Disclaimer: I’m not a theologian. The stuff that I’m going to write about here is theological in nature, but it’s not an academic study. This is a topic that I know a lot could be written about, but this post is simply the response that I have as a Christian to reading certain parts of the Bible.
The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is not an easy one to handle for a lot of people. Christians may argue that God prevented the sacrifice before Abraham could finish it, but there still appears to be a lot that is wrong, even barbaric, about the tale. The story that I’m talking about can be found in Genesis 22, and for those that don’t know it, I’ll give you a quick summary. Prior to this story, God has delivered on his promise to give Abraham and his wife, Sarah, a son in their old age. The story begins with God commanding Abraham to take that miraculous son, Isaac, to a mountain and sacrifice him. Abraham follows God’s directions and prepares to sacrifice his son, only for God to intervene at the last minute and provide a ram in his place.
How can a man, elsewhere called a hero of the faith, be prepared to kill his child? And how can a God whom we say is loving ask anyone to do that? It’s outrageous, barbaric even! It is a story that seems like an easy target for people who say that Christianity is violent and outdated.
I think that such a view completely misses the point.
My argument, as you will see over the course of this post, is that this story is an illustration of the very fundamentals of what God’s love looks like, and what it means for us to love God in return.
At the heart of both this story and the Christian message is sacrifice. On one, important level, this story is one of many Old Testament foreshadowings of what Jesus will come to do. Just as God provided a ram to die in place of Isaac in the Old Testament, he provided Jesus to die in our place in the New.
I’m going to borrow from a recent Timothy Keller sermon in order to explain this further, because to understand this story from a Christian perspective, we have to understand why Jesus died. At its heart, Christianity is both an extremely pessimistic and an extremely optimistic faith. It is pessimistic because it believes that every single human being on this planet that has ever lived and ever will live is broken to such an extent that we can’t fix ourselves. All efforts at eradicating our own imperfections are doomed to fail.
But it is also optimistic to the extreme, believing that every single human being on this planet that has ever lived and ever will live can be restored to perfection through the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross.
The life that we were intended for is completion and perfection in God, but we have created an insurmountable cavern between ourselves and him that we simply cannot cross on our own. The only way across is Jesus. This is the crazy, scandalous logic of Christianity, that a murderer can be saved while an ‘average person’ could be too proud to see the need for God in their lives.
I think that, in this story, Abraham came closer to understanding the immense heart of God that makes such a sacrifice possible than anyone has ever done in history. Abraham faced losing his son for no reason other than his devotion to God, just as God faced losing his son for no reason other than his devotion to us. In that moment of commitment, as he was about to bring down the knife, I believe that Abraham knew the pain that God would feel thousands of years later. But God, in his mercy, spared Abraham the pain of losing his son for ever, and in a sense, Abraham received Isaac back from the dead, just as God would receive his son back from the dead.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Abraham was both the progenitor of the nation of Israel – God’s chosen nation, and the nation in which Jesus would be born – and that he shared this experience with God.
Something else that this story illustrates is complete devotion to God. I think that one of the reasons that this series of events is so hard for sceptics to stomach is that to start to understand Abraham’s mindset you have to be able to imagine submitting to God’s will above your own.
In our age of individualism and entitlement, it is almost impossible for the average person to humble themselves in that way. Even Christians struggle to accept God’s will over theirs; I know I certainly do. Our response to suffering is so often, ‘How could God do this to me?’ or in Abraham’s case, ‘How could God ask that of him?’ We live and think as though we have ownership of our lives, and without Jesus, we do.
The thing is, when you accept Jesus’ sacrifice, you say to God that his way is better than yours, and you say that your life is not your own, but that it has been bought at an unimaginable cost. How could God ask this of us? He asks for everything because he has already given everything for us.
This is why Christianity is so hard, yet so simple. The price has been paid for us – perfection and eternal life with God is there, waiting for us! But we have to be able to say that we want it. And more than that, to live like we want it. As Paul says, if we say we accept Jesus’s sacrifice, but then go on doing all the things that he died to save us from, it’s like we’re crucifying him all over again.
I obey God because I love him, and I love him because he loved me first. Despite living before Jesus, I think Abraham understood this. He had not been given the Son, but he had been miraculously given a son, and in terms of descendants, he had been given a future that had been impossible without God. I believe that, as impossibly hard as it must have been for him, this is why Abraham obeyed God. His creator had given him everything, who was Abraham to deny the creator everything in return?
Abraham is lauded as a hero of the faith because he followed God’s commands not for selfish reasons – what could he have gained from the sacrifice of his son? – but because he put God’s will above his own.
With our 21st century sensibilities, we recoil from Abraham’s faith, calling it barbaric, blind, even evil, when in reality, he saw more clearly than any of us that he had no right to withhold anything from God.
And God, far from being a bloodthirsty deity hungering for the sacrifice of children, allowed Abraham to share with him something incredibly profound, giving Abraham a glimpse of the pain that he would go through to redeem humankind through Abraham’s descendant. This story is about humility, astonishing faith in God, and gaining a glimpse into the creator’s heart for his lost children.