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Our readers asked:

Why did God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

Joe Paprocki Answers:

Abraham is considered our father in faith by three major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So, let’s begin there. Abraham (or Abram, as we first encounter him) is a central figure in the story of salvation history. It is through him that God established his covenant. That’s another way of saying that it is through Abraham that God entered into a very sacred relationship with humankind. In order for God to determine Abraham’s ability to trust, Gn 22 tells us that God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Recall that this ancient story (literally thousands of years old) comes from a time when human sacrifice (and polytheism – belief in many gods) was common. What strikes us as so utterly cruel was not at all unheard of in Abraham’s time. Even so, the request is puzzling to Abraham because God had already promised that a great nation would come forth from his offspring. Sacrificing the firstborn, who was conceived at his and Sarah’s advanced age, did not seem to Abraham like a good way to found a nation. The story, however, reveals to us a developing relationship between God and Abraham – a relationship that is tested at times. Abraham has come to trust in God. Thus, even though this request seems so strange and cruel, Abraham finds no reason to distrust that God has his best interests at heart. Abraham is willing to present Isaac as an offering to God. This is precisely the kind of trust and faith that God wanted to see (a God who will eventually not withhold his own Son from being sacrificed). As a result, God tells Abraham to untie his son and Abraham sacrifices an animal instead. In the end, we consider Abraham our father in faith because he trusts that God has his best interests at heart, even when that does not seem obvious.

Joe Paprocki, D.Min., is National Consultant for Faith Formation at
Loyola Press in Chicago. He has over 30 years of experience in pastoral
ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Joe is the author of numerous
books on pastoral ministry and catechesis, including The Bible
Blueprint, Living the Mass, and the best-selling The Catechist’s Toolbox
and A Well-Built Faith (all from Loyola Press).

 
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The Author : Joe Paprocki
Joe Paprocki, D.Min., is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press in Chicago. He has over 30 years of experience in pastoral ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Joe is the author of numerous books on pastoral ministry and catechesis, including The Bible Blueprint, Living the Mass, and bestsellers The Catechist's Toolbox and A Well-Built Faith (all from Loyola Press).
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • JasinWalraven

    i think it is just proof that God has a sick sense of humor and is a bit of an jerk. He directed Abraham to kill his kid just to see if he would.

  • McPhee

    God’s omniscience doesn’t invalidate the “testing”, just as it doesn’t make useless human lives lived in time. His knowing everything outside of time apparently didn’t keep him from creating creatures with some measure of free will that can really be tested in time. In other words, His knowledge does not determine loyalty, and loyalty is demonstrated by acts of the will, and no present decision is caused by past acts of loyalty, so disloyalty to God is possible in each choice that comes to us, and it is reasonable to think that Abraham’s loyalty and faith were not challenged as intensely before this test. But still, the question as to why God chose such a test is important. if we are to worship Him in any other way than a creaturely submission to That which is greater and other than us, if we are to worship That which reveals itself to us as Ultimate goodness and Love, then why does that Goodness and Love test our loyalty by asking us to do things that go against His previous commands, whether that law be written on tablets or our hearts? Why does he tell us one day to not kill and another day kill our own son? And it is not a solution to say that God can take life, for God explicitly commanded Abraham to take innocent life–something that he has always condemned up to this point? In other words, if something came to me today and told me to kill my son, how am to be assured that that something telling me to do so is God? How do I not know the something is not the devil, or Molech, or myself going insane? And if it really is God, why would he put one of his creatures through such a cruel ordeal? He very much seems to be commanding Abraham to do something that is not good, for if it were good, God would have gone on and let him do it. It seems like a cruel game, testing someone’s loyalty to you by commanding him to kill the promise you waited so long for. Especially when that promise is a person. If God came to you today and asked you to do likewise, would you do it? How would you know it was God? How would you distinguish that God from a demon? Do you worship something simply because it is greater than you in power? You could also worship a demon on that basis. And if you say you triumph by obeying God when it doesn’t make sense, again, how do you know it is God who challenges you thus? Why not a demon? And why would God give you sense, or a conscience, and then ask you to ignore it as a test of loyalty to Him? Would it not be more likely that it is a test of the devil to see if you will worship something that is not good? As to comparisons to what God did with his own son for us, surely separating the Father from the Son in this way makes God out to be aloof and unwilling to sacrifice Himself for us. I have always understood that the most intimate connection between the Son and the Father (both, after all, are God) meant that God himself did indeed sacrifice Himself for us. To say otherwise is to interpret the Trinity too anthropomorphically. If a human father sacrifices his son instead of himself, he is an unloving coward. It must not be so with the Father and the Son in the Trinity, for while they are distinct Persons, what one does (due to the divine harmony which distinct human persons lack) the other is in some sense also doing. Would be grateful for any deeper explanations as to why God is not really being cruel here, when he seems to be doing the very same kind of thing that evil people down here do to test loyalty. An exceedingly cruel gang might demand that an initiate go and chop off someone’s head to prove his loyalty to the group. That, most of us would say, is perverted. Why is it less perverted for a wholly good God to demand such loyalty, especially when he knows it is not a good thing to kill people? Why does He ask someone to prove his loyalty by doing something contrary to what you’ve always known Him to be about? If God told me to have an affair with my neighbour’s wife tomorrow, to prove my loyalty, on what grounds could i refuse the command? What God hath joined together let no man put asunder, but if God tells me to do it, it is Him putting them asunder, not me, as someone here argued concerning the morality of murder. Yes, there are difficulties with this story. They are not easily solved.

