Why Did God Tell Abraham to Sacrifice Isaac?

Why Did God Tell Abraham to Sacrifice His Son Isaac?

A mom posted in a Christian Facebook group recently about her daughter’s struggle to understand why God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Genesis 22:1-2 says:

God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

Her daughter asked why God would tell Abraham to kill his own son, which, she said, would be a “wicked” command. The mom was looking for help on how to explain to her daughter that this event doesn’t make God wicked.

There were dozens of Facebook comments in response to her post. But the most popular one, based on “likes” from others in the community, encouraged the mom to share that we don’t always have all the answers and to tell her daughter to pray about it.

Generally speaking, I couldn’t agree more that we need to acknowledge to our kids that God hasn’t told us everything we’d like to know and that there are some things we just don’t have answers for. I tell my kids this frequently…when they ask questions there truly aren’t answers for.

But we do our kids an incredible disservice when they ask questions that do have biblical answers and we either 1) tell them no one knows, or 2) give them a wrong answer.

In this case, the Bible absolutely does give us an answer. And if we fail to give our kids that answer, they may eventually find the skeptic’s answer to this and related questions more compelling: that God is immoral and the Bible supports human sacrifice (one popular site calls God’s command to Abraham “pure unadulterated evil”).

I address the question of whether or not the Bible supports human sacrifice in Chapter 32 of Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith. I provide answers in that chapter on God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, the reason for Old Testament child sacrifices, Jepthah’s vow (Judges 11:29-40), why God commanded the consecration of firstborn males (Exodus 13:2), the burning of Achan (Joshua 7:25-26), and the question of Jesus’ “human sacrifice” on the cross—all examples that skeptics give when they claim that the Bible condones human sacrifice. Since the question of Abraham and Isaac is a particularly common one, I wanted to share the relevant book excerpt with you today.

 

[Excerpt begins here.]

In Genesis 12:1-2, God called Abraham to leave his family and go to a land He would show him. God promised that through Abraham’s descendants all the families of the Earth would be blessed (as we later learn, Abraham would become the ancestral father of God’s chosen people, the Israelites, and ultimately of Jesus Himself). Abraham obeyed and left his homeland. However, he later questioned God’s promise because his wife, Sarah, had not become pregnant. God reiterated His promise, saying that Abraham would have an heir.

Meanwhile, Sarah took matters into her own hands by offering her Egyptian servant, Hagar, to Abraham as a second wife who could bear a child. Hagar gave birth to a son, Ishmael, but God made it clear to Abraham that this wasn’t the heir He had promised. The heir through whom God would bless the nations would be Sarah’s son, and his name would be Isaac (Genesis 17:19). God fulfilled that promise, and Isaac was later born.

Some years pass, and we now arrive at the episode where God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Having read the backstory, you should quickly spot a problem: God promised that Abraham would bless the nations through the descendants of Isaac, but now God is asking Abraham to kill Isaac. We’ll come back to this tension—the key to understanding the whole passage—after seeing how the story ends.

Despite the difficulty of the request, Abraham dutifully obeyed. He took two men and Isaac with him to the requested location. Abraham told the men to wait while he and Isaac went to “worship,” and said they would return. When Isaac asked his father where the lamb was for the sacrifice, Abraham responded that God would provide it Himself. Upon arrival at the chosen location, Abraham laid Isaac on an altar he had built and took out his knife to kill his son. At that moment, an angel of the Lord called him to stop, saying, “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12). A ram appeared in a thicket nearby, and Abraham sacrificed the animal instead of Isaac.

Now we have the background needed to look at three key things we should take away from this admittedly difficult story. First, Isaac was never actually sacrificed. Obviously, God knew when He made the initial request that He would eventually provide a ram and would not allow Abraham to actually kill Isaac. If a human sacrifice was never God’s intent, no one can claim this story shows God approves of such actions (especially given the prohibitions elsewhere). The most a person could suggest is that God was cruel to ask something so difficult when He had no intention of letting Abraham do it. But there was a good reason, as we’ll see.

