This is a difficult scripture. How did a story of human sacrifice get into the Bible? How could God order the sacrifice of Isaac—the son for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited for so long—the son of their old age—the gift from God who had been born only after “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.”
None of us want to take a human life. We would agonize if we were required to throw an executioner’s switch. Taking the life of our own child would be unthinkable.
We don’t want God to order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Our hearts rebel against such an idea. We are inclined to say, “I won’t worship such a God!” I was tempted to pass by this scripture, because it is difficult. But I decided to preach on it, in part because it is difficult. When I take time to wrestle with a scripture that I don’t like, I usually find new truths that bring me closer to God. So it has been with this story.
The first thing to understand about this story is the world in which Abraham lived. The tribes among whom Abraham lived practiced human sacrifice. Abraham had neighbors who sacrificed children to a pagan god. If they could make such a sacrifice, how could Abraham, who worshiped the true God, do less? He must have felt a terrible pull to demonstrate his love for God as dramatically as his pagan neighbors had done.
But this sacrifice was more terrible than other sacrifices. Abraham and Sarah had only one son, and they had waited so long for him.
Of course, this was not Abraham’s only son. When Sarah had not been able to become pregnant, she had urged Abraham to have a child with Hagar, Sarah’s servant. Abraham had done so, but that only made matters worse. Hagar bore Abraham a son, Ishmael. But then she began to “Lord it over” Sarah. Sarah began to hate Hagar.
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Sarah complained to Abraham, “Cast out this handmaid and her son! For the son of this handmaid will not be heir with my son, Isaac” (21:10). The thought of that was painful for Abraham, but God reassured him that Ishmael would be all right. It would be all right for Abraham to ask Hagar to take Ishmael and to go away. So Abraham did that.
Hagar and Ishmael nearly died in the wilderness, and were saved only by God’s intervention. They did not return to Abraham. Abraham had lost Ishmael, his first son. Now he was about to lose Isaac, his last son.
But this is not a story about human sacrifice. It is, in fact, the opposite. Abraham felt called to sacrifice Isaac, but God stopped him. God did not want a human sacrifice. After this incident, the Jews were never again tempted to sacrifice their sons and daughters. This story ended human sacrifice among the Jews.
I believe that Abraham expected God to stop him. In verse five, Abraham said to his servants:
“Stay here with the donkey.
The boy and I will go yonder.
We will worship, and come back to you.” (22:5).
Abraham had no need to deceive his servants. They were accountable to them, not he to them.
Furthermore, when Isaac asked where they would get the lamb for the sacrifice, Abraham answered, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (22:8).
God will provide the lamb. No! This is not a story about human sacrifice. This is a story about trust.
• It is not a story of a God who wanted human sacrifice. It is a story of a God who prevented human sacrifice.
• It is the story of a God who loved Abraham, and wanted Abraham to trust him.
• It is the story of a God who wanted Abraham to believe that God would cause the sun to rise—even though the night might be terribly dark.
• It is the story of a God who stood ready to reward Abraham’s obedience.
• It is the story of a God who wanted the sacrifice, not of Abraham’s son, but of Abraham’s heart. As the Psalmist would later say:
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.
A broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
God never wanted Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but he was delighted that Abraham trusted God, even when he thought that he must sacrifice Isaac.
We do not often enjoy such wonderful, trusting relationships as that which Abraham had with God. I have experienced a relationship like that, and I know how it feels. It feels great!
When I was a boy, I loved and trusted my grandfather in the same way that Abraham loved and trusted God. I knew that my grandfather would never hurt me and would always love me. I believed that nothing bad could happen to me as long as I was with Granddad.
Granddad took great pleasure in that trust. He often told me the chicken-house story. When I was two years old, he had to repair the chicken-house roof. He took me with him. Grandmother was not happy with him for putting a two-year-old atop a roof where I might fall, but Granddad insisted that it was safe. He laughed as he told me years later that he had set me in the middle of the roof and had instructed me not to move—and that I had stayed right there. Granddad was so delighted that I would trust him and obey him. I did not obey anyone else, but I obeyed Granddad.
But the real story of trust came years later. Granddad taught me to drive. Kansas highways in those days were lightly travelled, so he started my instruction on Sunday afternoon drives in the country.
Granddad was a good teacher. He would give a few words of instruction—”Get her up to about fifty, and hold her steady.” Then he left the driving to me. He almost never got ruffled.
But one Sunday he got ruffled. We were on a bridge. The bridges of that era were narrow—with a concrete railing on either side.
The situation seemed peaceful to me. We were the only car in sight. I was driving straight and true—fifty miles an hour. But suddenly Granddad shouted, “You’re too close! Turn right!”
I couldn’t see anything wrong, but I knew that I could trust Granddad. There was not much space between the car and the bridge railing on the right—but there was some. I edged the car as far right as I could—following Granddad’s instructions as exactly as possible. Then I heard him shout, “No! No!” By then we were across the bridge.
Granddad struggled to get hold of himself. He was obviously shaken. Finally he broke out in a big smile, and began to explain. The problem had been that, as he sat in the right-hand seat, the bridge railing looked closer than it really was. Granddad had thought that I was going to hit the railing, and he meant to tell me to turn left. In his panic, he had told me to turn right—and I had obeyed.
Granddad never forgot that. He reminded me of it often. He was proud! He was proud that I trusted him so much that I obeyed his instructions, even when they seemed wrong. And he was proud that I had not hit the bridge. I think that he was proudest that I had trusted him, but he was very nearly as proud that I had not hit the bridge. For the rest of his life, he enjoyed the memory of that trusting moment.
I believe that God forever after enjoyed the trusting moment in which Abraham bound his son, Isaac, and placed him on the altar. God did not want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. God did not want Abraham’s son, but he did want Abraham’s heart. Abraham had made it clear that God had his heart.
And so God wants our hearts. We have nothing in our hands to give God that he did not give us in the first place. We have nothing in our hands that God did not create—and could not create again. Our thoughts are not his thoughts, and our ways are not his ways. But we are his children, and he covets our love.
Just as we covet the moment that a child snuggles against us or kisses us on the cheek, so God covets those moments when we come offering him our time—our money—our affection—our adoration—evidence of our love. All that we have are as children’s trinkets to God, but those trinkets become precious to him as they show him our love. God needs only our hearts.
This morning, examine your life. What do you love more than God? Is it money—or family—or pleasure? What God asks of us is that we love him more than all these things. That is what Abraham did when he offered to sacrifice Isaac. When we can honestly say that we love nothing more than God, he will heap blessings and honors on us, just as he did Abraham. Try him and see.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.