Sacrifice of Isaac

Sacrifice of Isaac

The 11th Chapter of Hebrews gives a lot of space to Abraham. Obviously he was an important figure not only in the history of Christian faith. All three major religions of the West (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) trace their origins to Abraham. The author of Hebrews speaks from the perspective of a Jew who converted to Christianity. He not only knows Abraham’s stories from the Torah, he also knows Jewish traditions that were taught in the first century.

So far, we have covered Hebrews 11:8-14 regarding Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, and the long, arduous journey to God’s fulfillment of the promise of a son, named Isaac. I have gone back to the stories in Genesis and tried to highlight the details that seem most revealing about them as characters.

Now we get to perhaps the most famous (or infamous) story about Abraham and Isaac. The author of Hebrews cites this as an example of Abraham’s great faith. But the story is disturbing. It raises questions about the character (or perhaps sanity) of Abraham. It even raises questions about the character of God. What kind of God would command a man to sacrifice his only son?

Angel stops Abraham from killing Isaac, ram shown
Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac

As I write this, I am not trying to justify Abraham’s or God’s actions, but rather to understand them. This is a character study. A writer must understand their characters, whether they agree with them or not. So in Hebrews chapter 11, we read:

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.”

 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead– and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

(Heb 11:17-19 NRS)

He Considered…that God is able even to raise someone from the dead

So according to the author of Hebrews, Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. He has already told us God’s resurrection power showed when God gave Abraham and Sarah both the power of procreation when they were both “as good as dead” (in terms of fertility, see vv. 11-12). Abraham experienced resurrection once. Why not again?

I am not sure where the author of Hebrews got this idea. There might have been a Jewish tradition for it. Or it may have been in the text, hiding in plain sight. Let’s look at the original story, in Genesis 22.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

He said, “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 that I shall show you.”

(Gen 22:1-2 NRS)

Offer him as a burnt offering

The first thing you should notice, besides the horror of it, is this command makes no sense whatsoever. After all the trouble God went through to give a son to Abraham and Sarah (see parts 1, 2, and 3), God wants to do away with him? In a burnt offering, you kill the animal (that’s usually what they sacrificed) then set it up on an altar, torch it, and let it burn completely. Most sacrifices were eaten by the worshipper and the priest. The burnt offering, obviously, was an exception. It was considered the highest form of devotion to the deity, since the worshipper did not receive any benefit from it.

God tells Abraham to do this, not with calves or bulls or sheep, but with Isaac. God promised him and Sarah descendants so numerous they could not be counted, like the stars in heaven. Right now, Isaac is the only descendant they have, but when he grows up and has children of his own, and they have children, and they have children, he will indeed have a whole lot of descendants. That was how it was supposed to work, right? Did God change his mind?

Your only son…whom you love. If you’re a Christian, you probably hear the echo of this in John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

(NRS)

Neither Abraham nor Isaac had read the Gospel of John (obviously). What I’m looking for is what does this mean to Abraham and Isaac as the story is happening to them?

Child Sacrifice in Canaan

We should note that this was not unheard of to Abraham. He knew what a burnt offering was. And we know from documents recovered from that period that the Canaanites and other inhabitants of the land practiced child sacrifice to their gods. In some tribes, the first born son especially belonged to the deity, and so was doomed from the start.

Living among people like that, questions would naturally come up. Why didn’t Abraham sacrifice his first born son? Was he less devoted to his god than the Canaanites were to theirs?

People most likely pressured him about it. “Gods don’t like it when mortals don’t offer what belongs to them. Remember Zadok? He didn’t offer his son, and Ba’al struck him with leprosy.”

He must have been afraid that at some point God might ask this of him. “Don’t you fear your God? Your God must not be real if you don’t fear him.” All this is probably going through Abraham’s mind as he sets out on his journey.

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.

(Gen 22:3-4 NRS)

On the third day

Two of his young men, either slaves or hired hands, accompanied Abraham and Isaac. He heads for the place God showed him, but he doesn’t see it until three days of traveling? And even then it’s far away? How far away from his tent was he when God showed him the place? He would have to have traveled alone for several days. I guess he must have traveled away from his camp for some reason, God spoke to him, he came back and set out for the place far away. I wonder what he told Sarah to explain why he and Isaac would be gone so long.

Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”

(Gen 22:5 NRS)

We will come back to you…maybe

Some preachers say this is why the author of Hebrews drew the conclusion that Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead. He said, “We will come back to you.” That could only happen if God raised Isaac from the dead. Isaac’s birth happened because God gave the power of procreation to two people who were “as good as dead.” That was a resurrection of sorts. Why wouldn’t he believe God would do it again? Isaac was the child of the Promise. He couldn’t die without fulfilling his role in God’s promise. Therefore, in Abraham’s mind, God will raise him from the dead.

Personally, I’m not sure it’s that simple. He might have said “we will come back” to avoid the objections the men (and probably Isaac) would have made, if he had said, “I will come back to you.”

Isaac following his father with the wood for the burnt offering on his back
Father, where is the lamb?

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.

 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!”

And he said, “Here I am, my son.”

He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

(Gen 22:6-8 NRS)

How much wood was Isaac carrying?

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac. How old was Isaac when this happened? In a lot of artistic renditions, Isaac is portrayed as a baby or a toddler. Very young, too naïve to understand what is happening.

That’s not what we see here. How much do you think the wood for a burnt offering weighs? One source (it was a while ago. I don’t remember the article) said you needed sixty pounds of wood for a burnt offering. Isaac is old and strong enough to carry a sixty-pound load of wood.

Isaac has seen burnt offerings before. He knows they need wood, a fire, and a lamb. He sees something is missing, so he asks, “Where is the lamb?”

His father said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

That satisfies Isaac. For whatever reason, Isaac didn’t ask any more questions after that. I wonder if Abraham had said that to him before. Maybe one day his son looked around and said, “Father, we need water, or the animals will die.”

Abraham said, “God will provide.” Then he dug a well, and lo and behold, there was enough water for everyone and all their flocks.

He bound his son Isaac

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

(Gen 22:9 NRS)

The author makes it sound like this was easy. Isaac, we have already seen, was young, strong, and spry. I’m guessing he would have been maybe fifteen or sixteen. It seems like he could get away from a hundred-and-some year old man if he wanted to. He was old enough to know what it means when the old man starts tying you to an altar built for a burnt offering. Jewish tradition (if I remember correctly) agrees that Isaac was a willing sacrifice. He would have to have been, given what this text tells us.

That, I think, was different from other child sacrifice practiced in Biblical times. The children were young, too young to put up any resistance. We have to assume then that Abraham told his son he would be the burnt offering and why. So far we haven’t seen it in this text, but if the author of Hebrews is correct, he would have also told Isaac God would raise him from the dead. That would explain why Isaac did not run away. If he believed his father earlier when he told him God would provide the lamb, if he believed his birth was a miracle akin to raising the dead, maybe he believed his father this time as well.

Abraham with Isaac at altar of burnt offering for him
Abraham tells Isaac he is the lamb

God himself will provide the lamb. Okay, a ram is just as good.

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

(Gen 22:10-14 NRS)

So how did Isaac survive? The angel of the LORD stopped Abraham. God indeed provided the animal they needed for the burnt offering. Isaac expected a lamb, but a ram showed up instead (verse 8). I don’t think Isaac complained. “Father, you said God would provide a lamb, but that’s a ram.” No, I think he was happy to have anything take his place in that situation. Again, there is that link to John 3:16, …you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me. That negated the need to raise Isaac from the dead, but the author of Hebrews is correct in saying he did receive him back from the dead—figuratively speaking (Heb 11:19).

Angel prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac on the altar
Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.

Now I know that you fear God

God didn’t know before? Of course God knew. So why did God say this? I think Abraham was feeling pressure not only from the neighbors but within himself. Had he sacrificed enough for God? It was hard to look his neighbors in the eye when they did not believe he feared his God.

This is my theory. I don’t know how to prove it. But I think by doing this – ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son and then stopping him – he took away the reproach Abraham felt from his neighbors and from himself. “Now I know that you fear God,” meant to Abraham, “You have proven to everyone—to God, to your neighbors, and to yourself—that you fear God. You never have to wonder again if you should sacrifice Isaac to the LORD.”

I will indeed bless you…

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

(Gen 22:15-19 NRS)

Somehow, I don’t think they told the young men what happened on the mount of the LORD. But the angel of the LORD repeated the promises that God would bless him, and would make his offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore (see Gen 12:2-3).

“Yeah, God, you already told me that, so I hope you’ve got more than that to explain making me do this.”

And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies

“Okay, that’s good.”

 … and by your offspring, all nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves.

“I think you said that before, but I can actually see that happening now that I have offspring.”

…Because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.

