The first thing Abraham had to do was listen to God, but Abraham also had to be willing to hear God, no matter the word spoken. And the word Abraham first heard from God, the command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, remains even now at some level inconceivable and incomprehensible. Why would God ask Abraham to kill the child in whom the divine promises of Israel were embedded?
Yes, we know from the text of Genesis that it was a test. Abraham heard the voice of God and an outrageous request, yet the patriarch trusted God. This was a test for Abraham, not God, for God knew Abraham would obey, but Abraham’s willingness to listen would reveal the true nature of God.
The voice of God that Abraham heard was true both times. If Abraham had not heeded the voice of God initially, would he have realized that God had truly spoken a second time, when he told Abraham not to sacrifice his son Isaac? What if Abraham had listened to the first voice alone and rejected God’s directive to spare Isaac? Not only would Isaac have died, but the true nature of God would not have been revealed. There is no question that the mystery and unknowability of God are wrapped up in the narrative, but this challenging narrative demonstrates Abraham’s willingness always to be attentive and obedient to God’s will.
We do not know how fearful Isaac was or if he understood what was taking place. Ancient and medieval Jewish commentators like Philo, Josephus and Rashi proposed that he might have been 7 years old or 25 or even 37 when the Akedah took place—but when Isaac calls out “Father!” and asks where the lamb is for the burnt offering, Abraham remains faithful saying, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
Abraham’s faithfulness rained down God’s blessings on him, for God said to Abraham, “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you.” Yet Abraham’s obedient listening had an impact far beyond his own family and people, for he was also promised that “by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
Jesus, too, always heard the voice of God the Father and remained obedient to it. For Jesus, the threat of sacrifice went beyond Isaac’s questioning to the reality of Calvary, yet Jesus trusted that God, “who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us,” will always, as Paul says, be “for us.”
Still, when Jesus in the Gospel of Mark told his apostles that he must suffer and die, Peter rejected Jesus’ word outright, even though Jesus’ narrative of suffering concluded with the resurrection. Peter and the other apostles rejected God’s way of suffering and sought the glory that they knew was the essence of God. And it was. For “six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” These chosen apostles stood in the midst of glory, terrified, and heard, like Abraham, the voice of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
But the God who showed them a vision of heavenly glory and spoke to them out of the glory was the same God who spoke to them when Jesus said that he would suffer and die. When you listen to God, you do not get to pick just the “good stuff,” the words that appeal to you: God asks that you listen always.
But trials, tests and suffering are not the end of the story. Paul asks us in Romans, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” The end of the story is God’s glory, but it requires hearing God’s voice in the midst of trials, suffering, pain and loss, even when it seems to be God’s voice commanding the suffering. Be patient and listen again, for the voice of God desires only our blessing.