What Kind of God Would Command Abraham to Sacrifice His Son Isaac?

Sep 13, 2019

There are few stories in the Bible more confusing than the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. To many, this story makes it seem like God is an arbitrary—and maybe even wicked—deity, demanding that people commit evil deeds in order to prove their loyalty to Him. Even for Christians, this story can push the bounds of who we understand God to be. But is this story really about blind faith and obedience to a capricious God? This week, Vince and Jo suggest a fuller context for this story and point to the God who alone provides the true sacrifice.

Question Asked in This Episode:

“What kind of God would command Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac?”

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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I'm your host, Michael Davis. There are a few stories within the Bible that bring greater confusion than the story of God commanding Abraham to kill his son Isaac. For some, it seems that it portrays God as an arbitrary deity that demands evil to be done in his name in order to prove loyalty. Even for some believers, the fact that the writer of the book of Hebrews said that Abraham's willingness to do this was counted to him as righteousness confuses the matter further. How are we to look at this story in light of the cross?

Michael Davis: So this question actually is like this kind of amalgamation of a bunch of different people's questions. It's very similar. What kind of God would command Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac?

Jo Vitale: Ooh, that is, I'm not surprised. A lot of people have asked that question. That is such a challenging one for all of us. I don't think that you can read through the Bible and come across this passage and not just brace yourself at it. The words are so harrowing.

Jo Vitale: So this is Genesis chapter 22, verse two. It says: “Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said, ‘Abraham, take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the region of Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain that I will show you.’"

Jo Vitale: I mean, I think when you just step back and just read those words, when you're going through scripture and you're immediately like, what on earth is going on? Because we genuinely can't even imagine God saying something like that to us today. And if someone came to us and said, God has told me to do this, we'd be like, you're crazy. You're certifiable. That is never something that God would ask. That's completely immoral and awful. What on earth is going on?

Jo Vitale: So I think this is a powerful question. I think it's a question you'll hear a lot from those who are opposing the Christian faith, as well as a challenge that will often come up. It's Richard Dawkins who points to this text actually and says by the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example of child abuse and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense, I was only obeying orders. Those are the kinds of comments you're going to hear about that verse. But you know, I think on a superficial swift reading of scripture, when you just flip open the page and read it without trying to even get into the story or understand it, I totally understand the force of the question and why people struggle with that so much.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, I call it sometimes the Twitter translation of the Bible. So we think everything useful, all the meaning of what's trying to be articulated can be said in 142 or now is it-

Michael Davis: 280.

Vince Vitale: 280 characters. And so we, we take this passage out of its context and we have real trouble understanding it. But maybe just to broaden that out for a second as well, I just want to give an encouragement about difficult passages of the Bible such as this, but this is not the only one. And I think sometimes as Christians when we come across difficult passages, we get discouraged and that's understandable, but there's also reason to be encouraged. And I was thinking about the fact Jo, that even in our relationship, the two things that you wrote to me that were the most difficult, I'm thinking of that list of 40 things that you wrote to me that no one else knew about you, that you wanted me to know.

Vince Vitale: And I'm thinking about that 42 page letter that you wrote to me from Mongolia that I had to write all the notes in in the margins and wrestle my way through and talk to you about once you got back from that trip so that I could really understand it. Those were the most difficult things that you ever wrote to me, and they were also clearly the most meaningful things. The things I would never trade for anything else, but they took time. They took effort. They took wrestling and commitment in order to fully understand them, but the result of that was deeper relationship.

Vince Vitale: And so if God had provided us with a book that was just a simple read, you just open it up once. You could read it in a single sitting and it all made perfect sense. On the one hand you might say, Boy, that would be nice, but it also would speak to perhaps a superficiality of relationship that was intended. We should be encouraged when we read the Bible and say, this takes some wrestling because it's precisely that wrestling that points to the depth of the relationship that God wants with us. So let's not forget when we read the Bible that is not intended to just be a textbook that gives us answers. It's supposed to be a way into relationship and a way into a very deep relationship. And if that's the case, we shouldn't be surprised when there are difficult passages and we should actually in one sense be encouraged by it.

