Why Did God Command Abraham To Sacrifice Isaac?

“It is not a true story protested one lady, a Christian representative on a recent BBC ‘Big Questions’ programme. Presenter Nicky Campbell had asked, and what about God asking Abraham to go and sacrifice Isaac’? It might not be the exact words, but it was the question – if God is a kind, loving and merciful God, how could God do such thing to Abraham? Although, Abraham didn’t literally sacrifice Isaac.

Nicky Campbell would have read The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Says Dawkins, “Abraham built an altar, put firewood upon it, and trussed Isaac up on top of the wood. His murdering knife was already in his hand when an angel dramatically intervened with the news of a last-minute change of plan:”

If I wasn’t familiar with the story in Genesis 22 I might well have got the impression that Abraham quietly took off in the early hours of the morning with his toddler child, Isaac, under his arm. Then when out on the top of some mountain he trussed up Isaac like some captive animal and placed him on an altar ready to sacrifice him, – as if Isaac had no say in the matter.

On page 242 of his book, The God Delusion, Professor Dawkins refers to what he calls, “the infamous tale of the sacrificing of Isaac”. On page 265, Dawkins says, “Any modern legal system would have prosecuted Abraham for child abuse, and if he had actually carried through his plan to sacrifice Isaac, we would have convicted him of first degree murder.”

There are Christians who think this story should not be in the Bible. It must be a fabricated story with no truth to it. Or it is not a true story but represents a particular truth. The Christian who said to Campbell the story wasn’t true didn’t have time to explain. Campbell replied, so you accept the soft bits of the Bible but not the hard bits – but then the conversation moved on, that was just part of the ‘opener’ to the topic being discussed.
The problem with her reply is, that the New Testament writers believed it did take place. Hebrews 11:17-19 tells us Abraham “offered up Isaac.” Not really, but although the knife was held back, in intention Abraham did sacrifice Isaac.

Knowing how abhorrent we would feel about child sacrifice ourselves, how could Abraham go ahead and do that. Even more so, how could God even ask him to do it? As Richard Dawkins suggests, in our day such people who acted on claims of hearing such commands from God would be prosecuted for murder, or attempted murder. And they would be rightly locked away for the protection of children and society.

During Abraham’s time and beyond we read in the Old Testament that the custom of child-sacrifice was practiced among Israel’s neighbours. In 2 Kings 3:26 and 27 we read that, ”when the king of Moab saw that the battle went against him, . . . he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall.” Chapter 17:31 records that people of foreign cultures “burned their children as sacrifices” to their gods.

Despite the ban by God of such practice the custom found its way into Judah under the later kings, especially under Ahaz and Manasseh. 2 Chronicles 28:3 informs us that Ahaz “sacrificed his sons in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations that the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.” In 2 Chronicles 33:5 we read that Judah’s king, Manasseh, “sacrificed his sons in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced sorcery, divination and witchcraft, and consulted mediums and spiritists.” So bad was Manasseh that verse 9 tells us he “led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before them.” And the strenuous condemnation by the prophets did not save the nation from finally going into Babylonian captivity due to their evil behaviour.

In Genesis 12:2 God had promised Abraham that he would make Abraham into a great nation. Sarah being beyond child-bearing age God assures Abraham that the promise would be kept and that he would personally have an heir out of which a great nation would arise (Genesis 15: 2-6; 18:10). In 15:18 God said to Abraham, “To your descendents I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.” But the wait was too long and Abraham and Sarah did it their way by Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar (Genesis 16:1-4), a custom of the surrounding cultures to produce an heir. But it wasn’t God’s way. In Genesis 18:10 God declares to Abraham that “Sarah your wife will have a son,” which is what happened.

So we come to this serious final test for Abraham, “Take your son, your only child, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains where I will tell you” (Genesis 22:2). This was his only son, born beyond childbearing age, whom he loved.

Abraham had had his faithless moments. We know he passed his wife off as his sister twice to save his skin. Once with Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10-20), and again with Abimelech, king of Gerar (Genesis 20), and God had to step in each time to save her. And despite God’s promise to give him an heir (Genesis 21: 1-7), he tried to accomplish it his way (Genesis 16).

