We live in a specific cultural and historical time and view things through cultural, historical, social, political, and other contexts that are familiar to us. Things in the Bible often do not make sense to us immediately because the filter through which we see the world with modern eyes obscures the context in which the stories in the Bible were told. Whether one believes the Bible is God’s word, no one can understand it as it was written without understanding the context.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is particularly hard to understand in modern context. Why would anyone think to sacrifice a child? They very thought is barbaric! A God who would ask such a thing must be barbaric too! So, the thinking goes.
Let’s set that thinking aside for the moment before we come back to it. Let’s not jump to 21st Century conclusions. Let’s consider the historical and cultural context and give the story the benefit of the doubt to see what we might find.
First, Abraham clearly was doing what he thought God was asking of him. He was willing to do it, even if, perhaps, he didn’t understand it, and it would would be painful to him. Isaac was his only son. Not only that, he was the son God promised to give him and through whom God promised Abraham descendants as many as the stars in the sky.
According the written account, Isaac was a miracle. Abraham and Sarah were past child-bearing age, but God had promised them a child. Now, God seemed to be urging him to take that child’s life. Just as it makes no sense to us, it would not have made sense to Abraham. Even if there was no other reason, it would not make sense because it went against what God had promised.
Yet, Abraham was convinced that he must do it, or at least that he must follow through with this urging from God to wherever it would lead. This belief is central to story, and we need to understand the why before we can fully understand the story.
We have a hard time understanding this particular commitment by Abraham to God in our modern world. Why would Abraham think it was ok for God to ask this of him?
We would never believe that God would tell anyone to murder a child, let alone our child. We would call anyone who believed such a thing psychotic, delusional, or worse – downright wicked. We lock people like that up and throw away the key!
But, not so fast. Let’s take a step back into the Ancient Near East and consider Abraham’s world. We have thousands of years of human progress to thank for how we think, thousands of years of Christian influence by which we now judge the world.
The Christian influence permeates the thinking of post-modern secularists who don’t even appreciate how Christian their thinking is! We have “advanced” in many ways in our collective thinking. Ancients would have never dreamed of the modern notions of humans rights and basic freedoms.
We now live in a world in which an individual’s pursuit of happiness is a protected right, and people are free to follow their own dreams. We highly value individualism. “I did it my way” is an anthem in our modern society. Religion is largely frowned upon if it cuts against these modern grains.
In terms of morality, however, we are not really as different from the ancients as we think. You may know someone who has sacrificed a child. Maybe you have done it yourself. I am talking about abortion.
I don’t say this to condemn anyone. I simply point out that abortion is an accepted practice in our time. Some societies would view our acceptance of abortion with shock (including our own society 50 years ago). Others in the future may think the same.
Therefore, let’s put aside our modern prisms through which we tend to view the story of Abraham and Isaac. Let’s consider the story in it’s ancient context.
In Abraham’s day, child sacrifice was an accepted practice in the area of the world in which Abraham lived. It was embedded in every religious belief system in Abrahams world. Abraham would have been very familiar with the practice.
All the neighboring people groups sacrificed children to appease what they believed to be the demands of their gods. In Abraham’s culture and time, he would not have thought it odd if God seemed to be demanding that kind of sacrifice from him – except that Abraham believed God had promised to to fill the world with his descendants through Isaac.
This a significant factor in the story. This is why Abraham is commended for his faith. Though Abraham was sure God promised to fill the earth with his descendants, Abraham was equally sure God was telling him to sacrifice the only possible source of that promise.
Abraham trusted God more than he trusted his own understanding. This is held up as the supreme example of faith. This is the Sunday school lesson that we learn, but this is a very shallow understanding of the story.
This is where we need to understand the context for us to be able to see a dramatically deeper meaning – a significant and remarkable shift in worldview for the time.
Abraham would not have been unique or countercultural to have sacrificed his son. This is what Ancient Near East people thought they had to do to appease their arbitrary and capricious gods. They either appeased the gods or suffered the consequences – they and their communities.
What was unusual and completely unique was what Abraham did not do. He did not follow through with the sacrifice of Isaac, and the reason why is the real story here.
The why and the how is important for us to understand. Why he set out to do it would have been understood by Abraham and is neighbors. He was trying to appease God.
Abraham’s God had promised him the child. This child was a miracle. In this child were all the hopes and dreams that Abraham lived for. This sacrifice didn’t make sense, unless Abraham was mistaken… perhaps… otherwise, all that Abraham hoped and dreamed for was a lie!
Abraham had known and trusted the voice of God his entire life, but Abraham knew he must follow through with the sacrifice he felt God was commanding. Abraham’s God purported to be the God of gods, the maker and creator of all the world, not just some provincial god of the neighboring tribes.
Abraham sensed and believed that this God was different than the neighboring gods. If we skip ahead to Hebrews, we read that Abraham reasoned God could raise his child from the dead. (Heb. 11:19) Abraham believed that God would keep his promise, though He seemingly was asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, and along with his son the very promise God gave him.
Abraham went through all the motions, but he believed there would be an “out”. He kept listening. We get the sense he was thinking that the God he had come to trust, the God who gave him the promise that became a reality in the miraculous child, might have something up His sleeve.
Regardless, Abraham trusted God. Abraham was willing to carry out what he thought God wanted him to do, and we know the rest of the story: at the last instance God showed him the out – a ram caught in the thicket. The ram was provided by God as the sacrifice.
One thing that was unusual about this story many centuries before Christ was not that Abraham would sacrifice his son to God. All the neighboring peoples would have encouraged him to do the same thing. One unusual thing that was bout the story is that Abraham trusted God’s promise – he trusted that God was not arbitrary or capricious.
He was not going through the motions by rote; he was listening for God to talk and direct him as he went. Abraham trusted that God wanted a relationship with him. God wasn’t merely looking for a sacrifice; God was looking to establish a relationship.
This is not just a story about Abraham’s faith and sensitivity to the prompting of God, however. It isn’t just about a God who is relational, though this is of supreme importance as well.
God was introducing something different to Abraham and the world. God was changing the paradigm.
People took for granted that sacrifice was ever necessary from men to appease the gods who could be, and often were, capricious, harsh and demanding. Through Abraham’s faith and sensitivity to God, we see God establishing to Abraham and the world that He is not like the other gods. He is radically different!
In this story, God used Abraham’s faith to reveal that God is not like the other gods. Though Abraham demonstrated that he was willing to sacrifice his son, to sacrifice all of his dreams, and to sacrifice the very promise of God to him, God used that willingness to teach Abraham something of utmost importance about Himself.
Abraham did not just learn to trust God in this story. He learned that God trustworthy. He learned that God keeps His promises, even when circumstances, and our own understanding, seems contrary. God showed that he is not arbitrary and capricious.
That God was good, and not just powerful, arbitrary and capricious, was a novel concept. In the context of the time in which people thought that children must be sacrificed to gods to appease them, Abraham dared to trust that God is good. Abraham dared to trust that God desires to bless, and not to lord His power over humanity.
Through Abraham God revealed Himself. Through Abraham God also foreshadowed His own great sacrifice, that God would become the great sacrifice by which He would reconcile all of humanity to Himself. Through Abraham we discover that God’s demands of us are not capricious, harsh or cruel. We can trust Him and His desire for relationship with us.
One deeper meaning of the story is the dramatic paradigm shift from a universal understanding that gods are arbitrary and capricious and must be appeased to an understanding that the God above all other gods is not like that. He made us in His image to have a relationship with Him, and He desires to bless us.