Thoughts on Abraham and Isaac

Is Abraham just another case like Andrea Yates? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Most of us know about the story of Andrea Yates. She’s the one who killed her five children by drowning them in a bathtub because of demonic influence. The same has been said of Abraham however. If Abraham was around today, we are told he would have been arrested on charges of harming his children. (Never mind the whole Canaanite culture Abraham lived in would have been also since they regularly practiced child sacrifice.)

Is this an accurate parallel? One aspect when studying a parallel is to see how the accounts are similar.

Both accounts have a person being told by a being that is immaterial supposedly to kill their child.

Both are willing to do it.

As far as I can see, the similarities end there.

Next is to find how they are different and when bringing out the differences, I hope to shed some light on this in a way I’ve been thinking about that I have not seen apologists argue for. This is not to discount the excellent arguments put forward, and while we can often argue looking ahead to Jesus through all of this, perhaps instead we should start with looking back to Adam.

We will start with the first prophecy we have in the Bible of Jesus which is as follows:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.

The word for offspring there is zera’ in the Hebrew and means seed. Note also that this information I have comes from a look through a concordance to find the information. I am not claiming to be a Hebrew scholar arguing the finer points of the word, but simply wanting to see if this word is used elsewhere.

Before doing that however, it’s important to notice that there has just been a punishment pronounced, but then a promise of deliverance from that punishment. This will come through the seed, and it’s quite likely that with each of Eve’s children, she hoped one of them would be the seed and this would be a tradition that would be passed down, and if it was, Noah would have known about it being a righteous man.

Let’s suppose then that it was passed all the way down to Abraham. Do we find him having any references to a seed?

Abundantly so!

To begin with, we have chapter 12 where this great promise is made to Abraham.

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

This is a great promise. It’s not that Abraham will set up a great nation. He will not just found a city where people will live. Instead, the descendants will come from his own body. Not only that, in this land, God will work, or start to work, in Abraham in such a way that all peoples on Earth will be blessed through this. Is there any specific reference to zera?

Check verse 7:

The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

So Abraham is given a promise of blessing to all the peoples of the Earth and it will be through his offspring, his seed. Could this be echoes of the seed in Genesis 3?

Let’s go to the next chapter and we have this starting in verse 14:

14 The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Once again, that seed is mentioned. There are still the great promises of the land being given and Abraham is counting on this not yet seen seed. Now we move on to chapter 15.

1 After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”

2 But Abram said, “Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Abraham could be justified in his doubt at this point as he was old and nothing had happened and God had said yes for so long without showing any evidence that he was going to do something. Abraham did fear that his servant would be the heir and if that happened, God’s promises would be moot since God had promised it to Abraham’s seed. The word for children in verse 3 is our word zera again.

4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

What happens? Abraham is given another promise about how many descendants we will have and we are explicitly told at this point that Abraham believed the Lord. Keep that in mind. Abraham really does believe this promise.

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

Once again, Abraham is told about descendants and this time with an oath. Earlier in the chapter, Abraham had cut apart a cow, a goat, and a ram and cut them in half. The idea was in those days that the people making the covenant would pass between them to say “If I break the covenant, may it be done to me what has been done to this or these animals.”

Abraham does not pass between them. In the dream, it is only God who does this, and God bases the covenant on His own existence to show the impossibility of it breaking. It is entirely on God.

I’m not going to quote the whole of Genesis 17 here, but let us make some observations on it.

First off, he is told he will be a father of many nations and in fact has his name changed to relate this. This name change would have been noted in society as he was regarded by the people of his time as a prophet. This is in Genesis 20:7 and is the only place in Genesis where the word “prophet” shows up. Abraham would have been uniquely marked out in society with the favor of YHWH.

Abraham is also told that kings will come from him, which is part of how he will bless all the people on Earth. He is told here that he has an everlasting covenant that is to be made with him. He is told Sarai’s name will be Sarah and God will give Abraham a son by her.

Note in chapter 16, Abraham thought God was moving too slowly and needed some help. Sarah agreed and gave him her slave women to have a child by her, and indeed he did. This was Ishmael. Looking at this from Genesis 17, Abraham laughs at what God says and states that if only Ishmael would get the blessing.

