What’s the deal with the sacrifice of Isaac? Why would God do that?

Although the story of the sacrifice of Isaac is great inspiration about the faith of Abraham, it often leaves us feeling troubled about God! What kind of God would ask someone to sacrifice his own son?

In order for us to wrap our heads around this story, we need to do some time travel – oh, perhaps about 4000 years or so! The story of Abraham is among the oldest pieces of literature in the Bible, taking us back to a time and place in which human sacrifice was not unheard of. Abraham is disappointed with God’s request but, within his historical context, recognizes it as something that is not out of the question when it comes to worship of the gods. Recall that, throughout the Old Testament, God is gradually revealing himself to Abraham and to his people. Abraham did not yet know that God abhors the taking of human life. God uses this opportunity to test Abraham’s faith: nothing could prove Abraham’s faith more than his willingness to give up his own son – something that God himself is willing to do.

God has no intentions here of tempting Abraham to do evil, but rather, to test him to see his level of trust. Although God initially asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it is God who prevents the sacrifice from taking place, now that he has evidence of Abraham’s great faith. Abraham, meanwhile, although deeply troubled by God’s request, agrees to follow through, trusting that God will keep his promise of establishing a great nation through this son. In other words, Abraham trusts that God will restore Isaac to life so that his promise could be fulfilled. As a result, God knew that Abraham could be entrusted to be the father of a great nation and that, in turn, all generations could look to Abraham as a model of faith that leads to right relationship with God.

For Christians, this entire episode foreshadows God’s willingness to sacrifice his own Son, and to restore him to life through the Resurrection, thus keeping his promise to all of mankind. That this story is troubling should come as no surprise to us because it illustrates how difficult it is to trust. If all the requests or demands that came to us were reasonable, trust would not be an issue. The challenge comes when we are asked to trust in something that we don’t understand.