Jo Vitale: And I think that's particularly true in the sense that the Bible is reflecting true history and things that are going on at a period of history that, you know, we're scratching our brains trying to understand what did this mean back then, not just what does it mean now? And in some ways that, you know, it gives me a great deal of sympathy for Abraham here because this must have been doubly confusing for him. Because actually at least when we come to this text, we're reading it in the framework of scripture. And actually there are so many verses in the Old Testament that talk about the abomination that is child sacrifice. Actually when you read the Old Testament in context, it couldn't be any clearer how God feels about child sacrifice. You know, his whole point in judging some of the cultures around Israel is precisely because of the way that they are offering their children to the God Malek in the fire.

Jo Vitale: And it says it time and again, like don't do this. I haven't asked this of you know. This is precisely what the nations around you are doing that I would never dream of asking you to do. In Jeremiah God says of child sacrifice that this is what other people are doing and I did not command it and it didn't even come into my mind. You know, elsewhere in Isaiah the prophet is talking about judgment on the surrounding nations because he speaks of people who are under every luxuriant tree that they're committing idolatry. And one of the ways they do that is by slaughtering their children in the ravines and under the cliffs of the mountains.

Jo Vitale: And so that's the kind of culture we're in, but God speaks so clearly against that. But of course Abraham doesn't know that because this is before any of these laws have even been written down. And in fact, so Abraham doesn't have those laws in place. He's just getting to know this God who he's been journeying with, but also he's living at a time when people were doing this sort of thing all the time. So there's definitely a wrestle going on here. You can imagine the sort of questions coming into Abraham's mind in the context in which God spoke these words to him.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, and sometimes I think we imagine God speaking these words to Abraham in quite a harsh way because of the way we perceive this a command from God. But actually when you dig into the actual text, there's a real tenderness actually to the way that God speaks to Abraham here. First, he refers to Abraham by his name, by Abraham which means father of many. So on the one hand there's this request for him to offer his son. On the other hand, he's referring to him as the father of many. He's reminding Abraham of his name, given to him by God and the promise that there is in that, that he will have countless descendants. Then he says, take your son, your only son. And again, that can sound harsh, but something that Jo pointed out to me was that in the original language, if God had just said the Hebrew word [Hebrew 00:08:48], it would mean take in a just an emphatic way.

Vince Vitale: But because it says [Hebrew 00:08:53], that changes the meaning of it to a type of tender plea. Take please, or take I beg of you. And then we see this tender way in which God speaks about Isaac. He says three times your son, your only son, the one whom you love. And whenever you have that spoken of three times like that in a text, it's really emphasizing that God understands the love that Abraham has for his son. And actually this is the first time in the Bible that the word love appears. And isn't that amazing that the first model we're given in the Bible for this concept of love is a father who is being asked whether he is willing to offer his son as a sacrifice. And obviously that begins to point us to the whole story of the Bible.

Jo Vitale: Yeah. I think what Vince is clearly illustrating here is these aren't words given as a callous command. There's so much empathy and compassion in the way that God is even speaking to Abraham. Even in this most difficult of requests, there's a clear understanding of exactly how high the cost is of what he's asking. And it's also interesting that the language deliberately parallels the way that God first called Abraham. You know, initially he says in the first place, go by yourself from this land to the land that I will show you. And now here again he's saying, go to the place that I am going to reveal to you. And so there's this mirroring of God's call. I think again, a reminder to Abraham of, Hey, maybe there's more going on here than perhaps we're assuming. It's also interesting to me because people, you know, we talk about Abraham as the father of faith, don't we?

Jo Vitale: And I think we have this idea in our heads that he's the sort of perfect hero of the Bible. But actually when you read this story in context, and I think this is what is going to help us understand this text, is that actually for most of Abraham's life he's done anything but display faith and trust in God. I mean even when God first commands him to go in the first place by yourself, Abraham basically disobeys that because he brings his nephew Lot with him as his heir.

