Abraham sacrificing Isaac

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Puritan Board Freshman
One question about the near-sacrifice of Isaac that I haven't seen asked - why did Abraham not question the command on the basis of it being apparently contrary to God's moral law (child sacrifice in the manner of the pagans)? I understand that it was an act of faith, and that Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead if need be. At the same time, one litmus test for whether a word is of the Lord is whether it accords with the rest of God's word.

Read this thread. Particularly MW’s posts.
Hi friend. In short, faith isn't blind. We put our trust in a God we can know, and I believe Abraham knew he didn't have to question God, as He believed His promises to Him. No matter what God asks, we don't need to question, as He is morally perfect and trustworthy in every way.
I think we need to consider from the text that Isaac was not a small "child". He was fully grown man, and as a type of Christ, he went both knowingly and willingly to that altar.

It's important we establish his age based on the numbers and circumstances we are given in the bible:

-Sarah had him when she was 90 (or 91) years old (Gen 17:14; 18:10; 21:1-4).

-Sarah died at the age of 127 (Gen 23:1,2).

-Which puts Isaac's age at either 36 or 37.

Now being a type of Christ, I think its exegetically and Christological safe to assume that Isaac is in his early 30's by the time he is offered up to God.

In addition, he is caring a substantial amount of wood that Abraham split for the offering, i.e this was not a standard bundle of wood from 7-11, especially when it had to roast a full-size ram later with horns big enough to get caught in a strong thicket to keep him in place. He would have to be pretty strong for such task at such a distance (Gen 22:4). I also think that at over 100 years old Abraham would need help getting that ram subdued!

Also, he is called in the Hebrew a "na'ar" (Strongs#5288) or a "lad" which often denotes a youth or a young man that is fit for military service.

Atheists like to use this text a proof of child abuse, but his age is far from that of what we would consider a "child".
@chuckd - I read that thread; it raised more questions for me then it answered, as at various points people debated the notion of contradictions within or transcending of the moral law. What I have tended to think is as follows: the moral law is a revelation of God's character, so it cannot be transcended by some other expression of God's character; its parts must be viewed in the context of the whole. Following from this, I have never seen the sixth commandment as abrogated, contradicted, or transcended when a magistrate lawfully carries out capital punishment, or when the Israelites executed judgment on the Canaanites, or when Jesus voluntarily laid down his life. Rather, I have always thought that the sixth commandment perfectly expresses God's desire to uphold life and must be read in conjunction with, and as harmonizing perfectly with, God's other commands.

@Ryan&Amber2013 - I agree with what you've said, but it doesn't quite get at the question I was asking. I do not in any way question that God's commands must be accepted with implicit faith in his trustworthiness. Let me put it this way. If "the Lord" came and told me to leave my wife for a flirtatious blonde co-worker,* I would reject the command outright, and no matter what credentials or arguments were presented, I would maintain that this was not actually the Lord but a deceiver. Why? Because the command is blatantly contrary to God's will. So what I'm asking is - why did not Abraham question whether the command was truly of God? On reflection, this reveals a deeper difficulty on my part reconciling God's command to Abraham with my limited understanding of his moral law that I am trying to resolve. So the real question is - how does God's command square with the moral law? Reading the recommended thread, while interesting, has not helped me to see what I might be missing here.

@CovenantPatriot87 - I am not at all sure I agree; at least, I'm not sure I agree that this is a necessary conclusion of the text. It's also plausible that Isaac was a teenager, and it's not at all clear that he knew ahead of time what was happening. See this thread.

@jacobcandler1689 - I have not heard of that particular work. Thank you for the recommendation!

*Please note that this is an entirely hypothetical situation posited only for the sake of clarifying the problem I am working through. No such suggestion has actually been made to me.
Abraham is really early in redemptive history. Much of what we know of the scripture was revealed later. The Spirit clearly impressed upon Abraham the source of the sovereign commands. "Leave your home" ... "divide these animals ... "take your son," and had learned to respond with faith in God's provision.
Abraham is really early in redemptive history. Much of what we know of the scripture was revealed later. The Spirit clearly impressed upon Abraham the source of the sovereign commands. "Leave your home" ... "divide these animals ... "take your son," and had learned to respond with faith in God's provision.