“Does it make it less of a sacrifice if I believed you would raise my son from the dead?”

No. You have obeyed my voice. You did not withhold your son, your only son, whom you love, from me.

Seems like a good time to re-read John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

(NRS)

The Christian belief is that the gift of God’s only Son was the fulfillment of the promise that through Abraham’s offspring, all nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves. Abraham and Isaac did not know this. Even so, I think somewhere in all the crazy sh—stuff God had him and Sarah do, they both sensed there was something big at stake. Something bigger than Abraham having a son to carry on his name and his inheritance. Something bigger than a son to give Sarah an inheritance and take away her reproach. And that’s why every time God spoke to them, they obeyed. I don’t believe it was obedience just for the sake of obedience. I believe it was obedience that comes from trust that the One who promised was faithful.

For comparison, Jesus and Isaac were both:

  • Their fathers’ only son (Gen 22:2; Joh 3:16)
  • A willing sacrifice (Gen 22:9; Phil 2:6-7)
  • A blessing to all nations (Gen 12:3; 17:19; 22:18; Luk 2:10, 32)
  • Fathers received them from the dead (Heb 11:19; Joh 20:17; Phil 2:9)
  • Birth began with a promise and a covenant (Gen 17:16; Gal 4:23; Luk 1:35-36, 55)
  • Birth looked impossible (Gen 17:17; Luk 1:34)
  • Mothers were told, “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luk 1:37; Gen 18:13)
  • Became symbols of resurrection.

All’s well that ends well, right?

Okay, if you’re still uneasy about this whole episode, that’s fine. If you’re thinking God better not tell you to sacrifice your child, I understand. That’s good. In fact, that points to the reason Abraham and Isaac needed this experience, not only for themselves but for all their descendants.

The people of that region sacrificed their children. Every generation of Abraham’s seed would have to answer the question, “Why don’t you sacrifice your children?” Because Abraham and Isaac already took that step, and God stopped them and said, “Now I know you fear the LORD,” they would never again have to sacrifice their children to prove their devotion to the LORD.

This is not a “go and do likewise” passage. For us, it is more of a cautionary tale against sacrificing the people we love to please God. It is against allowing the pressure of normalized wrongdoing to get to us and force us to take on their evil practices. And seeing the parallels between Isaac and Jesus, if you are a Christian, it should be obvious how this event pointed to the gift and the sacrifice of God’s only-begotten son for our sake.

Maybe this is why it took so long for God to find the right people to act this out. God needed a husband and wife who were as good as dead to give birth to a son, and God needed a father and son who would both obey the command to sacrifice the son and believe the son would rise from the dead. Try finding people strong enough–spiritually, mentally, and physically–for that through a want ad. I’d say they were all made of stronger stuff than me.

God himself will provide the lamb

After doing this study, I am blown away that even at this time, some 1,900 or 2,000 years before the birth of Jesus, God was already working out God’s plan for our redemption. Think about it. Almost as much time happened from the birth of Isaac to the birth of Jesus as from the birth of Jesus to today. God determined this was the beginning of the bloodline that would lead to the birth of the Messiah.

God orchestrated that beginning in a way that foreshadowed how the Messiah would redeem us, so we could recognize it when it happened. The Messiah would come from an impossible birth, would sacrifice his own life in our place, and he would rise from the dead.

Conclusion, sort of

We have come to the end of what Hebrews 11 says about Abraham, and there are still more stories to explore. I have already come to the conclusion that people just don’t know how fascinating these characters are. Abraham, the patriarch and prophet who becomes a nomad, a stranger and an alien with no land to call his own, so he can follow his God to the ends of the known world. Sarah, his wife (and half-sister, by the way), the beautiful princess who has everything she wants—except a son of her own. Hagar, the freedom fighter who sacrifices her liberty so her son can live. Ishmael, the answer to Abraham and Sarah’s prayers, but who is destined to make his way in the world without them. Isaac, born of two parents as good as dead, the youth who trusts his father and his God enough to allow himself to be sacrificed, and in doing so becomes the forerunner of the Messiah. And all of them living under one tent (figuratively speaking).

Where do I go from here? At some point I will talk about how Abraham’s saga illustrates some key storytelling points in the Biblical world. But in the next few character studies, I will get into the beginning of Abraham’s story, what his genealogy says about him, how and when he first heard God’s calling, and how he responded.

Now since we have talked so much about Abraham and how his line of descendants started, I’d like to leave you with this.

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

(Gal 3:29 NRS)

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