The Sacrifice of Isaac (1966), by Marc Chagall
There are likely several reasons, but let me share a Facebook post I wrote up today that may give us one reason that the testing of Abraham’s faith was important, if not necessary. (Facebook post begins below)…
Among other things, the testing of Abrahams faith gives others epistemic access to something they could not get otherwise. This may have been the only way to give other humans epistemic access to something about Abraham that until that point, only God knew. This was something nobody else would see unless an extreme event took place thereby making the story possible to tell… and tell appropriately… in the New Testament chapter on faith (i.e. Hebrews 11).
The extreme nature of Abraham’s faith was a thing that was true even if God had not asked Abraham to offer Isaac. It seems, as with the story of Job, that God would not have risked in this way, had he not possessed profound faith in Abraham. Never the less had the event not taken place it may not have been possible for anyone else to experience the mind-bending depth of Abraham’s faith… or to understand the reason he is called the father of the faithful. It may not have been possible for us to access the story, which proves what kind of faith is possibe – for some of us.
Why does access to this kind of knowledge about Abraham matter? Because millions too will be put to the test, not by God but by humanity, satan, our own selves… It comes to all of us at some time, the question, “When may I stop believing in God? When may I throw in the towel?” What Hebrew speakers refer to as the Akedah – the “binding” of Isaac – gives … some… help to those in the crucible.
Hebrews 11:17-19 strikes me as additionally helpful on this story. One thing that the Hebrews retelling to the Akedah does for the reader is that it exposes (beyond the story itself) something else that it may not have been possible to see by any other means. Here I refer to the way Abraham thought through the fallout of this event. Hebrews 11 gives us a detail we don’t find elsewhere (more on that detail below).
We could propose all sorts of alternative scenarios that might expose to the onlooker how deeply Abraham believed God (e.g. what if God asked Abraham to get up at 3am every morning and sacrifice 10 lambs and pray… wouldn’t that show the depth of his faith? Perhaps, but not like the Akedah does. Had God not publically stress tested the faith of Abraham (like an engineer testing the strength of the wings up an airplane by bending the wings in an extreme fashion) I’m not sure we would have gotten the full effect. Had God, for example, told us merely a counterfactual, a hypothetic, it would not have ministered to us in the same way. Nor would it have revealed to us what was deep within Abraham. Had God said, “Abraham’s faith was so deep that had I .. ever asked him to sacrifice his son… he would have.” … No…. this does not have the depth that a real event does. The gut-wrenching request takes us to the heart of the matter. “Abraham, go… offer up your son on a mountain I will show you.” Silence.
That’s the basic point if you want to stop reading. Again, epistemic access to something about Abraham’s quality of faith (… being gestured at in the very chapter that unpacks the nature and results of faith – Heb 11)… something we wouldn’t have access to (a) without a particular detail in verses 11:17-19 and (b) without Abraham actually going through the event. Let me unpack point (a) just a bit more.
It is important to remember the huge covenantal theme hangs over the life of Abraham like a banner. God made this man huge promises, from which several of the other major Biblical Covenants (i.e. the Davidic, and New Covenants, on which Christian salvation/gospel is based. These all flow out of the Abrahamic Covenant. It is rather easy to show how the cross-work of Christ is a fulfillment of the “bless the world” component of the Abrahamic covenant. Much hangs on this man and his son. Now that covenant is in jeopardy if Isaac dies.
Abraham’s faith is so extreme – that even in the face of this – he doesn’t doubt that God will keep his promise through Isaac. Even if Isaac dies. Paul would later write that Isaac was a “child of promise”, a miracle baby. God now asks Abraham to cut the thread upon which all the covenant promises hung…. to give back the covenant child.
Note that Hebrews 11:18 stops and makes it obvious that the Covenant promises hung on this youth Isaac. Verse 18 states, “Of whom it was said In Isaac your seed will be called.” No Isaac, no promises. No seed. No Christ? Anyhow, Hebrews 11:17-19 also shows us the content of what Abraham was thinking through, in addition to his deep pain over Isaac. “What of God’s promises? How will this work if my son dies? It must work. God will keep his promises. How? How?”
The thought process that then goes through Abraham’s mind – and gets exposed only in Hebrews 11:17-19 is telling —-> Abraham so believes that God will keep his promises, that he figures God will raise Isaac…. perhaps having no theological precedent of resurrection.
Conclusion. So when people get rightly.. hung up on whether this was ok for God to ask of Abraham, we might want to rephrase the question. Was it ok for God to take a person (whom he no doubt had profound confidence in) … to take him through a situation that would expose for all the world what this man’s faith looked like… IF… this was the only way we could genuinely see the nature of this guys faith. Yea leaving Ur of the Chaldees shows us his faith. Yea letting nephew Lot pick the well-watered plains of Jordan shows us his faith… But this… the Akedah… really shows us. Without the event, we’d never know it. The author of Hebrews wouldn’t have anything to point back to of this profound depth.