Jo Vitale: And then God continues to say, Hey, I'm going to give you offspring who are going to be so numerous they're going to be like the stars in the sky and this is my promise to you that you will have your own children. But Abraham keeps disbelieving it, first with a Lot and then when Lot moves on, he then appoints another heir, his manservant Eliezer and then after that when Sarah hasn't got pregnant after a long time, he then takes his maidservant Hagar and has his son by her as a way of kind of circumventing the promise, just to kind of force it to happen because it's like God isn't coming through.

Jo Vitale: And then even when God says, no, no, I'm going to give you the promise heir to you and Sarah, like I said, I'm going to give you Isaac, Abraham gets annoyed and says, why can't it be Ishmael? Why can't he be the one? At every point he basically denies God's promise and says, you're not going to provide for me. This isn't going to happen. Until you finally get to this point in the story where finally they've come to a place where Isaac is here, you know his name means laughter. He's the joy of Abraham's life and now God is requesting this huge of him.

Jo Vitale: And I think the point here is that that Abraham is at that place where God is saying, okay, at every point you haven't trusted me that this promise is going to come to pass, that Abraham is going to live, that he's going to be the one through whom you're going to have all these descendants and the promise that I've made you is going to come true. And now it's that big test. In the face of a request this huge and this overwhelming, are you actually finally now going to have the faith to believe that despite everything in this moment, despite the circumstances, I'm going to be good to you and I'm going to come through on this promise.

Vince Vitale: I just think that's so encouraging that Abraham, we think of him as the hero of faith, but is it eight separate occasions in which God really promises him, yes, I really am going to give you this son? And each time he has a different plan. Abraham has this plan B in case God doesn't come through and he has to deal with it himself. I just find it so encouraging that Abraham, the hero of faith, he still called that and yet he didn't really figure faith out until he was over a hundred. That just gives me some hope. You know, that there's just still a chance. There's still a chance that we'll really figure out this idea of trusting God.

Jo Vitale: What's amazing in this moment is because this is the hardest thing God has ever asked of Abraham. But actually for the first time, his response in this text is actually different. You know, because actually rather than protesting, rather than finding a way around it, this is the first time where Abraham, actually it says he gets up the next morning and he just goes. And you're like, how does he do that? But then throughout he's walking out this journey where he keeps saying things like, you know, when Isaac says to him, where's the lamb for the sacrifice dad? And you're like, Oh my goodness, this is the most tense conversation in history.

Michael Davis: Awkward.

Jo Vitale: Yeah, super awkward. But Abraham responds by saying, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering my son. You know, and you're thinking, is he just making stuff up to placate him or actually does he believe that for the first time? And then he says to the servants, when he tells them to wait behind as they go up the mountain, that both of them are coming back. There seems to be this expectation that they're both going to return.

Jo Vitale: And what also is fascinating about this text, because you know Richard Dawkins has talked about it as if this is an example of child sacrifice and child abuse and all of these things. But actually when you really get into the text, there's a big question mark over whether Isaac is actually a child at all because three times in the narrative it talks about Abraham and Isaac going on together. And whenever anything is said three times in the Bible, it's kind of this big red flag saying, Hey, pay attention to this text. That seems to be pointing to the fact that actually this isn't just the journey of faith for Abraham, but somehow both of them are in it together.

Jo Vitale: And then we have this word that is used to describe Isaac as boy, which is translated, you know, we think of it in our Bibles as a young child, but actually that's the same word used for young man in the Old Testament. It's the same word used to describe other people in their early twenties. So clearly it's not just indicating that that he has to be below like the age of 10 as I think our minds typically imagine. And then you have other little clues as well in the text, like the fact that Isaac himself is strong enough to carry the wood for the sacrifice all the way up the mountain.

Vince Vitale: The wood for all burnt offerings.

Jo Vitale: All burnt offerings. You're thinking, hang on, that's quite a hefty weight there. Is this really a small child that we're talking about? And so actually when you build up the pieces, Jewish tradition actually tends to speak of Isaac, not as a young child, but as a young adult, a young man, which when you realize that from the details of the text, it actually reframes this whole thing because you suddenly realize, Oh my goodness, this doesn't seem to be about a father pitting his son in an abusive situation. But actually could it be that they're both on this journey together, that they both have this understanding and this faith and expectation that they're in it together, but the God is somehow going to come through? And perhaps this is the first clue for us, you know, we talk about God, the God of Abraham, but perhaps he's also the God of Isaac too and this has much to do with the faith of Isaac as it is to do with the faith of Abraham.

