Series: Abraham, Isaac, and El Shaddai
I want to take you on a trip through Genesis 22. Our goal is to experience this familiar scripture in fresh new ways by utilizing two points-of-view.
First, by examining the text verse-by-verse, we will seek to shed some light on the Hebraic setting (the Jewish background) to the story.
And second, by exploring some of the implications of this text as it is viewed in the NT, we will seek spiritual principles that you and I can derive and apply for our growth in faith.
After all, Abraham is as Paul reminds us, our father—the father of the faithful, "Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham" (Gal 3:7). He has much to teach us as we witness what it means to stand in awe of and live faithfully to our great God.
The sequence of events in Genesis 22 can be viewed in six moves:
God tests Abraham (22:1-2)
Abraham responds to the test (22:3-10)
God acknowledges Abraham as a God-fearing man (22:11-12)
And provides a substitutionary ram for Isaac (22:13)
Abraham names this place and the altar he has made there (22:14)
God pledges to bless Abraham and prosper the promises he has made to him (22: 15-18)
This is the arc and the dynamics of the story. It is so important on so many levels that it has been examined down to the most minute detail in both Jewish and Christian traditions. Both agree it is the quintessential story of one being asked to surrender all to a trustworthy and true God.
Immediately we are drawn into the telling, "After these things God tested Abraham" (1:1). The first item of interest is the lack of standard syntax in the biblical Hebrew. The subject here is placed before the verb. Why? To focus our attention on God, the subject of the story. And rather than the normal word for God (Elohim), the text says "the God" (ha Elohim). Interesting.
Who is this God doing this test?
It is The One who has been persistently pursuing and revealing himself to Abraham since Genesis 12. It is The One who delivered on his promise by supernaturally giving him a son, Isaac. This is not just any God; this is The God. And he is putting his favored one to the test.
As readers of the narrative, we are informed that this is a test; God will not require Abraham to slaughter his son. But Abraham does not know that. The direction he is about to hear is unimaginable. Suddenly and shockingly, he is tested by The One whom he knows intimately, by revelation, as El Shaddai.
We must pause here and address two questions, biblically.
(1) What is a test?
(2) What distinguishes between a test and a temptation?
The word for test here (nissah) describes being placed into a position forcing a choice between God's will on the one hand and your natural inclination or understanding on the other.
Jewish tradition maintains that God tests the righteous, not the wicked.
He tests those he knows are capable of doing his will, not the wicked who will disobey his will. For Abraham, this is a test, not a temptation. Listen to James—the very Jewish author of the book bearing his name—make this subtle yet significant distinction.
"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." - James 1:2-3
"Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God,' for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one." - James 1:13
What is it that tempts us and leads us astray?
His answer in the next verse echoes the Jewish understanding of the evil inclination (yetzer hara). "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire." That which tempts us is our inclination to be selfish, be self-centered, go our way, and do our own thing.
There is a Jewish commentary (midrash) that says the word for test (nissah) is related to the word for banner or standard (nes). In other words, in his testing, God is actually elevating, exalting someone. He brings forth from their character what was potential and is made actual by the test. It is not to punish but to prosper. The test is done first of all for the benefit of the tested, and second as an example for others.
God's test of Abraham is not a temptation but an elevation.
The issue here is not the outcome. God has foreknowledge; the end was not in doubt. No, the issue here is El Shaddai wants Abraham to concretely demonstrate his utter loyalty and commitment to him, apart from any rewards and apart from any promises—solely because he stands in awe of The God. Remember, it is for the benefit of Abraham and all of us who learn from his example.
Because testing strengthens character, God's test makes actual in us what is potential; and because we demonstrate faith, it creates the opportunity for God to reward us based on our deeds.
In biblical tradition, man's highest spiritual goal is to accept divine wisdom as the ultimate truth. This is something the world does not understand. A recent report from the Barna Group documented how American males are one of the most pagan subcultures in the world; very few of them believed that there is an absolute truth.
Wisdom is the conviction that God is the sole source of truth, indeed of our very existence. In a time of testing, we can come into a greater understanding of God's wisdom as we respond to him by acknowledging his ways.
But this is not some abstract apprehension of theological truth; this is flesh and blood application and obedience to God's Word. Wisdom comes in doing.
In Yeshua's Jewish culture, studying God's Word was the highest form of worship, humility was the supreme virtue, and faithfulness was the ultimate response. And so it is for disciples of Jesus. We are engaged in a walk with God; it is not a one-time event but a day-by-day process. As we walk in obedience, we come into an increasing revelation of God as our sole source of wisdom, truth, and life.
This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.
Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice. Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore his audio seminars.