After many years God fulfills the promise to Abraham and Sarah. The excitement, the surprise, and the joy—for parents who are 100 and 90 years old. No wonder they laughed, no wonder they named him Isaac, “he laughs”! But all is not smooth sailing for them. A challenge that no parent wants to face looms on the horizon for Abraham—and God.
Losing two sons—gaining two sons
Immediately following the birth of Isaac (and his weaning), trouble comes again in the form of Hagar’s son, Ishmael. He begins to mock Isaac, and that bothers Sarah to the point that she tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. What she saw as a temporary solution (Genesis 16) has now twice caused Sarah problems.
How would you respond to Sarah’s demand? While it Hagar may be a slave, she also conceived a son with Abraham. So the turmoil must have been great. He loses his son, Ishmael. God told Abraham to follow Sarah’s advice, for God himself would fulfill a promise that Ishmael would become a great nation, as a descendant of Abraham.
Not only does he lose Ishmael, but in chapter 22 Abraham will lose his son, Isaac, as well. Now it is not his wife who is demanding that Isaac be sacrificed. Who could imagine such a condition. It is horrible to lose a child! And now have God himself demand the death of the child? Shudder only hints at the terror, anxiety, fear, devastation that any of us would feel. Abraham did not have the advantage of “reading the outcome in the Bible.” He only had God’s Word spoken to him—regarding both sons.
I find it interesting that Abraham’s response in both situations is identical: “Early in the morning Abraham got up…” (21:14) and “So Abraham got up early in the morning…” (22:3). In that sense, James does get it right, Abraham’s faith is demonstrated in his obedience, obedience in the worst case scenario. His answer to Isaac’s question about the sacrifice far exceeds a pat answer.
Abraham answered, “God Himself will provide, the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (22:8)
The writer of Hebrews confirms this test of Abraham.
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and he was offering his unique son, the one it had been said about, “Your seed will be traced through Isaac.” He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead, and as an illustration, he received him back. (Hebrews 11:17-19)
This is certainly a test of Abraham, but it is also a test of God, “Is God faithful to his promises?” Isaac is ultimately God’s son, son of promise. Notice the language used to describe Isaac:
“Take your son,” He said, “your only son Isaac, whom you love” (22:2)
“Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from Me.” (22:12)
Those words regarding “son” reflect exactly the words that God uses to describe Jesus, God’s very own Son.
Baptism: And there came a voice from heaven: “This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him!” (Matthew 3:17)
Transfiguration: While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud covereda them, and a voice from the cloud said: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him. Listen to Him!” (Matthew 17:5)
“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son (John 3:16)
God proves himself faithful in saving Ishmael, and even more dramatically, saving Isaac. Ultimately God sacrifices his own Son, to pay the penalty for all sinners, that is the whole world. God was tested and proved himself perfectly.
In addition to Abraham obeying in faith, now God reiterates the promises of Genesis 12:1-3 and 15:1–6.
Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By Myself I have sworn,” this is the LORD’s declaration: “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the gates of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed My command.” (22:15–18)
This section ends with the death of Sarah. She lived to see great promises fulfilled. And like us, she struggled to see how God was working, sometimes trying to anticipate, sometimes trying to compensate, sometimes failing miserably. But notice God’s epitaph regarding Sarah:
By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring (Hebrews 11:11)
“By faith”— throughout Genesis 12–23 we have seen that such a description is not one of perfection—both Abraham and Sarah failed. But the description reflects the ultimate trust in God who is faithful. The old book title by Francis Schaeffer: How Should We then Live? is answered with this same confidence: “By faith”!