Why did God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?
The week after my first son was born, I was scheduled to preach on Genesis 22 and the story of Abraham’s offering of Isaac. I had to change the sermon. As I told the congregation, I thought I didn’t understand this story before. Now I knew I didn’t.
Perhaps this text has bothered you as well. God’s requirement seems so unfair, so unlike a Father of love. And Abraham’s faith seems so far beyond human ability. As we’ll learn, both appearances are deceiving.
What did God ask of Abraham?
The passage opens with a very confusing statement: “Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied” (Genesis 22:1). The Hebrew word nawsaw means to test and prove something, to show that it is so. It does not mean to tempt to do wrong, but to test so that we can do right. God is going to give Abraham a faith test, one he will pass with flying colors.
Here it is: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about” (v. 2). Remember that Abraham had waited 25 years for this son. When he was born God had promised his father, “it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Genesis 21:12). And now God told this elderly man, more than 110 years old, to sacrifice him to God.
“Go the region of Moriah,” to Mt. Moriah. This is the single most significant mountain in the world today. Where Abraham offered Isaac, David later offered sacrifice to God on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24:17-19). And so Solomon, David’s son, built his Temple here and made this rock at the top of the mountain the Holy of Holies (2 Chronicles 3:1).
Today this rock is enshrined in the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim structure completed in AD 691. It is the holiest spot on earth to the Jews, and third holiest to the Muslims. They both want it. And the Middle East conflict which rages today comes down to it.
But long before all of that, a conflict raged in the heart of an old man. He was to “sacrifice” his son here, to slit his throat and burn his body. To give up his beloved child, his heir and legacy and future, everything that mattered to him. To give it all to God.
And he passed the test. He and Isaac got up early the next morning and traveled by foot more than 40 miles over three days. He climbed up this mountain with him, and laid his bound son on this altar, knife high in the air. How did he do it?
By faith in God. He trusted his Lord, not just with his religion but with his life. Not just with what he could spare, but with his best. He knew that whatever he gave to God, God would bless. Hebrews 11:19 says, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” He knew that if God wanted him to sacrifice this son, God could raise him back to life. God could still keep his promises and make him his heir. God could do whatever God wants to do.
We see this faith in Abraham’s promise to his servants: “We will worship and then we will come back to you” (v. 5). And they did. We see it in his promise to Isaac: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (v. 8). And he did, giving Abraham the ram which replaced his son on the altar of worship.
Abraham trusted God with his best, and God did more with it than Abraham ever could. He made this one child the father of the Hebrew people. Through his descendants God brought his own Son, who died on his own sacrificial wood as our sin offering to God.
And now because of what God did through Isaac, Abraham’s seed, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29). Through Abraham’s child we are all God’s children. All because he gave his best to God, and God blessed it and is using it still today.
What does God ask of us?
Now the Lord is calling us to do what Abraham did. He wants us to let him control our lives—every part of them. To put our families, and friends, and finances, and futures on his altar. To put ourselves where Abraham put his son. To give our lives to God.
Romans 12:1-2 is the New Testament commentary on our text. Hear these familiar words in a new way, through Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message: “Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
But even God can use only what we trust to him. No doctor can treat a patient who is unwilling to be helped. God is still looking for those with the faith of Abraham.
“Take your everyday, ordinary life—and place it before God as an offering”—this is the call of God. Who is Isaac to you?