Genesis 22 is very controversial. God tested Abraham with a command to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. This story has offended countless generations of believers and nonbelievers alike. The Danish philosopher, and father of Existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard wrestled with this event in Fear and Trembling. In scripture, the author of Hebrews justifies it by saying:
“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. ” (Hebrews 11:17ff NIV)
This article is not really meant as a justification of Abraham. Yet, before moving on to other thoughts about this episode, I will point out some things to consider:
- We look at this and think how horrible such a command would be. We find the idea of a parent sacrificing their own child for anyone—god or goddess—to be outrageous. However, this is looking at it through Christian eyes. Our modern western moral view is very colored by our Christian past. In the ancient world, the sacrifice of a child was nothing new, and until the Mosaic law was not even considered remarkable. Even killing a child for non-religious reasons was not considered immoral. Ancient cultures regularly exposed unwanted children to the elements and to wild beasts by leaving them upon the village trash heap or out in the wilderness.
- I understand we are talking about the father of the faithful and it is natural to assume his morals to be like ours. But Abraham had been a pagan from the city of Ur when God called him and revealed himself to him. Joshua reminded the people of Israel that their ancestors, including Abraham, Terah and Nahor had been pagans (Joshua 24:2). Years later we still see Jacob, Grandson of Abraham, dealing with his pagan Uncle Laban (Genesis 31:19 makes reference to Laban’s household gods). Though God had revealed himself to Abraham prior to this event, He still hadn’t given the law, so Abraham still operated from a semi-pagan worldview. For such a man the command to sacrifice a child would have caused not the slightest misgivings.
- Abraham did not have to wrestle with the idea of such a sacrifice being immoral, because such a concept would have been alien to him. His god had commanded it, what does morality have to do with it? Ancient pagan thought (which Abraham had been reared in and which would have still been his own cultural view) gave little thought to what we would call morality. Religion concentrated on service to the god; interpersonal relations concentrated on honor, obligation and preventing retribution.
- What disturbed Abraham would not have been the sacrifice of a child, but the sacrifice of this particular child. However, the problem was not simply the command to sacrifice his own child, but the sacrifice of his only child and heir, for which he had waited so long. He would have seen many parents offer their children and would have seen this as a common demand of many gods. The problem with sacrificing this child is God’s promise that this child of Sarah and not Ishmael would be his heir. This is the important point that I want to expound on here.
God had promised an heir, born to him from his aged wife Sarah. They had waited so long. They had tried an alternate route to ‘help’ God along (Ishmael conceived through Hagar). God had rejected that plan, along with that child. After years of waiting, God finally fulfilled his promise to Abraham in response to Abraham’s faithfulness. After years of faithful waiting, Abraham finally had the promised child but now the same God wanted to rip the child from him on what must have seemed a whim. Of course, Abraham’s religious view would have told him the whim of a god was to be obeyed like any command. Abraham would have seen nothing surprising if God gave with one hand and took with the other. Neither would he have expected an explanation. God had spoken!
This is where it gets interesting. Abraham knew God had promised Isaac. He also knew God had the right to demand the sacrifice of that child. This was not simply a test of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his child—though this is often given as the purpose of the test. Such willingness would have been natural for someone of Abraham’s background—he had likely seen many such sacrifices in Ur and throughout the Fertile Crescent. The test was whether Abraham was willing to await the fulfillment of God’s promise in God’s own time, or would he insist on his own schedule and methods. Abraham had a history of using human effort to move God’s promises along. He gave in to Sarah’s request to conceive a child with another woman (something perfectly natural for their culture). The question here is not whether Abraham will give Isaac, but whether he will obey God even when he wants to snatch up Isaac and run to force the fulfillment of the promise for an heir.
This is why Abraham’s willingness and obedience is so important. Abraham was finally willing to trust God to fulfill His promise in His own way; in His own time. God would keep His own counsel in how to accomplish His plans. Abraham was able, by faith, to say about the sacrifice, “God will provide a lamb,” while continuing with the sacrifice he knew could cost him dearly.
Such obedience is important for us today. No. We will never be told to sacrifice our own child. Besides, since the revelation of the law and finally of the New Testament such a command today would have to be rejected as a deranged counterfeit. However, we can obey God’s righteous commands today when we have no idea of God’s plans for tomorrow. We can obey right this minute even when we have no idea what God will or will not do in the next few minutes. We do not judge our actions by whether God blesses them or not. We only judge them by whether our actions are in line with His calling; with His revealed will; with His Word.
So if you are plugging away in service to the Lord, do not look only at what is immediately before you. Don’t look at how hard the road ahead will be. Don’t get distracted when it looks like you may never receive from God what you have come to expect. Look to the Lord who called you and simply obey, while trusting Him to make the way.