Your Son, Your Only Son Whom You Love

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Genesis 22:2

abraham-isaac

In the story line of the Bible, the sacrifice of Isaac represents a direct threat to God’s covenant promise to Abraham. God had promised Abraham, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” How can God make Abraham’s descendants a great nation and a blessing to the world if Isaac is dead? I can think of no better answer than the one offered by the author of the New Testament epistle of Hebrews. “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” But while that is how I approach this text theologically, it’s not how I approach it emotionally.

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The Election of Second Sons in Genesis

In ancient cultures, the first-born son normally held the place of privilege within important families. The first born was the heir, not only of the father’s property, but of the father’s prerogatives and place in society. This pattern persisted among the landed gentry at least into the 18th century *.

Surprisingly, then, God displays an unmistakable pattern of choosing second sons In the Book of Genesis.

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Covenant Inclusion and Greatness in Genesis

God called Abram and promised to make him a great nation with a great name.

The LORD said to Abram: Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:1-3)

Worldly greatness, however, is not central to the covenant. Abraham and Hagar’s son Ishmael is excluded from God’s covenant people, but God promises to make him a great nation anyway.

So Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael were acceptable to you!” But God said, “No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his future offspring. As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father twelve tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will confirm my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.” (Genesis 17:18-21)

Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac will carry God’s covenant promise, and God’s chosen people will be his descendants. Isaac will the covenantal heir through whom God will fulfill his purposes in the world. Both Isaac and Ishmael, however, will be the father of great nations. God’s covenant, it seems, is not primarily a path to greatness. The covenant is about something else.

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