God’s “promise to Abraham” is central to the Book of Genesis, but will Abraham fumble it?
Raising that question over and over in the reader’s mind seems to be the author’s intent.
God’s promise to Abraham involved three blessings:
- Abraham being a blessing to others
- A promise of land
- A promise of offspring
The author of Genesis apparently tries to produce a sense of suspense by continually putting those three things at risk. Consider the following:
In 11:30, we begin with the archetypal barren woman followed by a promise of offspring in 12:1-3 and a promise of land in 12:7.
Then almost immediately, the offspring promise is put at risk when Pharaoh takes Sarah for his wife (12:15).
That is quickly resolved, but then we find the land promise being put at risk when Abraham offers Lot his choice of pasture in Gen 13:9.
Lot makes the right choice and the land and offspring promises are restated in Gen 13:14-17– only to be put at risk again by the warfare in Gen 14:1-15.
That too is resolved and the land and offspring promises are restated in chapter 15.
Then in 16:1-3, Sarah and Abraham attempt to help the offspring promise along, but their tactic is rejected by God in 16:6.
Next, we find the land and offspring promises restated in 17:1-8; 19-22.
Then in 20:1-2, the offspring promise is again in jeopardy when Abimelech takes Sarah for his wife.
That is resolved and Isaac is finally born in 21:1-2.
Isaac is emphatically identified with the offspring promise in 21:8-20 and Ishmael is sent away.
Then in 22:2, the offspring promise is again at risk when God orders Isaac to be sacrificed.
Of course, Isaac is rescued and a ram is substituted for a sacrifice in 22:13.
The incident reads differently in the context of the whole because it is simply one more instance of regular pattern. So reading the story of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac in context makes a difference. Reading it in isolation from the rest of the text obscures the way it fits neatly into the preceding pattern of promises and near disasters. The author positions it last most likely because Abraham’s “sacrifice” is the most dramatic threat to the Promise and because it reveals God Himself as the one testing Abraham’s faith.
By the time we get to chapter 22, Abraham has changed. In the early incidents, he is often the instrument of his own undoing via a wavering faith. In chapter 22, his faith appears to be unshakeable.