Abraham and Isaac

I’ve been thinking a lot about Abraham and Isaac lately – such a challenging story in so many ways!  If you haven’t read it before, the story is basically that God tells Abraham that he needs to sacrifice his son, and Abraham obeys and immediately leaves town with Isaac in tow to go to Mount Moriah for the sacrifice.  They get there, and Abraham prepares Isaac to be sacrificed.  In a very suspenseful moment – to put it mildly! – Isaac is laying in the wood for the fire, Abraham has his hands raised over him with a knife to sacrifice him, and God stops the whole thing and provides a ram for the sacrifice instead.

Some of the other interesting pieces of this story are that the journey takes three days – which must have been the some of the most difficult three days of Abraham’s life – and that Isaac is most likely in his teens or early twenties at the time that this is happening.  That makes the image of Isaac’s astounding obedience in not fighting against Abraham while he was preparing him for sacrifice all the more striking!

I thought about how as parents we have so many Abraham and Isaac moments – so many moments where we have to step back from our children and trust God’s provision for them, and how it really feels like we are offering them up to God in so many ways.  It happens in smaller moments over the years as they become more independent, and it happens in more of the “big” moments where we sometimes have to watch them make a terrible decision and then face the consequences of it.  These moments also happen when our children are physically or emotionally ill, and when no matter how hard we try, we do not have the power to make them well or make it all better for them.

Those are agonizing moments for parents.  As a parent, we can feel like it is our job to protect them from all pain and suffering, to fix all the broken situations and hurt feelings – and we can feel like we’re not doing our job in those moments when they are hurting.  But there are no verses anywhere in the Bible that say that it is our job to “fix it” for our kids.  There are no verses in the Bible that say we are supposed to protect them from pain and suffering.  There are no verses in the Bible that say we are supposed to save them from the consequences of their decisions.

The Bible (if I could summarize it very generally) says that we are supposed to discipline – or teach – our children.  More specifically, it says that we are supposed to teach them about God and His Word:

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7, NASB).

God has given us stewardship over our children, to take care of them and love them and teach them.  If we really want to “save” them, the best thing we can do is teach them about Christ, who can actually save them!

A great exercise when we are doing Bible study is to look at whatever part of it we are reading and figure out what it is saying that God does, and what it is saying that we do.  (I am inevitably surprised by the results no matter what the passage is which I guess means I am a little delusional about my importance in the universe!).  Here’s an example of it with what we do in bold with one of my favorite passages about spiritual warfare:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak”(Ephesians 6:10-20, ESV).

So here’s what we do in that passage:

  • Be strong in the Lord
  • Put on/take up the whole armor of God
  • Fasten on the belt of truth
  • Put on the breastplate of righteousness
  • Put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace
  • Take up the shield of faith
  • Take the helmet of salvation
  • Take the sword of the Spirit
  • Pray at all times in the Spirit/Make supplication for the saints
  • Keep alert with all perseverance

Notice that our strength is “in the Lord and the strength of His might”, our armor is “the armor of God”, the belt is truth (the Word of God), the breastplate is righteousness (which we only have through Christ), our readiness is in the gospel (the Word of God), the shield is faith (in Christ, of course), the helmet is salvation (again, through Christ), the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God (notice how often that comes up!), the prayer is in the Spirit, and even our “keeping alert” is with all perseverance in supplication (prayer).

The other thread that goes through that whole passage and through a ton of passages throughout Scripture is the idea of “standing” or “standing firm”.  The passage above has us standing against the schemes of the devil, withstanding in the evil day, standing firm, and standing with the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness.  Notice that it does not say that we “fight by ourselves with a little help from the Lord”!  Some other examples:

  • Moses just before God parts the Red Sea for the Israelites to go through to escape from the Egyptians (who are then destroyed by the sea crashing down over them after the Israelites have made it through): “And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:13-14 ESV).
  • In 2 Chronicles 20, the Holy Spirit comes upon Jahaziel the prophet as the Moabites are about to attack Jehosophat and his people: “And he said, ‘Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehosaphat: Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s…You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem’.”

So what does this have to do with parenting?  We do take care of and nurture and love on our kids, but above all we need to teach them, and pray for them, and stand firm and hold our position even when it’s difficult or when we are scared of what will happen to them.  We need to trust that God will provide for them – and for us.