Second, God’s purpose in this event was to test Abraham’s faith (Genesis 22:1). As the ancestral father to the Israelites and, eventually, the Savior of the world, Abraham was to become one of the most important figures in God’s plan for mankind. God wanted the man in this incredible position to demonstrate great faith. The ultimate test of Abraham’s faith in God’s promises was to ask him to eliminate the only apparent possibility of those promises ever being fulfilled: Isaac. If Abraham followed through, he would demonstrate his faith that God wouldn’t break His promises—even if their fulfillment sounded impossible given what God was asking.

Last, Abraham passed the test with flying colors. Recall that Abraham told the men that both he and Isaac would return. The text doesn’t say how Abraham thought that would happen, but clearly he believed God would make a way. Also, when Isaac asked about the sacrifice, Abraham told Him God would provide it. Given the other details, there’s no reason to believe he was simply lying to Isaac. Abraham believed God would provide a way. And God did.

The story of Abraham and Isaac in no way demonstrates that God condones human sacrifice—God never actually let the sacrifice happen. Why God would make the request can be hard to understand, but the answer becomes clearer when we consider the theological context of God’s desire to test Abraham’s faith in a major way.

[Excerpt ends here.]

 

When your kids ask a question you’re not sure how to answer, the best thing you can do is praise them for thinking about it and tell them you’re going to research it (or research it with them if they’re old enough). If you find in your research that we truly don’t know the answer to their question, be honest and tell them as much. Emphasize that God gave us all we need to know and that we don’t always have all the answers we wish we had.

But we must be very careful not to jump to that conclusion before we know it’s actually the case. When we do, we risk opening our kids up to alternative “explanations” that can eventually lead them to some very wrong views.

15 Comments

  1. Brittney on May 18, 2016 at 7:21 AM

    The biggest challenge with this command to Abraham is it does not appear to fit with God’s character. Thus, today if someone were to say they felt God telling them to lie or kill or run a stop light as a test of our faith we would consider it ludicrous. In this case we know it was God’s command to Abraham and we know the end of the story… but I can’t help but wonder how that relates to us today. Do you believe God would/could test our faith today by asking us to be willing to sin (even if he were to stop us?) How do we explain that aspect of things to our children, as we know God is the same yesterday, today and forever?



    • Natasha Crain on May 18, 2016 at 2:12 PM

      Hi Brittney,

      I think it’s important to remember that much of the Bible is historical in nature and doesn’t necessarily “relate” to us today in that we should take it as a directive. For example, we shouldn’t ask what we would do if God told us to lead the Israelites in destroying the Canaanites (as God told Joshua to do). So the first thing I would make sure my kids understand is that God’s CHARACTER is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but that doesn’t mean that the historic and salvific context in which He acted and issued commands is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

      The second thing I would make sure they understand is that God WASN’T asking Abraham to sin. When God takes someone out of the world, or commands someone else to, it is not a sin (i.e., a transgression against His own law), as it would be if we did the same thing by our own judgment. In much of the OT, for example, we see God executing judgment on people (such as the Canaanites). That doesn’t make Him sinful. An all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God has the perspective and moral judgment that we cannot have. If you have my book, Chapter 3 talks about this in detail.