Side note friends. Keep in mind the father of the faithful as we call him laughed at the promise of God.

We are also told specifically that this one to be the heir of the promise will be a boy named Isaac. In Genesis 18, we are even given a time frame of when this boy will be born. There could then be no doubt that the boy born was in fact the boy God had in mind.

Come Genesis 21, Sarah is sick of how Ishmael is treating Isaac and tells Abraham to tell Hagar and Ishmael to clear out. God gives the okay saying to not be afraid It is though Isaac that Abraham’s offspring would be reckoned. Why say this unless Abraham was still having his doubts? For those concerned, Hagar and Ishmael when away did receive divine providence and Ishmael did have what was said of him come true.

With all of this in mind now, we come to Genesis 22 where Abraham is to sacrifice Isaac.

Already, we do not have a parallel with Yates, unless Yates was established in the community as a prophet, had had angelic visitation, had had conversations with God that were seen to be valid through external signs such as the birth of a son through a woman who was 90, and Abraham was a noted figure in the society to all around him.

This changes everything.

What is meant then when we are told that Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac?

If we go back though to Genesis 3, we could say Abraham knew of this promise and had had a lot of promises come to him as well. If God was giving new revelation, it was to him. He had no doubt that this was the boy that God had spoken of due to this boy being named Isaac, coming from Sarah, and being born within the time of the prophecy. Over and over in the face of Abraham’s doubts, God had stressed that Isaac would be the one the covenant would come through.

Now he was to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.

Okay. Instead of noting that Abraham did act, what would it mean prior if Abraham does not act?

On a personal level, Abraham would be seen as giving the final doubt to God that in the face of all that had happened, God would not be trustworthy. Despite that with a miracle birth, God had shown himself to be the Lord of nature, He still would not be seen as one who would keep His promise. Abraham would have called God’s honor into question by refusing.

On a social level, Abraham was risking his standing in the community as a prophet of God and thus God’s standing in the society. What if Abraham does not offer Isaac? Then Abraham is seen as one who does not even believe the prophecies that come to him so why should anyone else for that matter? Abraham faces shame this way. What if Abraham does offer? If he is wrong, then his reputation is shot as well because then he would have been seen as murdering not just a child, but by this point in time, a teenage child, practically an adult for all intents and purposes in those days. Child sacrifice might have been acceptable, but hypocrisy wouldn’t, and if you’re going to live a life separate from this and thus condemning it, you’d better not do the same.

On an eschatological level, Abraham could have seen that the fate of humanity in a sense rested on him. If he does not believe God, then the seed will not come. If that is the case, then the world would never be free from the curse and the story would end with God having been wrong, something that could not be.

Once again, this changes everything. Abraham’s choice is to go through and trust that somehow God would be faithful to His promise. He might not like following the command of God, and in this case he probably didn’t, seeing as he spoke so little about it, but he will follow. He will risk everything. No matter what happens, Abraham’s future is forever changed at this point.

Now I know there are many arguments that are given that show Abraham believed Isaac would survive somehow. There is the argument that Abraham told his servants that he and Isaac would return and there is also the idea in Jewish literature that Isaac was a willing sacrifice and Hebrews says that Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, something astounding since so far death had not been conquered. Maybe Abraham even thought that here it would be. It was not to be now. It was to be the Son of another Father instead.

But before we get to those arguments, let’s keep in mind that this is not a parallel with people we deem crazy today. The differences are just too great. This also is not just an absurd act as someone like Kierkegaard might have us to believe. This is Abraham acting on a promise made repeatedly to him, where his belief had been credited as righteous. How far was he willing to go to show that he knew God would keep the promise? Would he make the ultimate sacrifice? After all, something could happen to Abraham and Sarah and the promise could still come true. The promise stands or falls with Isaac and in this case, it falls on if Abraham will believe God. Will Abraham keep the everlasting covenant?

As I have said, I believe the arguments given by others are valid, but as I thought about this and if it has been discussed this much by others, I have not seen it at this point. These are just my thoughts on a new way of looking at it that I hope leave us in awe of the magnitude of this moment and the importance of keeping the covenant and asking how we will live today in light of those who went before us.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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