Lesson 9: “God Will Provide Himself a Lamb”
Genesis 15-17, 21-22
Purpose: To help class members better understand Heavenly Father’s sacrifice in offering his Son as they learn of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.
[1. Abraham is nearly sacrificed by the false priests of Pharaoh.
2. Abraham has children through Hagar and Sarah.
3. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.]
1 After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.
What was the “exceeding great reward” promised by the Lord to Abraham? [Review elements of the Abrahamic covenant: Abraham would become the father of innumerable posterity; the gospel and priesthood would be known among his posterity, who would bless all the nations of the earth; his posterity would inherit a homeland.]
Abraham must have understood that most of this promise could only come true long after Abraham’s lifetime – at this point, he is a man in his 80s; even if he and his wife Sarah were to begin having children immediately, he could hardly expect to live long enough to see his descendants become numerous and powerful. How do you think he was able to sustain his faith in promises he would not live to see fulfilled?
2 And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?
3 And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
This is the first place in scripture where we see Abraham talking back to God. (The events of last week’s lesson, where Abraham tries to save Sodom by negotiating with God, actually take place after the events in this chapter.) Always before, the scripture has shown Abraham listening to God and obediently following his instructions, but never questioning the Lord or asking for explanations and clarifications.
Have you ever challenged the Lord, in prayer or in your private thoughts, to ask why such-and-such has happened, or when such-and-such promise will come to pass? What kinds of circumstances are most apt to bring you to the point where you question God this way? [In my experience, these are the most painful, agonizing questions, asked when I want to believe but my faith is wavering.]
If Abraham is like us in this respect, what does his question to God tell us about his hopes and fears?
If Abraham dies without having children, what becomes of the covenant God has made with him?
4 And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
5 And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.
In Abraham’s case, the Lord strengthened his faith by repeating to him the promise he had made before – not only did he repeat the words, but he gave Abraham a symbol – the stars – that he could always look to as a reminder of God’s promise.
Are there tangible things in your life, like the stars for Abraham, that remind you of your covenants with God?
What was Abraham’s reaction to the Lord’s repetition of the promise?
6 And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
God continues to speak to Abraham in verse 7, reminding him of another part of the promise:
7 And he said unto him, I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it.
And Abraham responds with another question:
8 And he said, Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?
This question sounds different from Abraham’s first question, doesn’t it? The first question challenges God’s ability to keep his promise; this second question assumes that the Lord will keep his promises, so Abraham asks for a formal promise, a covenant, to make the promise official. The Lord responds to this request by instructing Abraham to offer a sacrifice.
9 And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.
10 And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not.
11 And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away.
When the Lord repeated his promise to Abraham that he would have numerous posterity, he gave him a visual symbol – the stars – that would forever after remind Abraham of that promise. When Abraham asked for confirmation of the promise that his posterity would inherit the land, the Lord responded with another visual symbol – animal sacrifice. Because this kind of sacrifice is alien to our present lives, we might not understand why it was such a powerful symbol to Abraham: In the ancient world, slaughtering an animal and then stepping between the pieces – as Abraham did when he “divided them in the midst” with parts of the animals on one side and parts of the animals on the other side – it was a symbol of the fate of someone who broke the promise that was being made. For Abraham, and for his descendants who would hear about this covenant generation after generation, this was a powerful visual reminder of the promise that they would inherit their promised land.
But this was not all that the Lord taught Abraham on this occasion.
12 And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him.
13 And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;
14 And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.
Before Abraham’s children would inherit their promised land, they would endure an extended period of slavery “in a land that is not theirs,” before the Lord would deliver them and fulfil this part of his promise to Abraham. Yet Abraham could still stand on the promises of God.
Are we so very different from Abraham in this regard? Don’t we often have to wait through trials before the promised blessings come?
There used to be a song in our hymn books that the Tabernacle Choir still sings occasionally:
Tho’ deep’ning trials throng your way,
Press on, press on, ye Saints of God!
Ere long the resurrection day
Will spread its life and light abroad.
Tho’ outward ills await us here,
The time at longest is not long
Ere Jesus Christ will reappear,
Surrounded by a glorious throng.
