You know, I gotta hand it to the SAB for thoroughness. While sometimes I think the criticisms go overboard, it's clear to me that it's because Wells is trying to make sure he covers all the angles. There are a few things pointed out in this chapter that I'm not sure I've ever thought of. Of course, you can't read this chapter without seeing the issue of human sacrifice, that's obvious, but there are a few minor, but important points brought up here.
Off the top, something that can often be a sticking point for some is the issue of whether God "tempts" people. James says that God does not tempt people, but there a re a few places where it sure seems like it's happening, particularly here, where the KJV says outright that Abraham was being tempted. One of the very difficult things that the Bible reader has to deal with is vague language. The Hebrew word that is translated here as "did tempt" has a variety of meanings, and in fact, the KJV is more likely to translate the word "prove" than "tempt". I actually would love to know why the KJV translators chose "tempt" in this particular case, as every other instance of translating this word as "tempt" it refers to testing God. Perhaps the idea behind the word is making an unfair demand of someone to see if they'll follow through, because that certainly seems to fit with the idea behind this story. In any case, Abraham is being tested by God, not provoked into choosing wrong, but provoked into choosing right.
So the test is that Abraham is told by God to take his only son, Isaac, and give him as a sacrifice on a nearby mountain. Now, God is not generally in the practice of asking for human sacrifices; in fact I'd say this is the only time He orders it (I realize the SAB gives other examples of things that seem to be saying this, but I'll deal with those as I come to them), and there's something that should be quite notable about it. He doesn't have Abraham actually go through with it. No, it was just a test, not a real sacrifice.
Should Abraham have gone through with it? I mean, obviously not once God said not to, but should Abraham have just said, "God, I don't think this is right, and I won't do it!" Well, I'd definitely tell anyone who thought God was telling them to kill someone to go see a doctor and make sure they're on the right meds, but if indeed it was God talking to Abraham, then Abraham did the right thing to obey. While it may seem heartless, there are a few things to consider. If you look at Hebrews 11:17-19, you see that Abraham remembered God promising Isaac would prosper and have children, so Abraham knew that whatever was going on, this wasn't the end of Isaac. As a child reading this story, I always assumed Abraham knew God would call it off, but the passage I quoted in the N.T. there says that Abraham assumed God would bring Isaac back from the dead. Abraham knows that he has to obey God, and that if he does, God will make everything turn out alright. Note that Abraham says to his servants that he will be coming back with his son.
There are some interesting bits of symbolism here, both for the Jewish faith and the Christian one. It's believed by Jews that the place that all of this happened was right near where the Temple would actually be built. Christians also believe this, and in particular are also interested in the symbolism of Isaac being a prefiguring of Christ, carrying wood (like the cross) to the place where he is eventually going to be offered as a sacrifice. Isaac is not completely clueless here, either. While most people seem to read this story as Abraham taking a little boy up to the mountain, it is traditionally thought that Isaac is probably in his early thirties. When Abraham, a 130-year-old man ties up his 30-year-old son and places him on the altar, he must have been a willing, if confused participant. The best bit of interesting symbolism is in the wording of the KJV translation, which unfortunately is not likely supported well by the original Hebrew: "God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering." The ambiguity of this statement in English is rather suggestive of Jesus' death centuries later.
After God calls the whole thing off, though, he then says, "Now I know that thou fearest God..."I have to admit this is very odd wording for a God who supposedly knows everything, and assumedly only asked Abraham to do this because He knew Abraham would be willing, but wouldn't actually go through with it. I tend to think that God tests people for their own benefit, because He knows the strength of their character, and wants to give them insight into themselves that they would not have without the testing. In such a case though, it seems it would make more sense to say something like, "Now I see..." since He already knew, but this was the first time it was visibly shown. There is some ambiguity in the Hebrew word, and I'd like to suggest that it could be rendered "perceive", but I'd hate to put myself in a very unpopular position: I can't find any widely-accepted English translation that doesn't translate that word into "I know". Of course, knowing now doesn't mean He didn't before, but it sure sounds like God was almost holding His breath waiting to see how this would turn out, doesn't it? I just don't know what that's all about.
I also don't know what the deal is with the claim in Exodus 6:3 that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob didn't know God's name, YHWH. Not only does Abraham use it here, but he used it in 14:22, 24:3, and 24:7, and Jacob uses it in various verses, the first of which is 27:20, in conversation with Isaac. Perhaps by the time I get to Exodus 6:3, I'll have an idea what that passage might be saying, because it does appear to be wrong taken at face value.
So God once again swore to bless Abraham and his descendants, and yes, God swore "by and to himself." And why not?