Yet surely Abraham’s piety was evident: why was it necessary for him to demonstrate his faith so often? Lesser people don’t seem to have to prove themselves.
The sages say, however, that like a potter who tests not his worst but his best pieces of pottery, God tests his saints, since it is from them that He expects the most.
The first test was the call, Lech l’cha – “get yourself out of your country, your birthplace, the house of your father, to the land which I will show you” (gen. 12:1-2).
Rashi wonders why the text literally says “go for yourself”; he replies that Abraham was being told that going would be for his benefit and his own good.
So in what way was this a test, if it would be to Abraham’s advantage?
The S’fat Emet answers that Abraham was sorry the move would bring him benefit: he much preferred to do God’s will without suspicion of ulterior motive.
The test of faith was that he was challenged to show that what he did was really for its own sake and he would have done it in any case, even without promise of reward.
A later test is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac,” says God; “Go for yourself to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a sacrifice” (Gen. 22:2).
Another Lech l’cha, but this time the going can not possibly be for Abraham’s benefit. Even to contemplate sacrificing his son – what advantage could that bring him?
The thought outrages us. This time there can be no problems of ulterior motives. Abraham must act for God’s sake, or not at all.
We of course know that in the end Isaac is not sacrificed, not because of some co-incidence but because God steps in and stops Abraham, saying that what He wanted was not the death of the boy but a sign of the father’s faith.
God never intended Abraham to complete the act, but Abraham did not know this. It is hard on him, but Abraham’s test is his preparedness to do even unthinkably hard things for the sake of his God.