Why must this so often be the case – that we have to endure sorrow and turmoil before being blessed?
The next part of Abraham’s story is familiar, so in the interest of time we will simply summarize it: Abraham and Sarah believe that the Lord will keep his promise – but apparently they decide to help the Lord along in keeping his promise. Sarah, in extreme old age, cannot have children herself, so she gives Abraham her Egyptian slave, Hagar, by whom Abraham has a son, named Ishmael. Abraham is delighted to have a son. On still another occasion when the Lord repeats his covenant promises to Abraham, Abraham presents his son Ishmael to the Lord, with the idea that Ishmael is the beginning of the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises.
God gently corrects Abraham in Genesis 17:
18 And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!
19 And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.
20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.
21 But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.
So although Ishmael is a part of the fulfillment – he will be fruitful, and Abraham’s posterity will be multiplied through him – Ishmael is not the one through whom the full Abraham Covenant will be fulfilled. He is not the only one to give Abraham numerous posterity; he is not the one whose descendants will bless the world through the gospel; he is not the one who will inherit the promised land. Those promises belong to a son, Isaac, who will be born to Sarah in one year’s time.
Then wonder of wonders, Sarah herself does bear a son, whom they name Isaac. As time passes, jealousy grows between Sarah and Hagar – not for the affections of Abraham, but because of their ambitions for their sons. Ishmael is the first born, whom Hagar naturally expects will inherit Abraham’s wealth. But Isaac is the son of the covenant, whom Sarah expects to be Abraham’s primary heir, according to the promises given by the Lord. At Sarah’s urging, and with permission of the Lord, Abraham drives Hagar and Ishmael away. This is one of the harsh Old Testament stories that seems incomprehensible to modern readers: Abraham drives his concubine and his first-born son into the desert, where, presumably, they will die. Both Hagar and Ishmael cry out, and the Lord hears and responds:
17 And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is.
18 Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.
19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.
20 And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.
“I will make him a great nation,” the Lord said, designating Ishmael’s descendants as partial fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. Today’s Arabs and Palestinians and related peoples claim descent from Ishmael – a covenant status we ought to remember when we debate world politics and policies.
If Abraham’s driving away of Hagar and Ishmael seems heartless and difficult to our sensibilities, what comes next in Abraham’s story is undoubtedly the most difficult chapter. I wonder if we really understand how harsh and difficult this story really is? We’ve discussed it so often in church settings, and have come up with nice, comforting responses that all of us can offer by rote – Abraham showed his faith through his obedience; Isaac demonstrated his worthiness by submitting to the will of his father; this trial was especially difficult for Abraham because his own father had once tried to sacrifice Abraham; God put Abraham through this test so he would have somebody who really understood what God himself would go through when his own son was sacrificed; Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac is symbolic of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. All of these points may be true, but when the “answers” are all so familiar that we can all recite them effortlessly, I wonder if we have lost the drama and the passion and the horror of the story itself?
As we read through this chapter, then, I’m asking you to be careful of the responses you give in our discussion. Let’s try to read what is actually there in the scripture, and read it as if we didn’t know all the standard answers. Rather than reciting something we’ve all said a hundred times before, let’s try to feel the story.
This story is told in Genesis, Chapter 22.
1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
“God did tempt Abraham.” “Tempt” is an odd word to use, in our standard modern English. What alternate word is given in the footnote to this verse?
Note, too, Abraham’s response of “Behold, here I am.” My references tell me that the Hebrew word here indicates a servant responding to the call of his master: “Yes, I’m here, what do you want me to do?” In this case, it signals Abraham’s submission to the will of God. We’ll read that response again later in this chapter – keep an eye open for it.
2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
Isaac is not, literally, Abraham’s only son. What does the Lord mean here by calling Isaac the only son?
The way this comes down to us in our English translation seems especially poignant to me. Notice that the Lord doesn’t say merely “Take Isaac.” He uses multiple phrases to refer to Isaac – your son, your only son, Isaac, the son you love. What do you suppose the Lord might have meant by identifying Isaac this way? [To me, it seems that the Lord wants Abraham to know that the Lord truly understands what Isaac means to Abraham. We can also read it as God referring to his own only begotten son in these terms.]
