When it comes to fatherhood, the Bible could be read as an anthology of what not to do. There’s Jacob, who played favorites, driving his older sons to near murderous jealousy. There’s Eli, whose permissiveness bred sons lacking the least bit of integrity. As a result, they perverted and abused the priesthood in Israel for personal pleasure and financial gain. There’s David, an absentee father whose neglect almost certainly led to the sexual assault, murder, and treason committed by his kids. And there are the last-place finishers for the father-of-the-year award like Manasseh and Ahaz, men who sacrificed their children in the flames to the dark gods of their day. With this kind of dad lineup in the Bible, it’s a wonder God bothers to reveal Himself to us as Father at all.
But as the dad of three small boys who’s committed to on-the-job training, I’ve been searching the Scriptures for an example to follow, or at least a comrade-in-arms. God is the ultimate example, but I want to see a father in the Bible who messes up from time to time, who fails like I do, and yet still has the heart for fatherhood the Lord intended for dads to have. I think I may have found one, even if it was in a very unlikely place.
Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac, the son of promise, was born. Baby Isaac was the miracle child, the special boy through whom every amazing blessing for Abraham’s family and the entire world would come. So, it must have been something of a shock when, years later, God commanded Abraham to do the unthinkable — sacrifice Isaac on the altar as a burnt offering.
Now, I realize that a scene where a father is brandishing a knife with an eye toward his son isn’t traditional fare for a look at biblical fatherhood, but go with me for a moment. Abraham wasn’t a perfect father, nor is he the hero of this story — those titles are reserved for God and God alone — but he was an obedient father. We all talk about doing what’s best for our children, but Abraham allowed the voice of God to drown out the narrow logic of reason, the cries of his own heart, and even his expectations based on what God had told him previously. That’s the kind of dad I want to be, one who leads my family by following God, no matter where He leads.
There are clues in the text that tell us Abraham’s faith was more than wishful thinking, forged by years of walking with God. When he reached the mountain where the offering was to be made, he told his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you” (Gen. 22:5). He believed both he and Isaac would be coming back down the mountain, one way or another. And on the trek, without an animal to sacrifice, he told Isaac that God would provide for them (v. 8). The author of Hebrews lets us in on what was going through Abraham’s mind: “He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead” (Heb. 11:19). In the end, God stayed Abraham’s hand, but before he knew how it would turn out, Abraham believed God would save his son, even if it had to be done through a miracle of resurrection.
Abraham had faith, but more than that, he trusted the goodness of God’s heart. Years before God told the prophet Jeremiah he had “never entertained the thought” of child sacrifice (Jer. 7:31), Abraham knew it was true and believed Isaac would live. He wasn’t led by fear or the changing winds of culture, and he didn’t perch his love for Isaac above his love for God. He simply obeyed.
But there’s something else that tells me Abraham was a good father: he passed along his faith to his son. Contrary to the pictures in some children’s storybooks, Isaac wasn’t a small boy at this point. He was old enough to carry the wood for the sacrifice, so he was likely a teenager or even a young man. That means that when Abraham bound his son, Isaac wasn’t exactly helpless. Abraham was very, very old — north of 100 at this point. Isaac could have overpowered his dad and set himself free, but he didn’t. He trusted Abraham, and he trusted God, literally placing his life on the line for his faith. And this kind of devotion came from watching his father (and probably his mother too) over the years. Abraham’s faith in God was powerful.
About 2,000 years later, another Son climbed a hill with the wood on His back for His own sacrifice. Jesus, in perfect obedience, willingly laid down His own life, though with a word He could have summoned 10,000 angels to overpower His tormentors. He did this so we could draw near to the Father who binds up our wounds, dries our tears, and makes all things new — the Father for whom the soul of every son and daughter aches.