How could an all-loving God command Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac?

In 2003, Deanna Laney stoned two of her young children to death. She tried to kill her third child, who was only 14 months old, but the child survived his injuries. During the police investigation, Laney claimed God ordered her to kill her sons. Horror stories like this often get co-opted by anti-religionists. The question posed to the believer goes like this: If God told you to kill your children, would you do it?

If you say yes, you’re deranged and insane. If you say no, then you’re not as faithful as God’s man Abraham. According to the critics, the story of Abraham and Isaac shows that God is not above child-sacrifice. How could an all-good God make such a revolting command?

I’ll be honest with you, this is a weird and troubling story at first glance. But properly understood, it’s not the horror show that critics make it out to be. But to better understand it, we’re going to need to look at some backstory first.

The context of Genesis 22

Genesis 12:1-3 tells us that God called Abram to leave his family and go to a land he would show him. God promised that through Abram’s descendants, all the families of the Earth would be blessed. It was through Abram that Israel came, and then later Jesus.

Abram obeyed. Later he wavered on God’s promise because his wife, Sarah, had not become pregnant after many years. God reminded Abram of his promise. To confirm the promise, God made a covenant with Abram. During the covenant ceremony, Abram is put to sleep. Genesis 15:16 says that “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals.”

During a covenant ritual, the two covenant partners walk through the pieces of the sacrifice. Some Christian scholars say that the smoking firepot and the flaming torch represent God and Jesus. Jesus was standing in for Abraham; he fulfills the covenant. The divided animals in the ceremony symbolize commitment. It’s as if to say ‘may God split me in half if I dare to break this covenant.’ We’ll talk about this later.

Meanwhile, time kept ticking. To give God a hand, Sarah gave her Egyptian servant, Hagar, to Abram to bear a child. Hagar gave birth to a son, Ishmael, but God made it clear to Abram that this wasn’t the heir he had promised. The nation-blessing heir would be Isaac. (Genesis 17:19) God renamed Abram to Abraham, which means father of a multitude.

Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was finally born. Sarah was 90. Sarah was already barren and far past menopause, so Isaac’s birth was miraculous. A few years go by, and then God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

With the background in mind, the reader has to be asking what is happening. God promised that Abraham would bless the nations through Isaac’s seed, but now God is asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? What kind of weird, bloodthirsty deity does that?

There are three key points that critics miss when it comes to this story.

Critics fail to recognize the miraculous context of the story

For starters, they fail to understand the miraculous context of the passage. If someone hears voices that tell them to kill their kid, they can’t fall back on the fact that their child was born miraculously. They can’t fall back on times where God appeared to them and told them that God would judge two cities and then later witness its miraculous destruction.

If someone asks me ‘would you kill your son if God told you to?’ my reply would be ‘sure, if I live to be 100 years old and God speaks to me and miraculously provides a child after my wife is long past menopause, I might consider it. But only if I was fully persuaded of him returning from the dead.’’ This ties into the next point.

Critics fail to understand God’s covenant with Abraham

The objector fails to understand God’s covenant. In the ancient near east, a blood covenant was considered to be a binding and sacred pact. As I wrote earlier, the person walking through the pieces of animal flesh is saying: ‘May God split me in half if I do not fulfill everything I promise in this covenant.’ (See Jeremiah 34:18)

God gave Abraham an ironclad guarantee that through Isaac his descendants would come. He asked him to believe in a miraculous birth. Now he’s asking him to believe in a miraculous resurrection. The writer of Hebrews is explicit about this:

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and yet he was offering his one and only son, the one to whom it had been said, Your offspring will be traced through Isaac. He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead; therefore, he received him back, figuratively speaking.”

Hebrews 11:17-19

Now, this isn’t just a baseless interpretation of the story. Genesis 22 says: “Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.” What’s this ‘we’ language about?

Because of his covenant with God, Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. Before Abraham was willing to sleep with Sarah’s servant Hagar to help God out. Now he’s so firm in his belief that he knows he could run a knife through Isaac and it still won’t change God’s promise. God would bless all nations through Isaac.

So again, if I was asked ‘If God told you to kill your son, would you do it?’ the answer would be: ‘Yes if I unmistakably knew that God would raise him from the dead then I might’.

Notice that Isaac still lived with Abraham after this happened, up until he was married at 40 years old. (Genesis 24) Isaac also gives his father an honorable burial after he dies. (Gen. 25:7-9) Furthermore, Isaac isn’t angry with God over this incident, rather he builds an altar to him. (Gen. 26:25) We read that God also appears to Isaac and reiterates the promise made to his father. That brings me to my final point.

