Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac

The story of a God who calls his servant to sacrifice his son seems strange in a Bible that condemns human sacrifice. Even so, these 14 short verses are a literary masterpiece that has captured the human imagination through the ages. Can Abraham trust God to keep his promises even if Isaac dies? Does Abraham have enough faith to offer the much longed for child of promise back to the one who gave him life in the first place?

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[Originally published Jun 20, 2011. Updated Jun 28, 2014.]

He Laid Him on the Altar

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.” (Genesis 22:2 NIV)

This is a strange, disturbing story for people living in 2014. A couple of preliminary comments.

First, don’t try this at home. Some delusional people think they hear God’s voice telling them to harm their children.

And second, I don’t remember how I heard this story when I was a child, what I thought or felt. Children, let me tell you that being with the God who came to us in Jesus Christ and is with us now in the Holy Spirit is the safest place you can be. If you watch TV, you know the world is filled with scary things. Belonging to God’s family should not be one of them.

The story of Abraham is set 4000 years ago, when the world was very different. Human sacrifice was real. Today, it’s a subject for romantic comedy.

Joe Versus the Volcano

In the movie Joe versus the Volcano, Tom Hanks plays Joe Banks, an unhappy office drone whose pitiful life takes place mostly in an immense, soulless factory. Joe’s day consists of mindlessly managing an inventory of trivial merchandise, barely connecting with his coworkers and kowtowing to a mean spirited boss. Understandably, Joe is beset with headaches and other physical complaints by living this way.

When Joe visits a doctor to seek a cure for his ailments, the doctor tells Joe that he has a brain cloud, an incurable disease that will kill him in a matter of months. Shortly after receiving the news of his impending doom, Joe is visited by Lloyd Bridges, a businessman looking for a volunteer to jump into a volcano. It seems that the businessman is trying to negotiate a mineral rights contract with the residents of the island of Waponi Woo, but all they want is someone to jump into their volcano to appease their volcano god. Bridges offers Hanks the opportunity to “live like a king, die like a man” – however briefly.

Joe accepts the offer and suddenly finds himself spiritually liberated. He lives more courageously in every way. He is more honest and direct in his relationships with people and quickly establishes real connections with others (including three characters each played by Meg Ryan). Joe’s trip to the island is something of an Odyssey in reverse, and along the way his boat sinks. Joe survives by using his luggage as a raft.

In one very moving scene, Joe stands on the floating luggage, looks at the moon rising over the water and prays, “Dear God, whose name I do not know – thank you for my life.” Somehow, this timid, sick little man who was previously filled with squashed anger and resentment now experienced overwhelming gratitude. Having survived a shipwreck, now lost at sea and clinging to a steamer trunk, on his way to jump into a volcano, Joe thanked God for his life.

Somehow, being willing to let go of your life gives it back to you in a whole new way. You let go of fear and find courage. You let go of self-preservation, and find life. I think there’s someone else I know who made that same point about 2000 years ago. Whoever wants to hold on to his life – to cling to it – will lose it, but whoever is willing to let go of it for my sake and for the gospel, will find it.

Human Sacrifice in the Bible

Of course the volcano worshipers of Waponi Woo are nothing but a literary device. They don’t exist anywhere except on screen. There was a time in history, however, in which human sacrifice was common. A few thousand years ago, for example, some of Israel’s neighbors sacrificed their children to their gods and Israel itself was sometimes tempted to adopt the practice. The Bible, however, takes a dim view of it. **

Israel’s temptation to follow the ways of its neighbors shows up in several places in the Old Testament. Here’s one passage from Deuteronomy 12:31

You must not worship the Lord your God in the same way as the Canaanites, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.

Here’s another, from Jeremiah 7:31, referring to the people of Jerusalem who have adopted the Canaanite practice of sacrificing their children.

They have built the high places in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.

The valley of Ben Hinnom sits just outside Jerusalem. Later Jews believed that the ancient practice sacrificing of children there so defiled the valley of Hinnom  that the land was only good for use as a trash dump, a place where the fire never went out and the worms always had rotting refuse to eat. The very name of the valley became a symbol of hell. When Jesus speaks of Gehenna – or the valley of Hinnom – that’s what he’s talking about. That’s how much God’s people came to deplore the practice of child sacrifice.

There are dozens of passages like this in the Old Testament.** [See the footnote for references.]

So the story of a God who calls his servant to sacrifice his son, then, seems strange in a Bible that condemns human sacrifice.

