Here’s an essay for Humanities core that I just finished writing! The prompt was to define how plot or style affects the meaning of Genesis 22, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. There was also an option to use other passages to comment on the meaning. Good luck getting through it. It’s pretty long… Honestly, I have no idea how much sense this makes, but I had fun writing it!
A cursory glance at Genesis 22 would likely lead one to condemn God’s test as arbitrary, cruel, and unnecessary; however, upon closer examination, we see that God’s acts with a clear and real purpose. Elements of plot throughout the story reveal that God’s test is for his glory: it is a means to magnify himself as the utmost authority and source of joy. God’s rightful and noble desire is that he would be seen as perfectly faithful and upright by his creatures, and that he would be worshipped and rejoiced in as a precious treasure by them in response. Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God’s authority in sacrificing his son displays trust in the faithful character of God, and shows him as the supreme treasure.
God’s description of Isaac as Abraham’s only beloved son in his command emphasizes his desire to be glorified and valued over the blessings he has given and promised. God calls Isaac, “your son, your only one, whom you love, yea, Isaac” (Genesis 22:2) In a figurative sense, this description has far reaching implications on God’s own supremacy over his past and future blessings. First, God calls Isaac “your only son.” Sons in Abraham’s patriarchal society meant legacy; they were, in essence, an extension of the father’s life. If Isaac were to be killed Abraham would be left childless without an heir to carry on his name. God’s promises of a great nation that would possess land and bless other nations, could not be fulfilled without a son. In addition to designating Isaac as Abraham’s only son, God bestows on Isaac a special title of affection: the son “whom you love.” Abraham’s is not connected to Isaac solely for the fulfillment of future promises; he is also a father who loves his son. In a society where close family ties were essential, fathers valued and treasured their sons as precious possessions. Chapter 21 describes Abraham’s deep love for his son when he, in his joy, “made a great feast” to celebrate God’s miraculous gift of Isaac. God is making a point about himself by establishing Isaac in his command as both the means to greatness and as Abraham’s beloved child. If Abraham sacrificed his only heir, he would lose the son he loved, and the great nation, land, and blessing that would be accomplished through Isaac. It is necessary, therefore, in order for Abraham to comply to God’s command for him to acknowledge that obedience and submission to God is better than all these things.
God’s purpose of self-glorification is fulfilled through Abraham’s obedience to his test. Abraham’s acquiescence in the midst of trials shows his submission to God as the rightful and ultimate authority. Since Abraham speaks so rarely throughout the story, every word he does say heavily defines his character and actions. One of Abraham’s few lines is the repeated use of the phrase “here I am” (Genesis 22:1,11). The repetition demonstrates Abraham’s humble submission to God’s authority. To say “here I am” implies a response to someone’s call. It is passive, and non-authoritative. It presents oneself as ready to be further commanded, directed, and used by the one in authority, in this case God. Abraham acknowledges that because God is perfect, his will supersedes his own. God’s decrees should thus be followed immediately without question or complaint. This phrase “here I am” occurs at the very beginning of the story when God first gives the command and at the climax when the angel stops Abraham seconds before he kills Isaac. Abraham conviction never wavers from start to finish; he presents himself as a tool to be used in whatever way God wished. Abraham’s consistent attitude of submission displays God as the unquestioned authority who has power to direct and decide in whichever way he chooses.
Abraham’s outward compliance shows God’s supremacy over earthly treasures and authority over his life; but it is Abraham’s worshipful faith that most clearly highlights the praiseworthy beauty of God’s character. Abraham’s obedience is not motivated out of fear or guilt; but rather out of faith with confidence towards God. When one places faith in someone to keep their word, he demonstrates belief in that person’s faithfulness. He is willing to sacrifice and endure hardship and uncertainty for their sake, because he trusts that person will keep his promise. In the same way, Abraham, through his speech, exalts God by trusting in his faithful character. Abraham tells his servants, “We will prostrate ourselves and return to you” (Genesis 22:5). Abraham believes that both he and Isaac will descend the mountain, alive and together. Abraham’s faith wasn’t based on how his circumstances appeared; rather he based it on what he knew about God’s good and unchanging nature. He trusted that God’s promises were perfect. Therefore, he would keep his word to establish Abraham a great nation and land. It was thus impossible for Isaac to die. Abraham knew this. He went up to the mountain knowing that God would somehow miraculously intervene, and that he and Isaac would descend the mountain together. God rewards Abraham for his faith, and shows that he is indeed good and faithful in keeping his promises. He declares that because Abraham did not withhold his son he would bless him with an innumerable offspring who would flourish among the nations of the world. Abraham had faith that God’s desire for his glory would never lead him to abandon his promises. He glorifies God first by choosing him over the blessings, but also by all the while trusting that God is perfectly good and faithful to fulfill his promises.