Critics fail to understand the big picture of redemption

Genesis 3:15 says that there would be a descendant of Eve who would crush the head of the serpent. But the serpent-slayer would receive a fatal wound in the process. Putting the two promises together, the crushing of the serpent’s head would bless all nations. God carried out what he commanded Abraham to do. Jesus was Abraham’s seed, the one through whom all nations would be blessed. (Galatians 3:8,16)

When God issues this command to Abraham, it could be that Abraham saw Isaac’s sacrifice as what would bring resurrection and redemption right then and there. Let’s think about it for a second:

  • He would have known of the failure of Adam to obey God’s command.
  • He would have known of the flood that came to the earth because of rebellion.
  • Abraham would have been aware of the judgment at Babel.

So when Abraham was called, he would have understood his calling as the reversal for these calamities. God disinherits the nations at the tower of Babel, but now he is told that his seed will bless all these nations.

You might think what I’m saying is a stretch, but centuries later Jesus said that Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ day. (John 8:56-58). Galatians 3:8 says that “God preached the gospel to Abraham”. Paul and John’s Gospel indicate that Abraham knew a lot more than we would give him credit for.

At the fullness of time, Jesus comes. (Gal. 4:4) He sets himself on the altar as Isaac was set on the altar. He believed that he had the power to lay down his life and take it back up. (John 10:18) He believed that by doing so he would bring in many sheep outside of Israel. (Jn. 10:16)

At the time of the 1st century, the Jewish people had little spiritual or cultural influence in the known world outside their own communities. Most Jews refused to even eat with non-Jews and made little effort to spread their beliefs.

Christianity comes along, and now centuries later, billions have worshiped the God of Abraham. All the nations of the world have been blessed by his seed. The worldwide influence of Abrahamic heritage is indisputable.

So once again, if I was asked ‘If God told you to kill your son, would you do it?’ the answer would be: ‘sure if I had miraculous proof that a.) God would raise him from the dead and b.) that by doing so my obedience would bless all nations, then I’d hope I’d have the courage to do so.’

Governments call upon us to sacrifice our sons in a war for the good of our country. Doesn’t God — who sacrificed his own Son and gives us our next breath — have an even greater right to do so?

God’s not into child sacrifice

For these reasons, the story of Abraham and Isaac does not show that God condones human sacrifice. God never let the sacrifice happen. And while the story appears to be weird if not downright evil, when you understand the miraculous and theological context, it’s not what critics make it out to be at all.

Notice that no one else outside of a strange story in Judges do we see anyone else sacrifice a child to Yahweh. And in Judges, we’re alerted to the fact that Israel departed from God. (Judges 2:10, 17:6, 21:25) Jephthah was never commanded to sacrifice his daughter.

Under normal circumstances, running a knife through your child would be a terrible idea. You would deserve to go to prison or a mental institution. But then again God did not supernaturally tell anyone else that through their line, the Messiah would come. And no one else has had a child born to them when they were 100 years old. That those elements are included in the story ought to change the way the critics view it.

Now someone might say, “Yeah, but didn’t God forbid murder? How could taking an innocent life ever be morally permitted?” Consider the following statements:

  1. God’s command to do X obligates a person Y to do X.
  2. It’s wrong to kill innocent human beings.
  3. God commanded Abraham to take an innocent life.

How can a believer of the Abrahamic faith hold all three statements consistently? We can accept 1, since God’s commands are rooted in his good nature and purposes. Statement 2, even apart from God’s command, doesn’t always hold under every circumstance. There are exceptional cases when taking an innocent human life could be morally permissible. Take for instance the September 11th attack. The president gave the order to shoot down the planes, even though they contained innocent people because they became weapons aimed at killing even more innocent civilians. While tragic, such a command was justified in an attempt to stop greater tragedies.

Also, under normal circumstances, stopping a person’s heart from beating would be wrong. But if a doctor performing a coronary bypass surgery would be doing it to save someone’s life. And doctor has the power to restart the person’s heart. So if God promises to bring someone back from the dead after they are killed, it’s still a hard command, but he’s not leaving that person dead.

Skeptics like to say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In this case, Abraham was given an extraordinary command but he had extraordinary evidence to accompany it. Only by focusing on the bits of the Bible you don’t like while ignoring the greater context can you conclude that God was behaving badly here.

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