Why Did God Ask Abraham to Sacrifice Isaac?
The Bible has many difficult passages for modern readers, but few are more challenging than the moment when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22.
This story causes us to ask a lot of troubling questions. What kind of God would ask for this? Is God commanding child sacrifice? Isn’t this request in conflict with everything else God seems to value?
We are in the middle of a series on difficult passages in the Bible. In part one, we looked at the flood. Now we jump ahead a few chapters in Genesis to consider the requested sacrifice of Isaac.
If the Bible is a unified story that leads to Jesus, then is Jesus connected to such a disturbing request? Is the God of love found anywhere in this passage? The good news is that the answer to both questions is, “Yes!” Let’s take a look.
Abraham’s Long-Awaited Son
Genesis 1-11 tells the story of how God created all things and made humans in his image to rule on his behalf. However, the humans misuse their rule, and the world spins out of control into violence and death. This all leads up to the rebellion and scattering of the people from Babylon (Genesis 11).
God calls a man named Abram, later known as Abraham, to launch his plan to rescue and bless the whole world through Abraham’s family (Genesis 12). But there’s a problem. Abraham is childless, and his wife is barren. Although this problem lurks in the background of Abraham’s story, God reaffirms his promise. One day, Abraham will have a son, and his descendants will be a great nation. And after decades of waiting, Isaac was born.
But the long wait for Isaac wasn’t Abraham’s true test. This comes in the very next chapter (Genesis 22) when God tells Abraham to take his beloved son and sacrifice him. Abraham must have been confused. Why would God promise him a son and then take the son away? At best, it feels like a strange inconsistency. At worst, it’s an evil trick.
What’s Really Going On Here?
When we look at the context of this story, we notice three things that lead us to greater understanding of this problematic passage in Genesis 22.
1. This Wasn’t Abraham’s First Experience with God
God had already revealed himself to Abraham many times through Abraham’s successes and failures, his faith and fear, in promises and forgiveness. Abraham knew the character of God. Once, he even asked God, “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25) After this encounter, perhaps Abraham settled this question in his mind once and for all.
Abraham obeyed God’s unexpected command because he trusted God’s promise and knew him to be good and trustworthy.
2. Abraham Didn’t Think Isaac Would Die
When they reached the mountain, Abraham told his servant, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you” (Genesis 22:5). The text is careful to include both Abraham and Isaac in the return journey.
Or consider Isaac’s question about where the lamb for the sacrifice would come from. Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:8). It seems Abraham prepared himself to do what God asked, but he expected something else to happen.
The author of the book of Hebrews gives us insight to Abraham’s thoughts. It says, “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). Instead of a resurrection, Abraham was spared the sacrifice.
When the Bible depicts violence, things are often not what they seem at first glance. A surface reading may hide a character’s motivations and intentions. In other cases, referencing other points in the biblical tradition can shed light on difficult passages. This is certainly the case with our next point—prophetic reenactment.
3. Prophetic Reenactment
The story of Abraham and Isaac takes on a larger significance when you place it in the context of prophetic reenactment. Throughout the Bible, God asked prophets to reenact in miniature things that he would do on a larger scale. The acts themselves seem strange until you see them as an acted out allegory. Then you start asking different questions.
When we read Genesis 22, we may think, "How could God have required this?" But when we view the story through the lens of prophetic reenactment, we can ask, "What did God intend for us to learn through this?"
Just as God called the prophet Hosea to act the part of God in marrying a prostitute (Hosea 1) and told Ezekiel to lie on his side for over a year to symbolize the siege of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4), so God asked Abraham to play the part of God in the sacrifice of his own son.
This begs the question: What son are we talking about here?
Genesis 22 Points to Jesus
The entire Bible points to Jesus, and this is especially true of Genesis 22. This passage is like a lock, and Jesus is the key that unlocks it for us. Think about the parallels between this story and the story of Jesus.
- Both Isaac and Jesus are “beloved sons” who have been long-awaited and are born in miraculous circumstances (Genesis 22:1, Matthew 3:17).
- Both sons carry the wood that is to be the instrument of their deaths on their backs (Genesis 22:6, John 19:17).
- In both cases, the father leads the son, and the son follows obediently toward his own death (Genesis 22:3, Matthew 26:39).
- God provides the sacrifice, which Abraham says will be a lamb (Genesis 22:8, John 1:29).
- Jesus was also an innocent son who went willingly up the mountain to be crucified.
Jesus is the True Isaac
What do all these parallels mean? Abraham and Isaac point beyond themselves to the Messiah. This story is a parable of the greater redemption God would someday accomplish through one of their descendants, Jesus.
An exchange happens in Genesis 22, the ram in place of Isaac. This points to the greater exchange that happens at the cross, the Son of God in place of us. In Jesus, God brings his own promised Son into death and through it. Just like Isaac, God spares humanity because he takes the cross on himself.
The Comfort of the Cross
Most people aren’t disturbed by the outcome of Genesis 22. Instead, it’s the fact that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son in the first place. How could Abraham agree? This seems more like parental neglect than faithful obedience.
But remember what we’ve covered so far. If Isaac represents Jesus in the story, then Abraham stands in for God.
From that angle, Abraham’s willingness is comforting. This is the point that Paul makes when he draws language from Genesis 22 to ask, “He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31)
On the grounds of this sacrifice, Paul pronounces one of the strongest messages of hope and consolation in all of Scripture, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
But Why Death At All?
Perhaps seeing this story in the larger context of Jesus’ sacrifice doesn’t relieve your troubling questions but only makes them worse. After all, God is still requiring the death of a son, only this time it's his own!
Why does death have to be involved at all? Why such violence? Couldn’t God just wave his hand and fix things? Why did there have to be a sacrifice?
To answer these questions, we need to ponder the entire biblical story. In the beginning, God made a good world and created beings in his image to rule it with him (Genesis 1:26-28). He offered them richness of life because it was a life with him, the source of all life. But there was a condition, that if they turned away from him, they would die because nothing can live away from God. Yet that is exactly what they chose.
God didn't introduce death into the equation; humanity did. God’s problem (and ours) is figuring out how to deal with it.
God can’t pretend death isn’t there. He is life, and we have chosen to live by our own standards. The Hebrew Scriptures wrestle with the question of how death will be resolved. And the answer it gives is sacrifice.
Sacrifice is the death of one thing so something else can have a new life. What makes the gospel such good news is that God solves the problem of death, not by demanding the death of everything touched by the stain of evil but by offering himself instead. The result of Jesus’s sacrifice means new life for us all.
So where do we land?
On the surface, Genesis 22 is a problematic passage. But when we see how this story fits in with the broader context of Scripture, we see that this is one of the clearest stories pointing us toward God’s solution to the problem of death in our world. In choosing Abraham, God launches a plan to rescue the world. Abraham’s words to Isaac ultimately point to Jesus, “God himself will provide the sacrifice.”
Andy Patton is on staff at L'Abri Fellowship in England and is the co-editor of Three Things Newsletter. He holds an M. A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and, if there was such a thing as a card-carrying Bible nerd, he would hold one of those, too.