  • David Hume

    Folks,

    You must remember that not everybody believes that the Old Testament prophecies anything about Jesus because Jews don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. Their Messiah is supposed to be a much different figure than Jesus. So the linkage with Christianity only works if you believe that there was god-man named Jesus who happens to be the “savior of the world” and doesn’t fit the Jewish understanding of the Messiah (which is why they reject Jesus). The jews certainly don’t read this section of the Old Testament to mean Jesus. So they take a different moral from this story.

    The argument still stands that if God is omniscient why did he ask Abraham to do something that is immoral? The argument that he did it so Abraham and Isaac could know that they are dedicated to obeying Yaweh doesn’t hold water. Because apparently Yaweh already knows they are dedicated to obeying him. And Yaweh (if he’s so smart) could’ve come up with something to “test” Abraham that is not clearly immoral and which Yaweh, in his forknowledge, would know would be a stumbling block to 21st century people searching for a reason to a believe or not believe in him.

    The moral of the story is to show how obedient Abraham was to his god. Yes, Christians can argue that it is a picture of Jesus sacrificing himself for us, but from what we can read, Abraham knew nothing of Jesus or his god’s plan to sacrifice his only son for the world.

  • Dennis

    I don’t think any of the above adequately answers the question of why. God did not need to test Abraham. God is omniscient. He knew Abraham’s heart before, during and after the ‚Äútest.‚Äù So, the test isn‚Äôt for God to find out, it‚Äôs for Abraham (and maybe Isaac). But what lesson was God trying to teach Abraham? Maybe this, God doesn‚Äôt always ask us to do things that make sense. Also, God values life (Isaac) more than religion (the act of sacrifice).

  • Matilda

    Personally you have to understand that God really was not goinh to let Abrham go through with the sacrifice. This is because God does not abhor to child sacrifice. Plus if god did let him go through with it wouldn’t he resurrect Isaac lie what he did with Jesus?

  • jackie

    first of all you are wrong, genesis verse 22:15 god says to Abraham “…you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son” this is because Isaac is the only son that really matter, and it’s the son of abraham and his REAL wife.
    second genesis and Matthew are written by different ppl, therefore no foreshadowing is possible.
    third pls dont use “we” christians because even if it shocks you, I have to let you know that not everyone who reads is a christian, for the record I’m an atheist and I dont belive any of this really, the bible is a spirtial and historical piece of artifact, and put together after decades, prb. longer, pls respect it and not be an useless ass.
    forth, the sacrifice of Jesus is predicted and determined by god, he has given his only son 2 us because otherwise, we’ll all go to hell, to follow the commandments are impossible for a human, and we can not enter heaven unless we are “perfect like our heavenly father is perfect”
    because letting us all go to hell is unbearable, he sacrificed his own son for us, so we should fell thankful and not remorseful for the sacrifice of Jesus, because we can not know what god has planed, thats why we are not god.

  • David

    I disagree with this answer somewhat. Isaac was not the only son of Abraham,(Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac). He was not even the first son. He was the first son that was of pure Jewish blood. This story is not only of faith in G-d, it foreshadows the story of Jesus. Abraham was ask to sacrifice his only,”Pure blood Jewish son”. G-d showed mecy and let the boy go free. G-d sent his only pure blood son to the Jews and they killed him! We as Christians should feel remorse for the suffering of Christ upon receiving him. This shows LOVE. We know that he had to pass from this world for our sin, we should feel remorse for the pain he had to endure. Paul explains that we were bought or payed for by his pain, (sacrifice). The bottom line is this. G-d ask Abraham to sacrifice his true son, then showed mercy upon the child. G-d sent his only begotten son, and he was sacrificed.

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