The (Near) Sacrifice of Isaac- Gen 22
Not all Biblical stories are given to us as examples of the kinds of things we should do. The present story about the binding of Isaac, or the near sacrifice of Isaac, is a good example. The question we should not come away with is “would we consider sacrificing our child if God asked us to?” That is not what this passage is about for us. … Instead, we need to ask what this was about for Abraham and for God’s people.
This is a passage that is notoriously difficult to understand, so don’t expect that we are going to have it all explained and tied up in a nice bow. This is a complex and mysterious passage, and very smart and faithful people have come to a variety of conclusions. So maybe we can think of this as a bit of an exploration, and we may very well come away with more questions than answers.
First, it is important that we name the shocking nature of this passage. God asks for a father to kill his son. This is horrifying. It is horrifying that God would ask, and it is horrifying that Abraham would obey. And I would expect that any Christian father who heard such a voice would attribute the source to an evil power, rather than the loving heavenly Father. But there is more going on here than a mere command for a sacrifice.
When we first met Abraham in Genesis, he was told to leave the land he grew up in and go to a place that God would show him. He was quite elderly at this point and he and Sarah didn’t have any children and she was beyond childbearing years. This was no doubt a painful reality for them both as family was incredibly important in Middle Eastern cultures, which it still is. They wander as nomads for 25 years. God had given a promise to Abraham and Sarah, that they would have a son, and from that son they would give birth to a great nation. This baren couple would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand on the seashore. And through their family God would bless all the families of the world.
They did try to help the plan along with one of Sarah’s servants who was still in her child-bearing years, but God’s plan was for Sarah to have the child who would bear the promise. This child would come miraculously through God’s grace into the world. This is almost as miraculous as being born of a virgin. So Isaac is born, and the promise of God to Abraham and Sarah rests on this child. In this child is the future of God’s people. In Hebrew thinking, Isaac isn’t just an individual, he is a branch on a family tree that supports millions of descendants. If he dies, they don’t exist. In this child are the Hebrews who would be rescued from slavery in Egypt. In this child is the Messiah. If he dies there will be no Hebrew people, there will be no Messiah, and the blessing promised to Abraham that his family would bless all the families of the world would die with Isaac.
So, God telling Abraham to make Isaac a sacrifice is very strange. He is not just asking a father to kill his son. He is also asking Abraham to kill the promise that Isaac represents. How do you hold these things together? … Abraham has learned that God keeps his word. Both Abraham and Sarah laughed at the idea that they would have a child, but God made it happen. God made good on his promises. But how can God keep his promise if Isaac, who represents that promise, is killed? Commenting on this passage, John Calvin said, “The command and the promise of God are in conflict”. If Abraham kills Isaac then God doesn’t keep the promise. If Abraham doesn’t kill Isaac, then he is not obedient to the God he has been trusting since he left his homeland. … There is more going on here than meets the eye.
From Abraham’s point of view this kind of request might not be that unusual. The sacrifice of a child was known in the ancient world. We have evidence of this from archeology and it was something the Bible forbade under the Law of Moses. The existence of a rule against child sacrifice is evidence that people were probably doing it. This was a practice the later Israelites detested in some of their neighbours (Jer 7:30-34). In Abraham’s day, a god who demanded the sacrifice of someone’s child wouldn’t have been considered that unusual. … Abraham doesn’t have a lot of experience with this God yet. He doesn’t have the wealth of experience we have collected in our Bible that help us know the character of God. Abraham has to use his limited experience with God and the stories about gods that were apart of the cultures that surrounded him. As far as he knew, gods sometimes asked for you to sacrifice your child.
The request from God isn’t cold. The way it is written shows us that God is aware of the gravity of what is being asked. For example, God doesn’t say, “go sacrifice Isaac”. God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…”. There is a tenderness about the words, which highlight Isaac’s preciousness. He is loved. And God seems to know the difficulty of the thing he is asking. Some translations even insert the word “please” into God’s request, which is incredibly rare for a divine command. …
Abraham “arose early in the morning” to do this awful thing. He takes his son along with two young men. The words “Son” and “Father” are repeated more than is necessary to tell the facts. The intimacy and care between father and son is being highlighted. The story is told with detail that makes the whole story slow down. We read that he “cut the wood for the burnt offering” rather than letting us assume he would have it. They take three days to get where they are going, and then they leave the young men behind to go on to the mountain. Abraham places the wood for the offering on Isaac.
