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Genesis Chapter 21, verses 1 through 7
Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
God fulfills his promise through Isaac’s birth, Ishmael’s dismissal
With elaborate detail, Moses sketches God’s fulfillment of his promise to Abraham and Sarah. By inverting the Hebrew word order of the first sentence, he emphasizes that this was the God of the covenant not only acting in
absolute independence but also in absolute constancy. The long-awaited son was born at just the time God had said he would be, and he received the name God had selected. At eight days Isaac received circumcision, the sign of the
covenant, the seal of the righteousness his great descendant would earn and that Isaac received by faith.
As she held her infant son in her arms, Sarah not only expressed her joy, but she also showed that her repentance was genuine. Recalling her earlier laughter of unbelief at God’s promise, she looked lovingly at her little Isaac (whose name means “laughter”) and said: “God has really given me something to laugh about. Everyone who hears what great things God has done will laugh with me.”
Genesis Chapter 21, verses 8 through 13
The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance
with my son Isaac.”
The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
Three or four years later, at the time of Isaac’s weaning, Abraham held a celebration. It was to be a happy occasion, honoring Isaac as the principle heir. But something happened to spoil the happy day for Sarah. She saw Ishmael, 14 years older than Isaac, mocking her young son. This was not just an older brother innocently teasing his younger brother. Saint Paul’s epistle to the Galatians describes Ishmael’s actions as persecuting the young heir of the promise (Chapter 4, verse 29).
Sarah noticed this and told her husband to send Ishmael and his mother away from the household. When Abraham hesitated, God made it clear that her demand did not flow from petty jealousy. Over the years Sarah had noticed that
Ishmael had no appreciation for God’s covenant promise, but instead he made fun of it. He therefore posed a threat to Isaac’s inheritance and didn’t belong in the same household with Isaac.
God used this unhappy incident as another element in training Abraham to distinguish between his true spiritual descendants and his descendants only according to the flesh. To make it easier for Abraham to expel his older son, God restated his promise to build Ishmael’s descendants into a nation, for Abraham’s sake. At the same time, God reaffirmed that it was through Isaac, not Ishmael, that Abraham’s true descendants would be counted. It was through Isaac, not Ishmael, that all nations on earth would be blessed.
This scene provided Saint Paul with the features for his well-known comparison in Galatians Chapter 4, verses 21 through 31. There the apostle contrasts Ishmael, “born in the ordinary way” and as a result of earthly-minded planning, with Isaac, “born as a result of a promise.” There are not, there cannot be, two ways of being saved, one by human merit and one by faith
in God’s promise. The true heirs of Abraham are heirs according to the promise.
Genesis Chapter 21, verses 14 through 21
Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.
God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.
You’ve got to admire Abraham’s prompt obedience. Although he realized that at his age he would very likely never see his firstborn son again, he sent Ishmael and his mother away the very next morning. He gave them what supplies of food and water they could carry and, with an ache in his heart, watched them head out into the hot, dry southland of Canaan.
This was clearly a difficult time for Hagar too. When her limited supply of water was gone, she anticipated having to watch her son die of thirst in the desert. But God heard the boy’s crying. We’re told, “The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven.” When this divine messenger promised to make Ishmael into a great nation, we once again recognize the speaker as the second person
of the Holy Trinity. He assured the young mother that her son would not die in the desert, and then he directed her to a spring of water to satisfy their immediate need.
After this miraculous deliverance, Hagar and her son headed south toward Egypt. Ishmael grew up to be an outdoorsman and later settled in the Sinai Peninsula. Hagar saw to it that he married an Egyptian wife. Moses supplies additional information about Ishmael’s descendants in Genesis Chapter 25, verses 12 through 18. For us the most significant feature of Ishmael’s line is that it lost all spiritual kinship with Abraham.
Genesis Chapter 21, verses 22 though 34
At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you are living as an alien the same kindness I have shown to you.”
Abraham said, “I swear it.”
Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized. But Abimelech said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.”
So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a treaty. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, and Abimelech asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?”
He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.”
So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.
After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. 33Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the LORD, the Eternal God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.
It could hardly have been a secret to Abraham’s neighbors that Abraham enjoyed the very special blessing of God. He had become not only rich but influential as well. Here we see the unusual spectacle of Abimelech, a neighboring king, together with his army commander, approaching Abraham
as equals and showing they were concerned about keeping his goodwill.