      • Susan R Stulting, children's director on May 1, 2017 at 1:51 AM

        Hello, I add my recent thought to the answer for, “Why did God ask Abraham to offer his only son?” question. The background for the answer is the character of God: truthfulness, self-sacrificing, just, merciful, planning a way to rescue humans out of their bad-want-to habit pattern handed down through generations from initially the first parents even while respecting human free-will God gave from the start. My take on this command by God to sacrifice his only son: God needed to establish that a human was willing to sacrifice his only son just like God was willing to sacrifice His only Son, in order for Jesus (both human and God) to be sacrificed to pay for our sins without violating God’s intentional design established at creation that humans have free will. By giving Adam the job of naming animals, God made man authoritative over animals. God has never reversed that giving of authority in spite of man’s fall into rebelliousness that results in us humans often obeying prince of darkness most, which results in Satan ruling earth through us and through our God-given (never removed) authority on earth. Therefore, you often see God asking humans to do or be willing to do something God wants to do, but is legally and justly restricted to do on earth, since He largely gave earth to be under man’s dominion and also gave humans free will to obey either side. I think God will not violate His design for humans to have free will. So, for a human to be given in sacrifice to pay for sins, God must have a human willing for that. We have Jesus, both human and divine. Somewhere there had to be a father willing so that both a human and God were offering their only Son, which turned out to be Y’eshua (Jesus) Messiah (Christ), one of Abraham’s descendants, and God’s only Son given to take the sins of the world. Both Isaac and Jesus were willing to be sacrificed. Jesus actually did. His sacrifice is in place of our punishment for sin which includes separation from God. To become a child of God, I (you) must will in that I (you) must each choose to count Jesus’ sacrifice as in my (your) own place for our sins, realizing Jesus is the perfect God-man combo. He did such a complete job finishing paying for everyone’s sins that He came back to life after dying and being buried and walked around again 40 more days talking to more than 500 people and then went to heaven home. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; John 3) A believer grows in faith after born-again, and eventually becomes more sacrificial in character, like the father willing to lay down his life to protect his kid or a hen covering chicks to protect from fire though she herself burns.

        In a sense, by Noah obeying God, since one human willed to choose God over sin, God could justly send a flood, to get the human race back on track enough to be able to send a Savior. Realize that our world view is tainted by our culture’s humanism that makes human comfort, desires, and goals seem out-of-proportionally important when we have little view of God’s longer-range goals of goodness.



        • Susan R Stulting, children's director on May 1, 2017 at 1:56 AM

          P.S. Also, I add that Mt. Moriah and Calvary are very near to each other or possibly the same spot on earth where both Abraham’s son was willing to be offered and God’s Son was offered as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.



  2. Crisho on May 18, 2016 at 1:07 PM

    I think that this story also points to Jesus Christ beeing the lamb that God provided as the substitutionary sacrifice.



    • Brian on May 24, 2016 at 10:39 AM

      You are exactly right. The OT is full of stories that are foreshadows to Christ. There are a few books out there that go through these and they are a great read. Another favorite of mine is one that you don’t often hear about. The bronze serpant in Numbers 21. Why would God, who hates graven images, command Moses to make a bronze serpant and put it on a pole? Why would he also then heal those that look to the serpant? It is a representation of Christ bearing our sin on the Cross!

      The details of Abraham and Issac’s story is amazing. They had a three day journey symbolizing the three days in the grave. This also took place in the same location that Christ would later be crucified!



  3. Marius Potgieter on May 19, 2016 at 12:29 AM

    Natasha’s explanations (three points above) is spot-on in my estimation. It reminded me of a radio interview that Justin Brierly had with Richard Dawkins on Old Testament Morality (listen to the sound track on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5_0Fx_RICI). While the other participants in that conversation talked a lot but said nothing interesting at all, N T Wright (New Testament historian, Apologist par excellence, academic and Anglican Bishop of Durham in the UK) was afterwards asked by Justin Brierly (Interviewer) what his thoughts on this topic are. NOTE: GO STRAIGHT TO 1 HOUR AND 12 MINUTES INTO THE SOUNDTRACK to listen to Tom Wright’s perspective as a superb theologian and New Testament historian, confirming (and expanding on) Natasha’s explanation. It is only when we read specific verses in isolation that we get confused, but when we view the Bible more completely a fuller understanding of God’s Word gets clarified.



  4. Tish on May 19, 2016 at 11:53 AM

    Also, if you read Hebrews 11:17-19 you see that Abraham believed God could raise Issac from the dead. He knew no matter what the promise would be fulfilled through Issac.

    17 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, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[c] 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.



