Imagine Eve’s terror and then her joy as she gave birth to the first human baby. Cain seemed to bring fresh hope to the darkened world, but years later that hope was dashed when he killed his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:8). The world’s first baby became the world’s first murderer. The world’s first family was splintered, and in their deep pain the world’s first parents cried out to God for help (4:26).
Evil and violence multiplied as the generations of human history passed. One act of disobedience in the garden led to a tide of violence that swept across the earth: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (6:5).
God had not forgotten His promise that evil would not stand, so He intervened, cutting back the human race to a single family through a devastating flood (Genesis 6–7). God was merciful to Noah and his family, who had believed God and acted in obedience to His commands. They were kept safe through the Flood and given the responsibility of making a new start for humanity. But they carried the seeds of sin into the new world with them, and it was not long before the human rebellion against God had regained momentum.
God intervened a second time by confusing human language (Genesis 11). This judgment caused people to divide into language groups that quickly developed their own distinct cultures. And as they spread out across the face of the earth, the seeds of future conflict were already sown.
Then God stepped into human history in a new initiative of grace that broke through in the life of a man called Abraham.
God’s Great Promise of Blessing
Abraham didn’t know the first thing about God. He was born around 2000 BC and raised east of the Euphrates River, where he and his family worshiped idols (Joshua 24:2). When people don’t know the God who made them, they instinctively put something or someone else in His place. Abraham’s idols were his attempt to give meaning and purpose to his life.
One day, God appeared to Abraham (Acts 7:2), just as He had appeared to Adam in the garden. Abraham must have wondered why God had chosen to speak with him. The Bible gives us no explanation. All we know is that when the world was in great darkness, God made Himself known to one man, and we should all be deeply thankful for that.
God gave Abraham a special promise: “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you,” He said. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2–3).
Later, God confirmed and expanded His promise. Abraham would have many descendants, and God would give them land from the River Nile to the Euphrates (15:5, 18). These promises must have been perplexing to Abraham because the land God had spoken about was already populated, and Abraham had no children. It seemed impossible, but Abraham believed God’s promise (15:6).
Faith Tested to the Limit
Abraham’s faith was tested to the limit. His wife, Sarah, was well past the age for bearing children when God gave the promise of a child, and the idea seemed so ridiculous to her that she laughed when she heard about it (Genesis 18:12).
God was faithful to His promise, and Sarah gave birth to a son. She called him Isaac, which means “laughter” (21:5–6). God brought joy to this elderly couple, and eventually to the whole world, because it was through a descendant of Abraham that God would bless every nation on the face of the earth.
Some years later God stretched Abraham’s faith even further. He told Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering. The thought of a father sacrificing his son is so repulsive to us and to God that we may easily miss the point of the story. God had promised that His blessing would come to all nations through Abraham’s descendants. Now He was showing Abraham the cost at which that blessing would come.
Abraham obeyed God and went to Mount Moriah. He built an altar and placed his son there. Isaac would have been a young man at the time, so forget any artistic impression you may have seen of a young child lying helpless on the altar. Isaac carried the wood on his shoulders (22:6). He was in the prime of life, and if he had wanted to, he could easily have overpowered Abraham, who was over a hundred years old.
God intervened at the critical moment: “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” He said. Then Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket, so he took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son (22:12–13).
God had never intended that Abraham should sacrifice Isaac. The story of a father being ready to give up his son and a son being ready to lay down his life shines a powerful light on what it would cost for the promise of God to be fulfilled and His blessing to come for all people (Romans 8:32).
One day God would do what Abraham and Isaac could only illustrate. God the Father gave up His Son. God the Son gave Himself for us (Galatians 2:20). The promised Son took our place and was offered as the sacrifice for our sins.
A View from the Second Mountain
God’s promises to Abraham form the second great mountain peak of the Bible story. From this mountain, we can catch a glimpse of what lies ahead. God had promised to bless people from every nation on earth, and He pledged to do it through the line of descendants that would come from Abraham (Genesis 22:17). From this point onward, the action will focus on these people, to whom God’s promises were given.
Abraham lived long enough to enjoy Isaac, the promised son. But it would be four hundred years before his descendants would receive the Promised Land. The story of what happened during that time will take us down into the second valley.