“God tested Abraham.” The Hebrew word translated “tested” in Genesis 22:1 is nasah (#05254 נָסַה), and its meanings include “to test” and “to tempt.” It is helpful in biblical study to know that in both Hebrew and Greek, the same word can be either “test” or “tempt,” depending on the motivation of the one doing the testing or tempting. In a “test,” the most common idea is that the test would help the person in some way and result in success. In contrast, in a temptation, the motivation is that the person will fail. When it comes to nasah referring to a “test,” there are different uses of “test” in the Bible: people test God (Judg. 6:39); people test other people (1 Kings 10:1; Dan. 1:12, 14); people test things (1 Sam. 17:39), and God tests people (Gen. 22:1; Ps. 26:2). Understanding temptations is a little more challenging because people “tempt” God on their part (cp. Exod. 17:7; Num. 14:22), but God is not tempted by what they do, nor does God tempt anyone (James 1:13).
God’s “tests” are meant to strengthen the person in their walk with Him, and also accomplish His purposes. That is certainly the case here with Abraham. But it is important to understand that God testing Abraham is not unique because there are many times in the Bible that God “tested” people by asking them to do things for His purposes that the person did not want to do, but the word “test” is not in the text. Actually, on the most basic level, every person is tested by God. God commands people to do things, such as live a godly life, with the intention that people will obey and pass the “test,” and that is the basic idea behind verses that say God tests the heart (cp. 1 Chron. 29:17; Ps. 7:9; 26:2; Jer. 11:20; 17:10).
However, beyond God’s test to every person as to whether or not they will obey Him, God sometimes has specific jobs for people to do that severely test them because the job is unpleasant, a lot of work, or even dangerous. For example, God told Jeremiah not to marry (Jer. 16:1-4), not to go into a house where people were mourning the dead (Jer. 16:6-7), and to make a yoke with straps and crossbars and wear it around (Jer. 27). God had Ezekiel act out a number of prophecies; for example, to draw the city of Jerusalem on a tile and lay siege to it (Ezek. 4:1-3). Also, to lie on his left side for 390 days, then on his right side for 40 days (Ezek. 4:4-8). Also, to eat very little and drink very little, and bake his food over dung (Ezek. 4:9-17). God also told Ezekiel to shave his head and beard (Ezek. 5:1-13), and to leave Jerusalem as if going into exile (Ezek. 12:2-6). God told Hosea to marry a prostitute (Hos. 1:2-3). God told Amos, who was from Judah, to go into Israel and prophesy against it, a very dangerous assignment (Amos 7:10-17), and similarly, God told Jonah to leave Israel and prophesy against Assyria, which was also a very dangerous assignment (Jonah 1:1). The point is that although God’s asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was no doubt very challenging, it was not completely out of line with what God has asked of other people, especially since God knew He was going to stop Abraham before he killed Isaac.
In Genesis 22 God tested both Abraham and Isaac, although the text only uses the word “test” of Abraham. Abraham had to be willing to sacrifice his son, and Isaac had to be willing to die at the request of his father. Both tests were difficult, and both were necessary. God did not test them “for fun.” The prophetic picture produced by the willing participation of Abraham and Isaac produced the clearest depiction in the whole Bible of the willing sacrifices made by God the Father who gave His Son and Jesus Christ the Son as he willingly gave his life. Abraham’s love and obedience to God and Isaac’s love and trust in his father is an example that has now shown brightly down through some 4,000 years of human history. That clear example no doubt helped Jesus Christ understand his role in the salvation of all who would believe, and has helped many better understand the singular sacrifice of Christ as well as the difficult sacrifices we must sometimes make in this fallen world in order to help others.
Once we understand that God does “test” people the way He tested Abraham and many of the prophets, we are better prepared mentally for whatever the Lord may have for us to do. Actually, some of the things that God asks of every Christian, such as sharing their faith with others, can severely test some people, but God wants us to succeed and we should want to participate in His plan to save every person on earth.