Where God Began

It may help to remember that the story of Abraham is found at the beginning of the story of salvation in the Bible. Abraham didn’t have the luxury of knowing everything we know. He didn’t have the Law of Moses or the words of the prophets. He didn’t have the gospel of Jesus Christ, who said “Let the children come to me, for to such belong the kingdom of God.”

Most of what Abraham knew about religion he inherited from his pagan neighbors. And I think that’s important. God began his work of salvation with Abraham right where he was – in a primitive, blood thirsty world. Of course we can overemphasize that point by patting ourselves on the back and congratulating ourselves that we are so much more enlightened than the people of Abraham’s day.

When he was the chaplain of Duke University, Will Willimon wrote:

How odd that we who … regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham. No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost. Will Willimon, Christian Century, 1983

A Test

The author of Genesis calls this a “test” of Abraham. Perhaps one thing God wanted to test was this: is Abraham at least as committed to his God as his pagan neighbors are to their gods? If they are willing to offer their children to God, is Abraham?

Is there anything that we should withhold from God? That treasure which we would withhold is the one thing that probably most belongs on the altar.

Those things to which we would cling must either be offered to the God who has called us, or they themselves will become idols that rule our lives.

When Abraham took his son Isaac to the mountain at Moriah, he placed him on the altar but God stopped him from taking Isaac’s life.

“Abraham, Abraham,” the angel called out in urgency.

“Here I am,” Abraham replied.

“Don’t hurt the boy,” the angel said, “Now I know that you trust me.”

And Abraham looked and saw a ram in a thicket, and offered the ram in Isaac’s place.

Prefiguring Christ

The author of Chronicles saw the sacrifice of the temple prefigured in God’s provision of the sacrificial ram. 2 Chronicles 3:1 identifies Moriah as the Temple Mount. In the Hebrew canon, the place of sacrifice in Jerusalem was established by God with Abraham himself.

Christians have also seen the story of salvation in Christ prefigured in the binding of Isaac.

Some of the ancient Christian commentators noted: the wood on which Isaac is laid prefigures the cross. The phrase “third day” prefigures Christ’s three days in the tomb. The ram prefigures Christ’s substitutionary atonement. The place is called, “The Lord will provide” because the Lord has provided the way for our salvation.

“God will provide the lamb,” Abraham tells Isaac. Abraham was thinking that God had already provided the lamb, that is, Isaac himself. In the story, God provides a ram. For our salvation, God has provided the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

Abraham was called to sacrifice his only son. God provided his only son as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices and make us whole.

An Echo of Abraham’s Call

God called Abraham: Take your son, your only son, whom you love and go to Moriah, to the mountain I will tell you. And Abraham went to the place God told him about.

Doesn’t this pattern sound familiar? Didn’t we read it at the beginning of this long story of Abraham’s life? Abraham heard the voice of God, gathered his possessions and went to the place God showed him.

Here we see the same thing. Abraham just goes and does what God tells him to do. He goes where God sends him.

Twice in this short passage, Abraham says, “Here I am” to God and then obeys. Like Moses & Samuel, Abraham is God’s attentive and obedient servant.

(Abraham even says, “Here I am” to Isaac in verse 7. Being attentive to God doesn’t keep him from being attentive to his son.)

So the story of Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac in some ways is like the beginning of Abraham’s story. God calls; Abraham answers. That’s what faith is.

Isaac is the Child of Promise

And remember who Isaac is. He is the son of God’s promise. He is the son born in Abraham’s old age through whom God will fulfill his promise to Abraham for descendants as numerous as the stars and for land on which to live. Chapter after chapter of the book of Genesis was dedicated to the story of God’s promise of a son. Abraham waited patiently and believed even though it looked less and less likely that the promise could ever come true. And then, just when it looked like it was impossible, Abraham and Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

That’s what we see when we read this story as well!

God calls Abraham: sacrifice your son, your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac. Isaac is Abraham’s “only son” in the sense that he is the one through whom the promise will be fulfilled. If he dies, how can God’s promise come true?

Notice that this is the very same question that is implicit in the beginning of Abraham’s story in Genesis 12 and following. How can God keep his promises when it looks like there is no way that he can keep his promises?

This is probably where the story connected with the Jewish people who told it again and again. The Old Testament as we know it probably started to take shape in something of its current form around the time of the exile in Babylon. Can the exiles in Babylon trust God to keep his promises even though they’ve lost their land, their temple and their king – all things which God had promised them?

Imagine receiving a gift from God and then life taking that gift from you. Can you still trust God?

I think that those who are most afraid to trust God sometimes are those who know that they have received the greatest gifts. They realized just how fragile life is and just how easily it could all go away.

