Abraham: The Ultimate Act of Obedience

Posted on December 5, 2017


By David Ettinger

abraham isaacWhat kind of thoughts went through Abraham’s mind when God told him, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah [Jerusalem]. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22:2)? It isn’t difficult to imagine. What would you think if you were told to do something horrible to your child?

The prospect of his son’s death – and that by his own hand – would have been enough to torment Abraham’s soul. However, there was more to it than that. About 45 years earlier, God had introduced Himself to Abraham while he was living in the pagan city of Ur. God spoke to Abraham and said: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).

What was to become known as the “Abrahamic Covenant” assured Abraham that he would be the founder of a new race of people. However, 10 years later, Abraham’s wife Sarah was still barren, therefore she demanded that Abraham sire a son through her Egyptian slave Hagar – a common practice of the day. Abraham’s union with Hagar produced Ishmael, but God had rejected him as the one through whom the covenant would continue. Instead, God had a better plan. He would allow Sarah to conceive and give birth to a son when she was 90 years old. When Isaac was born, Abraham was 100 years old. It was this child through whom the covenant would be perpetuated. God told Abraham that it is “through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Genesis 21:12).


Actor Richard Harris in the title role of the 1993 miniseries “Abraham”

So, imagine Abraham’s surprise when God ordered him to sacrifice the lad, who was not even a lad anymore. How do we know this? In Genesis 21, we learn of events following the birth and weaning of Isaac. Though space does not allow us to recount the events now, the chapter ends with these words: “And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time” (v. 34). Though that time period is not specified, many commentators believe it was approximately 15 to 20 years – enough time for Abraham’s love for his son to grow, mature, and ripen. Isaac is believed to have been anywhere between ages 18 and 25 when God ordered that he be sacrificed as a burnt offering.

So, what was God’s purpose for such a drastic decree? Simply put, it was to test Abraham’s faith. If Abraham was to be the leader of a new people set apart for God, then the Lord wanted to know that His chosen vessel was a man of faith and obedience, two characteristics God hoped would be a lasting example for His people.

This indeed would be a test for Abraham, since testing comes only through circumstances of great meaning. Abraham had everything to lose, including the son he so desperately loved and the promise that he, Abraham, would be the father of a great people. If Isaac died, both Abraham’s greatest love, his son, and the hope of a new nation descending from him, would be snuffed out in an instant.

sunriseHow could Abraham have possibly endured the emotional upheaval God’s command no doubt caused him? The answer can be found in the New Testament. Hebrews 11:19 says: “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” In other words, Abraham knew several things. One, Isaac’s death would, humanly speaking, dash Abraham’s hope of a new nation. Two, God had made a promise (Genesis 12:1-3) and that He was bound to keep it. Three, God would make a way. It’s very possible that Abraham believed God would allow him to go through with the slaying of Isaac, but – according to the Hebrews verse – that God would then raise Isaac from the dead.

Though this is reasonable speculation, we are sure of one thing: Abraham’s actions from beginning to end were a remarkable demonstration of obedience unto death and stands for all time as one of the greatest acts of obedience the world has ever known!