Faith, At Any Cost

Craig Keener
The model of faith that Abraham establishes in Genesis 22 is of a much deeper level because he is ready to sacrifice the very promise he had waited for so many years

Abraham offers a great model of faith. He followed God’s promise when he left behind his homeland (Gen 12; see Gen 12:1; Gen 12:1–3); when he believed God’s promise about a child, God counted this trust as righteousness (15:6). But what happens when acting in faith seems to cost us the very promise that God once offered? Do we still trust God? What happens when God’s call does not seem to be, from our perspective, in our personal best interests? Do we still trust God’s promise?

This is the sort of faith that Abraham models in Genesis 22. It is a deeper level of faith than the faith in 15:6, but it is not unrelated to it. When we walk with God through years of testing, we can develop a deeper faith that trusts God no matter what. This is much more faith than is needed to be “justified,” as Abram was already in 15:6. This faith is the expression of a long-term, faithful relationship with God.

The narration emphasises the pathos, intensifying the emotion by lingering on the point: Abraham and Isaac love each other. In 22:2, God commands Abraham concerning “your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac” (cf. 22:12). Repetition of “the two together” heightens the pathos in 22:6, 8, as does the narrator’s slowing down to emphasise the details in 22:7. Many details add pathos, underlining Abraham’s love for his son and how the events leading up to the offering must have torn at Abraham’s heart. When Isaac calls Abraham, “My father,” Abraham responds, “Here I am” (22:7), just as he does in this narrative when God or the angel of the Lord addresses him (22:1, 11). Other details emphasise Isaac’s innocent trust, such as when he asks where the lamb is (22:7)—trust that must have further torn at Abraham’s fatherly heart.

What happens when God’s call does not seem to be, from our perspective, in our personal best interests?

Once Abraham is sure that God has spoken, he does not procrastinate. People back then usually rose early (19:2, 27; 20:8; 26:31; 28:18; 31:55), but the rising early in 22:3 probably especially evokes 21:14—when Abraham obeyed God by rising early to send away his son Ishmael. Abraham did not delay or stall in obeying God; God was always first.

The summons to faith builds on earlier calls to faith in Abraham’s life. When God directs him to “one of the mountains that I will tell you” (22:2), God recalls his earlier commission in 12:1: “Go … to the land that I will show you.” Abraham again had to go in faith, as he did before; the first time he left behind his past family of origin, and this time he must sacrifice his future familial legacy.

Nevertheless, he believed that God would fulfil his promise. As the note for Heb 11:19 in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Zondervan, 2016) puts it, “Abraham said that he would return with his son (Ge 22:5) and told Isaac that God would provide the offering (Ge 22:8). By now his faith was so strong that he understood that even if he carried out God’s instructions, God would restore his son and fulfil the promise. God had, after all, promised that his descendants would be reckoned through Isaac (Ge 21:12).”

This faith is a deeper faith than the justifying faith of Gen 15:6. Before that encounter, God had already promised Abram descendants and land (12:1–2). In Gen 15, Abram nevertheless asks about the descendants (15:2–3), God reiterates the promise more specifically (15:4–5), and Abram puts his trust in the one who is truly trustworthy (15:6). Then Abram asks how he can know that God will give him the land (15:8), right after God has reiterated that promise (15:7). God graciously confirms that promise (15:9–21). So what happens next? Abram and Sarai use Hagar to bear him a son (16:1–2); after all, God had not yet specified that Abram’s son would come through Sarah directly. Despite Abram’s requests for confirmation and uncertainties how the promise would be fulfilled, he exhibits commendable faith in Gen 15; he trusts God’s promise.

The level of faith in Gen 22, however, is at a higher level. Abraham must act on his faith, sacrificing even the very promise for which he had waited so many years. Justifying faith that God counts to us as righteousness, as in Gen 15:6, is very basic. But seeing God’s faithfulness through years of testing takes us to a deeper level of faith—a level of faith that trusts God no matter what, because we know that, whatever else might be the case, God is trustworthy. We know him; we know his character; and so we trust him. This is not a faith for which we can take credit as if we have worked it up by our efforts; it is a faith that flows from experiencing God’s trustworthiness, even in the face of hardship and waiting.

This is not a faith for which we can take credit as if we have worked it up by our efforts; it is a faith that flows from experiencing God’s trustworthiness, even in the face of hardship and waiting.

Ultimately, God thoroughly rewards Abraham’s obedient faith. God provides something better than a lamb for sacrifice (22:7-8)—an entire ram (22:13). Abraham did not go randomly to any location, but to the one that God commanded, and God had a ram ready for him. There is thus another lesson here in addition to the model of Abraham’s obedient faith: God’s faithfulness in providing what will satisfy him. That Isaac and Abraham speak of the coming sacrifice as a lamb (22:7–8) suggests that this narrative foreshadowed for Israel the deliverance of their own firstborn through the sacrifice of the Passover lamb (Exod 12:3–5, 12–13, 21). Those who see here a foreshadowing of Jesus as God’s lamb recognise the same principle of redemption realised in the Passover.

God acts overtly on behalf of his servant who has waited so long and trusted so much. An angel speaks from heaven to preserve Isaac (22:11)—just as an angel had spoken from heaven to preserve Ishmael (21:17). (The next reference in the Pentateuch to God speaking from heaven is at the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exod 20:22.) In these narratives, the angel of the Lord is first mentioned as appearing to Hagar (16:7–11; 21:17), then Abraham (22:11, 15), and then Moses (Exod 3:2). The promise that God confirms in 22:16–17 because of Abraham’s obedience is something that God had already promised Abraham beforehand. God is the one who makes us the people he can bless; over the years Abraham obeyed God and saw God’s trustworthiness. We believe (15:6), but walking with God himself in the light of his word grows our faith. As we persevere in trusting and obeying God, he makes us ready for things we could not have handled earlier.

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