Although this is highly unusual, it’s also understandable. It must have been awesome to know a man whom God was so obviously supporting in everything he did—giving him a smashing victory over invading armies, providing an abundant
food supply in a land of sparseness, delivering him from the consequences of his own stupidity, and miraculously granting him a son in his old age.
King Abimelech reminded Abraham that in the past he had shown him kindness and faithful love. He had permitted Abraham, an alien, not only to live in his land and to move about freely but also to plant crops, to graze his cattle, and to dig wells. His request strikes us as reasonable: “Swear that
you will show the same kindness to me and to my children and to my descendants.” The proposed alliance between Abimelech and Abraham would also bind their descendants. Abimelech would enjoy the security of a nonaggression pact, and Abraham would continue to enjoy squatter’s rights. Abraham was willing to enter into the alliance and to confirm it with an oath.
Before proceeding with the covenant ratification, Abraham happened to mention that a well of his had been taken over by Abimelech’s servants. After securing his sole right to use the well, Abraham joined in the covenant ceremony. After the king and his commander left, two significant actions of Abraham are recorded. He acknowledged his indebtedness to the Lord, first by planting a memorial tree and then by publicly worshiping “the LORD, the Eternal God.” Unlike the little, limited, local deities of the surrounding
heathen, Abraham’s God had promised blessings for all people for all time.
God brings Abraham’s training in faith to a climax
Genesis Chapter 22, verses 1 and 2
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
Sending Ishmael away had been difficult for Abraham, but he now faced a much sterner test of his faith. This testing was not for God’s benefit (he knew in advance that Abraham was God-fearing), but for Abraham’s spiritual benefit. Abraham’s love for Isaac, right and good though it was, might in time have crowded out his love for God. Jesus once said, “Anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew Chapter 10, verse 37). In God’s view, Abraham needed an opportunity to consciously put God first. With this test God brought Abraham’s training in faith to a climax. The particular sacrifice God asked Abraham to bring is called a burnt offering, a blood sacrifice that in the Old Testament symbolized a person’s complete dedication to God.
It’s important to remember that the reader is the only one who is informed that this was a test. Abraham did not learn of this until later. God did not say: “Abraham, don’t you worry about the outcome. This is only a test.” God
had told Abraham that Isaac was to be the bearer of the messianic promise, and now he told him to kill Isaac. And it is no solution to the dilemma to say, “Well, God performed a miracle once before to give Abraham and Sarah a
son; he could repeat the miracle and give them another son.” God’s words had been too clear for that: “My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (17:21). Luther accurately described Abraham’s predicament in these words: “To human reason it must have seemed either that God’s promise would fail, or else this command must be of the devil and not of God.” To Abraham it must have seemed
that God’s command was destroying God’s promise.
And what further complicated the situation for Abraham was that God’s command seemed not only to violate a father’s love for his son but to cut off his hope of ever being saved. If Isaac was the link between Abraham and the only
Savior he would ever have, how could Abraham cut off that link and hope to be right with God? And how could he ever hope to live with God forever?
Genesis Chapter 22, verses 3 through 5
Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
After what must have been a sleepless night, Abraham got up early, perhaps so he wouldn’t have to discuss with Sarah the gruesome assignment ahead of him. He cut wood for the sacrifice and, with two servants and Isaac, set out for the land of Moriah. We marvel at his prompt and absolute obedience. God got no backtalk from Abraham, no argument, not even a question—just obedience.
If “the region of Moriah” is the same area as the hill on which Solomon later built the temple (2 Chronicles Chapter 3, verse 1), Abraham had a 50-mile trip ahead of him. God didn’t want Abraham’s obedience to flow from spur-of-themoment enthusiasm. Three days of traveling gave Abraham plenty of time to think. And we can be sure Satan supplied a dozen logical reasons why Abraham should not take the life of his own son.
When he reached the site, Abraham ordered the servants to stay while he and Isaac went on ahead. The servants were not to witness the sacrifice, since they couldn’t have understood. Abraham’s instructions to the servants are significant for two reasons. “I and the boy will worship.” Abraham rightly described the act that was to follow as worship. His act was a declaration: “LORD, you have my heart.”
“And then we will come back to you.” The Hebrew word translated “we will come back” is an emphatic verb form expressing the speaker’s determination. It hints at the answer Abraham had reached to this awful question that was torturing him: “How can a merciful God cut off the messianic line?” Abraham’s faith answered, “If God commands me to kill Isaac and I obey him, then God is simply going to have to bring Isaac’s ashes back to life, and the two of us are going to come back down this mountain.”