Vince Vitale: And it makes it all the more amazing that then when they get up onto that mountain and Abraham binds Isaac that he's able to do that. Remember Abraham's over a hundred. Isaac is probably a young man, you know.

Michael Davis: Able to carry all that wood, yeah.

Vince Vitale: He's able to carry all of that wood. If there was actually a resistance taking place there, Abraham would not have been able to do that.

Jo Vitale: Right. Who's taking who in that fight.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, exactly. So they're participating in this act of obedience and trust to God, and the symbolism that is carried with it all, together. And then there's this amazing line when Abraham and Isaac set off to go up the mountain and he says to his servants that both of them are going to be coming back. In verse five it says that Abraham said to his servants, Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you. So Abraham clearly expects that even though he's going up in obedience to God and with this willingness to sacrifice, that both of them are going to be returning. How can he possibly think that? What is going through his head? And there's this amazing passage in Hebrews 11, when we fast forward, that then gives us a glimpse of what Abraham is actually thinking.

Vince Vitale: And here's Hebrews 11. Starting in verse 17 it says: 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 the dead. I think that's incredible and people are often so confused about what this story is really about.

Vince Vitale: It's not a celebration of blind faith. It's not a celebration of faith that says, God, I will follow you even if you're not good. God, I will follow you irrationally. That's not what this passage is about. It's the exact opposite. Abraham reasoned that God had proven in his life that he was good. He reasoned that God could raise the dead. He reasoned that it was safer for Isaac to be in the center of God's will than to be anywhere else. And even as he raised that knife, the test of faith was not whether he would be willing to cause the death of his son. The test of faith was really whether he finally believed God for the life of his son.

Jo Vitale: And I just think that's key here because I think people are assuming this is about saying, “well, true faith means following God even if he's not good.” But actually this passage is about saying, God, I will follow you because you are good. Even in the face of the worst of circumstances, even when I don't understand what you're doing or what is going on, I'm going to hold to the fact that you are good and that you will keep your word, that you're trustworthy. It's not about worshiping a God who breaks his promises. It's about trusting God that he is going to keep them. And I think when we realize that it just turns the whole thing on its head completely. And it also changes the way that we look at this text because I think some people look at it and they think, okay well but is this still saying that child sacrifice is okay? Is the Bible giving mixed messages somehow here?

Jo Vitale: But I actually think this story and these events take place precisely for the opposite reason. That actually the reason this is in scripture is because God really wants to make a point about child sacrifice that is so memorable and so significant that even thousands of years later it's still ingrained in our collective memory as the people of God. And just think about that. Think of the significance of this action. Because it's one thing to give a command saying, Hey, don't commit child sacrifice. I think it's terrible.

Jo Vitale: But actually it's another thing to do it in such an intentional way, to take Abraham and Isaac up to the very place, the high places where sacrifices were made and right in that very place where these horrendous crimes were committed to bring them to the brink and then to provide a Ram and to show for all time actually this isn't the way I want you to live. I don't want you to be people who sacrifice your children for the sake of faith, for the sake of worshiping me. Actually, it's the other way round. I'm going to be the one who provides for you and makes a way for you. And I think we see that even in our own life, that actually there's a power in an act of protest.

Vince Vitale: I remember Jo, we were thinking about that a while back and trying to think of another example of this sort of prophetic action and we thought of Rosa Parks and this idea of wanting to protest racial segregation in America on public transportation. But she didn't do it by just avoiding riding buses. No. She did it by going right to the place of injustice, right to the moment when she was supposed to conform to the horrors of her day. And then right there, right then, she made that public statement of defiance. And that seems to be what's going on with Abraham here as well.