Even with an understanding of God’s purpose and how Abraham fulfills it, many would still condemn God’s test as self-serving and cruel; however, God’s treatment of himself through dialogue clarifies the logic of his zeal for glory. God’s unrestrained pursuit of his own glory through his testing of Abraham is not egotistical or selfish, nor is his test unnecessarily cruel. God’s perfection necessitates him to seek his own fame; for his own benefit, and the benefit of his creatures. We get a brief glimpse into this interaction between God’s perfection and his pursuit of glory by observing how he addresses himself. He says, “By myself have I sworn” (Genesis 22:16). Hebrews 6:13 comments on this passage, saying, “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself.” People swear by things greater than themselves, but there is nothing greater than God. When God wants to assure Abraham that his promises will come true, he can swear only to himself because only he is perfectly trustworthy. Likewise, when God wants to express and seek beauty and majesty, he must express and seek the beauty and majesty found in himself because only he is perfectly beautiful and majestic. It is narcissistic when a human seeks to extol his own perfection to others, only because it is untrue and hypocritical; humans have faults and shortcomings. God, however, is perfect in both his character and in all his ways. For him to desire to display his perfection over and above everything else is both a necessary and good desire. It is necessary because God’s perfect desires can be satisfied only by true perfection, and true perfection is found only in himself. His own perfection spurs him on; he must display his glory above every other imperfect object (Mohler). Furthermore, it is good because there is no more loving thing for God to do than to present his creatures with himself. It would be a disservice to Abraham for God to allow him to become enamored with gifts, instead of the Giver himself. True joy comes from gazing upon excellence; there is no treasure: great nation, son or land that could give more joy than God’s unblemished perfection.
God does not behave irrationally or arbitrarily in the story of Genesis 22. By testing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God seeks to show himself as the ultimate authority and source of joy. He desires to be seen as the most valuable prize; more precious than any beloved son, or grandiose promises of future splendor. God wants to remind Abraham that the chief benefit he has obtained through his faith is not any material temporal possession, but rather favor, and a relationship with God himself. Each word spoken, command given, and blessing awarded in God’s test is carefully arranged for Abraham to demonstrate His worth above all things. By obeying God and trusting in his character through his words and deeds, Abraham rejoices and worships God as the supremely worthy treasure.
Ultimately, the messages of plot in Genesis 22 cannot be understood fully apart from the larger context of God’s story. God’s pursuit of his glory, demonstrated in his testing of Abraham, finds full expression and fulfillment in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; God brings the unfinished story that began with Abraham to completion in a climactic display of perfect love. The plot of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac serves as a starting point and type that points to and magnifies Jesus’ death on the cross. Through the death of his son, God exalts himself to his creatures by perfectly fulfilling his promises to Abraham and by trumping Abraham’s obedience with an act requiring even greater sacrifice.
When the Old Testament is viewed as one continuous story, one has to question God’s faithfulness to his word. His promises to Abraham remain unfulfilled at the end of the story. God swore in Genesis 12 and 22 to give Abraham and his offspring a “great nation”, “land”, and the privilege of being a “blessing” unto other nations (Genesis 12:1-3). Yet at the close of the Old Testament, Abraham’s descendants are in a miserable state. They are under captivity, without land, and possess minimal influence. These seemingly empty promises are remedied by the work of Jesus. From a pragmatic material perspective, the death and resurrection of Christ does little to alleviate Israel’s woes; they remain under Roman rule in Roman land under Roman culture. From a heavenly perspective, however, Christ’s triumphant victory over death perfectly achieves God’s promises, confirms the truth of God’s faithfulness, and brings the plot of Genesis 22 to completion. Galatians 3:14 speaks of the purpose of Jesus’ death as occurring, “so that in Christ the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” First, God’s fulfills the promise of blessing other nations by extending salvation to the Gentiles. God’s relationship is no longer exclusive to Israel; now, by the promised Spirit through faith in Christ, anyone can be blessed by God’s perfection. Second, God fulfills the promise of a great nation by redeeming a people for himself and uniting them under his son. 1 Peter 2:9 addresses those united in Christ as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Those who believe in Christ become the great nation that Israel never was. Finally, God fulfills the promise of land by granting heaven for those raised with Christ in his resurrection. Ephesians 2:6 says that, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” Believers gain an eternal land from which “they shall never again be uprooted” (Amos 9:15). God’s promises are fulfilled perfectly through Christ. He does this not through a human nation, an earthly land, or in a blessing of riches or knowledge. Blessings of this kind are temporal; they pass and fade away. God rewards Abraham’s faithfulness with work of his son which endures forever. Through this gift, God proves himself to be perfectly faithful by fulfilling his promises in a lasting eternal way.
Moreover, God exalts himself above Abraham by going above and beyond Abraham’s obedience with an act of supreme sacrifice. He foresaw that readers of Genesis 22 might be tempted to focus on Abraham’s and Isaac’s humble obedience to God. This man-centered interpretation would rob God of the worship that he seeks and deserves. God in his divine wisdom, for the sake of his fame, supersedes Abraham with a greater act. Abraham is called to sacrifice his only beloved son as a test of his devotion, but at the last moment Isaac is spared. God does not spare his son, but sacrifices him instead as a display of his devotion to his creatures. Though Jesus was perfect and undeserving of death, God chose to sacrifice him to redeem his creatures in order that his praise might be magnified. God’s ordaining of the death and resurrection of Jesus surpasses Abraham’s obedience as the greatest expression of sacrificial love ever shown.
God’s quest for adoration extends beyond the confines of Abraham’s and Isaac’s story. The messages of plot in Genesis 22 which give insight into the nature of God’s purpose and Abraham’s submission to that purpose, also gives us a lens through which to examine God’s actions throughout Scripture. God’s story hinges and centers on Christ and his work on the cross. He most clearly displays the perfection of his moral character through the sacrifice of his only beloved son. There he shows his faithfulness in the eternal completion of his promises, and in his unmatched ability to love sacrificially. God desires for this perfect deed to be seen and rejoiced in by his creatures.