By Drew Zuverink
"Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love - Isaac - and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you."
I recently came across a video of a YouTuber who said this about the story of Abraham and Isaac; "Welcome to another episode of Bonkers Bible Stories. Today we are going to just look at one. Remember that time God told Abraham to kill his son Isaac? Abraham was like, 'I'm gonna need a minute, but yes, definitely - I'm on it.' But then God stopped him and we're supposed to be impressed with Abraham for his faith and God for his "mercy." Now you gotta keep in mind that millions of people still to this day take stories like this literally. Yes, they think it actually happened as it's written down in the Bible. Of course, this causes children all over the world to wonder if their devout parents would kill them if God told them to. And if they ask, the answer is, 'God wouldn't do that.' But you're telling them a story where God literally does do that! Do you want them to believe it or not?"
The YouTuber is not the only one who feels troubled by this Bible story. At first glance, it really does seem terrible for God to test Abraham in this way. So how are we to understand it?
Of course, in our context, a god asking for child sacrifice is unimaginable and horrendous - but back in their culture it actually made sense. In the Canaanite worldview, the god named El, who provided fertility, was entitled to demand a portion of what he had provided. They believed that El had provided them with children and so from time to time they would sacrifice children with the hopes that their god would continue to provide them with more. The tragic truth is that child sacrifice is a tale as old as time. Almost every culture including ancient China, ancient Aztecs, ancient Greeks, and ancient Africa all practiced child sacrifice.
That was the world that Abraham lived in, and so when God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac, he would have obviously been heart broken - but he would not have been as dumbfounded as we are today. As a matter of fact, Abraham probably would have expected this sort of thing from God.
But God is different than all of the other gods because he is against child sacrifice. Leviticus 16:21 says, "Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God." Deuteronomy 12:30-31 is even more clear; "Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about other gods, saying, 'How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.' You must not worship the Lord your God in their ways because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods."
So God's test of Abraham served at least three purposes.
1) By stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son, it differentiated God's character from the character of all the other gods at that time. Abraham grows to know something that he didn't know before; that God abhors human sacrifice.
2) Abraham's faith was strengthened. God tested Abraham's faith and devotion to their absolute limits, and when something is tested to it's limits and it perseveres - it becomes stronger. God, Abraham, and the world, now know just how devoted and loyal Abraham is. This point is not trivial. I often wonder and hope that in the hardest of circumstances, I would remain loyal to Jesus. Would I face martyrdom for Christ? I hope and believe that I would, but it is impossible to know for certain. A test like Abraham's could bring me the blessed assurance of knowing how I would respond.
3) This story offers the world a picture of a father's pain in sacrificing his son - something that God would never actually ask humans to do. What God was unwilling to ask of humans, he was willing to take upon himself. Eventually God the Father would endure the pain of sacrificing his own Son in order to save the world.
Just like many other Bible stories, God testing Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, appears shocking and maybe even a little bit evil at first. But when we take the time to read the story in the context of the times that it took place, we learn that God is actually doing something very good. Praise God for being different than the gods of all the other religions. His goodness has no comparison.