One of the most difficult and shocking stories in the Bible is the story of Abraham and Isaac found in Genesis 22:1-19. In it God makes one of the most shocking requests. He tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son.
This story has long been a point of struggle for many, myself included. It flies in the face of who we think God is.
Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his Son?
For many this story is just too difficult, and it simply gets ignored and glossed over. But I think there’s a few important lessons that we shouldn’t ignore.
Let’s wade through this difficult passage of the Bible and see what we can learn from God’s request of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
The Story Of Abraham And Isaac
The story of Abraham is a long one. We certainly cannot cover it all in a single blog post. But we first need to understand a little about who Abraham is and what lead him to this moment.
The story of Abraham starts in Genesis 11. Abraham, originally called, Abram, is married to a woman named Sarai. We are given a very important detail about this couple that’s often glanced over; they were unable to have children.
In ancient times to be barren was shameful and made life much more difficult. Children were how you gain wealth, funded retirement, found joy, and provided safety. Abram and Sarai had none.
At this point Abram is not a God follower, and there’s no nation of Israel. He’s just a normal guy. Until God shows up.
In Genesis 12 God gives Abram an incredible promise. Leave your country and your people, and go where I will show you. And if you do that, then I will bless you and make you a father of many nations.
What’s incredible is that Abram does just as God commands. He goes all in. Takes an enormous risk, bets it all on God.
Oh, an important detail. Abram and Sarai are in their 70s, well past the childbearing years.
For years Abram follows God all over the place. He struggles here and there, but overall displays an incredible level of faith and holds onto the promise God had for him. He even enters into a very painful covenant with God through circumcision and changes his name to Abraham (Genesis 17)… Talk about committed.
Twenty years have passed since God first showed up and made this promise with Abraham. You can do the math. Abraham and Sarah are in their 90s… You don’t have kids at that age. But still Abraham trusted God.
And finally after 20 years of wandering, trusting, and hoping, they have a son whom they name Isaac.
The relief and joy they must have felt must have been surreal. To finally be holding what they had dreamed of for decades.
But we aren’t done yet. In fact that’s just the set up. In order to understand what happens next it’s important that we understand where Abraham has been.
So, let’s jump into the more disturbing part of the story of Abraham and Isaac.
Abraham To Sacrifice Isaac
God shows up to Abraham again after Isaac is much older in Genesis 21:1. Again to make a request of Abraham.
This was commonplace; if you read the previous chapters you would see this happen time and time again. God shows up and makes a request.
At this point Abraham is probably thinking, whatever you want God I’m in. He’s seen God do the impossible.
But then God makes an incredible, audacious, shocking, and frankly disturbing request…
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” – Genesis 22:2-3
I don’t know about you, but that request doesn’t sit well with me.
And what’s even more confusing is Abraham’s response. Genesis 22:3 says that early the next morning Abraham loaded his donkey and took his son to do just what God had instructed. He doesn’t hesitate. Abraham’s faith and trust in God is off the charts.
Abraham moves in a subdued matter-of-fact way he moves from one step to the next. No talk with his wife. No exploration of his feelings. No heart to heart with his son. He must have been saddened, but he was certainly not shocked by this request.
This response is very confusing to us today. Why would God request Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? And why did Abraham respond the way he did?
Let’s start by looking more into the world that Abraham lived in so we can understand what made him tick. Particularly, let’s look at common human sacrifice practices in the ancient world.
Human Sacrifice in the Ancient World
In the ancient world when things were going bad they assumed the “gods” were angry. And if things were going well the “gods” were pleased.
To manipulate the gods into providing rain, growing crops, 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 human sacrifice, often including child sacrifice.
Human sacrifice was commonplace in the ancient world. Many nations made this a regular practice.
If you’ve ever read the Old Testament you know that sacrifices played a large role in the lives of the nation of Israel. However, there was one major distinction. God forbid human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 18:10, Leviticus 18:21).
Not only was it forbidden for the Israelites to practice, God called it detestable (Deuteronomy 12:31). Further, anyone who practiced it was to be put to death (Leviticus 20:2-5).
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The nation of Israel doesn’t exist. God hasn’t said these words yet. Abraham only knows a world full of gods that demand sacrifice and wouldn’t bat an eye at sacrificing a human.
At this point Abraham must have assumed God was like all the other gods. And when a god demands something, you must oblige.
It’s important that we understand this mindset that Abraham would have had. We live in a different culture with different norms. To understand why he did what he did we need to enter into that culture.