Sure, and I get that his faith was such that he trusted God would bring Isaac back from the dead if need be. I would still think that even then there would be something about it that seemed difficult to reconcile with God's moral law, but maybe it's just a mental block that I need to work around until it resolves itself with time. And maybe I'm missing just how clear it was to Abraham that this really was a command from the Lord and that it would not interfere with God's promises to him despite appearances very much to the contrary.
It certainly worth meditating upon.

I'm not sure about the notion, often stated, that Abraham trusted God to provide a substitute when none was specifically promised. Also, I think it's extremely helpful to stop and ask: what was known at the time of the Biblical events. This is long before much of the law was specifically given.
It certainly worth meditating upon.

I'm not sure about the notion, often stated, that Abraham trusted God to provide a substitute when none was specifically promised. Also, I think it's extremely helpful to stop and ask: what was known at the time of the Biblical events. This is long before much of the law was specifically given.

I've always thought (or rather, implicitly assumed) that he believed God would raise Isaac from the dead.

If we believe that the moral law is universal and for all time, wouldn't that imply that Abraham would have had some knowledge of it? It also wouldn't change what the moral law was, regardless of the extent to which it was revealed and known.
That's something that has intrigued me. Certainly the law doesn't change and people knew at least portions of it. The first generations knew murder was wrong and that offerings should be made though we're given no early instances of the revelation.

We're not told how the receivers of special revelation discerned they were hearing from God apart from the occasional supernatural auditory experiences or miracles like the burning bush. Somehow Abraham knew he was hearing from God and understood that what he had perceived of the law didn't supersede the direct commandment he was getting. Which brings us back around to the OP.
Galatians tells us the gospel was announced to Abraham. We ought to assume Abraham could tell the difference between a pagan child sacrifice and a gospel-previewing burnt offering. Those are two very different things. Genesis 22 is clear that God's command was to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, which is often associated with atonement for sin (for example, in Leviticus 1). This means God's command to Abraham was not about murder, nor was it a case of trying to curry favor with the gods by making a child sacrifice like the pagans did. Rather, the whole episode is about the question, "What will atonement for sin cost, and who will make that atonement?" Abraham likely had some realization of this from the start, or at least by the time he climbed the mountain and made his "the Lord will provide" comment.

By initially selecting Isaac, God was making the point that the cost of atonement is severe: "Your son, your only son, whom you love." But the events that followed provide gospel relief as they reveal more of the plan of atonement. It involves (1) a substitute (2) which the Lord will provide for himself, (3) bringing resurrection from the dead, as it were, and (4) confirming all of God's gospel promises that lead to our heavenly home.

It's hard to say with certainty how much of this gospel Abraham understood at the time. But there is evidence both in the Genesis account itself and in Galatians and Hebrews 11 that Abraham grasped a meaningful chunk of it. Abraham would not of heard God's command and thought, "Wait a minute, that sounds like a pagan child sacrifice." By that point in his life, he knew too much gospel to confuse the need for atonement with superstitious appeasement/pandering, or with murder.

