the covenant, in the promise of hope and future that God makes with Abraham, God realizes that Abraham cannot have faith… only fear. Fear that drives him to go when God commands, but fear that prevents him from having hope.

So God intervenes.

God caries the hope for the future that Abraham cannot.

God upholds God’s part of the covenant… even if Abraham cannot have faith in the promise…

God will have hope in Abraham, even when all the signs say that God shouldn’t.

God sends a ram.

God sends a ram who is a sign that God will not give up on us.

God sends a lamb who will be not a sign of death on an altar, but life on a cross.

A lamb whose coming into our world will signify God’s unwavering faith in us.

A lamb who is God’s promise of hope and future in the flesh.

For you see, we are just like Abraham.

In fact we are Abraham.

We too find the promises of God laughable, we find the threats to our future too much to confront, we too have difficulty seeing our hope and our future… even when God plunks signs right in our arms.

And so God sends us the lamb who will save us.

The Christ who is found in the thicket of the church.

The Christ who is mercy and reprieve from the knives that we threaten our hope with.

The Christ who is life, when there is surely and only death in store for us.

The Christ who is God’s promise in flesh.

Abraham’s faithfulness is nothing to be marvelled at, he isn’t a model to aspire to…

Abraham is a model of the faith we already have.

As too is Abraham’s fear the same fear that we carry. Fear that is dispelled each and every time we gather around God’s word of promise and hope for us.

Abraham reminds us that God knows we cannot be faithful on our own… and so God is faithful for us. God knows that the promise of Christ is our hope and our future.

God is one the passes the test for us.

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18 thoughts on “Abraham failed the test… and so did God”

  1. Love this blog, I discover this aspect of God when I was studying the Covenants of God, when God put Abram to sleep after he had slain the covenant oxen, God the Father and God the Son walked the covenant that they knew man could not keep. What a God we serve!

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  2. This blog post is altogether brilliant even though I don’t agree with your main premise. I love how you point out that God passes the test for us, but you simultaneously say that “God failed the test.” I don’t think it’s true. He may have proven that Abraham would fail the test and he passed him anyway, but this isn’t failure on God’s part. Although it is a beautiful story of rescue and you point that out more than anyone I’ve ever read before. He even praises Abraham for doing the exact thing you’re calling failure…and that I would call failure. Do you get the impression that God would have accepted any decision on Abraham’s part – praising him for his fear and obedience if he chose fear, and praising him for his faith and fearlessness if he had chosen to resist? It was a test that was designed to be lost, but which Abraham perhaps could not lose.
    The writer of Hebrews does ASCRIBE faith to Abraham that you deny him here – he says that Abraham believed in the promise coming through Isaac so he reasoned that God would resurrect Isaac after he had killed him. Maybe it’s not failure – or fear – maybe Abraham just played along.

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    1. Thank you for your comment!

      This story allows for many levels of interpretation, in my with. The author of Hebrews sees Abraham’s example, some Rabbis ask questions about the test.

      My perspective that on God’s failure is not so much a literal failure, but a moment where God realizes that Abraham is incapable of the kind of faith that God is asking Abraham for.

      I think the OT is full of these kinds of moments.

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  3. Yes, a confronting text that truly interrogates the self. Love the fact that Abraham is so prepared, but not – forgets the sacrifice! But what is interesting is that the sacrifice is unimportant, but the emphasis on trust rather than law is potent.

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  4. This is completely wrong. Abraham received the promise “that through Isaac your Offspring we named” and he knows that he going to receive his son back even if it takes the resurrection from the dead says Hebrews. He did pass, he trusted in God and God provided. To say that God failed a test is borderline heresy.

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      1. I imagine the section you were wanting me to take note of was the following, “For instance, some philosophers claim Abraham somehow knew both promises would come to be, that Abraham has to offer Isaac up as a sacrifice and that Isaac also would be his seed; or that Abraham understood God did not tell him to “kill” his child, only to “bring him up” as an offering. In either case though, such explanations render the binding of Isaac no test for Abraham, which clearly the Bible means it to be.” I totally disagree, the test is in trusting God to be faithful to his word. God had promised to bring Isaac down but not doubt the serpent of old would tempt Abraham to doubt God, as he always does. Abraham is at a cross roads, who will he believe, that is the test.

        I’ve read the article in it’s entirety and find it totally unconvincing. If there is a particular part you would like to discuss I would be happy to.

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        1. I find the author of Hebrews attempt to superimpose Christian eschatology on Abraham misses the mark. It is certain that Abraham had no hope in the resurrection, that was not how he and his descendants understood their world.
          Read the rest of Genesis, the chief concern is the descendants clause of the covenant. Immortality exists through lineage.
          But truly more problematic is our attempts to ascribe faithfulness to Abraham (despite his constant lack of faith in the promise before chapter 22) turns God into a game playing monster.
          So God “failing” to give Abraham a test that Abraham could pass is certainly better than the alternative. And as St. Athanasius would point to, the only thing a loving could do would be to give Abraham every opportunity to have faith before stepping in. And yet when Abraham and the rest of humanity shows that we cannot have faith on our own, God provides Abraham a ram. And the rest of us, God provides Christ.

