Abraham Sacrifices Isaac – Not!!
Skeptics get a lot of mileage from Abraham going through the motions of sacrificing Isaac, especially since God was the one who requested it.
The whole thing flies in the face of morality as we understand it. Not only did Abraham prepare to execute his son but God is complicit, ordering what can only be viewed as ritualized homicide.
Atheists, who claim no need of guidance from a higher power, find the whole thing appalling, at least for the present. There’s no telling what injustice they might rationalize should they succeed in erasing the Bible’s influence from humanity, if such a thing could be done.
They, of course, are capable of logical thought but their rational abilities are not well exercised when it comes to events in the Bible. Because they don’t believe in God and aren’t dispassionate there is no reason to expect them to investigate biblical matters with a serious mind. That is an important observation because these events didn’t happen yesterday and the further removed they are from the present the less likely atheists are to consider relevant cultural details. Social trends in Abraham’s day, for example, were very different to ours. In his day:
- Sacrificing children was neither against the law nor uncommon especially in the land of Canaan.
- It got worse. Archeological digs in Canaan have shown that children were sacrificed in greater numbers just before Israel took control of the land.
- And there were no local or international agencies to enforce child protection laws if they had existed.
None of that means Abraham thought human sacrifice was acceptable. It wouldn’t have been a test if he did. There is no reason to think he would have considered such a thing if God hadn’t suggested it.
When informed that Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed he prayed fervently that God would spare them even if only 10 righteous souls were found there. Obviously, he was thinking of Lot and counting on his influence being strong enough to protect his family from their corruption but his count was off. Only four righteous souls were found but his prayer does reveal what he thought of Sodom.
The depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah is well known so I won’t elaborate but Abraham’s prayer at least illustrates his very poor opinion of local morality. He nor his immediate family would have seriously considered adopting the life style of Sodom which no doubt endorsed and may have included human sacrifice.
When God instructed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac he knew this was extreme and sadly, when Abraham acted on the instructions he wasn’t looking over his shoulder. Any neighbors watching would have considered it a normal, natural thing to do. He didn’t have to do this on the sly. At the very best, locals would have considered it none of their business and wouldn’t have interfered.
In this case, however, atheists’ treatment of scripture is motivated more by disdain for God than cultural accuracy. Reading the text superficially, they accuse God of being a Tyrant and Abraham of psychosis, cowardice and insensitivity, actions that provoke indignation. But are they really being indignant or confusing critical thought with emotional manipulation?
And yes, Christian responses can be equally thoughtless, so when these opposing pressure systems meet, the resulting emotional storm leaves little room for discussion. It can become very turbulent.
And the outcome? Christians claim faith at the expense of sense. Atheists claim sense at the expense of faith. Both tend to be vacuous.
In this instance however, there are facts qualifying God’s request that must be considered. The event is recorded in Genesis chapter 22 and the very first verse reads:
“After these things God tested Abraham.”
This short statement offers two very important points to consider:
One, an often-overlooked element to the story was the very brief, non-imposing but significant phrase:
“After these things…”
That short statement encompasses an entire lifetime of relationship. This was not the first time Abraham and God interacted. If anything it was the last.
Any additional conversations following this event were not recorded before Abraham’s death in chapter 25 but the record does show that it was preceded by several discussions spanning as many as 60 years.
Abraham knew God in a way most people never will. He had followed Him, argued with Him, disobeyed Him, hosted Him, negotiated with Him, waited on Him and taken instructions from Him over the course of many years. This final request was conditioned by many years of personal experience. Following is a list of the occasions when God and Abraham actually conversed:
- When He instructed him to leave for Canaan and after he arrived (Gen.12)?
- When He promised him the entire land of Canaan (Gen 13)?
- When He assured him he would have a biological heir (Gen 15)?
Note: There were 13 years following the conception of Ishmael during which God didn’t speak to Abraham. He neither spoke nor acted in anyway. Considering all the conversing that went before, the silence was deafening. The next time God spoke, chapter 17, Abraham responded by falling on his face in gratitude. During those 13 years Abraham was confronted with the still, small, inaudible voice of God’s silence.
