Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Binding of Isaac: How Could a Good God Tell a Father to Kill His Son?

Abraham and Isaac, Rembrandt, 1634

A Shocking Command

At the age of seventy-five, Abraham was given an incredible promise from God. Abraham and his wife Sarah would be given something that they had desperately wanted for so many years: a son. And through the birth of this son, God would bless Abraham in many amazing ways: God would make of Abraham “a great nation” (Gen. 12:2) [1]; in Abraham “all the families of the earth [would] be blessed” (Gen. 12:3); and his descendents would be as numerous “as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13:16).

Many years passed without a son being born to Abraham and Sarah. And when God repeated his promise of a son, they both laughed (Gen. 17:17; 18:12). [2] Such a thing was beyond improbable. But in spite of their doubts, Abraham and Sarah’s miracle child was finally born (Gen. 21:5). He was named “Isaac,” which means “he laughs.” Their laughter of skepticism [3] had turned into laughter of joy.

But some time later a shocking command came from God to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2). Did these words really come from the God whom the Old Testament declares to be compassionate? How could such a God ask a father to kill his own son?

Skeptics, seeking to discredit the Bible, assert that this is an immoral command. For example, well-known atheist Richard Dawkins describes the binding of Isaac as a “disgraceful story” of “child abuse” and “bullying.” [4] However, this post will argue that the command of Genesis 22:2 was not immoral. Rather, the binding of Isaac [5] should be seen as a test of Abraham’s devotion to God, a repudiation of child sacrifice, and a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of God’s own Son.


The Biding of Isaac as a Test of Abraham’s Devotion 

Genesis 22 begins by informing us that the command of verse 2 was a test (“God tested Abraham, v. 1). Clearly, it was not God’s desire for Isaac to die. However, Abraham was given no hint that he was merely being tested. Therefore, the reader of Genesis 22 must not think that the nature of the command (i.e., it being a test) made Abraham’s obedience any less difficult.

The command to sacrifice Isaac was similar to the earlier command that God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12:1: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Paul Copan writes,
Abraham had left his home in Ur and given up his past for the sake of God’s promise. Now he was being asked if he would trust God by apparently surrendering his future as well. Everything Abraham ever hoped for was tied up in this son of promise. [6]
Victor P. Hamilton points out that the command “Take” is “followed by the participle -nā’ [and] is normally translated something like ‘please’ or ‘I beg you.’” [7] Hamilton also points out that -nā’ “is used only five times in the entire OT when God speaks to a person. Each time God asks the individual to do something staggering, something that defies rational explanation or understanding.” [8] This indicates that God was sensitive to how difficult the command would be for Abraham to obey.

Verse 3 states that “Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac.” James L. Crenshaw comments, “The astonishing thing about this divine command is Abraham’s readiness to accept such a word without the slightest whisper of objection.” [9] Abraham had been bold enough to question God in the past. In Genesis 18, when God told Abraham that he would soon destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argued that this judgment was unfair: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). So why didn’t Abraham question the fairness of the divine command to sacrifice Isaac? We are not told why, but perhaps Abraham had learned to trust that the Judge of all the earth does in fact always do what is right.

What was the purpose of God’s test of Abraham? When Abraham “reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son” (v. 10), the angel of the LORD, speaking on behalf of God, said to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, [10] seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (v. 11). The purpose of the test was to demonstrate whether or not Abraham feared God. [11] Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son clearly showed that he did.

But what does it mean to “fear God”? One helpful definition of the “fear of God” is “affectionate reverence.” [12] To “fear God” means to both love and obey Him. There is a connection between love for God and obedience to God. To love God is to obey Him. Jesus declared that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37).

Timothy Keller believes that God’s test of Abraham was “about loving God supremely.” [13] Abraham might have been in danger of slipping into idolatry. Keller defines idolatry as “the making of good things into ultimate things.” [14] We are to put nothing—including a very good thing like a son [15]—before God. The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Abraham had desperately wanted a son. Now that he had finally been blessed with a son, whom did he love more: Isaac or God? In the end, Abraham’s obedience to such a difficult command proved that he was most devoted to God. If ever anyone did truly love God with all his heart, it was Abraham in that moment when he was ready to sacrifice his beloved son.


The Binding of Isaac as a Repudiation of Child Sacrifice

Before addressing the issue of child sacrifice, there are a couple of details that should not be overlooked. First, it is possible that Isaac was willing to die. Isaac is often imagined as a little boy who was forced to submit to his father. However, Isaac was probably the stronger of the two. Abraham was an elderly man, over one hundred years old, and the text suggests that Isaac was at least a teenager, maybe even a young adult.

In verses 5 and 12, Isaac is called a “boy,” but the English Standard Version notes that another possible translation of the Hebrew word na’ar is “young man.” Hartley points out that na’ar is also used in Genesis 22 for Abraham’s “young men” (i.e., his servants) in verses 3, 5, and 19. [16] Therefore, it is possible that Isaac was around the same age as the servants. Furthermore, verse 6 states that Isaac carried the wood for the burnt offering. This would probably be a task too difficult for a little boy.

If Isaac had been a little boy, it is improbable that a centenarian like Abraham would be able to force him on the altar. In verse 9 we are told that Abraham “bound” Isaac. Gordon J. Wenham writes, “That an elderly man was able to bind the hands and feet of a lively teenager strongly suggests Isaac’s consent.” [17]

Second, the text hints that Abraham thought Isaac would be delivered, or at least raised, from death. In verse 5, Abraham says to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” Why did Abraham say, “I and the boy will…come again to you”? Perhaps he was trying to conceal the truth from the servants and Isaac. But a better explanation is that these words were an expression of faith. Abraham believed that somehow he would return to his servants with Isaac. Why? Because he believed the promises God had given to him—promises that depended on Isaac remaining alive. [18] This is the interpretation of the writer of Hebrews:
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. 
Whether or not Isaac was willing to die and whether or not Abraham believed Isaac would be spared, the issue of child sacrifice still remains. In Exodus 22:29, God does say, “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me.” However, this does not mean that God wanted the Israelites to literally sacrifice their firstborn sons. The point was that everything rightfully belongs to God. Also, the Israelites were able to redeem their firstborn sons (see Exod. 13:13).