  5. […] post, like my last one, is in response to some comments I saw in a Facebook group recently. A mom posted that her […]



  6. Luke on June 10, 2016 at 9:23 AM

    Hi Natasha,

    I’m not sure that your point about G-d’s promise that Isaac will have heirs is as convincing as you make it out to be. (To be clear, I am saying “I am not sure”, not that your point is not at all convincing.)

    For our time, it sounds very logical, but in times of child mortality, it was not at all unusual to name a subsequent child after a deceased one. In fact, this problem can sometimes make genealogy research confusing.

    (There is nothing preventing this sentence from being true even after the death of /a/ son named Isaac. “The heir through whom God would bless the nations would be Sarah’s son, and his name would be Isaac.” It may sound strange to us, but that’s not a logical problem. As mentioned it would not have sounded as strange to people living in times of high child mortality.)

    Jewish authorities differ on this practice, by the way (same name siblings are typically not allowed in Judaism, but there are many authorities who accept it in the case of deceased children.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d point that out and see if you have any comment.

    As a complete aside, The Story of Isaac by Leonard Cohen is the first song I remember liking as kid; I was maybe 6. I just really liked it (I did not speak English as a child, so it was not a lyrical admiration). I knew the song was about Isaac, and it was a story I liked, and wasn’t troubled by when I was little (why that would be, I don’t know).

    Thanks,

    Luke



  7. Jana on October 3, 2016 at 3:35 PM

    I’ve also heard a teacher somewhere explain that child sacrifice was common in ancient religions, so while it sounds crazy and out of the blue to modern ears, it would not have seemed so in Abraham’s time. (I don’t know if that’s accurate, and I’m not saying it alone offers a satisfying explanation; it’s just one shade of understanding to consider.)



  8. Jeffrey Frankel on February 14, 2018 at 1:15 AM

    I have always been horrified at this story of G-d commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son. I have read many comments from respectable theologians and rabbis and never been satisfied with their answers. If the original story is true, and I have my doubts, the possibility is that G-d expected Abraham to refuse to be cruel to his son and refuse to have murder in his heart. For me that would have been the right thing to do. Maybe G-d was surprised that Abraham went very far with the activity – his son must have been terrified, yet he took no notice. What father can ignore that and bring a knife to him? So G-d stopped him at the last minute and gave him a ram instead, so that he would not feel too bad about what he had done. Some hundreds of years later Moses understood how people may be weak in the presence of a greater authority and introduced the commandment “Thou shall not murder.

    At last a mensch arrived in the Judaic story.



