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155 Abraham Attempts to Sacrifice Isaac Genesis 22 Part 3

Updated: Apr 14

We consider the 5th of the ways to understand this unusual story. We wrestle with the statements in Jeremiah that make it very clear that it never crossed God's mind to command someone to sacrifice their child. So how can we resolve the dissonance that this verse creates? If God was not asking Abraham to do this, how is it that he proceeds to take Isaac and some servants on several days journey to the mountain where he believed he was to sacrifice his son?

155 Genesis 22 Abraham attempts to Sacrifice Isaac Part 3
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Genesis 22 Abraham attempts to Sacrifice Isaac Part 3

1 Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called. “Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.”

The Hebrew word translated “tested” is nasah. The KJV is the only translation to use “tempted” for nasah. The other translations use “tested” or “proved”. The NASB Exhaustive Concordance translates nasah as follows: make a test (1), proved (1), put (1), put to the test (2), tempted (3), test (13), tested (9), testing (3), tried (1), try (1), venture (1), ventures (1).

The idea of nasah being a test rather than a temptation is clear from the above. Temptation is linked with negative or evil intent. We are not tempted to do good in the normal usage of the word. Testing is associated with demonstrating skill competence, e.g., driving, surgical, or walking skills and many more can be tested. This skill testing is not associated with temptation. Temptation is moral testing. For instance, it is not ethical to test a person’s honesty. Shall I leave a hundred-dollar bill lying around to see if my son will take it? Moral tests seem to be synonymous with temptations if negative outcomes are anticipated.

It might be relevant to consider Job at this point. Was Job tested or tempted or both? The issue between God and the Satan was over the integrity of Job. Satan insinuated Job’s worship of God was protection money that he was paying. The intent of Satan was to expose the selfishness of Job. It was to be decided by ordeal if Job’s worship of God was motivated by selfishness or admiration. Thus, Job is being tempted by the Satan because he had negative intent.

The concept of testing or tempting is common in the psalms. God tests the people and the people test God.

God tests people.

Psalm 26:2 NIV (David feeling virtuous)

2 Test me, LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind;

Psalm 66:10 NLT (Unknown) You have tested us, O God; you have purified us like silver.

Psalm 139:23-24 NLT (David)23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.24 Point out anything in me that offends you, & lead me along the path of everlasting life.

People test God.

Psalm 78:18-19 NLT (Asaph)

18 They stubbornly tested God in their hearts, demanding the foods they craved.19 They even spoke against God himself, saying, “God can’t give us food in the wilderness.

Psalm 78:41 NLT (Asaph)Again and again they tested (tempted NKJV) God’s patience and provoked the Holy One of Israel.

Psalm 95:8-9 NLT (Unknown)The LORD says, “Don’t harden your hearts as Israel did at Meribah, as they did at Massah in the wilderness. 9 For there your ancestors tested and tried my patience, even though they saw everything I did.

The Lord’s prayer amplifies the KJV’s use of “temptation” in Genesis 22 by the statement, “And lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13 KJV). The unspoken conclusion for most Christians from 1611 A.D. onward was that God sometimes tempts us. This statement is correctly translated as, “And you lead us not into temptation.” It is rather an acclamation of God’s goodness. This matter is elucidated in the podcast on The Lord’s Prayer.

When Jesus asks Phillip how to procure enough food for the 5000 men the reason given in John 6:6 is that Jesus was testing or proving him. The Wycliffe Bible actually uses the word “tempting” in this verse.

According to Matthew 4:1 Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The implication is clear from this verse that the Spirit wants Jesus tempted. Luke (4:2) and Mark (2) correct the source of the temptation by saying, the Spirit led him into the wilderness and he was tempted there by the devil. But the damage was done by Matthew’s account since it is the first gospel, the one most read before they tire of the repetition of the gospels.

James is clear that God never tempts anyone and James further indicts temptation as coming from within us.

James 1:13-15 NLT And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. 14 Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. 15 These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.

If James is correct then we must look for the causation of Abraham wanting to sacrifice Isaac within himself.

2 “Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.”

