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The God of Abraham, Isaac and child sacrifice?

Along with everyone else in the world attempting bible reading plans for 2019, I'm currently reading Genesis. Chapter 22 is a pretty hardcore story - not for the faint of heart!

You can read it here, but in short, Abraham and Sarah had been promised a child from God, despite how old they were and despite Sarah's barrenness. Miraculously they eventually have Isaac. But then, in a real twist in the story, God says this...

‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain that I will show you.’

This is another one of those "Wait... God said what??!?!" moments in the bible.

The story continues with Abraham responding in obedience, and heading to the mountain with Isaac. I've heard that the trek to the mountain would have taken three days. Imagine how difficult those three days must have been...

In the end (spoiler alert!) Abraham is about to kill Isaac as a sacrifice to God, but God stops him and provides an alternative sacrifice: a ram caught in the bushes.

So, if I'm honest, I've sometimes really struggled with this story.

In my thinking, it feels awful to me to raise a hand to sacrifice a child... Imagine reading tomorrow in the news that someone in a town near you murdered his own child because he felt like God was telling him to do so. I imagine we'd be grieving not celebrating. So... Why is this story cherished and Abraham's willingness to murder his own child celebrated by Christians?

I've been wrestling a bit with this, and I wonder if our answer needs to be really carefully thought through and nuanced.

I wonder if it would be helpful for us to ask: "What does this story, written in a specific time and place, tell us about God? And what are we meant to think about the people in the story?"

So... I wonder if...

What this story tells us about God:

In a context where child sacrifice to gods was common, this story is meant to communicate to the reader: This God is not like the other gods. He might seem like it. But when it comes to it, he doesn't want your child sacrifice. This is a different type of god.

What this story tells us about Abraham:

Perhaps a nuanced view:

  1. We shouldn't celebrate specifically that Abraham was going to participate in the practice of child sacrifice which was ubiquitous and normative in his cultural context.

  2. We should celebrate that, within the context he was in, he was faithful to God with what he knew and what had been thus far revealed to him (or anyone - this was long before the 10 commandments and the Law in general). He was willing to trust God and lose that which was most valuable to him.

Holding 1 and 2 together means that today, if someone thinks that God is telling them to physically slaughter their child as a sacrifice for God, to do so would not be faithful...

It would be sinful.

I'm thinking and saying this because God, post Genesis 22, has revealed that murder ain't his thang.

Especially children.

Especially especially your own children.

Put another way, we can celebrate Abraham's faithfulness in his actions only in his context but not absolutely/universally.

But still... why was God asking Abraham to murder? Surely thats not like God? Not like the God the bible says is perfectly revealed in Jesus!?!

I think God was doing what God always has to do when he communicates with humans. He communicates to us in the context we're in.


So, for example, imagine God speaks to me today and challenges me to drive safer and slower. Let's say I write that down. And try and act obediently and do this when driving. To me, today (with all that God has revealed thus-far of himself and of morality etc), those instructions are indicative of a God of loves and cares for human safety and well-being. He's helping me care for myself and others within my current paradigm/context.

Then, in 100 years time, imagine the people of 2119 reflecting on this. Imagine that those people consider it abhorrent to drive a car that pumps out CO2 into the environment, especially when you know it's killing the world. The 2119 people might often talk in shock and horror that 2019 followers of Jesus used to "drive those dirty diesel cars"...

Then imagine they, in 2119, read what I wrote about what God said to me in 2019. They might really struggle with it. How could God be asking 2019 Clark to drive?!?! In a "dirty diesel car"!?!

I guess it's clearer in this case that perhaps God is not absolutely & universally endorsing driving. When one has a broader vista of perspective, it may be clear that He is in fact very against it. But He could still communicate to me within this context, in a way that makes sense to me now, yet seems awful to future readers (unless they contextualise and delineate between what is to be a-temporally celebrated and what was cultural and temporal). Just like how I today read Genesis 22 thousands of years after it happened and I find Abraham going to sacrifice his child an awful and abhorrent thought.

That's why I think that for Abraham, in his context, in his time, God might have asked him to worship in the common way of child sacrifice, but then stopped him before he did it. God never wanted the child sacrifice, but was communicating to Abraham in his context inviting him to demonstrate faithfulness in a concrete way within the world he lived in, and also revealing increasingly what God is actually like.


I discussed this with a friend recently who also pointed out how gracious this is of God. This story shows that God speaks into our context and doesn't point out everything God disagrees with. We see that God leads us forward, invites us into greater measures of - whatever you want to call it: holiness, purity, right living, morality, shalom. Surely none of us could ever cope trying to walk with God in faithful obedience if God only ever allowed for and expected complete perfection and justice from a universal perspective. But God reveals himself and his ways progressively, as an act of grace, that we might journey forwards with him.

I'd love to know what you think about my thoughts on Genesis 22. As I journey with God, and study the bible, I want to try and ask good questions, explore the contexts and see if sometimes the version of God I have previously seen is more of a caricature than the real nature of a God who is really good. I definitely don't just want to reinterpret things to be what I want. But I do want to consider if perhaps my previous interpretations and understandings have sometimes, in some ways, misunderstood the texts, and, in a sense, God.

There's so much more in this chapter I obviously haven't got to in this post - not least of which Jesus, the son of God, who died as a sacrificed lamb for the whole world! Hopefully I'm leaving you with some thoughts and unanswered questions! In some ways, perhaps that's the point. With the bible, there's always more to wrestle with, enjoy, appreciate, learn, discuss and even debate! And perhaps there, in the midst of the unknown, in the humble and desperate seeking, we, together, find God.

1 Comment

Wendy wriglesworth
Jan 12, 2019

Hi Clark

David and I have been discussing your latest blog. A passage that makes me feel uncomfortable if I think of trying to explain it to people who wouldn’t call themselves Christians.

Thank you again for not shying away from those passages which are

challenging and for not sugar coating them.

I think ending with the cross in one way is the only way it makes sense.


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