J.P., I suspect the puzzle you're working through would resolve more easily if you rejected the premise that the command to offer Isaac sounds similar to murderous child sacrifice. Instead, try to hear God's command the way Abraham had learned to hear everything God told him: as a shadowy announcement of the gospel that would become clearer as Abraham moved forward in faith.
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What if Abraham knew the character of God and believed His promise so well by faith, that he ultimately knew that his son was not going to be sacrificed? I guess all I'm trying to say is that maybe it was a simple act of obedience for Abraham because he knew God was not going to allow that.
There seems to be multiple things going on here. The Law was not yet given, so it doesnt seem we can be for certain that Abraham was aware of a prohibition relative to the Pagans child sacrifices. But he did know a couple of things. 1. That for God nothing is impossible; God having proved that by Sarah conceiving. 2. That God promised Abraham, that through the child of promise the world would be blessed. That child was Isaac. I think this is why the Bible is clear that "Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead." (Heb. 11:19) There are several levels of parallelism. Consider this story as a parallel to God offering up Jesus. In an eternal perspective, the guiltless are not deserving of death. Yet, do the just really die? (John 11:25-26) Yes, our bodies may perish, but the elect are eternal. What Abraham understood, if anything, was faith in the promised seed, the security of the beloved, and the omnipotence of God. There is nothing Abraham could have done to Isaac that God could not have reversed. Offering Isaac was a test of faith; that is that with God anything is possible.

I dont think there is much justifying in the mind of Abraham. Abraham didnt know whether his son would or wouldnt be sacrificed; but he did know that through his son the world would be blessed, and that God cannot lie. The same unwavering and unflinching trust in God that Jesus uttered when he said "into thy hands I commit my spirit" Abraham typified in a way by committing the life of his son into the same hands.
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There is probably a tendency for us to replace the biblical characters we encounter in the text with ourselves, and to assume certain unchangeable conditions common to our personal experience (and era) were the very same, in all respects, in those ancient days. We should be content and thankful that so much of our human nature is the same, so we are able to relate quite well to ancient figures. But at the same time, we need to allow for variation and distance between the ages resulting in "strangeness," an exotic quality that forces us to reckon with the reality that we are engaging with an alien culture.

For all our remove from Abraham's day, and the fact our revelatory possession (in the Bible) is contained as opposed to open ended and "live," truthfully the advantage is ours, in that we "have the prophetic word made more sure," to use Peter's phrase. Abraham is such a towering figure of faith (as Paul describes him) in part because his written possession of divine revelation in permanent form was tiny. We don't know how much he had, but if what he could hold in hand was equivalent to the first half of Genesis, then it was spare indeed.

What did he have? He had revelation in nature, which included the moral law, and some divine promises, either directly revealed to him or possibly conveyed to him from an earlier generation in written form. To this extent, we may reason to observe that Abraham would know life was precious, it was God's gift, and not to be reaved apart from justice by one man from another.

The question we're asking ourselves in this thread is: based on Abraham's character (we think), given the crime of murder and aggravations like the nearness of kin in this case and the uniqueness of the seed of promise, wouldn't Abraham doubt the command given him by God? Another question: would someone in possession of an accurate assessment of the divine character believe a command from heaven that (we think) appeared immoral and unworthy of God?

What are our unexamined assumptions, in those cases? Perhaps they begin thus: that a command from the Living God to take the life of someone--especially the promised seed--absent any explanation of the justice of the demand in terms Abraham and later generations could grasp (including ourselves) is indistinguishable from a prompting from the devil. Is this true? The text alone seems clearly to indicate that Abraham harbored no doubt that El Shaddai, the same God of promise who fulfilled that word in his son, gave him his new sacrificial direction.

We are used to hearing horror stories from maniacs on trial or reported of them in the news, that these folks claim to hear voices that told them to kill. We superimpose those tales on Gen.22. We reason that the maniac in the news is wrong and his acts evil, and either nuts or faking it, because thinking God is summoning a man to annihilate others is self-evidently contrary to the moral law of God.

A bare command purportedly direct from God is not sufficient to compel action, and is not a defense acceptable at the bar of justice (or Justice). The killer obeying the voices in his head, which he has separated from his own internal monologue as a kind of coping mechanism for his base desires, is not comparable to Abraham and the revelation that came to him concerning the sacrifice of Isaac.

In the first place, Abraham had many other divine encounters prior to Gen.22; if he had begun with any uncertainty that the Living God treated with him, such uncertainty had been overcome many decades earlier. God had both appeared to him and spoken to him, and his word had been verified time and again. We might say Abraham was as steeped in familiarity with divine revelation (on terms suitable to his situation) as many of us are who have decades of familiarity with special and general revelation available to the average Christian in the west, including reading the Bible ourselves and countless good quality Sunday sermons.

