How could a good and loving God tell someone to sacrifice their own child? Why did God tell Abraham to sacrifice his son?
Picture this… you have a son. You waited a LONG time to have him. For many years you thought you’d never be able to have a son. But God specifically told you that you would and you believed him. Sure enough you did; it was a miracle.
Years later God shows up again. But this time the news is not so good. God tells you to sacrifice your son. The son the you waited decades for. The son that God promised you’d one day have. The son that was going to carry on your legacy. Your only son. God wants you to sacrifice him. What do you do?
This is the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19). At first reading this is one of the most vile and repulsing stories in the Bible. God demanding a father sacrifice his son. What kind of God is this? Maybe most surprising of all is Abraham’s response, he doesn’t seem to hesitate.
Of course we know the ending of the story. Abraham is willing to do it, but God doesn’t allow him to go through with his sacrifice. Instead a ram is provided. But still this is a challenging passage to understand.
Was this just a test of Abraham’s faith? Or is there something deeper going on in this story? Why does the Bible even flirt with the idea of human sacrifice?
To understand what’s happening we have to dive a little deeper.
Human Sacrifice in the Ancient World
In the ancient world the assumption was that if something went wrong the “gods” were angry. And if things went well the “gods” were pleased. To manipulate the gods into providing rain (but not too much), aiding in pregnancy, and keeping away disasters they would offer sacrifices. The assumption was if you offered a sacrifice and things didn’t go as planned you didn’t offer a big enough sacrifice. So the sacrifices got bigger and bigger to appease the gods.
This eventually led to the biggest possible sacrifice: children.
Sacrifice plays a large role in the Bible; the price for sin in the Old Testament was sacrifice of an animal. But the Bible makes clear in many places that this was never to be human sacrifice, (Deuteronomy 18:10, Leviticus 18:21) often calling it detestable (Deuteronomy 12:31). The penalty for anyone who did practice human sacrifice was death (Leviticus 20:2-5). The point is that God is clearly against human sacrifice. Jesus is a different story, but that’s another topic for another time.
The Israelites weren’t the best at listening, and it didn’t take them long to copy the way of other cultures. Gehenna, the word Jesus often used for hell, was a common place for child sacrifice. Time and time again God’s people practiced this detestable sacrifice.
Often times when we read Scripture we think because it says something that means it is condoning it. But that’s not the case. Often times the Bible is simply recording what happened. I think the story of Abraham shows us how God set up a new and revolutionary way for his people.
Abraham and Isaac
Starts the Same as Others
Let’s go back to the story we started off with. The story of Abraham being called to sacrifice his son. For years this story bothered me; why would God ask someone to do that? I would struggle with what I would do if I were in his shoes. But once I understood what was going on it started making more and more sense.
When we read this we have to put ourselves in the ancient world. We must think like them and read this as they would have understood it.
First we must understand Abraham was not an Israelite by birth. He wasn’t raised to understand the Bible, it hadn’t even been started yet. He was living his life and one day late in his life God showed up and promised to start a nation through him. Why is that important? Because he was just learning what it meant to follow God.
By the time we pick up this story he’s actually doing pretty good. But he still thinks like the rest of the ancient world. So when God tells his to sacrifice his ONLY son, he doesn’t hesitate. He just does it.
Have you ever wondered why he didn’t even hesitate? I mean if God showed up to me and said the same thing there’s no way I’m going to react that way. But we have to put ourselves in his shoes. This is how his understanding of the gods worked. You had to offer sacrifices to appease them. This request was par for the course.
This story starts off like so many others in the ancient world. A human sacrifice to appease the gods, in this case the only God. Abraham doesn’t hesitate because this is how he understood things to work.
But Ends Different
But this is where it gets interesting.
Just as Abraham is about to plunge his knife into his son (I mean seriously what is the son thinking?!) God intervenes.
The story is just about to go where every story before it has gone. But then God shows up and says, no, no, no. Sacrifice this ram instead.
For years I’ve heard this taught as God was testing Abraham’s faith. I don’t know, maybe that’s true. But that sure seems like an awful cruel way to do that. Especially for the son! Another common teaching is that this is foreshadowing of God sacrificing his son Jesus, except this time there is no ram. There is certainly some correlation. But there are also stark differences in the story, and still that seems kind of a cruel way to get that point across doesn’t it?
There’s something else going on. God wasn’t demanding a sacrifice, he was teaching Abraham his way. God was rewriting how things were done.
Abraham only knew the culture he was a part of. And in that culture ever bigger sacrifice was required to appease the gods. God was teaching him that that is not the way he was going to operate. He made Abraham what would have seemed like a common request, but then added a twist. Why? To show him a better way.
A Better Way
This new way was revolutionary. Unlike the other gods of the day, this God didn’t need to be appeased. In fact as the story unfolds we see that not only does God not need to be appeased, but he’s willing to go to incredible lengths to show his love for his people. A total reversal and revolutionary approach to God.
In other religions you had to do the work, the sacrifice. God shows a new system in which he does the heavy lifting for us. His people still have a responsibility, but it’s in partnership with God not to gain his approval. It’s new, it’s different, and it’s revolutionary. God was showing Abraham that he was not like those other gods. He was wiping Abraham’s preconceived beliefs of how things worked.
Why This Story Matters
Our 21st Century eyes miss what’s going on beneath the surface. This was a brand new approach to understand God. It was the beginning of a story of a God that would go to extreme lengths to bring his people back to him.
Throughout the Bible God challenges the way people think about and interact with him. He shows that his interest is not like the other religions/gods who demanded more and more from their followers. Rather he is interested in something else, something deeper. God desires a relationship, not subservience.
This was different than anything else, and God goes to an extreme measure to show how he was different than the other gods of the day. A little peak beneath the surface shows us the depth and beauty of this story.