Sacrifice

What would it take for you to say “no” to God?

Throughout the Bible, inestimable value is put on saying “yes” to God’s plan, regardless of one’s own desires. “Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you,” says Deuteronomy 5:33, “so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess” (NIV).

Hours before his trial and crucifixion, Jesus prays that he can be spared from suffering and death, but ultimately assents: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Joseph, a man with one of the most extensive stories in the Bible, is recorded as saying “yes” to God’s plan again and again – without even knowing, as this song from Joseph: King of Dreams, notes – the reason behind God’s commands.

No passage in the Bible spends more time describing acts of faith than Hebrews 11 – often nicknamed “The Hall of Faith.” Abraham appears twice in this passage: once for believing that God will give him innumerable descendants in his old age (v. 8-12), and once for being willing to obey God’s commands and destroy the possibility of those descendants before they are even born (v. 17-19).

It’s one of the most iconic stories in the Bible – and, at first glance, one of the most disturbing. Genesis 22 finds Abraham and Sarah living happily with their miracle son Isaac, promised by God to give them descendants that outnumber the stars. One night, Abraham hears God speaking to him: “Abraham!” God says. “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.” (Genesis 22:1-2 ESV). The command seems unnecessarily cruel. “Your only son, whom you love” God sneers. Your only son. Your only chance for descendants. The child that you love like life itself. Kill him, in cold blood, in service of me.

The Bible doesn’t tell us how Abraham or Sarah reacted to this command, but it is not hard to imagine that Sarah, at least, would have been incredulous. How could Abraham dare to kill their child - their child - all because he heard the voice of God saying to do so? This thought will sound even more strange to modern ears.

Regardless, Abraham calmly wakes up the next morning, packs up the supplies for a sacrifice, and travels with Isaac, his little boy grown to manhood – the one that he loves – to mount Moriah. He prepares the altar, and Isaac lies down upon it. When his son asks him where the sacrificial lamb is, he simply replies that “God himself will provide” (v. 8). With God’s promises for generations upon generations ringing in his ears, Abraham raises the knife to kill his child – and then God essentially yells “Stop!” “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him,” God says, “for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (v. 12). Abraham looks and sees a ram caught in the bushes near the altar, he sacrifices that instead, and father and son leave the mountain together, safe.

So Isaac survives. All is well. And yet, unbidden questions linger: what kind of God would toy with someone like that? What kind of God would take someone to the edge of murdering their child just to prove their allegiance?

For Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, the sacrifice of Isaac was among the most disturbing stories in the Bible, and forces a paradox: how could Abraham both obey God, and obey God’s law (“thou shalt not kill”)?

Other theologians, however, offer a different interpretation – one that requires an understanding of the religion of Abraham’s contemporaries. Ancient pagan religions were religions of appeasement – people would make sacrifices to the gods in the hopes that they would bless them, or more often just leave them alone. There was no greater sacrifice, they reasoned, than the sacrifice of a firstborn child, and so infant mortality rates were incredibly high. For God to request his son as a sacrifice, then, would have seemed normal to Abraham. That was what gods did.

Before he goes to sacrifice Isaac, however, Abraham says something strange to his servants. Did you catch it on the first read-through? “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you” (v. 5 NIV). As far as we know, Abraham has every intention at this point of sacrificing Isaac. And yet he has faith that somehow Isaac will return with him. Perhaps God will spare him. Perhaps he’ll raise him back to life. Abraham doesn’t think he’s losing his son today.

This is where the upending of expectations happens, Rob Bell argues. “What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his son? Not this one.” God is not a God who takes. God gives. God provides. Furthermore, the story ends with God repeating his promise. God will continue to enrich, and expand, and provide for Abraham. Through him, everyone will be blessed.

Is it enough of an explanation for you? Is God a monster for asking Abraham to kill his son, even if he never meant for Isaac to die? Is Abraham a monster for saying yes to God, even to the point of almost killing his son? What would it take for you to say “no” to God?

Talk Back:

  • We have spoken in this passage of Isaac as Abraham’s only son. However, Abraham did have another son. Read our blog about Ishmael here.

  • Read Genesis 22:3-8. Do you think that Abraham knew what God had in mind? Do you think he had reasons to think that Isaac would somehow survive, or was he lying to his servants in 22:5?

  • Compare that section of Genesis 22 with Hebrews 11:17-19. What does the author of Hebrews suggest is the reason for Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac?

  • If you were in a similar situation, would the possibility of resurrection be enough of a reason for you to be willing to sacrifice your child?
  • We know that Abraham demonstrated faith in his act of sacrifice. But what about Isaac? Was this an act of faith on his part too? Why or why not?

    • What do you think Isaac was thinking through this entire situation? Was he primarily obeying his father or God by complying throughout the entire ordeal?
  • Was it fair of God to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac just to teach him a lesson? Was God going against his own moral code? How can God ask for Abraham to do something like this and still be the same God who will say “thou shalt not kill” in Exodus 20?

  • Does God ever ask us to sacrifice objectively good things? What’s something in your life – whether it’s an object, living thing, dream, or goal – that you would find extremely difficult to sacrifice if God asked you to?

  • What is the significance of the animal caught in the bushes at the end of the story, which is used as a substitutional sacrifice instead of Isaac? Is this animal in any way related to the idea of a Father sacrificing his Son? What else does Abraham’s experience here teach us about what God is going to do in history?

    • Hint: See John 3:16-17.

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