Virtually no one likes taking tests. Yet, tests seem to be an inevitable part of life because tests reveal competency; this is true at all education levels and professional certifications. The Hebrew word for “test” (nissah) often refers to putting something (or someone) under scrutiny, usually to determine its value or usefulness, quality, or attribute. The piel form of nissah occurs more than 30 times in the Hebrew Bible.
Whatever is being tested is stretched to its limits. When people test God, they test His patience (Exodus 17) or His faithfulness (Numbers 14:22). When people test other people, they test something such as their wisdom (1 Kings 10:1). There is always some implied (though rarely specified) object to the verb beyond the direct personal object.
When God tests, He tests some value, quality, or attribute by stretching it to its limits. In most cases, He tests the faith and faithfulness of individuals or Israel by expecting them to obey under challenging circumstances. Sometimes “test” refers to God’s testing of a person (Abraham in Genesis 22:1 and Hezekiah in 2 Chronicles 32:31), but more commonly, it speaks of God’s testing of the Israelites as a group (Exodus 15:25; Deuteronomy 6:16; Judges 3:1).
God often tests our faith for a positive purpose (Exodus 20:20; Deuteronomy 8:16); He tested the Israelites to determine whether they fully trusted in God alone (Deuteronomy 13:3). So, likewise, God tests to identify His people, discern who is serious about faith, and know in whose lives He will be fully God.
A test similar to Abraham’s would not be primarily concerned with investigating whether we love our children more than we love God. Likewise, it would not examine whether we will trust God with our children. Instead, the test seeks to discover the motivating factor in our relationship with God: Is it God Himself, or is it the benefits He provides and the hope He offers? The subject of the testing of Job is whether he fears God for who God is or the “goodies” God gives (Job 1:8-10).
Jesus challenged the rich young ruler on this same point in Luke 18:18–23. What the young man is asked to sell would have included his land and his goods. The land is the covenant benefit shared by all the people of Israel. Possessions represent the prosperity that was believed to come to those who earned the favor of God. By asking him to sell all of this, Jesus is asking this man to be willing to jettison all of those things in his life that he considers the perquisites of God’s favor. This is the type of test set before Abraham: Are you willing to follow God if there is nothing in it for you?
This testing is not a game for God. On the contrary, it lies at the heart of God’s call to keep covenant with Him. He creates us free, for His goal is love, and love must be chosen. It cannot be preprogrammed. From the very beginning (Genesis 3), God’s call to covenantal faithfulness has involved testing. God is seeking to determine whether the people He calls will lovingly choose him above all else.