Why did the Lord ask Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice?
The text gives only one answer: the Lord was testing Abraham (Gen. 22:1). But why was the test necessary? The biblical context—in a sense, the full story of Abraham—is most important for a proper understanding of this story.
1. Immediate Context: Scholars have observed a relation between Genesis 22 and the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21:1-20. Ishmael and Isaac are both removed from Abraham's family, there is a journey, both are about to die, both are rescued by God, etc. Notice also that the story of Hagar and Ishmael is placed in the middle of the story of Abimelech. This story was introduced in Genesis 20:1-18, interrupted by Genesis 21:1-20, and concluded in chapter 21:22-34. Genesis 20-22 forms one basic literary unit.
2. Significance of the Context: The stories of Abraham and Abimelech, Hagar and Ishmael, have one thing in common: they both reveal Abraham's lack of trust in the Lord and God's apparent indifference to it.
Because of Abraham's lie, Abimelech questioned the Lord's justice and integrity (Gen. 20:4-6) and the righteousness of the patriarch (verse 9). Yet the Lord said to the king that Abraham was His prophet and that Abraham should pray for the king in order that the king might be forgiven.
The second story witnesses to the infidelity of Abraham—his attempt to fulfill the divine promise on his own—and God's faithfulness in giving him the gift of the son, Isaac, through Sarah. Once more God seems to be indifferent to the sin of His servant. In fact, one could conclude that Abraham had broken the covenant he made with the Lord (Gen. 17:1, 2).
3. The Purpose of the Test: The resolution of the problems described in the previous chapters is found in Genesis 22. The Lord decided to "test" Abraham. This verb is used to indicate something imperceptible that is going to be made known; the hidden will be revealed. The test will reveal the true self, the person as he or she really is with respect to God (e.g., Ex. 16:4; Deut. 8:2).
Indeed, at the end of the story the angel of the Lord said to Abraham, "Now I know . . ." Since the Lord knew from the beginning that Abraham was a faithful servant (Gen. 18:19), through this revelation God intended to share with others what He already knew. It served to vindicate Him and His servant.
4. The Nature of the Test: To understand God's request to Abraham we must remember that Isaac was a gift from God, the result of a miracle. The patriarch's future as the mediator of God's blessing to the nations was dependent on Isaac. By asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God was telling the prophet that the covenant relationship had come to an end. He was requesting that the gift be given back to Him. Abraham, because of his sin, did not deserve it; the Lord was rejecting him.
But the test reveals the true depth of the patriarch's faith and commitment to the Lord. His confidence in the Lord was so firm that he was willing to relinquish the gift, to cast himself into the arms of a merciful God and trust in His forgiving grace: "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son," he said (Gen. 22:8, NIV). To the servants he asserted, "Stay here. . . . We will worship and then we will come back to you" (verse 5, NIV). In the darkness of hopelessness and desperation his faith in the Lord held him. He seems to be saying, "Even if there's no future for me, I will still serve the Lord and wait on Him."
The Lord provided a substitute for Isaac, a future for Abraham. The blood of a sacrificial victim was poured out, Abraham was forgiven, and the covenant was renewed (verses 15-18). God revealed Himself as the one who does not condone sin and yet is merciful.
In the experience of Abraham we see Him providing a substitute, His Son, for our sins. If we find ourselves on the road of hopelessness, the Lord has still provided for us a wonderful future.