3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
Earlier, when Abraham didn’t understand what the Lord meant, and asked him how he could fulfill the covenant when he had given Abraham no child, Abraham questioned God, asking for an explanation. What do you make of the fact that Abraham makes no argument, asks no questions, in this situation?
4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
Usually when I have to do something unpleasant – although of course I’ve never been called on to do something quite so unpleasant as what Abraham has been asked to do – it’s easiest to just do the thing immediately. I can often be braver by simply doing what I have to do without thinking about it too closely.
Abraham doesn’t have that luxury, though, does he? He has three days of walking, putting one foot in front of the other, with nothing to distract him. What do you think those three days were like for Abraham?
5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
Finally they draw near to the place Abraham was directed to go. He dismisses “his young men” – young slave men who have been assisting Abraham to this point, probably taking care of the animals and raising the tents and making the fires at night. In our English translation, we are given two different words to describe the youths who are on this excursion – the slaves are referred to as “young men,” and Isaac is called “the lad.” In the Hebrew, though, the same word is used for both the servants and the son. On the one hand, this helps us understand that Isaac is probably a young teen at this point – anyone younger than that would hardly have been any use as servants on this expedition. On the other hand, it’s ironic that Abraham uses the same word: the servant lads will live, and the son-lad will not, so far as Abraham knows at this point. They are the same, yet so very, very different.
7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
Here we see Abraham use that phrase again: “Here am I.” If we read that as not just an acknowledgment, like answering “here” when the roll is called, if we read it in the Hebrew sense of a servant telling his master that he stands ready to obey a command, does that suggest anything about Abraham’s feelings for Isaac?
Abraham responds to Isaac’s question in verse 8:
8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
This, to me, is the most poignant element in the story, and I can think of nothing else to say or ask about it. God has provided Isaac to Abraham as the fulfilment of his covenant, and so – “so,” because of this, as a result of God’s providing of Isaac, not “in spite of” God’s promise, the two of them, together, go forward.
9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
There is that phrase again, “Here am I,” this time directed to a heavenly messenger. Abraham is already following a commandment of God – what more could be asked of him! – and yet he still responds, stating his willingness to obey any command the Lord might give.
12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
The angel does here what the Lord did earlier in this story, repeating “thy son, thine only son,” emphasizing that he fully understands what Isaac means to Abraham.
“Now I know,” he says. “Now I know that thou fearest God.” What do you make of that? Is not God omniscient – all knowing? Did he not foresee that Abraham would do as he was commanded? If God already knew all that, why did he put Abraham through this terrifying experience?
A friend of mine offers this quotation from his reading:
We must differentiate between knowledge as cognition and knowledge as experience. We can agree that God knew ahead of time what Abraham was going to do. But there is ample evidence throughout Scripture that God desires us to act out our faith and worship regardless of the fact that he knows our hearts. God wants us to pray even though he knows what we are going to say and may already have the answer in motion. He wants us to praise him even though he knows how we feel. God asks us to express our faith and love. It is honoring to him for us to demonstrate those things that he knows exist because it pleases him. … We all know that as much as our parents, spouses, and children know that we love them, it is important that it be said and demonstrated. Cognitive knowledge is not enough and is often less than satisfying.
Does that add anything to your understanding?
Isaac is loosed from his binding, and a sacrifice – a different sacrifice – goes on:
13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
And then the voice of God repeats the Abrahamic Covenant – I’ve now lost track of how many times the Lord reaffirms these promises:
15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,
16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
Covenants usually require action on the part of two parties: The Lord has made the promises, and now, because Abraham has obeyed the voice of the Lord, the covenant is binding for all time. We are the recipients of that covenant – both the blessings promised, and the obligations laid upon us.
[Testimony: Draw parallels between Abraham’s experiences and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, through whom all that we have been promised by God will be fulfilled. This is what it means to say that Jesus gave his life, that he was the great sacrifice, that he is the “blood of the covenant”]