So now we know what kind of sacrifices Abraham was going to make, how monumental this would be to his life in every single way, and yet he still went through with it. But, of course, Isaac’s life is spared at the last moment thanks to an angel telling Abraham to stop. It’s a good thing that said angel did not get stuck in traffic.
Of course we come to the crucial question regarding this entire story: why? What’s the point of it. We’re told by the angel that it was to “know that [Abraham] fears God,” but that doesn’t really make sense, does it? This, if anything, raises a more pressing question, which we’ve touched on before, but is still very poignant: Is God omniscient?
Right, both this story and Adam & Eve’s fall point to an answer that says, no, he’s not omniscient. He had to ask where Adam and Eve were, and he had to test Abraham’s faith. So, if we take this literally, it implies that God does not know all and see all.
But we must also take other things into consideration. First, God created the cosmos as evidenced by Genesis Chapter 1. Moreover, this took considerable planning and know-how, mostly because He knew what order the creation had to happen in. (This isn’t Brahma fumbling through creation haphazardly.) So we know God is intelligent and ordered, but we need to be able to prove that God is not omniscient to proceed.
With regards to Adam and Eve, we can either take this literally or we can look at this as God as a parent (as we did when we looked at this chapter). Since God is about the spoken word, he has given them a chance to tell the truth, an idea he repeated with Cain. We also have to look at this in terms of simple deduction. When you’re a parent and you have one kid, and the cookie jar is broken, you know who did it. Adam and Eve don’t exactly have a lot of options for who to blame, but they do immediately spread it to the serpent as well.
With Abraham we’re a little more confused. If God knows what Abraham would do because of omniscience (or even simple deduction) why go through with it? What’s the point if God already knows what Abraham is going to do? Moreover, isn’t this out of order? Shouldn’t God be testing Abraham’s faith prior to making a covenant with him?
We already know that there was an instance where God tested Abraham, though not quite to this extent, and God found him worthy to receive the covenant, so this should be completely redundant.
So what gives?
I think we can be reasonably assured that God can figure out what Abraham’s faith was. This is not exactly rocket science. God has been able to watch Abraham for, well, all of his life, so he’s got a good grasp on what Abraham is going to do at any given time. So, again, what gives? Why go through this?
If the test is not for God’s assurance, it must be for someone else’s. Isaac is a possibility. He needs to see the level of devotion that his father has for God and the covenant, that this truly means everything, not just to Abraham, but Isaac, too. After all, Isaac will have to carry the covenant forward.
But he is just a kid, and chances are that his attention was elsewhere instead of pondering the life lessons God wanted to teach him. This just leaves Abraham.
So why is important that Abraham go through this? First is the obvious, that he needed to know his own level of faith. Many interpretations of the story point out this as a definite part of the story, and I agree with it. Abraham needed to know how much he trusted God, but this probably isn’t the main reason. Abraham and God have enough history that this was always in the background. Abraham had proven that he trusted God in numerous instances, this would just be a matter of degrees, but it’s still largely redundant.
However, there is something else that Abraham needed to learn, and that was what it was like to be a king. God has promised him that he will father nations, that the chosen people will come through his descendants. And while I dearly love Mel Brooks as Louis, it really is not “Good to be the king.” The king must make the hard call, choosing for the benefit of the entire population instead of just what the king would like. The sacrifice of Isaac is about learning to make the touch choice, that kings will make choices that make them unhappy, that some choices have no happy ending. Abraham was fortunate this time around as God stepped in to give Abraham the best possible outcome. Had he not, Abraham would have had to live with the choice he had made, accepting all of the consequences with it.
This is a lesson of kings and command, to choose who lives and who dies. Abraham experienced this on a small-scale when he negotiated the lives of Sodom and Gomorrah, but now it’s been made personal, and it’s not a lesson he’ll forget soon. He’ll also pass it down to his descendants so that they know how to govern, as well.