Difficult Text, Quick Answer: The Sacrifice of Isaac

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Q: How could a good God command Abraham to sacrifice his only son? 

A: As always, it’s important to read the whole text and not to take it out of context. Any Israelite encountering this story for the first time would have been genuinely horrified when they heard  God’s command. Earlier, in Genesis 9, they would have heard God tell Noah:

Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.

It is completely inconsistent to love God and to hate his image. Human sacrifice was obviously incompatible with the worship of God. Yet here God seems to be demanding a human sacrifice. Furthermore, a few moments earlier they would have heard God tell Abraham that “your descendants will be through  Isaac”( in Genesis 21.)

Listeners would also have known that Issac was a miraculous gift to Abraham, the fulfillment of God’s promises to make Abraham the father of a great nation. So when God demanded that Abraham sacrifice Isaac he seemed to be acting capriciously and irrationally, undermining his own commands and purposes. Had God abandoned Abraham? Should Abraham  abandon all trust in God and ignore this latest command? Should he take Isaac and run for safety?

Would God be true to his promises? Could God command the murder of young man? Would there be a happy ending? These questions are precisely what produces the dramatic tension in this story. The hearer’s faith in God’s goodness was being pushed to the limits. The listener knew that Isaac’s future well-being had been assured by God and that God did not tolerate murder. 

Abraham kept faith with God. In fact, he had good reason to do so. God had kept faith with Abraham and his family, saving Ishmael when all hope seemed lost. God had promised that Isaac would live to be Abraham’s heir, and Abraham knew that God could bring new life to barren wombs. He could have no doubt about God’s miraculous power. Abraham might, justifiably, feel fear on Moriah; but he also had a justified belief that God would keep his promises. He knew that God would somehow deliver his son.

Indeed, as Abraham walked up the slope of the mountain he promised his servants that both he and the boy would return.

5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

As listeners heard Abraham’s confidence, they were reminded of Abraham’s reasons for trusting God. They were also presented with an example of faith under pressure. Abraham had committed his future, and his son’s life, to God’s plan. But the question, “how far will God ask Abraham to go?” still lingered on- until God stepped in with a second command: to kill a ram in the boys stead.

Abraham was pushed to the extreme when he was ordered to tie his son up as a burnt offering. But God would not command him to go any further. God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac at the last moment. Rather than hearing God give two contradictory commands in Genesis 22, it’s better to hear God give one set of commands in two parts: proceed with the sacrifice of your only son, but stop at the last moment, and sacrifice a ram in his place.

Why does the command come in two parts? Why does God allow Abraham to endure doubt and fear and bewilderment? For Abraham, this was a test of his faith. But for us the story is rich in meaning, too.  It reminds us that faith brings courage and endurance. Abraham’s faith was nourished by looking back at what God had done in the past.  So faith is not about a dogged and unblinking stupidity; it is about knowing God well enough to consider more than our immediate circumstances. 

But the story has a deeper meaning. It points forward to a very different sacrifice – that of God’s only son. God delivered Isaac by providing another sacrifice. God the Son can deliver us all by taking the punishment that we deserve.

Genesis 22

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven,“Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”


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