So Abraham had his failings when it came to trusting God. He was as human as the rest of us. It reminds us of a statement by Charles Spurgeon who once said, “Failure is not in falling but refusing to get up again.” That’s the way Christians see God dealing with failure. He is willing to forgive when we express contrition for our mistakes and to get up and start again (Psalm 51; 1 John 1:9). And that is what God was doing here with this test. “Some time later God tested Abraham . . .. Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

We notice the text says it was God ‘testing’ and not ‘tempting’ Abraham. To tempt is to undermine and weaken character. To test is to strengthen character. Abraham was not being compelled by a tyrant god who needed to be appeased. Abraham was now willing to sacrifice his only beloved son, because God asked him to. And because he knew God well enough he knew God would work out what he was doing to fulfill his promise of a great nation coming from Abraham, even to raising Isaac back from the dead (Hebrews 11: 17-19).

The Bible makes it clear this was a test of obedience. And this was only possible because the Bible makes it clear that Abraham had a special relationship with God. He was known as God’s friend (James 2:23; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8). And it was because he had a one and only son that God could also reveal through Abraham what He Himself would do in due course, and Abraham would learn what that meant to God! This was what the Apostle Paul understood about Abraham’s test when he wrote in Galatians 3:8 that God “announced the Gospel in advance to Abraham.”

In this command God shared with Abraham His plan for the redemption of the world. Said Jesus in John 8:56 to the Jewish leaders of His day, “Your Father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it, and was glad.” The 19th century Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, asked the question, “When did Abraham see Christ?” Then Spurgeon says, “It was worthwhile for Abraham thus to be tested to have a view of Christ” (Vol. 37:500). The story of the sacrifice of Isaac was an Old Testament prefiguration of the death of Jesus Christ.

In the story of the Emmaus Road recorded in Luke 24, Jesus drew attention to the Old Testament Scriptures which prefigured His death and its meaning (Luke 24:25-27).  Jesus would surely have included Genesis chapter 22 in that enlightening study of the Old Testament, as well as other passages such as Isaiah 53. Richard Dawkins may think unpleasant thoughts about God testing Abraham in this way, but we are told that the outcome of Abraham’s testing was one of rejoicing. He saw Jesus and His intention to bring a solution to the sin problem of the human race.

Abraham’s was a severe test. Isaac was his treasured son, a unique gift from God, born beyond childbearing age. But we are told in Hebrews 11:19 that had Abraham slain Isaac, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from the dead”.

Richard Dawkins may complain about God but Abraham had no complaint against God over his testing. For Abraham, it was that arrival of complete faith in God; the experience was worth it. Nearly 2000 years before it happened God gave Abraham a glimpse of Jesus and what He would do for humankind in his death on the cross and in his resurrection. As Jesus shared with his disciples in Luke 24, this should have been a visual aid that would have given Israel some grasp of the mystery of the story of redemption.

Abraham’s obedience and Isaac’s submission to God in this action prefigured the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ on behalf of humanity, for those who lived before – as well as for those who lived after the cross (Hebrews 11:39,40).

In the story it is father Abraham who manages to carry the lighter. It is Isaac who carries the wood! Isaac is no toddler child – he could have resisted his father if he had wanted. He is grown up enough to be loaded with all the timber needed for his sacrifice, and carry it up a mountain! The narrative doesn’t disclose all the detail of the story but one can conclude that once Abraham informed Isaac of his mission, Isaac submitted to his father’s intentions. His father’s God was his own God too! He would be obedient to his father – and to God.

One can see why the Christian Church has seen in Isaac a type of Jesus. His was a miracle birth. He was the ‘only’ child. He carried his own wood and was willing to offer himself as a sacrifice – obedient to God, even to death.

But it wasn’t to be. As Abraham trusted, God would provide the sacrifice (12:7-8), which he did (12:10-14). And again 2000 years later His Unique, One and Only Son, would carry His own wood on which he would voluntarily be crucified.

Just as Isaac was physically capable of resisting his father had he chosen to, Matthew 26:53-54 tells us Jesus could have called on twelve legion of angels for support against His oppressors had He chose, “but” said Jesus, “how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?

It was not murder, nor martyrdom; it was the offering of God who had become one of us, as a Sacrifice for all who would accept it. The Apostle Paul says the whole human race has sinned; sin is the violation of God’s Law. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (6:23).

And this makes sense of Luke 24:25-27 where we read Jesus chiding his disciples for not knowing what the Scriptures taught about Him and the suffering He was to endure. The sacrifice of Christ was no act of ‘Cosmic Child Abuse’ as some might claim; it was the planned voluntary act of God Himself, Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:5-8). “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

Given in type with Abraham and Isaac, it is in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus that God has reconciled us to Himself. It is our freedom to accept or reject that act of reconciliation. It is in Jesus that we find the reality of the Gospel and the solution to the world’s problems. This is what we are reminded of at Easter. This is what Abraham caught a glimpse of in his sacrifice of Isaac. It is described for us in John 3:16: “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”.

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