We can see why Christians saw Jesus in this passage, and often have used it for Good Friday. Jesus is a son, a “one and only son” (Jn 3:16) who is born miraculously, who represents an entire people, and is the means of blessing for the world. He too had wood placed on his back, and was made to be a sacrificial offering, being killed like a lamb. But Jesus was a willing sacrifice. He was God the Son giving himself up out of love for the world, in obedience to the Father (2 Cor 5:19; Rom 8:31-32; 1 Pet 2:21-25). The span of “three days” was significant for his story as well. It was almost impossible for Christians to not see Isaac as a prefiguring of Jesus.
Abraham said to his young men who were left behind, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” … It is an interesting thing for Abraham to say. He is saying that THEY will come back. Was he trying to hide what he was going to do? Or, did he believe that somehow they would be brought through this and Isaac would still be alive? In the letter to the Hebrews the author seems to think that Abraham believed God might bring Isaac back from the dead, so the promises could be fulfilled (Hebrews 11:17-19).
Isaac notices that they don’t have a lamb for the sacrifice “and Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here am I, my son.’ He said, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’”. In Hebrew that last line is ambiguous because there is no punctuation. “My son” could be used in a vocative case, as an address. But the grammar could just as easily imply that “my son” is the sacrifice.
The story crawls along in excruciating detail. Abraham builds the altar, he lays the wood down, he binds “Isaac his son” and places him on the altar, on top of the wood. Abraham reaches out his hand and takes the knife “to slaughter his son”.
At the last moment the an angel stops him and God speaks through the angel saying, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” God seems to have learned what He wanted to know about Abraham. … Some believe that God already knows everything that is going to happen. Others think that God knows all the possible outcomes, but that the freedom God gives us allows us to choose which outcome we will take. … But what is it that God needed to know? … Humanity has betrayed God over and over in Genesis up to this point. The first couple disobeys God and turn to take advice from the serpent instead. Cain kills Abel, even after God counsels him about the sin that is stalking him. The earth fills with evil, and the flood starts things over again with Noah. But the pride of human beings build the tower of Babel as they try to reach heaven on their own, perhaps attempting to attain godhood. The track record of human beings being worthy of God’s trust is not good. Perhaps he had to be sure that Isaac wasn’t going to be set up as a rival god- an idol.
If we think about Isaac symbolically, rather than as a human being, then maybe the story could be seen as Abraham’s willingness to always place God first. No matter what good Abraham has, God is always the highest good and all other goods are to be submitted before God. Human beings have a tendency to make idols, to make alternative gods. We can worship money, sex, or power, but we can also turn good things into rival gods. We can replace God with work at the homeless shelter, or with theological knowledge, or with family. Maybe God wanted to know that Abraham still placed God first, because so much was at stake with Isaac. … It is a bit like an arrow’s trajectory. Just a hair off at the bow can mean you miss the whole target down range. Was Abraham’s heart aimed right? Did he love God first? If God was going to put the world’s salvation in the trust of Abraham, was that trust well founded? … This line of reasoning only really works when we think of Isaac as a symbol and not as a son, as a human being in danger of being sacrificed.
Abraham is prevented from sacrificing his son. Perhaps Abraham had faith that God would find a way to both keep his promise to birth a great nation through Isaac and for Abraham to follow through on God’s request to offer Isaac up as a sacrifice. Abraham followed through on his part, which wouldn’t be unusual for a man of his time, leaving God to resolve the dilemma. In a sense, Abraham put God to the test at that point- will God keep the promise? Is God worthy if Abraham’s trust?
God provides a way. Even the mountain “Moriah” seems to have derived its name from the Hebrew word for “provide”. Abraham seems to trust that God will find a way through this for them. God provides a ram for the sacrifice and Abraham calls the place “The Lord will provide”.
So what are the lessons we should learn from this story? First, God is different from the other gods. While they may demand the sacrifice of a child, this god does not require that. This God does not desire the death of Isaac. He desires the trust of Abraham. It’s also worth noting that the reason we can look back on this story and be horrified by it is because of what God has done- by forbidding human sacrifice. Sacrifice was an almost universal practice in ancient human societies. And through the sacrifice of Christ, even animal sacrifice ceased with the rise of Christianity. Perhaps the other thing we learn is that we can’t always see the way through a dilemma, but God sees it and sometimes what we need to do is trust God to resolve the dilemma, rather than try to solve if for God. The Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann has said, “Faith is nothing other than trust in the power of the resurrection against every deadly circumstance”. … It is a tricky and strange story and one that I’m sure we will continue to struggle with and pray through. Amen.