When God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son to “test” him, He knew what the outcome would be.  He knew both that Abraham would do what He commanded and that He would provide the sacrifice and that Isaac would not be lost.  God was not surprised by any of this.  So who was the test for? It was for Abraham – and for Isaac.  For parents, there is not much that would be worse than losing a child.  It is probably most parents’ worst fear.  But we cannot parent out of that fear.  We cannot parent out of the fear that our children won’t like us or our decisions.  And we cannot place our children above God in our hearts or our lives, no matter how much we love them.

Abraham made a number of bad – and disobedient – decisions in his life out of fear. Some of the most memorable were when he pretended that his wife was his sister on two separate occasions in an attempt to avoid what he thought kings (of Egypt and Gerar, respectively) would do to him if they realized that beautiful woman was his wife. In spite of the plague that resulted from the first time, Abraham does it again a second time!

There’s a very tough passage that follows in Genesis 21 where Sarah decides that Hagar (the maidservant Sarah suggested Abraham impregnate so they can have heirs to “help out” God when they hadn’t had any of their own yet) needs to go away – and take Ishmael with her.  For quite a while Ishmael was the only son that Abraham had, but after Isaac is weaned Sarah wants him and his mother out.  There was taunting both by Hagar and Ishmael, but sending them out to die seems pretty extreme, and Abraham was pretty upset about it.

However, God tells Abraham to do what Sarah says.  He tells Abraham that it is through Isaac that Abraham’s offspring will be named (meaning those would be God’s chosen people that God had promised Abraham), that Ishmael will also be the father of a nation.  And then Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the wilderness of Beersheba with some water, seemingly to die of exposure.

So that’s what happens with son #1 (at least from Abraham’s perspective.  There’s a LOT more to that story, but that will have to wait for another day!).  Then, a chapter later – and probably 16+ years, at least – God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

As I mentioned earlier, Isaac was most likely in his late teens or early twenties during this particular event – he even carries the wood for the sacrifice himself (echoes of Jesus carrying His own cross!).  Abraham gets up and starts preparing to go immediately after God tells him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering.  Can you imagine what it was like for him to go out and cut the wood for the fire he will use to offer his only remaining son?!  Or what it was like to walk for three days with Isaac on the way to offer him? Or to hear Isaac ask, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

Abraham’s answer is an interesting one for someone who had some issues with trusting in God’s provision when it came to kings who might want his wife for themselves: “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). Abraham has grown in his faith since those incidents with the kings.  God knows this, but Abraham probably does not know to what extent he has come to trust God until the moment when he holds the knife over his son, prepared to offer him to the God he loves and trusts above all else.

Most of us have wondered what we would do if we were in a situation like this, a situation where our faith is put to the test.  Will we be more like Peter before the crucifixion and resurrection, or after? Will we deny Christ or will we profess our faith with both our mouths and our lives? There are many of these moments for parents, moments when we have to decide what we hold to be ultimate: God or our children.  Do we follow God’s commands, or live in fear of what could happen to them? Do we teach them, and allow them to learn some of the harder lessons through their mistakes, or do we cushion blows and clean up messes for them so they don’t feel the weight or the pain of their mistakes?

When a child is physically or emotionally sick, every decision can feel even more weighty and terrifying.  When we really are looking at situations where we could lose our most precious gift outside of our salvation, that weight can be paralyzing.  What will happen if I do this?  What will happen if I don’t do that? Will she be ok?  Will he survive?

Abraham came face to face with the reality that in the end, his kids were not his at all.  Ishmael was God’s and Isaac was God’s and it was for God to decide where and how they would be provided for, and to measure out their days according to the plan that He made for them – and for their lives to end when He ordained that they would.  God’s plan for our children does not depend on us “getting it right” each and every time.  Surely our omniscient (all-knowing) God is not surprised by our faults and mistakes!

What Abraham came face to face with in that final moment before the ram appeared to be sacrificed instead of Isaac was that at last he had come to know God more deeply and come to trust Him implicitly with the most priceless gift God had trusted him with: his son, his one and only son.  As a result, he got to see how God had grown him and how God would provide for Him – the test revealed where Abraham was, after everything that had happened.  How incredible for Abraham, and how incredible for Isaac! What a legacy of faith to be passed on from father to son! The test was for Abraham and Isaac – and the results were for God’s glory.