  9. chuckles on March 26, 2018 at 12:19 PM

    One of the first tasks a Christian has is learning the character of God. First, God is not a liar. Second, God never changes. Next, God will not sin or ask you to sin. Next, Nothing is impossible for God. The Bible is the inerrant truth of God written by the Holy Spirit. It’s the TRANSLATION from the original that is sometimes weak. Next God ALWAYS tells His prophets what He is about to do. There are many more, but I think you get the idea that we must trust God and do what He says to be righteous ourselves. If we use these principles, we can read the Bible much easier.
    When we don’t understand something we read or hear, we need to apply these same principles to understand what God is telling HIS people. Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t make it untrue.
    Genesis is a book of beginnings. Each time we see something for the first time, we should make a note of it. An example might be when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son, the one he loved. This is the first time love is mentioned in Scripture. What is the most famous verse in the Bible about love. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. So here we have love and only Son in the same verse. Isn’t it weird that the sacrifice of Isaac was drawing a picture of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross? In Galatians 4, Paul speaks of the comparison of the bondwoman and the Freewoman’s children as a symbol or a “simlitude” depeneding on your translation. I’m NOT saying these stories are allegorical and not absolutely true. I am saying that they are in the Bible because they show something God wants you to know. There were literally millions of people at the time of Abraham, but the story of Abraham and Isaac was the story God wanted His people to know. This resembles that age old atheist question, “Who did Cain marry?” The only people mentioned in Genesis 1,2, and 3, are the people God wanted you to know, and it’s always men, except for Eve. By the time Cain was ready for marriage, there could have been literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of women born fr him to marry and build a city.
    Abraham was called a prophet in Gen 20:7, and this event with Isaac was a prophesy. If I were explaining this event to a child, I would show how God loves us so much that He did provide a lamb for sacrifice. It has nothing to do with child sacrifice. These are the kinds of questions we get from non believers to shake our faith. How many times do we hear that a person can’t love a God that would commit genocide on whole villages. They don’t ever say that the inhabitants were corrupted by DNA from fallen angels in Gen 6:1. Right after Gen 6:1, we are told of Noah, in Gen 6:9. The Fallen angels contaminated the daughters of men with demon seed that made giants. This seed was carried on the Ark by Noah’s wife.( all flesh was corrupt). The Septuagint says Nimrod was the first Giant after the Flood. Nimrod is also the first type and shadow of the coming Antichrist. One of the first things we must understand reading the Bible is it’s about getting a virgin clean Bride for the Son of God. The Bridegroom is the seed of the woman spoken of in Genesis 3. Corrupting the seed has been the main goal of Satan since the Garden of Eden. Killing the Hebrew children when Moses appeared, to killing the children when Jesus was born is just a couple of the tricks Satan has used.
    This picture drawn by Abraham and Isaac is a foretelling of the most pivotal point in history when Jesus defeated death and the grave. Everything from Isaac carrying his own wood, to knowing his name before he was born, to being supernaturally conceived, were all shadows of the coming of Christ. Tell the children it’s not about sacrificing children, but the unfathomable love of God for us.



  10. Frances Smeath on July 14, 2018 at 2:07 PM

    Could I leave my two cents worth? I’m impressed with the depth and breadth of these comments, but surprised that the one thing no one seems to have mentioned is the covenant nature of the relationship between Abraham and God. The whole point of God drawing so close to Abraham was to establish a covenant between them that was everlasting: the process by which the wandering Hebrew tribes became the House of Israel and God’s chosen people (chosen to be the conduit through which God’s purposes for all his children could be disseminated). If that huge change in understanding and spiritual vision was to spread through the people, they had to be led by a man who knew God personally and was convinced that He had the loving power and intention to bring about salvation and eternal life for His children. In Genesis 17, we read of the specific covenant which God asked Abraham to make with Him — in effect, a linking of mutual goals forever. What we learn from the chapters of Genesis which discuss God’s numerous dealings with Abraham personally, is that developing that relationship gave Abraham TIME to know God personally; to test His character, His intentions, His commandments. Thus, when he came to the great test of sacrificing his son to the very God who told him that Isaac was to be the father of nations, Abraham could trust that, whatever contradictory mode the command came in, God would ultimately either preserve or restore Isaac’s life, because He had made a covenant with Abraham that the seed of his loins would become the father of nations. Abraham, however temporarily puzzled and/or distressed, could go into the test with bedrock faith (NOT blind faith) that God would keep the promises He had made. I believe the key here is that Abraham actually knew who God was — he was personally familiar with the nature and goals of God’s dealings with human beings. That changed Abraham forever, and turned him from human doubt to inspired commitment. I believe, as others have stated, that this Abrahamic test is, without doubt, a foreshadow of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, but I also believe that the underlying message of the test is that we cannot be clear in our minds and hearts that what God asks of us is real, true and right unless we know Him. Not just think about Him or hope He is a nice God, but actually, through prayer, study, meditation and Christ-like imitation daily, come to know Him and trust Him. In becoming Christ-like ourselves, we follow the Savior’s example (“I do the will of my Father”) and thus come to know the Father, who is the same as Abraham’s God. Abraham knew that, even if he was somehow called to strike Isaac dead on the altar, God would raise the boy up again, because the promise was intact that God had previously made to Abraham about this son. Abraham’s focus, therefore, was NOT on the impending death of his son, but on the promise of the life he was to live and the purposes he was to fulfill. He knew he could trust this God because he knew this God. Hope this helps!