As per my background, I teach high school English at a Classical school. Much of our class discussions focus on the pagan deities of the ancient world, figures such as Jupiter and Apollo and Bacchus who inflicted great cruelties upon innocent maidens, for no other reason than that their wanton lust fell upon them.
Or, perhaps we talk of the gods of the ancient Near East like Baal, whose worshippers burnt alive their own children so as to appease this evil deity. This they did so late into Antiquity that Livy records the Carthaginians doing this in a vain attempt to win the Punic Wars. In talking of Greek mythology this way, I am hoping to show the uniqueness of the Christian God and of the claims made about God’s steadfast love and mercy in the Bible. Things are going well for me, until invariably a student brings up the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22.
The story itself in so many ways seems to uniquely stand out in the Bible. The stories of God powerful saving His people, the Jews, from slavery in Egypt or of mercifully feeding thousands of hungry people in the Judean wilderness, these stories point to the amazing goodness and steadfast love of the God of the Bible.
But, in Genesis 22, God commands Abraham sacrifice his son, the chosen son, the son promised by God to inherit the riches of God’s covenantal blessings, the baby born to Sarah in her 90s, the son whom Abraham had waited for, albeit impatiently, for 25 years. Really, this son? How does God seem any different than those pagan gods, whose straw my students have just blown all over my face and the case I had made for the uniqueness of Christianity?
When students reference the sacrifice of Isaac, there are a few traditional ways of dealing with the biblical issues at hand. One could go deeper into the crevasse and point out that, yes, Abraham was all-too-willing to sacrifice his own son. Perhaps Abraham thought that God had asked him to sacrifice his son in the same manner the evil deities of the ancient Near East would regularly command parents to sacrifice their children. Then, in sending an angel to stop Abraham before he carries out the final act, even as the knife is poised at Isaac’s throat, God signals to Abraham and to all the world He will not be appeased by child sacrifice. God is not like the gods of the other nations, as He requires faith and obedience, not sacrifice.
Hebrews 11 cites Abraham’s faith, who believed that “God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back ” (11:17-19). This speaks to the power of God over life and death, and intimates that as early as Abraham the belief in the regenerative and redemptive power of God to restore the dead to life and turn back the curse of Genesis 3 was prevalent. Thus the confidence we have in the Resurrection is no idle faith, but a living and dynamic belief that stretches all the way back to Abraham.
As I recently read over this passage, I was struck with the heart-wrenching overtones of this scene and with the thought of God’s right as Creator to have taken Isaac’s life. This is hard to accept, but as the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, and the Creator of Mankind who gives each of us life and breath, so God has the right to take that life away. Our lives and our deaths are not under our own control, but we stand and live under the guiding Providence of God’s care.
This is different from saying (falsely) that God would ask or tempt someone into sin (James 1:13). God would never ask anyone to commit a sin like murder, and so go against the clear teachings of Scripture (i.e., the commandment not to commit murder, Exodus 20:13) or sacrifice a child (Leviticus 18:21). It should make us pause, however, that as the author of life and the Creator of the universe, we have no rights over our own lives.
But, we can trust God in whatever He asks because we know that God is good and that what He asks of us is for our benefit. In asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son, Isaac, God intends to provide a living, breathing picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who willingly endured the shame of the cross in order that we might be saved through faith in His Name.
So, in speaking of this seminal passage in the Bible, my only real solution is to draw the obvious parallels between the sacrifice of Isaac and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Few events in the OT provide such a powerful typological connection between the Messiah and His work on the Cross. Isaac is the promised Son, even as Jesus is the promised Son and the “beloved Son [of God], in whom I am well-pleased” (Matt 3:17). Abraham was unwilling to withhold his “son, [his] only son,” in the same manner God, who“so loved the world . . . gave His only that whoever should believe in Him would not perish, but have eternal life,” (John 3:16).
The sacrifice God provides to take the place of Isaac is a ram, prefiguring the Lamb that God provides, Jesus Christ, “who takes away the sins of the sins of the world” through the sacrifice of Himself (John 1:29). In the same way Isaac is spared from death by a substitutionary offering, so we, as members of a redeemed humanity, are spared from eternal suffering in Hell by the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the Cross. We should be so eternally grateful for the goodness of God in not even sparing His own Son, so that we could forgiveness of sins and life through His Name.
The painting is Abraham and Isaac, by Rembrandt (1634).