Genesis 21-22, the Child of Promise by Charlie Taylor
In Paul’s treatment of the Isaac- Ishmael story and conflict in Galatians 4:21-31, he calls Isaac the child of the promise and Ishmael the child of the flesh. By this he means that Ishmael was born from the illegitimate relationship of Abraham with Hagar, but Isaac was born of Abraham’s real wife Sarah. According to their fleshly desires to “run ahead of God” and produce an heir by Sarah’s servant Hagar, they produced Ishmael. About fourteen years later, at God’s appointed time, Abraham and Sarah had their real heir Isaac just as God had promised. In Genesis 21 we have the record of the birth of Isaac and the resulting conflict between the two boys. At least six times God had promised Abraham and Sarah a son over a period of 25 years. Their faith was stretched because they had aged past their child bearing years, and it became clear that God was going to make it obvious that it was a supernatural birth for which He deserved all the glory. In Romans 4:16-22, Paul explained the faith building process of Abraham, “without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now impotent since he was a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet with the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able to perform.”
Finally in Genesis 21 Abraham’s faith was rewarded. In this way, the New Testament names Abraham as the prototype of faith and God’s imputed righteousness. During Paul’s day, religious people believed that they were saved by being circumcised and keeping the Law of Moses, but Paul used Abraham as the model of our faith in Christ for salvation. Abraham’s salvation and righteousness were received from God before the sign of circumcision was given him, and about 600 years before Moses gave the Law. Therefore salvation depends neither on ritual nor moral law, but only on God’s grace. The idea of having a son at the age of 100 was so wild that both Abraham and Sarah had laughed when they heard it. Therefore God told them to name their son Isaac, which means “laughter”. Whenever they looked at or called their beloved son by name, they would remember the miraculous circumstances by which he was born. In fact, Genesis 21:6 tells us Sarah’s response, “God has made laughter (Isaac) for me, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” After the child was weaned at about three years old, a problem developed in the family tent. Ishmael, resenting all the attention young Isaac was getting, mocked and persecuted Isaac (Galatians 4:29), and that did not sit well with Sarah at all. Sarah made it clear to Abraham that there was only room in the tent for one wife and one son, and she demanded that he “drive out this maid and her son”. Abraham loved Ishmael so this greatly distressed him, and he consulted God in prayer. God told him to do as Sarah said, and not to worry because God would still bless Ishmael with many descendants and his own land. We find out in Genesis 25 that Ishmael later had 12 sons that each had their own tribe and dwelt in Arabia. I think the separation was crucial to preparing Abraham for the supreme test of faith He would give him in chapter 22. Isaac must be his only son to make it the supreme test. Ishmael would thrive and become the father of the people we know today as the Arabs. Apparently, it was God’s sovereign purpose that Ishmael survive and thrive to become a rival nation to Israel. As one comedian said, “God gave the Arabs all the oil, and then God said to the Jews they had to cut off the end of their WHAT?”
The Great Test of Faith
Since Genesis 21 ends with “many days”, and Genesis 22 begins with “after these things”, it is likely that Isaac was at least a teenager during the events of chapter 22. We are first introduced to God’s plan by reading “God tested Abraham” in verse 1. We need to know this to cushion the shock of God’s command. Throughout the Bible in all the characters and stories we find the reoccurring truth that everyone’s faith must be tested and proven. Particularly in James 2:14-26, the author says that if you have faith it will be proven by your works. In Abraham’s story, we know that he had faith because the only reason he would obey God to sacrifice his son was because he totally believed and trusted God for the ultimate outcome. In Genesis 22:2, God’s command came to Abraham to “Take now your ONLY son whom you love…and offer him as a burnt offering” (sacrifice). The emphasis here is that Isaac was his most cherished thing in the world. Therefore to obey the command to sacrifice him was the supreme test of his fidelity to the Lord. Naturally, you may be asking, “Why would God need to do this?” I think it is because just like a good engineer may know that his design will work, he still requires it to be tested. Also, growth in faith involves testing, and here his faith would be stretched to the limit.
Still, I wonder what Abraham was thinking during the three days it took to get to Mt. Moriah? Hebrews 11:17-19 gives us insight in to his thinking process. Abraham believed “that God was able to raise him up even from the dead”. God knew what Abraham would do, but Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, along with Israel and all who would later read this story must know that God was #1 in his life. Hebrews 11:19, also alludes to the fact that this story was a type of the future story of Christ. The experience of Abraham offering up his only begotten son whom he loved, was a type of the offering of Christ by God. We can get an idea of how painful and how much love it took for God to offer up His Son on the cross. If Abraham loved his son, how much greater is God’s love for His Son?
Why Moriah ?
In Genesis 22:3-4, we read that it took three days for Abraham and Isaac to get to Mt. Moriah. Why did God send them specifically there and so far away? Possibly, God wanted to give him plenty of time to think and pray about what was going to happen; but beyond that, Mt. Moriah was part of what would become the city of Jerusalem. Also, God knew that this would be the exact place where His Temple would be built (2 Chronicles 3). Thus Abraham’s sacrifice would prefigure all the sacrifices that would regularly be offered by Israel at that location, as well as the ultimate offering of God’s Son nearby.
Consider exactly what the burnt offering was. First Abraham would cut the animal’s throat, then butcher it, and then sacrifice the different body parts by fire. This was the horror that Abraham had to consider during his three day trip with Isaac.
God Will Provide
Abraham, besides Isaac, took two young men with him, and a donkey packing the wood for the fire of the altar they would build. When they got there, Abraham made an interesting insightful comment to the two men, “Stay here, and I and Isaac will go way over there (to the top of Mt. Moriah), and WE will worship and return to you.” Notice that he said Isaac would be coming back with him. According to Hebrews 11:17-19, he really believed that even if he sacrificed Isaac, God would still resurrect him and they would come back together. God had repeatedly promised Abraham that his son Isaac would be the father of a great nation; and all the nations of the world would be blessed by a future descendant (Jesus Christ). Therefore, Isaac must live on! Abraham’s willingness to give up his beloved son was the ultimate act of faith and Christ’s teaching in Matthew 10:37, “He that loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me”. This act of faith also prefigured Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was in agony praying “Father if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will but as you will”. (Matt.26:39)
While Abraham carried the burden of what was about to happen, Isaac carried the wood up to the place where they would build the altar. No doubt that Isaac had seen many of the animal sacrifices made to the Lord, but this was different because there were no animals, so an unsuspecting Isaac asked, “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham’s answer was profound, “God will provide”. This was a declaration of trust, another way of saying “Let’s let God be God”. They built the altar, arranged the wood, and then bound Isaac , and laid him on the altar. Isaac was at an age where he could have resisted, but he also trusted both Abraham and God. When Abraham drew back the knife to slay Isaac, the angel of the Lord stopped him and said, “now I know that you fear God since you have not withheld your son from Me”.
At that time they both looked up to see the fulfillment of “God will provide” which was a ram caught in the thicket. This was the original “scape goat” which would be the burnt offering in substitution for his son, thus making it clear the need for a substitutionary sacrifice. Abraham called the name of that place, YHWH Jireh, which means “the lord will provide”. This anticipated the great promise that God would provide the ultimate Lamb to die for man’s sins. At the appointed time, God would provide His own Son to die as our sacrifice, and this is why He used the future tense. Then God summed up all His previous promises, and even added on them by saying, “I will greatly bless you and I will multiply your seed… and in your seed (singular) all the nations of the earth shall be blessed”. Galatians 3:16 helps us interpret this promise by explaining that the “seed” that would bless all would be Jesus Christ.