During the slave epoch in what became the United States of America the child of a freeman and slave woman was deemed a slave. We find precedent for this practice here and in Galatians.

Galatians 4:24-27 NLT These two women serve as an illustration of God’s two covenants. The first woman, Hagar, represents Mount Sinai where people received the law that enslaved them. 25 And now Jerusalem is just like Mount Sinai in Arabia, because she and her children live in slavery to the law. 26 But the other woman, Sarah, represents the heavenly Jerusalem. She is the free woman, and she is our mother.

The author of Hebrews writes from a Post-Jesus perspective when he suggests that Abraham believed that God could resurrect Isaac from the dead. Up to this point in recorded history there had been no resurrections.

Hebrews 11:17-19 NLT It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, 18 even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.” 19 Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead.

There are active and passive voices recorded in the Bible. Furthermore, the devil can masquerade as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:15), creating confusion and misunderstanding. There is no reason to believe that he cannot disguise his voice as God’s voice for Abraham. He certainly influenced Herod to kill the baby boys in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18) so why not Influence Abraham to kill Isaac?

How does one know the will or command of God? George Muller, the man famous for establishing orphanages in England as a response to God’s leading, never did any fundraising and became famous for hearing God’s voice. He claimed the secret was to pray until the outcome was no longer a priority. It is at this point one is enabled to hear the voice of God.

Jesus Christ states, “If you are willing to do the will of God you will know if my teaching is true” (John 7:17). What this means is that truth is recognized through purity of motive rather than by analytical enquiry. When Jesus says, “By their fruit you shall know them” he also means the fruit of the message in our lives will authenticate the message’s truthfulness. Does the message make one more compassionate and less judgmental (Matthew 7:16-20).

“The Christian theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote a powerful book about it (Abram sacrificing Isaac), Fear and Trembling, in which he coined such ideas as the “teleological suspension of the ethical”—the love of G-d may lead us to do things that would otherwise be considered morally wrong—and “faith in the absurd”—Abraham trusted God to make the impossible possible. He believed he would lose Isaac but still keep him. For Kierkegaard, faith transcends reason.” / conversation/vayera/the-binding-of-isaac-a-new-interpretation/

This solution to Abraham offering Isaac seems to open the door to all sorts of mischief and fanaticism. This attitude opens the door to many options which can be claimed to be the will of God.

We may also ask why Abram did not protest this command of God as he has a history of protest or debate with God and others.

  1. In chapter 15 he suggests to God that Eliezer will be his heir (2-4). Next, he wants proof from God that he will possess the land (7-8).

  2. In chapter 17 he laughs when God says he and Sarai will have a son and recommends that God accept Ishmael as the promised son (17-22).

  3. In chapter 18 he bargains with God for the survival of Sodom (16-33).

  4. In chapter 20 Abram protests God’s infertility on Abimelech’s women (17-18).

  5. In chapter 21 Abram has serious negotiations with Abimelech in connections with water rights (22-32).

Abram is thus clearly a skilled negotiator and protestor who is not afraid to confront God himself. Hundreds of years later Moses negotiated with God at the burning bush and at Sinai. David’s protest psalms, Jonah complaints (4:1-4) and Habakkuk’s outcry against injustice by God (1:2-4) indicate that it was thus part of Israelite tradition to engage in serious dialogue with God.

However, in this incident Abraham does not protest the sacrificing of Isaac with the LORD. This seems to indicate that the voice that called him to sacrifice his son came from within himself as James described the process.

James 1:14-15 NLT Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. 15 These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.

Here are some explanations offered for the proposed sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.

The story is a literal record of exactly what happened.

The story is a prefiguring of how God would sacrifice his son.

Abraham had to learn that Isaac did not belong to him.

Abraham, because of his faults and failures, felt the need to do something to make restitution, placate, appease, or propitiate God.

Abraham thought it was God’s voice but he was deceived by his own devious nature.

We consider these options below.

1. The story is a literal record of exactly what happened.

Exodus 20:13 Thou shalt not kill (murder).

Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10—child sacrifice is detestable for God.

Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5— child sacrifice brings shame on God’s name.

