When God commanded Abraham to take his son Isaac to the top of Moriah so that he might sacrifice him before the Lord, it probably seemed like God was just like the other “gods” of the ancient world. The ancient gods of Mesopotamia were erratic, bloodthirsty, obsessed with sexuality, and always focused on self-appeasement. Human sacrifices were common among ancient peoples, and it was almost universally assumed that the more brutal and tragic was the sacrifice, the more likely it was that a god might show mercy or favor.
Consider these ancient gods/goddesses:
- El — Canaanite god — A murderous tyrant who terrified all other gods. He took the throne away from his father, murdered his most beloved son, and beheaded one of his daughters.
- Asherah — Moabite goddess — A bloodthirsty goddess who could demand the murder of both men and women, and whose temple worship included prostitution and other vile sexuality.
- Molech — Phoenician god — Worship of Molech included child sacrifice by “passing the child through fire.” Often newborn babies were placed in the arms of a statue of Molech which was surrounded by fire and the babies were consumed as a burnt offering. Parents believed that sacrificing their firstborn to Molech might help increase their financial prosperity.
- Amon-Ra — Egyptian creator and sun god — along with his “son” Pharaoh, Ra had the ability to punish human beings on a massive scale if they mocked him or upset him in any way. The role of Pharaoh as Horus, or the son of Ra, elevated him to a god-like status which allowed him to get away with something as horrible as the mass killing of infant boys (Exodus 1:22).
But the God who spoke to Abraham — the God who was called Yahweh, Elohim, and Jehovah — was supposed to be different. He was consistent and trustworthy. He did not condone murder. He protected and blessed the people who believed in Him and were obedient to Him. So it had to be more than surprising when this God seemed to be acting like the cruel gods of other peoples.
Especially since God had more than once promised Abraham that he would find safety for himself and his descendants. God had also promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations and his descendants would be blessed above anyone else on earth. God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be blessed and would also be a blessing to the rest of the world. God said things like:
“I will make you into a great nation,and I will bless you. I will make your name great,and you will be a blessing.I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” (Genesis 17:7)
And of course, Abraham believed God’s promises began and ended with his son Isaac. God had promised Abraham and Sarah that Isaac was going to be born to them in their old age. He also promised that Isaac was going to be a source of blessing for their family and for the all nations. Isaac was “Laughter”; his birth was supposed to be a source of joy for all. But now, God seemed to be asking Abraham to end Isaac’s life prematurely. Could this really be?
This story is understandably troubling to read. I hope the Scriptures, paintings, and thoughts below will help us navigate this challenging story together. In the end, Isaac is a sign of hope and not tragedy. Isaac is a picture of a much more significant Sacrifice that will come later, a Sacrifice that resulted in the forgiveness of the sins of the world…
THE SACRIFICE – GENESIS 22
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
2 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.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He 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.”
6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
This was all presented as a test, but Abraham is unaware of this. As far as we can tell from the story, Abraham never questions God. Nor does Isaac question his father Abraham. Isaac carries the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain himself, not knowing that he was in fact the sacrifice. Centuries later, another Son would carry wood in the shape of a cross up His own mountain to become a sacrifice.
The conversation that takes place between Abraham and Isaac strikes a chord on my heart strings as a father. They talk to each other like everything is normal.
“Yes, my son.”
Abraham appears wise, confident, and loving towards his beloved son. Isaac is an inquisitive son, yet he seems to display an unshakeable confidence in his dad. Abraham believed that God would provide the sacrifice. He was more than willing to allow that sacrifice to be Isaac, because he trusted that God would honor his promises about Isaac. You might even say that Abraham believed God could raise Isaac from the dead if He needed to! (See Hebrews 11:19)
Abraham raised the knife and was about to strike a fatal blow to his son. He trusted that his God was different, and that His god was in control…
ISAAC IS NOT THE SACRIFICE NEEDED
11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
Only an angel of God could stop Abraham from consummating this sacrifice. Isaac was not the sacrifice needed to atone for the sins of mankind. Isaac was simply a foreshadowing of a much more important Sacrifice to come. Instead, God provided a ram so that this sacrifice could be completed. Abraham gives the place of a sacrifice a name. A name after His God — “Jehovah-Jireh” — God will provide.
The early Christian pastor Peter Chrysologus used this very story to describe just how different is the God of the Bible:
“God seeks belief from us, not death. He thirsts for self-dedication, not blood. He is placated by good will, not by slaughter. God gave proof of this when He asked holy Abraham for his son as a victim. For what else than his own body was Abraham immolating in his son? What else than faith was God requiring in the father, since he ordered the son to be offered but did not allow him to be killed?”
I love Teniers’ depiction of Abraham and Isaac giving thanks to the Lord for the ram that replaced young Isaac as a sacrifice. I like to imagine that these two had full faith and confidence in their God, both before and after this night came to an end.
The gods of the ancient world were known for seeking human sacrifices. What they expected of human beings they would never do to themselves.
In the face of watching another father sacrifice his beloved son, the One True God of the Bible could not allow it. When it came time for God to give up His own Son, however, he did not stop the sacrifice.
This God is different.