Why would God be so cruel to Abraham and Isaac? What does it say about a God who would ask for such a thing, or Abraham who would do it? What would a Christian do if God asked the same of them? Do Christians think it’s noble to kill your son if God says to? Can God command anything? If we isolate the chapter from its biblical and historical context then it understandably leads to these troubling questions, but that’s not because we’ve understood what’s going on, but rather we’ve misunderstood.
To understand this incident, we need to see it in light of Abraham’s present, his past and his future.
Child sacrifice was something that many ancient religions practiced. If people had heard that Abraham was going to sacrifice his son there wouldn’t have been shock and horror. God took Abraham to the brink and stopped him to show to him vividly that Yahweh does not want human sacrifice. He is different than the tribal deities around Abraham, and the great nation that would come from Abraham would be different than all the nations around, and would not sacrifice their children.
The sacrificing of children was one of the reasons God expelled the Canaanites from the land in the days of Joshua (see Deuteronomy 18:9-14). God told His people they were to have nothing to do with such “abominations”.
The revulsion we feel as we consider child sacrifice is a product of the influence of the Bible. Child sacrifice has been practised by almost every culture historically, and tragically it is still practised in our “enlightened” culture. Every day, thousands of children are sacrificed on the altars of abortion clinics to the great god of “choice”. If someone supports this, then their condemnation of the account in Genesis 22 seems more than a bit hypocritical.
I have heard atheists challenge Christians by asking, “Would you sacrifice your son if God told you to?” And they are missing the point. Genesis 22 isn’t saying God might ask you to sacrifice your son; it is saying He never will. That’s not the kind of God He is.
God was not testing Abraham’s love but his faith. God had told Abraham that the great nation that would bless the world would come through Isaac (Genesis 17:19, 21). Was Abraham prepared to trust God even when he didn’t understand?
Earlier, Abraham, at Sarah’s insistence, had been prepared to send his other son, Ishmael, out to what would have been certain death. God gave him a promise that He would preserve Ishmael (21:12-13). Abraham had trusted God with his less favoured son, but would he trust Him with his beloved son? The whole experience was also going to give Abraham a taste of the heartache that Hagar (Ishmael’s mother) experienced as a result of his actions.
Abraham did trust God to work things out. In verse 5 Abraham showed that he fully expected to come back down the mountain with Isaac again. Hebrews 11:17 tells us that he reckoned God was going to raise Isaac from the dead. He knew somehow it would all work out, because God had promised.
This incident was a picture of something that would happen in the future. As Paul said in Romans 8:32, God “did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all”. Genesis 22:2 gives us the first mention of love in the Old Testament, and it is the love of Abraham for his son. It is no coincidence that the first mention of love in the New Testament is the love of God the Father for His Son – “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The Lord Jesus said that Abraham was given a revelation of the coming Messiah (John 8:56) – it could well be that Mount Moriah was where that happened. He learned, “I don’t have to give my son for God; God is going to give His Son for me.” “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
When you extract Genesis 22 from its setting, it is a challenging chapter, but seeing it in the context of Abraham’s present, past and future puts it in a vastly different light. Rather than it being a source of embarrassment for Christians, it is a source of wonder and a cause for worship.
Painting By Pedro Orrente - Public Domain