This means God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son as the surrounding pagan nations did. If this explanation is accepted then one has to reconcile it with the following scriptures, over 20 of which express God’s abhorrence of child sacrifice:

2 Kings 3:27; 16:3; 17:17, 31; 21:6; 23:10—child sacrifice arouses God’s anger.

2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6—child sacrifices are pagan practices.

Psalm 106:37-40—child sacrifice results in God’s anger.

Isaiah 57:5—child sacrifice makes the LORD unhappy.

Jeremiah 7:31; 19:4-5; 32:35—the LORD never commanded child sacrifices.

Ezekiel 16:20-21; 20:26, 31; 23:37—you sacrifice my children to idols.

Micah 6:7 Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

Interestingly, Jeremiah states the LORD never desired sacrifices of any kind. What he wanted was obedience.

It seems impossible to reconcile God requiring Abraham to sacrifice Isaac with the abhorrence of the LORD for any sacrifice and especially child sacrifice.

7:22 NLT When I led your ancestors out of Egypt, it was not burnt offerings and sacrifices I wanted from them. 23 This is what I told them: ‘Obey me, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. Do everything as I say, and all will be well!’

2. The story is a prefiguring of how God would have to sacrifice his son.

This argument is that Abraham is privileged to share this parallel experience with God and will understand God’s sacrifice better. This view is used to justify the penal substitution theory of the atonement which is premised on the understanding that God needed the death of Jesus to be legally reconciled to sinners.

This metaphor for the atonement understands law to be the bedrock of the universe rather than the love of the LORD for his creation. While there are laws which describe the reality of the material universe, human relationships are moral entities not legal phenomena. God’s motivation is always that of love (1 John 4:8). He is not bound by law as Jesus illustrated by his Sabbath miracles. Imposed law, as opposed to inherent law is only necessary where love is not understood or practised. Imposed law is always a response to some evil. Speeding laws are necessary because some drivers have been speeding and endangering lives.

Moses was a law man and his legacy of law orientation is reality for many well-meaning religious people. This is true because Jesus’ teachings, miracles, life, and death are seen as confirming law rather than revealing the Kingdom of Heaven. Love supersedes law in every possible way. Paul understood that Law condemns while Love inspires (Romans 5:20-21).

This option is only valid in a universe where law supersedes love. This is not the moral order Jesus brought to our planet.

3. Abraham had to learn that Isaac did not belong to him.

This is the wisdom of Hebrew thinking. It is persuasive because it illustrates Jesus’ maximum that when you lose your life you gain your life. When Abraham “lost” his son, he gained his son. After the Exodus and Sinai, the firstborn belonged to the LORD and had to be redeemed at the Sanctuary.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks considers this event as far more than a pagan sacrifice and his comments are relevant.

“Throughout Tanach, the gravest sin is child sacrifice. The Torah and the prophets consistently regard it with horror. It is what pagans do. . . .

“It is what Mesha, King of Moab, does to get the gods to grant him victory over the Israelites:

When the king of Moab saw that the battle had gone against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through to the king of Edom, but they failed. Then he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall. The fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land. 2 Kings 3:26-27

“How can the Torah regard as Abraham’s supreme achievement that he was willing to do what the worst of idolaters do? The fact that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son would seem to make him—in terms of Tanach considered as a whole—no better than Baal or Molech worshippers or the pagan king of Moab. This cannot be the only possible interpretation.” isaac-a-new- interpretation/

Sacks concludes that the lesson the Lord wanted Abraham to learn was the Isaac did not belong to him but to the LORD. Sacks is a representative voice of Judaism but it does not have the authority of Christ’s voice who commands us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).

4. Abraham, because of his faults and failures, felt the need to do something to make restitution, placate, appease, or propitiate God.

He needed to give up something to show his remorse, as is done during Lent or Ramadan and the laws of restitution. He had blackened the name of God with his lying about Sarah to Pharaoh and to Abimelech. He had followed Sarai’s suggestion of having the promised son via Hagar. He had cruelly sent away Hagar and Ishmail into the desert.

Here are examples of Old Testament stories which demonstrate the idea that the LORD or other gods needed to be placated by human sacrifices.

