[This Article Is Part Of The Old Testament God Series]
Genesis 22 contains a rather morbid tale that has caused Christians to cringe and squirm for millennia. It is here that we find Abraham, struggling to be faithful to the God he has chosen to serve, suddenly faced with a dire choice. God, it seems, is feeling particularly petty and jealous this morning, and so He appears to Abraham and instructs him to bring his only son to Mount Moriah, where the child is to be sacrificed.
Most of us know how the story ends. Abraham is obedient and, at the last moment, an angel of the Lord appears to prevent him from plunging the dagger into the chest of his own flesh and blood, bound to the altar and likely staring up in abject horror at the apparent betrayal of his father. God then revels, schoolboy fashion, in being more important to Abraham than Isaac is, before presenting Abraham with a ram to slaughter instead.
You can see why such a story would be problematic.
The real issue here is that there is much, much more to the story than what is readily apparent. One of the recurring challenges of Old Testament interpretation is our incredible disconnect with ancient cultures – a disconnection that makes it increasingly difficult to flesh out the full picture of what we read in the text. The near-sacrifice of Isaac is a perfect example of this.
The Things We Miss
We miss knowing, for example, that sacrifice in the Ancient Near East was not simply a worshipful act. Sacrifice was the heart and soul of covenant-making. When two people would establish a pact, an animal would often be killed and separated to seal the deal. In fact, the origin of our contemporary colloquialism “to cut a deal” hails from this very practice. The idea behind it was that, if one person reneged on their end of the deal, they were inviting the same fate that befell the slain carcass before them to then fall on their own head. Covenants were a serious deal. So, when God established covenant with Abraham, He did it in the only way that would hold meaning to Abraham. He did it with sacrifice. (Of course, He also redeemed the practice of sacrifice itself. You can read more on the role and redemption of blood sacrifice here)
We also miss knowing that infant mortality was abysmally high in the ancient world, and the Canaanite cultures addressed this by sacrificing their firstborn child to the gods. The hope was that, by offering their firstborn child freely, they could appease the wrath of the gods and thereby safeguard the lives of their future children. The request for Abraham’s son to be sacrificed does not seem to strike Abraham as odd at all, and it wouldn’t. Such an act was part and parcel with his culture.
A Different Story
This completely changes how we understand the text. Abraham, well beyond his child bearing years, understood a culturally implicit promise in the request for the sacrifice of Isaac. Despite the miraculous nature of Isaac’s birth, sacrificing him would function as an act of safeguarding the lives of future children. His faith was not simply in trusting that God knew what He was doing, it was in trusting that God would maintain His promise for Abraham’s descendents. This was a profound improvement for Abraham, who openly derided God when the promise for a son was first made. He had come a long way in learning to trust God.
This, however, pales next to the realization of what God was doing in the midst of this. The journey to Moriah, the binding of Isaac, and the drawing forth of a sacrificial blade reach its climax in the booming voice of the messenger of God. It was there, at Mount Moriah, where God changed the culture for His followers from that point on. In dramatic fashion, He abolished the practice of child sacrifice. The place was renamed Yahweh-Yireh, The Lord Will Provide. This promise of provision coupled with a renewed covenant emphasizing Abraham’s offspring makes the point exceptionally clear: no longer do you have to offer your children to appease the wrath of the gods. The Lord will provide. You shall have your descendents.
This was not about a dark and morbid God tormenting an aging man and his son with a terrifying death. This was about God abolishing the pervasive practice of child sacrifice once and for all, and about a man who trusted that God with everything.
How have you wrestled with your own understanding of this story?
Featured Image Courtesy Of Himalayan Trails