- When He instituted circumcision (Gen 17)?
- When He was about to judge Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18-19)?
- When He encouraged him to send Hagar and Ishmael away (Gen 21)?
- When He tested him with the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22)
- God also spoke indirectly through Pharaoh and Abimelech when these kings took Sara into their harems.
The second important point is the fact that this was a test and to every logical person the implication is obvious. Things are not as they appear on the surface. If the answers to the test are obvious they aren’t tests.
And this was a test of trust, love and obedience not morality. Did Abraham really trust God? Did he trust God enough to obey without question or hesitation? And whom did Abraham love most? Abraham knew what was right and wrong but the question was, could he obey God when things didn’t seem to add up.
That, by the way, is the measure of faith. Faith is only tested when things don’t add up. Although they do occasionally overlap, faith never mirrors human reason exactly, or vice versa. This is a critical point. The most telling label for Abraham was, “father of faith” – not human reason – and it was situations like this that earned him that distinction.
Also, Abraham’s spiritual growth wasn’t the primary point. His entire life was serving a much higher purpose. Through Abraham, God was building patterns to illustrate universal truths.
Before critics go ballistic on the “trust and obey” issue with references to personal rights, civil liberties, individualism, independence and sensibility, remember that Abraham signed on for this. His arm was not twisted to leave UR. God “called” Abraham, He didn’t drag him kicking and screaming out of his homeland. God didn’t force Abraham to trust or obey. Neither trust nor obedience can be coerced. They can only be expressed freely and willingly.
Save the political stoning for another time.
Because the call provided very little detail, Abraham’s response involved a large degree of trust. He had never been to Canaan before and didn’t even know Canaan was the destination.
From the very start this relationship was founded on trust. You may think Abraham crazy but he was “chosen” not because he was called but because he trusted.
Unfortunately, Abraham’s trust was sometimes feeble and his obedience partial but even this illustrated important truths.
- When commanded to leave Ur AND family he took his father and nephew along as well. I’m sure he justified this, thinking it was the decent thing to do, but his father died on route and he experienced conflict with his nephew, Lot, after getting settled in the land. Lot finished his life ignominiously as a result of his relationship with Sodom and Gomorrah.
- When they experienced famine shortly after arriving in Canaan, instead of trusting God to provide, he took his entourage to Egypt.
- Not once but twice he mislead monarchs to believe Sarah was his sister not his wife and felt justified in doing so because she was, in fact, his half sister. Abraham did have ulterior motives for using this ruse. Because diplomatic relations were maintained by monarchs marrying family members of other prominent leaders, like Abraham, he used this ploy to get rid of her so to speak and overcome what he saw as an impossible circumstance, her barrenness. God intervened in both situations speaking through the monarchs rather than directly to Abraham.
- Even after all of this, Abraham easily succumbed to Sarah’s suggesting he take Hagar, her handmaid, as wife and sire children by her. Another ill-advised response to Sarah’s infertility.
- Abraham even became angry when he didn’t have children right away and expressed a lot of attitude about it (Genesis 15).
Through all these mini failures we learn that God is gracious at all times. He was patient with Abraham and never “threw him away.” It is no surprise that the New Testament quotes Jesus as saying, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) and it is through Abraham that we find this truth illustrated most.
God wasn’t testing Abraham’s ability to be moral. He was testing his ability to obey and with all the previous history “under the bridge,” so to speak, there is little reason to think Abraham would fail the test.
One reason complainers blanch at this truth is the fact that obedience is an ugly word in our society. We have too many personal rights and too much attitude to be bothered with it. Authority figures and legal standards are questioned first and obeyed later, maybe. Trust doesn’t figure prominently in relationships today. But like the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song:
“It may be the devil or it may be the Lord?
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”
And who you serve is who you trust.
But, obedience wasn’t the only point. There was a reason God needed Abraham to obey. As I said, everything in Abraham’s life, successes and failures, formed the pattern of many biblical truths and the message conveyed by the symbolic sacrifice of Isaac was more significant than all of them.