Let’s dive a little further and look at this story of God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
Abraham To Sacrifice Isaac
Quick recap. Abraham and Sarah trusted God and followed him for 20 years. Finally they conceived and gave birth to Isaac, their beloved son. God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and off they go.
Abraham continues on the journey to the place where he will take his son’s life. Three days they traveled (Genesis 21:4-5). It must have been agonizing.
Once there we see Isaac isn’t fully in the know of what’s happening (Genesis 21:6-7). And interestingly Abraham seems to be holding onto hope that something else is about to happen. But even if it doesn’t he shows willingness to do whatever God says.
Abraham starts making preparations for the sacrifice. He built an alter, arranged the wood, bound up Isaac, and placed him onto the alter. (Genesis 21:9)
I know it’s uncomfortable. But stay in the story for just a minute.
Put yourself there. Picture yourself in Abraham’s shoes. Think about what it must have took for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. Genesis 21:10
No hesitancy, no second thoughts, he’s going to do what God asked of him.
The knife is just about to be thrust down. When… An angel of the Lord appears.
God intervenes. He stops what was about to happen and provides a ram as a substitute. (Genesis 21:11-14)
3 Lessons From The Story Of Abraham And Isaac
What a crazy story. What a disturbing story.
And what in the world do we do with this story?!
I think there’s 3 central lessons that we can pull from this story. I think these will help you come to a deeper understanding of this story AND also Jesus.
Here’s what we can learn from the story of God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
1. God Show’s Abraham He Is Different
In this moment God was showing Abraham that he wasn’t like the other gods. He was different. He didn’t demand human sacrifice; in fact he detested it.
Abraham only knew the culture he was a part of. And in his culture the gods demanded bigger and bigger sacrifices. God was teaching him that that is not the way he was going to operate. Why did God tell Abraham to sacrifice his son? To show him that he was different.
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, make 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 wiping Abraham’s preconceived beliefs of how things worked.
Some theologians end there. They say this is the main point of the story of Abraham and Isaac. But the real punch of the story is coming. There’s more that’s happening.
2. God Did What We Couldn’t
One time I tried to image what it would be like to sacrifice my own son. I tried to picture myself in Abraham’s shoes, tying my son down, raising the knife, ready to take my son’s life.
I couldn’t do it. I had to stop. Even the thought was incredibly disturbing and sickening. I couldn’t even pretend for one minute.
I can’t tell you want it would take for me as a father to be willing to sacrifice my son. I can’t think of anything. I don’t care what’s at stake. I don’t care what God said or what he promised. I simply could not do it.
When I really sit down to think about this story it makes me sick.
And I think that’s the point. I think that’s what we are supposed to feel.
I think these visceral reactions that we have to this story are the same God has. You see it’s this disturbing story, this crazy request that points us to Jesus. We just need to flip our perspective.
I’ve spent most of my life disturbed by the request God made for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But I haven’t spent near enough time disturbed by how God DID sacrifice his son.
God stopped Abraham from driving the knife into his son. But when it was his son about to be sacrificed he didn’t stop it.
He watched the nails get driven through Jesus’ hands. The crown of thorns beaten into his head. He heard the insults hurled at his son. He watched as Jesus gasped for air and cried out in agony.
He saw it, and this time he did not intervene.
That story should disturb us.
Really the story of Abraham and Isaac is a foreshadowing of what Jesus will one day do.
What’s incredible about this story is that Abraham was willing to do what God was asking of him. He was going to go through with it. But God said no, I will pay the price for you. I love you too much to have you do that. I will do the heavy lifting.
God spared Abraham from having to sacrifice Isaac and instead took the burden on himself.
The bottom line of this story is that God provided a substitute. He provided a ram for Abraham and Isaac. And he provides his son for us.
God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. He loves you too much to let you pay the price for your sins. He’s done the heavy lifting for you.
This is a story about a God who does for us what we could never do for ourselves.
3. God Provides
If I could sum up this passage of God’s request of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac I would say it points to a God who provides.
He provided a ram for Abraham, and he provided his son for us. He paid the price to provide for us what we need. And it cost him dearly.
The God of Abraham is different from all the other gods of the day. The other gods demanded to be appeased. They took from their followers. But this God, he provides what his people need. Rather than demanding payment, he covers our debt.
This is a story about a God who provides.
He’s given you himself. In the middle of your struggles, sickness, suffering, disappointment, loss, and whatever else is in front of you, you have a God that is with you and who will provide for you.
Thanks for reading this blog post about God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I hope that it helped you understand this difficult passage and apply it to your life. If it did would you share it with a friend so they can benefit as you have?
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