Why would a Loving God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? What is the purpose of such a test? (Violence in the OT – part 4)

January 16, 2018

Why would a Loving God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? What is the purpose of  such a test? (Violence in the OT – part 4)

Perhaps one of the greatest faith stories ever told in history is attributed to our father Abraham. As you know, Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless and passed the age of reproduction when God announced to them the great news that they would have a child. After waiting for Isaac a good 25 years, they finally had their beloved son, when, out of the blue, God came up with an unexpected request: He said to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…” A very weird request, at least it seems to be. And as the story unfolds, God saves Isaac from death and everything is fine again. However, to the contemporary reader, this command raises so many questions and concerns about the Person of God. Why does a Loving God ask a father to sacrifice his child as a burnt offering? Is God advocating the killing of humans or worse innocent children? Why does God need to test Abraham in the first place, doesn’t He know everything? Often God’s requests seem quite strange for us living in the 21st century, but this is due to our lack of knowledge of the different cultures during the Old Testament times. Historically, it was common to offer one’s child to the pagan gods. They did so in despair and fear of their blood-thirsty gods. Remember, Abraham lived in a polytheistic society where the worship of pagan gods was the norm. Therefore, Abraham had seen and heard in his lifetime many people offering their children to these idols. The abnormal part though is that God, the Lover of mankind, was the One asking such a request. Did Abraham really believe that God was requesting this human sacrifice?

It seems that he knew Him a bit better than that. St. Paul says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called,’ concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.” This verse reveals to us that since God had promised to Abraham that his seed shall be called in Isaac, and no other, Abraham fully believed that God would simply prevent this from happening one way or another. Abraham had already experienced God for many years and by then, his mind could not conceive that God would accept such a sacrifice. This conclusion becomes evident by the fact that when Abraham saw the mountain where the sacrifice was to be carried, he said to his servants: “Stay here with the donkey; we will go worship, and we will come back to you.” He is confirming that we will come back—both Isaac and himself. Therefore, God is not advocating human sacrifices but in fact, quite the opposite, as He mentioned in the Torah: “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they [Gentiles] have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.” Therefore, to associate this request with God wanting human sacrifices is a serious oversight. His will is clear as seen in the Torah, but He used the circumstances and the culture of the time to make of Abraham a pillar of faith.

Still, why does God test Abraham in the first place if He already knows his heart? And why does He test him specifically in this way? To answer the first question, St. Augustine says, “Abraham has been tested by offering his beloved son Isaac to proclaim his piety of obedience, not to God, but to the world.” God wanted to declare the faith of our beloved father Abraham to the entire world and truly this story is the pinnacle of Abraham’s faith. To answer the second question: when we look at the hidden symbolic Messianic meaning of this episode, we find that God says to Abraham, “take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…” This is the first hint given to us to discover the Messianic meaning. Isaac, here, is a type or a symbol of Christ. He is the only son of his father as Christ is the only-begotten Son of God the Father… and the Father declared about this Son “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17).  Thus, to Abraham, Isaac was not only a son, but the only beloved Son becoming a type of Christ. Then, the Genesis accounts records that Abraham saddled his donkey, which is done prior to someone sitting on it, which potentially Isaac did shadowing Christ, the Messiah, who rode the donkey on His way to Jerusalem. Then, when Abraham sees the mountain from afar, he takes the wood and gives it to Isaac to carry up the mountain. This is a shadow of Christ, the Messiah, carrying His wooden cross up mount Golgotha. The scholar Origen says “that Isaac carries on himself the wood for the burnt offering is a figure, because Christ also himself carried his own cross, and yet to carry the wood for the burnt offering is the duty of a priest. He therefore becomes victim [sacrifice] and priest.” Truly Christ was the sacrifice on the cross and He also fulfilled the duty of the Priest by offering Himself as a sacrifice for the salvation of humankind.

In addition to this, on that day, which was the third day, Abraham and Isaac had left their home. Isaac, who was supposed to be dead, was alive. The third day in the Old Testament often symbolizes the day of the resurrection and it truly does in this passage. In other words, Isaac, the son sentenced to death was alive on the third day. By this allegorical explanation, we can now fully understand why God tested Abraham by offering his son Isaac. The scriptures here are pointing to the New Testament salvific work of Christ the Messiah.

Remember, know your faith, live your faith and teach your faith

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