Abraham couldn’t know that God would stop him short of executing Isaac but he was constantly aware of all the promises God had made over the course of many years, some of which featured Isaac personally, so he trusted God for the outcome. The New Testament actually says he believed God would raise Isaac from the dead should the execution actually happen (Heb. 11:17). That is how much confidence Abraham had in God.
The record of these events does leave everyone scratching their heads. It comes across as cruel and senseless to any decent person. Only a depraved individual would approve before hand. But, is there a way to understand this without implicating God and Abraham?
Yes, there is.
One truth observed by many is that God used actual human experience to illustrate spiritual truths. Rather than give us an avalanche of words to study He gave us pictures of truth represented in the lives of different people. If He had used only words the Bible would be more like a library, impossible to carry around and inaccessible to most. There are many examples of this pictographic approach:
- David’s successful challenge of Goliath was an illustration of great faith and courage emerging from the least likely people.
- Paul literally said his experience with longsuffering was a pattern for others to follow, 1 Timothy 1:16 (KJV).
- Paul also told Titus to exemplify good works (be a pattern) rather than just preach it, Titus 2:7 (KJV).
- The tabernacle revealed the pattern of remediation for sin.
- Adam, as the forefather of the human race, was referred to as a pattern, Romans 5:14.
- In His final statement to the disciples Jesus said, “I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do.” John 13:15 (Msg).
And none are mentioned more often as patterns than Abraham and Sara.
- He was the pattern of Justification by faith, Romans 4.
- He was the symbol of inclusion – anyone who believes is in the family, Galatians 3:7.
- His offspring symbolized two different approaches to God – flesh (personal accomplishment) and spirit (faith), Galatians 4:22-24.
- His experience demonstrated the wisdom and durability of monogamy. Abraham’s marriage to Sara survived disenchantment and adultery.
- He was the pattern of personal sacrifice: he deferred to Lot rather than argue over the land (Genesis 13:8-9) and he defended lot from invading armies (Genesis 14). Even his lying about Sara was a sign of generosity. If he was mean-spirited he could have just divorced her.
- He was the example of integrity, refusing to receive any material benefit from the King of Sodom.
- Sara was a pattern of trust even toward a spouse who is a bit funky.
The mock sacrifice of Isaac illustrates many spiritual truths featured throughout the Bible:
- Sin will be judged.
- The sacrifice for sin will require the death of an innocent.
- The sacrificial subject will be provided by God.
- And will come into the world miraculously.
- The sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s most beloved son, parallels the sacrifice of Jesus, in whom God was well pleased.
- Isaac carried the wood for the altar and Jesus carried His cross.
- Isaac’s obedience to Abraham represents Jesus’ obedience to the Father.
- Isaac’s deliverance from the altar illustrates the resurrection of Christ.
These observations represent the spiritual significance but there is a practical point to be observed as well.
God staying the hand of Abraham before the knife is plunged says very loudly, to the contemporaries of Abraham and everyone that follows, that child sacrifice is not necessary and will not be accepted. No human person died.
A human sacrifice was necessary but not you or me, not your son or mine. It was the Son of God sacrificed once for all.
What better way could the world be told they don’t have to sacrifice their children and that God will provide a sufficient sacrifice for sin? Just saying these things wouldn’t have gotten the point across. From the beginning God’s instructions had been second-guessed so additional instruction wouldn’t solve the problem.
And the fact? Child sacrifice hasn’t gone away. Religious ritual is no longer involved but it is very accepted, almost encouraged, and happens with great regularity. For example:
- When we allow abortion on demand. There may be occasions when abortion is the best option but it has now become a fashionable form of birth control. Academics have recently suggested “birth control” may have been one motive behind the ancient practice also.
- When we allow them to go through school without getting an education.
- When we ridicule them for trying.
- When their needs go unmet because of financial mismanagement.
- When they are not disciplined through routine.
- When we give them money and unlimited freedom instead of time.
- When they are allowed to disrespect others.
- When they are given everything without being held responsible.
- When we force them to follow our dreams instead of their own.
- When they are verbally and physically abused.
More could be added to the list but suffice it to say that complaining about Abraham in the face of present day neglect, particularly when no one died, seems out of focus.
What do you THINK!AboutIt?