Jo Vitale: Yeah. This is just this beautiful biblical picture for us way before Christ even comes of God basically saying to us that, unlike every other religion, being right with God, isn't about what we sacrifice even to sacrifice our own children. But actually it's about the God who provides a sacrifice for us, even of himself. And how amazing in the light of that, in the light of Christ coming, is that statement in this chapter that says on the mountain of the Lord it is provided. And I've been thinking about this a lot because this text takes on a new challenge once you have a child, right?

Vince Vitale: You're exactly right.

Jo Vitale: You suddenly experienced it in a completely different way. But I've been thinking about it even in a different sense of what does my faith look like? Because it's one thing to trust God with my own life but do I actually trust him with the life of my son? Do I trust that God will be good to our child even in the face of suffering, even in the face of death? You know, you just don't know what is going to happen to him in this world. But do I trust in the goodness of God and that God is a God who will keep his promises?

Jo Vitale: And I think for me what anchors that is the resolution of this text. And in the New Testament when we see another father and son taking that journey up the mountain, you know, the father who doesn't spare his own son, the New Testament says, but gave him over for us all. And then the son who like Isaac, is that willing participant carrying the very wood for the sacrifice on his back, carrying that cross, who says of himself, No one will take my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord, and that he is that provision for us. And that is the guarantee that that God has provided for us and therefore he is a trustworthy God. He's a God who's good and a God who will keep his promises, whatever life throws at us.

Vince Vitale: Yeah. That's so challenging Jo, and it just reminded me of a story that I think we've told before, but it's so relevant to this, of our colleague and dear friend in Nigeria who was going through a checkpoint which was very dangerous for him to drive through. And as a Christian driving through that checkpoint could have meant real harm for him and his family. And he had his boys in the car. He's a pastor and he had a clerical collar on. When he saw the checkpoint, he turned down the Christian music and he took out the collar. His boy said to him, Daddy, what are you doing? Don't you want them to know that we're Christian? And that really stopped him and brought conviction, and he wound up putting the clerical collar back in. And then miraculously they went through the checkpoint he said as if no one could even see them and they just sailed right through when they really should have stopped them and done an intense search of them.

Vince Vitale: But just that very similar question, do I actually trust God, not just with my own life but with the life of my children? Am I going to take this into my own hands or am I going to trust that even if it meant that God needed to raise from the dead, my children are better off in the center of God's will for their life than with me trying to protect them by my own strength in any way that I could.

Michael Davis: Well guys, we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.

Vince Vitale: Well, I hope it's been an encouraging episode for you. I find it encouraging because if you Google the worst passages in the Bible, this passage will make the top 10. Last time I checked, I think it's number eight. It is easier than ever to find the so-called worst passages in the Bible. The question for us as the church is, Is it easier than ever to find deep, robust responses to those challenges?

Vince Vitale: And I get so encouraged looking at this passage because when you read it on the surface, a thin reading of scripture is sometimes worse than no reading of scripture. But when you read this passage deeply and you engage in the relationship that is intended by the text, then what you find is that it's an incredible passage. It's a passage which is which is so full of the richness of the gospel. And then all of a sudden things change. And I get excited about people potentially asking me this question because I want to tell them about Abraham. I want to tell them about a man who even in his very old age, finally figured out what it looked like to put his full trust in God. About a beautiful partnership and trust between a father and a son. About a God who provides, who does not ask us to provide a sacrifice for him, but who provided a sacrifice for us.

Vince Vitale: And I want to tell them about a God who keeps his promises, a God who kept his promise to Abraham, that through his descendants, all people on earth would be blessed. And he kept that promise because many years later we encounter another father and his son, his only son, whom he loved, a father and son who set out on a journey. They did it together. The son was a willing sacrifice and they journeyed up that mountain. The son carried the wood for the sacrifice and the father pressed on in the face of grief. And with that son as a willing participant, they got to the place of provision. He was crowned with thorns like a ram trapped in a thicket. And then this beloved son, the lamb of God finally offered himself as a sacrificial, a substitute, fulfilling that promise that God makes to every one of us, that if we put our faith in him, we too shall live.

Michael Davis: Amen. Praise God. Vince, Jo, thank you guys so much for joining me. Thank you all for listening and we will catch you guys next week.

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