Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Kill Your Son?

Part 1 of Chapter & Worse

Text: Genesis 22:1-14

“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).

Why This Series? 

We’re beginning a new series called “Chapter & Worse.” In this series, we’ll be taking a look at a few of the Bible’s “worst” passages—passages that non-believers often criticize and that even believers sometimes wish weren’t included in the Bible.

What’s the reason for this series? There are two reasons for this series: (1) to make sure we’re not surprised by some of the common attacks on the Bible and (2) to help us better defend God’s word.

An Immoral 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’d desperately wanted for so many years: a son. And through the birth of this son, God would make Abraham’s descendants as numerous “as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13:16).

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). How could a compassionate God ask a father to do kill his own son?

Critics of the Bible argue that this is an immoral command. For example, well-known atheist Richard Dawkins describes Genesis 22 as a “disgraceful story” of “child abuse” and “bullying.” [1] Are the critics of the Bible right?

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). It wasn’t God’s desire for Isaac to die. But Abraham was given no hint that he was merely being tested.

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, 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. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son clearly showed that he did. [2]

The command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was a test of Abraham’s devotion to God. Abraham might have been in danger of slipping into idolatry. Tim Keller defines idolatry as “the making of good things into ultimate things.” [3] We are to put nothing before God—including a very good thing like a son. 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 given a son, whom did he love more: God or Isaac? In the end, Abraham’s obedience 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.

A Willing Sacrifice

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.” In verses 3, 5, and 19, the same Hebrew word is translated “young men” when referring to Abraham’s servants. So it’s possible that Isaac was around the same age as the servants. Also, 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 young man, it’s unlikely that Abraham would have bee able to force him on the altar. In verse 9, we’re 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.” [4]

A Foreshadowing of God's Sacrifice 

Readers of Genesis 22 usually focus on Abraham’s obedience, but the most important message of the story is God’s provision. In verse 14, Abraham names the place where he was about to sacrifice his son “The LORD will provide.” When Isaac had asked his father, “Where is the lamb?” (v. 7), Abraham had replied, “God will provide for himself the lamb” (v. 8).

Abraham’s willingness to give up his Son foreshadowed God’s willingness to give up his Son. There’s lots of evidence that the NT writers saw it this way. In Romans 8:32 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 who provided the sacrifice. It was not Abraham’s son who died; it was God’s Son who died.

Amazing Love

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

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 is disturbing. But maybe God wants us to be disturbed. Why? Because the more we are disturbed by God’s command to Abraham, the more we should be amazed by God’s love. 

What Abraham was told to do, God actually did. “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] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 243.
[2] 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.
[3] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), p. 162.
[4] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), p. 109.

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