Abraham has become a powerful person. He represents the heavenly ruler. He heads up what will be God’s nation. He has begun to experience the respect of kings. The narrator just told us of Abimelech bringing the head of his forces to seek a peace treaty (21:22-32). In time, his descendants will grow into a great nation with influence over the other nations.
But all of this depends on Isaac. Prior to Isaac’s birth, Abraham lived by faith—utterly dependent on God providing what he had promised. Now Abraham has what he so desperately needed: the heir—someone who can take over the next generation of what will be God’s representative kingdom. Now that he has the heir, will his actions complete his faith? Or will power go to his head so he revolts against his sovereign now that Isaac is born and it’s within his grasp?
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the power to rule is symbolized in the ring. Very few people can handle it. Once they get a taste of the “one ring to rule them all,” the temptation is too great. With the birth of Isaac, Abraham has the one son to rule them all—the dynastic successor that places power in his hands. Does having this power within his grasp now corrupt his heart to turn away from the living God? Will Abraham, like so many before him in the Genesis story, now grasp God’s power for himself? Or will he keep faith with his sovereign?
The question is this: can Abraham let go of “the precious”?
The issue of succession has underpinned so many evils in history. Rulers have murdered their opponents, and any remaining sons of the preceding dynasty. From Jehu to Queen Athaliah, the Hebrew Scriptures recount these stories. In recent history, rulers of the Ottoman Empire slaughtered their own sons to ensure the favoured son gained power. Has having a successor corrupted Abraham’s heart? Or is he content to give the kingdom back to YHWH?
Most Bible commentators today miss the kingdom angle, but ancient writers like Josephus understood it was a succession issue. The kingdom angle makes sense of the story.
Although Abraham now has his son, his only son, his precious son, his greater allegiance is to the heavenly ruler’s authority. YHWH can trust him with his son—back from the brink of death:
Genesis 22:12 (ESV)
He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
What others are saying
Flavius Josephus, Steve Mason, and Louis H. Feldman, Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary: Judean Antiquities Books 1-4, vol. 3 (Boston; Leiden: Brill, 2000), 90–91:
Ant 1.228 But when the altar had been prepared and he had laid the chopped wood upon it and things were ready, he said to his son, “My child, having asked with myriad prayers from God that you be born to me, when you came into life, there is nothing that I did not take trouble with regard to your upbringing, nor was there anything that I thought would bring me greater happiness than if I should see you grown to manhood and when I died, I should have you as the successor of my realm (ὡς εἰ σέ τ ̓ἴδοιμι ἠνδρωμένον καὶ τελευτῶν διάδοχον τῆς ἀρχῆς τῆς ἐμαυτοῦ καταλίποιμι).”
Craig A. Evans, From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 88–89:
James then mounts a scriptural argument that is very similar to the thinking underlying 1 Maccabees 2. Abraham was “justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar” (Jas. 2:21). His willingness to offer Isaac means that his faith was more than a mere belief, but a readiness to obey God, to put one’s faith into action, as it were. Because Abraham’s “faith was active along with his works, and [his] faith was completed by works” (v. 22), the earlier Scripture, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (v. 23, citing Gen. 15:6), was fulfilled.
Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 153:
for now I know As Ramban points out, it is not that God’s foreknowledge is wanting but that, for Abraham’s sake, the quality of character that now exists only potentially must be actualized. In the biblical view, the genuinely righteous man must deserve that status through demonstrated action. Henceforth, Abraham is the incontestable paradigm of the truly “God-fearing” man, one who is wholehearted in his self-determined, disinterested, self-surrender to God’s will. It is not important that the act was unfulfilled, for the value of the act may lie as much in the inward intention of the doer as in the final execution.
Read Genesis 22:10-12.