We live in a specific cultural and historical time and view things through cultural, historical and other contexts that are familiar to us. Things in the Bible often do not make sense to us immediately because the filter through we see things with modern eyes distorts 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 without understanding the context.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is hard to understand in modern context. Why would anyone think to sacrifice a child? It’s barbaric, and a God who would ask such a thing must be barbaric too! So, the thinking goes.
Before going further, I think we need to stop and consider a couple of things. First, Abraham clearly was doing what he thought God was asking of him. He was willing to do it, even it would hurt him terribly. This was his only son.
In fact, Isaac was a miracle. Abraham and Sarah thought they 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. It could not have made sense to Abraham. It went against what God had promised.
Yet, Abraham was convinced that he must do it, or at least follow through with this urging from God to wherever it leads.
It is hard to understand that kind of commitment to God in our modern world. We live in a society in which the pursuit of one’s own happiness is a protected right, and people are praised for following their own dreams. We highly value individualism. “I did it my way” is an anthem to 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 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.
In Abraham’s day, child sacrifice was an accepted practice in the area of the world in which Abraham lived. Abraham would have been very familiar with the practice as all the neighboring people groups sacrificed children to appease what they believed to be capricious and demanding gods. In Abraham’s culture and historical time, he would not have thought it odd if God seemed to be demanding that kind of sacrifice from him.
That is where the story of Abraham and Isaac takes a turn. It is a significant and remarkable shift in worldview for the time. It would not have been unusual to do what he did. What was unusual, completely unique, was what he did not do. He did not follow through with the sacrifice of Isaac.
The why and the how is what is important. Why he set out to do it would have been understood by Abraham’s neighbors. He was trying to appease God. But this God turned out to be different.
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.
He went through all the motions, but he was thinking that, just maybe, there would be an “out”. He kept listening. Maybe there was something in the command he didn’t understand. The God who gave him the miraculous child might have something up His sleeve. Either way, Abraham trusted God.
Abraham was willing to carry out what he thought God wanted him to do, but at the last instance God showed him the out – a goat caught in the thicket. That would be the sacrifice God would accept.
The 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. The unusual thing was that Abraham was listening for God. He was not going through the motions by rote; he was listening for God to talk and direct him as he went.
This is not just a story about Abraham’s faith and sensitivity to the prompting of God. God was introducing something different to Abraham and the world. God didn’t want Abraham to sacrifice his son. God wanted Abraham to trust him, but more importantly, God was setting the stage for His great redemptive work.
God was changing the paradigm.
Men thought at the time that great sacrifice was necessary from men to appease the gods who appeared capricious, harsh and demanding. Through Abraham’s faith and sensitivity to God, we see God revealing that God, Himself, would provide the sacrifice. We see Abraham not only learning to trust God, but learning to trust that God is good.
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 curse.
Through Abraham God revealed Himself. Through Abraham God also foreshadowed the great sacrifice of His own Son 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. He will provide the sacrifice; we need only trust Him.