Mockers may say Abraham was simply "hearing voices," but his testimony (which is what comes down to us from him, and from Moses in the form of the text of Genesis) is to the contrary. Whatever reason we have to believe the mockers, based on shared skeptical worldview or common culture, we have better reason to believe Abraham's version of events. God had already given Abraham sufficient reason over a long time to trust that anything he was commanded by God to do was legitimate and right, even if it had a surface implausibility based on other criteria.

Furthermore, on this occasion we are compelled to conclude that Abraham was sufficiently justified (even if we do not know preciesly how so) in rejecting the suggestion that the devil must be masquerading this time as the angel of light, pretending to be the agent of the divine word. Maybe we need nothing more than confirmation through the author of Hebrews (11:19) that he was moved to believe in a resurrection upon receipt of the astonishing order. He correctly judged this hope was consistent with all the previous revelation he had of God.

Therefore by several strands of reason, it was impossible for him to doubt God was testing his servant, and he had the duty to obey the external Voice, not a voice forged of his imagination. For our part, we must accept Abraham's version, Moses' version, the Holy Spirit's version, in preference to a naturalistic interpretation, or a comparative-religion interpretation. "Human sacrifice" is and ever has been abominable; therefore, Abraham was not preparing to perform human sacrifice in the standard definition of that term.

God took on flesh, and sacrificed himself--a human sacrifice. Even men acknowledge a great difference between human sacrifice as a grotesque act of devotion (to idols and the devil), and a sacrificial laying-down of one's own life for his friends, or for a righteous man, or (as deplorable as it may be) when some lives are regarded as expendable for the sake of other lives. God had a morally sufficient reason--even if he never explains himself to us--not out of character in himself or as he is free to command men what he will, to bid Abraham make this sign of his only and beloved son (Gen.22:2) through his death.

If it is hard for us to imagine being in Abraham's place, I don't suggest it was easy for Abraham; whether to commit to the act or to nearly carry it out, regardless of what he thought would be the outcome after the fact. We don't have to replay Abraham's severe act. We don't have to try to psychologize the mind of Abraham before he saw the end of his faith.

What Abraham ended with, we also receive without the attendant suffering he went through. We accept the limits on our effort to put ourselves in his sandals, and we accept the extravagant blessing of graciously being put in possession of the whole saga; not confined to the stories of Abraham and Isaac alone, but as those stories proved part of the full story of redemption. We are of the faith of Abraham.
@Jack K and @Contra_Mundum - thank you. After reading and reflecting on your posts last night and this morning, I do think you've helped me identify at least two errors in my thinking. The first would be in perceiving, without warrant, a degree of similarity between Isaac's sacrifice and the pagan practices of the time. The second would be in unconsciously developing a tendency to "moralize" the tale, as if it were simply a case of God putting his saints through a "performance test" and reserving the hardest one for Abraham.

Also, in asking why Abraham wouldn't have doubted whether the command was really of the Lord, I guess I've ignored the great significance of the fact that Abraham did not doubt the Lord. He must have had a great deal of certainty that the command was of the Lord and a righteous, perfectly justifiable command. Perhaps I should have let that fact be my starting point. And a greater awareness of the redemptive significance of the story would help me to see the pointlessness of trying to analogize it to contemporary situations. Since it's not just a moral tale, I can't draw straight lines from that to situations that don't have the same backdrop or redemptive significance.

There's a lot more for me to chew on, but my thanks to the both of you for helping me to see that there were some mental stumbling blocks clouding my thinking.
Someone may have mentioned this, but as horrific as the task before Abraham was from a natural viewpoint, he also had the sure word from God that He would raise his son from the dead. In that sense, I could see this task God set him to do as being as horrifying as it would be to any of us. But Abraham, a prophet of God, had both the command to sacrifice Isaac and the promise that God would raise him back up. "I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you."
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