King David, when there was a drought in Israel, was willing to have the Gibeonites execute 2 sons and 5 grandsons of Saul to placate the LORD. Then it rains (2 Samuel 21).

The king of Moab sacrificed his son to placate his god (2 Kings 3:26-27).

Jonah recommends his own death by drowning as a means of placating God (1:12).

Micah recognises the wickedness of this idea when he asks rhetorically,

Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:7)

He answers this question in the next verse.

No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

The concept of placating God with human sacrifice, which was current in Micah’s time, was not what God wanted.

In Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son God provided a ram, in Jonah’s case he provided a fish to negate these human attempts to placate him with human life given in death. The concept of the need to placate a god with human life is widespread in human history with the most persuasive offering being that of a firstborn child or a virgin girl. The LORD is different as he points out to Moses at the Golden Calf episode he cannot accept substitution, the innocent in place of the guilty.

Exodus 32:32-33 NLT But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, erase my name from the record you have written!” 33 But the LORD replied to Moses, “No, I will erase the name of everyone who has sinned against me. (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20)

This response by the LORD is clear that he is not placated by a substitutionary death. He is not placated by any death as Micah 6:7-8 states. Death is a consequence of sin (Romans 6:23) not a requirement or punishment from the LORD (John 8:44, 10:10; Hebrews 2:14).

Jeremiah 19:5— “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.”

5. Abraham thought it was God’s voice but he was deceived by his own devious nature.

He followed the practices that were prevalent in the surrounding cultures. This practise of child sacrifice would be emulated by his descendants as we have already noticed.

Jeremiah’s report of the Lord’s reaction is normative for the LORD’s attitude towards child sacrifice. One can argue that Jeremiah had a different view of child sacrifice to Abraham but Jeremiah is quoting the LORD not his personal view of the matter. Notice that he says the idea of child sacrifice has never entered God’s mind.

Jeremiah repeats God’s abhorrence for child sacrifice 13 chapters later: Jeremiah 32:35—child sacrifice never ever crossed God’s mind.

There are those who legitimately feel that if we say that God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac that we no longer take the Bible seriously. However, there are narratives that are re- interpreted in the Christian understanding.

1. We decode or interpret the literal story of Genesis 3 about a snake speaking to Eve. It took 4000 years before it was understood that this was the devil deceiving her on the basis of the last book of the New Testament (Revelation 12:9).

2. The burning bush (Exodus 3:2) or gentle breeze (1 Kings 19:12) are examples of God speaking through his creation to a human beings.

3. We reinterpret a literal donkey speaking to Balaam to be an angel of God speaking through the animal (Numbers 22:21-39).

4. 1 Samuel 28:15-19 records a literal dialogue between dead Samuel and a desperate king Saul. We know communicating with the dead is forbidden in the Old Testament so this puts us in a quandary. The solution is to say that the voice of dead Samuel is that of a fallen angel or a demon. But then we have reinterpreted the literal words of the Bible.

However, it is the only way to make sense of what is being told us.

Human communication always includes interpretation of the idioms and metaphors being used. “I had butterflies in my stomach,” has nothing to do with a stomach or insects. To deny that we have to understand idioms is naivety in the extreme and we cannot exclude this process from our reading of the Bible.

The concept of a supernatural evil being who could deceive Abraham with such a command was unknown at this point in history. In the Torah it was understood that there was one supernatural being, YHWH, who created and controlled all supernatural events. The concept of the devil, as we understand this being, was only revealed by Jesus two thousand years later (Podcast 8).

3 The next morning Abraham got up early. He saddled his donkey and took two of his servants with him, along with his son, Isaac. Then he chopped wood for a fire for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had told him about.

The first sentence suggests that Abram had a dream which influenced him. This is an emotionless account of this incident. It is typical of the flat narrative the Hebrews often use in their story telling. Abraham had to chop a lot of wood to consume a large burnt offering. There was a thicket on the mountain of sacrifice but it would not have yielded enough wood to consume the body of a 16-year-old boy as opposed to that of a small lamb. The large amount of wood must have raised questions in the minds of Isaac and the servants.

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