(Gen. 22:1-19) Why did God command a human sacrifice?

Regarding this passage, atheist Richard Dawkins writes,

By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ‘I was only obeying orders.’ Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.[1]

Let’s consider a number of different objections raised up against this passage:

OBJECTION #1: This passage commands the barbaric act of human sacrifice.

RESPONSE: Actually, this passage is odd because the Bible repeatedly condemns human sacrifice. In fact, both the Law and the Prophets banned this practice. The Law of Moses outlawed human sacrifice right from the beginning (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31) and the later prophets decried the practice, as well. For instance, human sacrifice was one of the reasons that Israel was exiled from their land (Ezek. 16:20-21). Later in Ezekiel, we read, “When you offer your gifts, when you cause your sons to pass through the fire, you are defiling yourselves with all your idols to this day” (Ezek. 20:31). In addition, the prophet Jeremiah writes, “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind” (Jer. 7:31).

OBJECTION #2: If God hated this practice, then why did he command it?

RESPONSE: A number of responses can be made:

First, God never let Abraham hurt Isaac. Critics often overlook a very important fact in this story: Isaac was never harmed! It isn’t as though God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac, and he went through with it. Instead, God never allowed this to happen.

Second, Abraham knew that God had no intention of sacrificing Isaac. Abraham said, “I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you” (v.5). Clearly, Abraham believed that both of them would return unharmed. Abraham either believed that God would intervene to stop the knife, or he believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. One of the main reasons why killing an innocent person is wrong is due to the fact that they will stay dead. However, Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead –in the event that a death took place (Heb. 11:19). Moreover, Abraham already had the promise that God would bless all nations through his seed (Gen. 12:1-3). Because Abraham had this promise, he knew that God would not terminate his line in this way.

Third, this divine drama had prophetic significance. This entire picture (i.e. a father sacrificing his son) demonstrated the great and terrible price that God would later pay on the Cross (i.e. the Father God sacrificing his son Jesus). Bible commentators have noticed similarities between Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and God’s sacrifice of Jesus:

Prophetic Elements of Genesis 22

Abraham and Isaac
God and Jesus

Abraham has only one son, and he is asked to sacrifice him to God (v. 2).

God has only one son, and he sacrifices him for God’s judgment of human sin (Jn. 3:16).

This is the first passage in the Bible that uses the word “love” (v. 2). Note that it is given in the context of a Father and Son relationship –the perfect archetype for sacrificial love.

John explains that we have a standard for love in the death of Christ: God giving his son for us (1 Jn. 3:16).

When Abraham passed this test, God said, “I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” (v.12).

Likewise, we know that God loves us by looking to the Cross (1 Jn. 3:16).

Isaac carries his own wood up the mountain for his sacrifice (v.6).

Jesus carries his own cross up to the hill –Golgotha (Jn. 19:17).

Isaac willingly lies down as the sacrifice (v.9). At this point, he is grown –stronger than his elderly father. He chooses to be the sacrifice.

Jesus was God incarnate, and yet, he willingly takes up the Cross (Phil. 2:5-8).

Abraham says that God will provide a “lamb” for the burnt offering, but a lamb is never provided (v.8). A “ram” is provided (v.13). Did Abraham get it wrong?

Jesus –the “lamb of God” –is God’s final and ultimate provision (Jn. 1:29).

Genesis records, “To this day, people still use that name as a proverb: ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided’” (v.14). The lamb is not provided in Genesis 22 –a ram is provided.

Roughly two thousand years later, Jesus is sacrificed for the sins of the human race. While God temporarily provided a ram, he eventually provides the lamb on the Cross.

Fourth, both of these events occurred in the same geographical location. Later in history, we find out that this divine drama took place in the same place where Jesus was crucified! God told Abraham to sacrifice his son in “Moriah” (Gen. 22:2). In 2 Chronicles 3:1, we read, “So Solomon began to build the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah” (NLT). Jesus Christ was sacrificed for the sins of humanity just to the north of this mountain. Verse 14 really makes sense when we consider the geographic location: “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” This was the same location where God provided his son to sacrifice for human sin.

Fifth, this story must have been thought provoking. The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac was read daily in traditional Jewish prayer circles.[2] By reading this story frequently, these people must have been asking themselves, “Why would God ask Abraham to kill his son? That’s unthinkable!” However, after seeing the Cross, we can see that God did the “unthinkable” for each of us.

OBJECTION #3: Paul’s interpretation of verse 18 reads messianic hopes into the passage that simply weren’t there.

Paul quotes Genesis 22:18 in his letter to the Galatians. He writes, “God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child”—and that, of course, means Christ” (Gal. 3:16 NLT). Paul takes notice of the fact that Genesis 22:18 refers to the singular child (or descendant) of Abraham, rather than the plural children. However, critics notice that “seed” in the Hebrew was a collective singular noun. That is, even though it is singular, it refers to the entirety of Abraham’s offspring –not a singular person.

RESPONSE: In the original Hebrew language, the “seed” was indeed a collective singular noun, which referred to the nation as a whole. However, we do have warrant for believing that Paul’s messianic interpretation is correct in Galatians 3:16. First, in its original context, this prophecy was fulfilled in the single person of Isaac –not multiple offspring. Second, a later psalmist claims that worldwide blessing will be given through a singular king. Psalm 72:17 states, “May the king’s name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun shines. May all nations be blessed through him and bring him praise.” Therefore, this later psalmist held the same interpretation as Paul the apostle. Third, note the future tense in verse 14 (“In the mount of the Lord it will be provided.”). This demonstrates that a future fulfillment was still in order, which wasn’t accomplished by Isaac. Fourth, all of the similarities previously mentioned must have been on Paul’s mind, when he quoted verse 18. Therefore, the prophetic value of this passage is entirely warranted.

[1] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 275.

[2] Brown writes, “[This account was] referred to daily in the traditional Jewish prayer service.” Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections. Volume Three. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 4.