What does the binding of Isaac tell us about child sacrifice? Simply put, it tells us that God does not accept child sacrifice. As Hartley argues, the binding of Isaac “clearly and unequivocally teaches that Yahweh, the only God, never accepts human sacrifice. If God did not accept the sacrifice of Isaac, the first child of promise, surely no other sacrifice of a child would be acceptable to him. [19]


The Binding of Isaac as a Foreshadowing of God’s Sacrifice

Readers of Genesis 22 usually focus on Abraham’s obedience, but perhaps the most important message of the story is God’s provision. Hamilton writes, “Appropriately Abraham names this place Yahweh-yireh, ‘Yahweh sees (or provides).’ He does not call this site ‘Abraham-shama’ (‘Abraham obeyed’).” [20]

The verb “provide” in verse 8 (“God will provide for himself the lamb,” cf. v. 14) literally means “to see.” Walton comments, “This usage approximates one of the idiomatic uses of the verb ‘to see’ that we also have in English. When we say ‘I will see to it that the report is done one time,’ we are using the verb ‘to see’ to convey that the details will be taken care of.” [21] So God saw to it that there would be a lamb for the burnt offering.

In the binding of Isaac, it is not difficult to see Abraham as a type of the Father and Isaac as a type of the Son. The actions of Abraham foreshadowed the Father’s sacrifice of His Son, and the actions of Isaac foreshadowed the Son’s willing death. [22] There is ample evidence that the New Testament authors saw it this way.

The clearest New Testament allusion to the binding of Isaac is probably found in Romans 8:32, where the apostle Paul writes that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.” Also, during the baptism of Jesus, the voice from heaven declares, “You are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11; cf. 9:7). These words are reminiscent of how God described Isaac: “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” (v. 2). For Isaac, there was a substitute—“a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns” (v. 13), but, for Jesus, there was no one to take His place on the cross. Jesus was the provided “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) who was “led to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7) to die for the sins of the world. 

As Abraham and Isaac did the work of the servants—Abraham chopping the wood for the bunt offering (v. 3) and Isaac carrying the wood (v. 6)—so the Father and the Son served humanity. Jesus proclaimed that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In their service to humanity, the Father and Son’s love is revealed.

In Genesis 22, we can look below the surface and see something more. This story is not really about Abraham; it is about God. It was not Abraham who provided the sacrifice; it was God. It was not Abraham’s son who died; it was God’s. The divine promise given to Abraham (“in your offspring shall all nations of the earth be blessed,” v. 18) was fulfilled through Jesus Christ. God’s Son was born a Jew (i.e., a descendent of Abraham) to die for the salvation of people of all nations.


An Amazing Love

From beginning to end, the binding of Isaac was a test. It was never God’s will for Isaac to die. But the question still remains: why did the divine test need to be so emotionally painful? Why didn’t God tell Abraham to give up his wealth instead? Wouldn’t this be a suitable test?

It has already been stated that part of the reason why God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was to prevent Abraham from turning his son into an idol. However, an additional reason is also possible. Perhaps God wants us to put ourselves in Abraham’s place—to think about how heart-wrenching it must have been to be told to put one’s own child to death. Yes, the command given to Abraham in Genesis 22:2 was disturbing. But maybe God wants us to be disturbed. Why? Because the more we are disturbed by the divine command, the more we should be amazed by God’s love.

What Abraham was told to do, God actually did. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations in this post are from the English Standard Version.
[2] In Genesis 17:17, Abraham says, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
[3] Genesis 15:6 states that Abraham “believed the LORD” when God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens (v. 5). But it appears that his faith contained a certain amount of doubt.
[4] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 243.
[5] The story recorded in Genesis 22 is often called “the binding of Isaac.”
[6] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), p. 46.
[7] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 101.
[8] Ibid.
[9] James L. Crenshaw, A Whirlpool of Torment (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 20.
[10] Why would an all-knowing God need to test Abraham if He already know what Abraham would do? John H. Walton in Genesis writes, “We must differentiate between knowledge as cognition and knowledge as experience. We can agree that God knew ahead of time what Abraham was going to do. But there is ample evidence throughout Scripture that God desires us to act out our faith and worship regardless of the fact that he knows our hearts” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p. 514.
[11] A secondary purpose of the divine test was to provide for others an example of genuine faith (see James 2.21-23).
[12] Charles Bridges, Proverbs (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), p. 67.
[13] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods (New York: Dutton, 2005), p. 13.
[14] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), p. 162.
[15] Obviously there was nothing wrong with Abraham loving his son. But his love for his son was not to come before his love for God.
[16] Hartley, Genesis, p. 211.
[17] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), p. 109.
[18] Another possible hint of Abraham’s faith can be found in verses 7-8. When questioned by Isaac about the lack of a lamb for the burnt offering (v. 7), Abraham declares, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (v. 8).
[19] Hartley, Genesis, p. 212.
[20] Hamilton, Genesis 18-50, p. 113.
[21] Walton, Genesis, p. 511.
[22] It is sometimes said that Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt offering (v. 6) foreshadowed Jesus carrying the wooden cross (see John 19:17). It is also often contended that Moriah was the future site of the temple mount (which was located in the city where Jesus was crucified), but this is often disputed.