Kill Your Son, Abraham: Making Sense of a Shocking Command

Some folks really hate the Bible. Atheist Richard Dawkins is among them.

Some folks, though, really love the Bible. And they don’t just love parts of it, they love every single word. And these folks aren’t naifs and Neanderthals who have accidentally survived into the 21st century. They’re not malformed or malicious. They’re just normal, born-again Christians.

One part of the Bible that normal, born-again Christians really love is a part Dawkins really hates: Genesis 22.

Here’s Dawkins’s color commentary on the passage:

God ordered Abraham to make a burnt offering of his longed-for son. Abraham built an altar, put firewood upon it, and trussed Isaac up on top of the wood. His murdering knife was already in his hand when an angel dramatically intervened with the news of a last-minute change of plan: God was only joking after all, “tempting” Abraham, and testing his faith. . . . This disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense: “I was only obeying orders.”

On the surface, what Dawkins says here may seem like a reasonable—if a bit jaundiced—reading of the text. After all, I suspect many Christians have silently wondered some version of these questions. So what do we make of Genesis 22? Does Moses show us beauty or bullying? Grace or disgrace? Child abuse—or a blessing being passed down by faith from a loving father to a faithful son?

Upon investigation, it becomes clear that what Dawkins says isn’t reasonable. In fact, it’s quite wrong.

Genesis 22 Is a ‘Test’

As a quasi-omniscient narrator, Moses frames the events: “After these things God tested Abraham . . .” Importantly, Moses doesn’t say that God punished Abraham, or that he tempted Abraham.

Why does this matter? Well, any discerning reader is going to wonder: Why is God commanding child sacrifice? That’s something Molech would do, not Yahweh. The question nags at us. Like a rattle in the engine, we wonder why it’s there, and if it tells us something might be terminally wrong with God.

Some might say, “Well, God didn’t actually command Abraham to kill his son.” But this requires some Olympic-level interpretive gymnastics. Abraham did intend to kill Isaac; that much is clear. So how do we untangle the knot of whether God is immoral for commanding an immoral action?

That word “test” is our skeleton key. God commands Abraham to do this as a one-question test: “Abraham, do you trust me?” Previously, Abraham got an “F” on this test. Remember: this is the same guy who lied about his wife twice to protect himself (Gen. 12, 20) and slept with his wife’s servant because he doubted God would keep his word (Gen. 16).

God commands Abraham to do this as a one-question test: ‘Abraham, do you trust me?’

Of course, God already knows what will happen. Moses might be a quasi-omniscient narrator, but Yahweh is a fully omniscient God. This test isn’t filling in a gap in God’s understanding. It’s filling in a gap in Abraham’s faith.

You might be reading this with a furrowed brow. You might think I’m the worst public defender around, and that my defense for the Lord lacks both sense and sensitivity. So your mind is a hung jury. You’re still wondering, How can God do this? This is just . . . wrong.

If that’s you, then perhaps—a bit like Abraham—you doubt God’s character. You know who he says he is, but your experience of him has piled up evidence to the contrary. Your circumstances prosecute the Lord, and sometimes, if you’re honest, they make a compelling case.

That’s OK. We’ve all been there. Perhaps Genesis 22 is God’s test for you, in which he’s asking the same question he asked Abraham: “Do you trust me?”

No doubt, Genesis 22 tests Abraham’s mettle. In the request itself, it’s as if God is sharpening his, to borrow a phrase from Dawkins, murdering knife: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love . . . (Gen. 22:2).” With every phrase, sparks fly as the blade gets sharper, as the wound in his heart gets deeper. God’s request applies unbelievable pressure to Abraham’s weakest point, that gnawing question he’s asked himself for years: “Will God really keep his promise to me?”

How would Abraham respond this time? Has he changed? Yes, he has! “So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac” (Gen. 22:3).

Abraham Expects Isaac to Die . . . and Rise Again

Unless he’s intentionally deceiving his servants, which we have no reason to believe, it’s clear that Abraham believes Isaac will return with him: “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you” (Gen. 22:5).

And it’s clear from the subsequent moments—which Moses narrates detail-by-detail, masterfully building tension—that Abraham also believed he would kill his son.

Does Isaac’s innocent-yet-haunting question destroy this thesis? With wood strapped to his back, he asks: “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham responds somewhat enigmatically: “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

Perhaps Genesis 22 is God’s test for you, in which he’s asking the same question he asked Abraham: ‘Do you trust me?