Genesis Chapter 22, verses 6 through 8
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
Abraham was silent as he and his son walked to the place of sacrifice. It was Isaac who broke the silence. “Father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” The question must have cut Abraham like a knife. His answer was a combination of considerate love, which spared Isaac the brutal details, and of confident faith, which left the outcome to God.
Genesis Chapter 22, verses 9 through 14
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”
The climax of the sacrifice is described with abundant detail. To obey God’s command, Abraham had to disregard everything his heart and his reason told him and to concentrate totally on God’s promise: “My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (Chapter 17, verse 21). The epistle to the Hebrews helps us to understand Abraham’s attitude:
By faith Abraham, when God tested him,
offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had
received the promises was about to sacrifice
his one and only son, even though God had
said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring
will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned
that God could raise the dead, and figuratively
speaking, he did receive Isaac back from
death. (Hebrews Chapter 11, verses 17 through 19)
If there was a conflict between God’s command and his promise, resolving that conflict was God’s business. Abraham’s business was to put God first, and he drew his knife.
God knew that in Abraham’s heart the necessary sacrifice had been made. He had surrendered his will and his wisdom—yes, and his son—in obedience to the word of his Lord. God deliberately allowed the situation to develop to this point to demonstrate that Abraham had made the inner spiritual sacrifice. And then with a doubly urgent “Abraham! Abraham!” God directed Abraham not to harm his son. God had now brought Abraham’s spiritual training to a successful climax, and a messenger from heaven announced that.
The “angel of the LORD” called out to Abraham. Who is the speaker? The fact that he says, “You have not withheld your son from me” indicates that the speaker was the Angel of the Lord, the Son of God himself. Here he made
another appearance prior to assuming our flesh and blood in the womb of the virgin.
“Now I know that you fear God,” the Angel told Abraham. Throughout Scripture the fear of God is a deep feeling of awe in the presence of the great God. It includes an absolute fear of doing anything that would displease him, as well as childlike respect for him. In the case of the unbeliever, only the former is present. Abraham’s behavior at Moriah demonstrated that both were present
in his heart.
By providing a ram for the sacrifice in place of Isaac, God illustrated a principle that becomes more and more prominent as the Old Testament unfolds. It’s the principle of substitution. When God created the world, he did so
by exercising his almighty power. When God redeemed the world, he did so by mercifully providing a substitute, whom he punished in place of the sinner.
As Abraham walked down the mountain with his son, he may have remembered what he had said to Isaac as they walked up the mountain. “My son, God will provide the lamb for the offering.” Now Abraham had experienced that the Savior-God had in fact provided a sacrifice, and in testimony of that fact he gave the mountain a new name, Jehovah-Jireh (“the LORD will provide”).
Genesis Chapter 22, verses 15 through 19
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make
your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.
The Angel spoke to Abraham once again. He rewarded Abraham’s faith by repeating and expanding the messianic promise. Abraham’s descendants, as numerous as sand on the seashore, would take possession of the cities of their enemies—a reference to the Israelite conquest of Canaan. God also confirmed his promise with an oath. He swore by himself, since there is no higher authority. When Abraham left Moriah, his trust in God’s promise was deepened, and his love for his son was purified.
God lets Abraham end his life in the calm contentment of faith
Genesis Chapter 22, verses 20 through 24
Some time later Abraham was told, “Milcah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor: Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram), Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.” Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milcah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother
Nahor. His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maacah.
God’s purposes for Abraham had now been achieved. God had called this man away from his former homeland, from his relatives, from his father’s house. God had given him a promise that, humanly speaking, was unbelievable but had taught him to trust that promise implicitly. And then God let Abraham live to see the fulfillment of that promise. What did life still have to offer Abraham? The closing chapters of the account of Terah show us how God let Abraham end his life in the calm contentment of faith as he received news from Haran.
Half a century had passed since Abraham had left Haran, five hundred miles to the north, in present-day Syria. In that time Abraham had most likely lost contact with his only surviving brother, Nahor. Now a report reached Abraham about his brother’s family. Nahor had eight sons, one of whom was Bethuel. Of Bethuel’s children only a daughter, Rebekah, is named. And here we can see why God had Moses insert a brief and incomplete genealogy into the sacred record at this point. For several generations God had been at work to
provide a wife for Isaac, the son of the promise.
Abraham shows the calm contentment of faith as he buries Sarah