How Could God Command Abraham to Kill His Son?
Let’s look at a few fundamental points to clarify this difficult, apparently contradictory, passage. First let’s look at the verse in question.
Genesis 22:2 (NIV)
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.”
As we look at the passage we can draw out a few observations in God’s request to Abraham:
- Abraham has been exposed to God’s testing before and he is being tested again.
- God softens the language when he talks about Isaac.
- God acknowledges that Isaac is Abrahams “only” son.
- God sends Abraham to the “region of Moriah,” intentionally.
Let’s look specifically at these four points.
1. Abraham has been exposed to God’s testing before and he is being tested again.
In Abraham’s previous tests he had been found faithful. When God called him to leave the land he was living in, he trusted God. When God made a covenant with Abraham, Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. Abraham also trusted God for providing for their needs in a foreign land, for providing an heir and for the provision of Hagar and Ishmael when they were sent away. With this backdrop in mind we can see that Abraham has good reason to trust God for the necessary provisions to be made
2. God softens the language when he talks about Isaac.
Notice that God does not say “take Isaac” in this passage, he says “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac.” This is a significant distinction. God carefully highlights the relationship between Abraham and Isaac. The words are affectionate and warm.
3. God acknowledges that Isaac is Abraham’s “only” son.
Here God alludes to the promise he had made to Abraham that Isaac is the promised child, even though he is the younger half-brother of Ishmael. By calling Isaac “your only son,” God not only affirms the promise (1) that God would give Abraham a son but also the indirect promise that (2) he would bless all nations through Isaac.
4. God sends Abraham to the “region of Moriah,” intentionally.
God sent Abraham to a specific and significant location that Abraham does not yet know about. This is the first time “Moriah” appears in scripture and what makes it significant is that it would later become the region around the city of Jerusalem. This would become a significant place for Abraham’s descendants.
What God Did Not Request
First, we should realize what God was not doing:
God was not tempting Abraham. God was not enticing Abraham to do wrong, but was testing him to see if he would do what was right.
God was not instituting or condoning child sacrifice. As seen in Deuteronomy 12:31 and the other passages above, God abhors child sacrifice. It’s important to remember that God prevented the sacrifice from actually occurring. He did not desire the sacrifice as an act of worship or for any other reason beyond testing Abraham.
God was not telling Abraham to do wrong. God has the right to take human life and could therefore authorize Abraham to do so in a particular case. Note that had Abraham decided of his own accord to sacrifice Isaac, he would have been wrong and his act would have been condemned by God (as were other human-initiated sacrifices).
Why then would God give this command? The point was for Abraham to demonstrate that he trusted God completely and placed him above all else, even his own son. Though God of course already knew that Abraham had faith in him, it was necessary for Abraham to prove it through action. “His faith was made complete by what he did”. Because of his actions, not only God but Abraham, his family and future generations knew that Abraham trusted God. This trust was important because it indicated that Abraham had the proper relationship with God (he was treating God as God deserves to be treated) and could benefit from God’s good plans for his life.
Genesis 22:3 (NIV)
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.
The way that Abraham responds to God’s request is telling because Abraham had the most at stake. Abraham has an expectation that this will end well for him and Isaac, therefore, he gets up “early the next morning.” If Abraham had any doubts about God’s character he might have opted to wait a few days and contemplate the matter (wouldn’t you?). I find Abraham’s response as surprising as God’s request. Abraham demonstrates his confidence by explicitly stating that “we will come back.” Abraham certainly believed that Isaac would accompany him back to the servants. Abraham’s response gives us good reason to believe that he trusted God fully.