We’re face-to-face with an interpretive difficulty: Is Abraham’s “my son” affectionate or (to use a technical term) appositional? Is he saying, “My son, don’t worry—God will provide a lamb” or is he saying, “God will provide a lamb, that is, my son”? I think it’s the latter, though it’s possible Abraham originally meant the former but, as the sand ran out of the hourglass, he slowly realized that though his heart had planned a way, the Lord had determined his steps.

By the time we get to the New Testament, any Genesis 22–related fog fades. Forget Richard Dawkins’s color commentary. Here’s the author of Hebrews’ color commentary on Isaac’s miraculous conception. We need to start here:

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. (Heb. 11:11–12)

Aha! We’ve just been some given vital information. But before I tell you what it is, we need to keep reading:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son,of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Heb. 11:17–19)

The author of Hebrews gets what Moses is up to in Genesis 22, and so he gets what God is up to in Genesis 22. He knows this was a “test” (Heb. 11:17). But how does he know Abraham “considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead”?

Two reasons: first, because that’s what happened in the moment, at least figuratively (Heb. 11:19). Abraham’s slaughtering knife hung ominously over Isaac’s neck (Gen. 22:10). But then he heard not a rattle in the engine, but a rustling in the thicket (Gen. 22:13). Isaac was as good as dead, until God intervened. What mercy!

But there’s a second and, I think, more essential reason that Abraham believed Isaac would be raised. Because Abraham’s life had been defined by resurrection—and perhaps en route to Mount Moriah, he finally realized it. Perhaps, upon hearing the Lord’s strange request, Abraham’s life flashed before his eyes and he finally came to the right conclusion: God can do anything, and so I trust him.

Perhaps he remembered that even though he and his wife “were old [and] advanced in years” and “the way of women had ceased to be with Sarah” (Gen. 18:11Heb. 11:11), God promised to give him a son. Perhaps he remembered Sarah’s laugh when she heard the promise, and her droll response: “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Gen. 18:12). Perhaps he even remembered the gentle rebuke: “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Gen. 18:14). Perhaps he looked back on his life and, for the first time, saw what had always been there: resurrection, resurrection, resurrection.

Abraham’s life was a Rolodex of resurrection.

Abraham’s life was a Rolodex of resurrection. From the moment God called him out of Ur, God had demonstrated his resurrection power over and over again. That’s why the author of Hebrews can say Abraham—just like Isaac and Sarah—was “as good as dead” (Heb. 11:12). He had no son, yet from him “were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore” (Heb. 11:12; cf. Gen. 22:17). What mercy!

In short, Abraham believed Isaac would die and rise again because Abraham knew that he himself had already died and rose again. He and Sarah had a son! Is one resurrection too hard for the Lord? Of course not. So why not another one?

What Do You See?

When you read Genesis 22, what do you see? Hopefully what Abraham saw—that nothing is too hard for the Lord.

All of this, of course, is like a neon sign pointing to the death of the Father’s only begotten Son, Jesus, whom he loved. The connections are so obvious as to be almost allegorical: there’s a loving father; there’s an obedient son walking toward his death; there’s wood strapped across his back; there’s a substitutionary ram.

But perhaps more predictive than those details is Genesis 22’s location: Mount Moriah, the future site of the temple (2 Chron. 3:1). This means the averted sacrifice of Isaac became institutionalized for the people of God throughout the generations. As they sacrificed in the temple over and over again, Abraham’s history and experience became theirs. They offered sacrifices and praised God for his continual, over-and-over-again provision.

Jesus’s death ended all this; his blood decimated any need for a repetitive sacrificial system (Heb. 9:11). There’s no need for the sacrifice of Isaac to be institutionalized for us because the institution has crumbled—and in its place, there’s Jesus.

The institution [of the temple] has now crumbled—and in its place, there’s Jesus.

So we don’t do anything to re-experience salvation. We simply believe and believe, over and over again—and, like Abraham, our faith is counted to us as righteousness (Gen. 15:6Gal. 3:6). And like Isaac, we prove ourselves to be “sons of Abraham.” This is why Paul told one church who seemed obsessed with impressing God by their works:

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. . . . Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:6–7, 13–14)

So, I’ll ask again: when you read Genesis 22, what do you see? Hopefully, you see a story of a father’s love for his son, a son’s trust in his father, and a promised blessing being passed down by faith from one generation to the next—until it got to you. What mercy.

Author’s note: I must note my indebtedness to Jim Hamilton and Sam Emadi. We do a podcast together called Bible Talk, and we discuss Abraham sacrificing Isaac on Episode 7 (29:25–54:55). 

Written by: Alex Duke

First published 28.01.21:

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