And we cling to the blessings instead of to the one who blesses.

Life offers us precious gifts, especially in the way of spouses and children. In he church, God blesses us with the power of his spirit as we live and serve him. The world itself is filled with wonder. It is a magnificent thing to be a part of something that is so visibly touched by God in this world. Can we lay all of this on the altar?

A professor of mine once told me about how God had healed his wife from a serious disease. He had prayed for her healing, but she grew more ill. He told me that a graduate student approached him and told him that he knew what the problem was. I knew the student and thought, “How arrogant of him! How typical.” The problem, the student said, was that the professor had not surrendered his wife to God. “And you know what,” the professor added, “he was right.” So, he said, surrendered his wife to God – consciously deciding that he would trust God no matter whether his wife grew better or worse. Her future was in God’s hands. As the story worked out, she eventually recovered. But the surrender was real. He didn’t know what would happen we he entrusted his wife to the Lord.

To put Isaac on the altar or to surrender the one you love to God is not some sort of phony, sham deal that you make knowing that God is going to let you off the hook at the last moment. Abraham made a real sacrifice.

It was a Danish Christian named Søren Kierkegaard who lived in the 1800’s who pointed out to me that Abraham’s story is about real surrender and real trust. Abraham was not playing a little game with God. “I’ll pretend to sacrifice my son and you stop me at just the last moment.” This was all too real for Abraham. And it’s not a story of despair. Abraham never stopped trusting God even in this extreme situation.

We can’t make the weight of Abraham’s sacrifice disappear by explaining it away. “God was just testing Abraham. God wouldn’t have really demanded Isaac’s life. God knew how this would all work out.” That all may be true, but all that Abraham knew was that he was walking up this mountain with his child and a knife, and this trip might cost the life of his beloved son.

How could both things be true: God’s promise given through Isaac and the death of Isaac? Our little minds can’t always grasp how God can work in any particular situation, but God calls us to trust him anyway. God is the god who keeps impossible promises.

Jesus made this same offer of surrender to God, but God didn’t stop the Roman soldiers from striking their blows at the nails in his hands when they put him on a cross. We don’t know what is going to happen when we lay our lives or the lives of those precious to us on the altar.

Can Abraham trust God to keep his promises even if Isaac dies? Does he have enough faith to offer the much longed for child of promise back to the one who gave him life in the first place?

God Keeps his Promises No Matter What

God keeps impossible promises. The author of Hebrews says that Abraham believed God could raise the dead! (Hebrews 11:17-19)

The story of Abraham and Isaac affirms that God really does demand from us everything – even that most precious gift given by God himself. But the story also affirms that God really does keep his promises, no matter what.

When life demands so much from us, we too may ask, “How will God see me through this?” I don’t know.

When you climb the mountain of sacrifice, I don’t know where you will find your ram in the thicket. Perhaps you will only find it in an empty tomb at the end of the age.

Abraham said, “The Lord will provide.” Abraham’s story calls us to step forward in faith even when we don’t know how God will provide. Whether we find a ram in a thicket or only an executioner’s cross, God will provide. God will keep his promises, even if the fulfillment comes in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.

His story, and all the other stories of the bible – and especially the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection – show us that God has indeed been faithful to his promises even when they looked impossible.

God was true to his promises to Abraham in a way that Abraham couldn’t have imagined. And he will be true to his promises to you as well. Trust him.

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** REFERENCES TO CHILD SACRIFICE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT **

In the books of the Law

Every first born belongs to the Lord and should be sacrificed – but humans and some animals are redeemed (Exodus 13:1-2, Exodus 13:13-1, Exodus 22:29-30). Molech is the nature god of Israel’s neighbors, to whom children were offered in fire. The Law of Moses prohibits sacrificing children like the pagans do. (Leviticus 18:21, Leviticus 20:1-5, Deuteronomy 12:31, Deuteronomy 18:10)

In the books of prophetic history

King Solomon built an altar to Molech (1 Kings 11:7) and King Manasseh sacrificed his son in the fire (2 Kings 21:6). King Josiah, however, desecrated the Hinnom valley (or Gehenna) so it could not be used any longer for child sacrifice (2 Kings 23:10).

In the writings and sayings of the prophets

 The prophet Jeremiah denounces human sacrifice and the offering of children in Jeremiah 7:31, Jeremiah 19:5 and Jeremiah 32:35. Three times Jeremiah speaks a similar word of God about sacrificing children in fire: “I never commanded it; it never entered my mind.” Also see Ezekiel 16:20-21, Ezekiel 20:25-26, Ezekiel 20:31, and Ezekiel 23:37.