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  5. Read the rest of Genesis…that’s kind of condescending don’t you think, as if I hadn’t. I would encourage you to remember these word from our Lord. “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” I totally reject you assertion that Abraham was not looking forward to the Resurrection, even the pharisees believed in it, so it’s far from a Christian only concept. I don’t get you liberal Christians, I really don’t , you reject neigh the entirety of Christian truth then you call yourselves Christian. What’s the point. A God who fails test can hardly be relied upon to rescue your soul from death and hell, why even bother. I just don’t get it.

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    1. I would expect that a fellow pastor had read the rest of Genesis, but to claim that Abraham was looking forward to the resurrection is absurd. Show me the evidence in the text. It is a fundamentalist fantasy to impose Christian theology into the the minds and hearts of OT figures.

      But that is the bigger issue isn’t it. I am no “liberal” Christian. I do not deny any of the tests of orthodoxy found in the creeds. But I am a serious Christian. And I want to deal seriously with the texts of our faith. I don’t worry for one second that my questions will diminish the truth of the Word.

      Nor am I one bit concerned that God is diminished or less able to save me or anyone else if I apply a very human definition of test giving and say it is a failure.

      God doesn’t operate by human standard, and isn’t that the point I was trying to make in the sermon. That God operates by love, grace and mercy which are by human definitions weakness and failure.

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  6. Here’s a test of your orthodoxy , are these words true or false, “[Abraham] considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead”-Hebrews 11:19

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    1. True in that they have been a source of comfort and witness to God’s power for generations. But it is not likely that the author of Hebrews had a clue of what Abraham thought. One of the most important rules of good exegesis and preaching, don’t psychologize people you read about in scripture.

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  7. Erik…you might want to put more thought into this post about Abraham and God.

    The story of Abraham as he walks from the city of Haran to the Promised Land of Canaan is about the inauguration of God-composed journey of faith life-scripts…that ingeniously creates gaps in the story-lines that have goals that are unreachable…unattainable through humanistic means or contrivance.

    Abraham and Sarah having Isaac, Joseph becoming governor, Moses delivering the Israelites, David becoming king, Peter the common fisherman becoming the leader of the early church, Paul being the most improbable candidate to become the premier missionary evangelist to the Greco-Roman world…every narrative story of faith has this component to some extent of a goal or outcome that is beyond the reach of human solution.

    For the best of reasons…this creates the context for actualizing biblical faith…between God and people that displaces our way with God’s higher ways in the form of an adventure of faith life-script.

    This is not found anywhere else in any religions, philosophies, or worldviews…nor is it found in any literature outside of the Bible.

    This is one of the elements in the Bible that validates its divine origin…humanistic literary imagination would never invent the displacement of our ways with God’s higher ways…without in fact there being a living God who could in reality act out His part.

    Worldly conventional normalcy and thinking would never invent the concept of the cross of Christ that asks us to let self-sovereignty fall away in favor of God-sovereignty.

    This has huge apologetic value.

    John 15:13 reads: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

    I would posit that in every biblical journey of faith…including Abraham going to Canaan…there is some degree of this element of laying down our lives for our friends…directly and indirectly.

    A biblical narrative story of faith life-script composed by God for us contains this so that we can experience on some level this divine love…this greater love. God does this for us…only He could do this…on our behalf and eternal benefit.

    In the same way…on Mount Moriah God is allowing Abraham to experience what few if any will ever come close to experiencing…what God the Father will experience at Calvary when the Son of God Jesus does go the full distance culminating in His death on the cross.

    Neither God nor Abraham failed on Mount Moriah. God had no intention for Abraham to fully go through with killing his “son of promise” Isaac…even though God two thousand years in the future God would not say “stop, I myself will provide” which He did through the sacrifice of Jesus the Passover Lamb of God.

    When we are walking within our God-composed journey of faith life-script…whatever that may be…the promise of 1 Cor. 2:6-12 that God will reveal to us the deep things of the Spirit…is what is occurring way back in time as Abraham lifts the knife and Gods says “stop.”

    God is showing Abraham the “father of faith” the very heart of God in what God plans to do in the future for the salvation of mankind…whether or not Abraham fully understands this at the time.

    Sorry for the long comment…just wanted to share some thoughts.

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  8. If God (since he’s omniscient) already knew how Abraham would respond all throughout the test, what exactly was the point of the “test”. To me, it sick, and twisted, like a cat playing with a half-dead mouse. The cat knows how it will end, but the poor mouse thinks there is maybe a chance of saving itself, until there isn’t. This old-testament story simply shows a dark and demented side to God. I don’t know why muslims (for example) have a day dedicated to worshipping this story. It’s counter to everything good and decent that an all-loving and all-forgiving God would exhibit.

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