Abraham, Isaac and God's terrible command

Photo by  Cassi Josh

Photo by Cassi Josh

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.
— Genesis 22:2

God has given Abraham a direct command, and it involves murder. What kind of cruel demand is this? And what kind of God asks this of someone he supposedly loves?

When I read this passage, I was like, “Well God, I’ve got nothing. I don’t think I can write about this one.” I kept reading on a few chapters, not wanting to deal with it. As with every other time I’ve read this story, the command hurt. It made me question God a little. Surely there were less soul-wrenching ways of testing Abraham’s faithfulness?

But I had to come back to it. No skipping the hard stuff, right? That’s the deal. So here I am. And here is God, telling his devoted follower to kill his own son.

I think it’s important to note Abraham’s relationship with God leading up to this moment. Abraham had great faith in God because he’d spoken with him personally and seen him do many powerful, amazing things (Genesis 15; Genesis 19:1-29; Genesis 21:1-7). We know from earlier passages that Abraham was not afraid to push back against God or question his word (Genesis 18:20-33). However, there is no resistance recorded here. Clearly, Abraham had enough respect and awe of God to be willing even to kill his own son without protest.

But why would God ask Abraham to kill Isaac?

The first thing that jumped out to me when I reluctantly circled back to Genesis 22 was that this is the first time the Bible specifically mentions God requiring a human sacrifice. Up until now, it had only referenced animal sacrifices (Genesis 4:4; Genesis 8:20). Now, God is saying that a human has to die.

Abraham must have felt sick to his very core when the Lord made this requirement known. It is an utterly terrible sacrifice. God allows both Abraham and Isaac to walk the long road up the mountain so that they understand the weightiness of the sacrifice needed to redeem their lives before their perfect Lord.

But then, God gives Abraham a ram to use as a sacrifice instead — a substitute in place of Isaac (Genesis 22:13). It’s a shockingly vivid foreshadowing of the death penalty we owe and God’s promise to provide a way out for us so we don’t have to pay that penalty. This takeaway was not lost on Abraham; he named the place “The Lord will provide,” (Genesis 22:14).

God’s command is a symbol to all peoples and generations. I don’t think this story is really about Abraham or Isaac, or God wanting a father to kill his own son. In fact, God is clearly against child sacrifice (Jeremiah 7:31). Rather, it is a foreshadowing of Jesus coming to earth to become the perfect atonement for all humanity.

It’s also a deep, serious call to each one of us. If we accept God’s substitute (Jesus), then our response is to put aside our idols and love nothing and no one more than him.

Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.
— Genesis 22:12

We cannot value our money, job titles, security, or our loved ones above God. Even though Jesus paid the most terrible price, we are still part of the story, and our part calls for an element of sacrifice too (Mark 10:29-31).

This passage has a pretty bold message. God is God and we are not. When we do something he commands — not because it makes sense to us or because we want to — but simply because he told us to, we will be blessed (Genesis 22:15-18). James succinctly puts Abraham’s story into context when he says that faith without action is meaningless (James 2:20-24).

However, remember that God isn’t asking of us something that he isn’t willing to do himself. He holds nothing back from us. The Father gave up his only Son whom he loves, and Jesus Christ willingly traded his life for ours. That is how valuable we are to the Lord.

In turn, he asks that we hold nothing back, loving him with all our heart, soul and mind. We are called to mirror God’s devotion to us, regarding all else as worthless in comparison to knowing Christ.


If you want to dig deeper, here are a few other voices who’ve weighed in on this topic.

Timothy Jennings: Come and Reason Ministries

Kirk Durston, Power to Change - Students: Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his Son?