Why did God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

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).