Chances are, human sacrifices seldom occur in your neighbourhood.
In fact, they are so far off our radar that when a person reads in the Bible that God commanded Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice, we are shocked and appalled.
If you were asked why God would ever give such a shocking command, what would you say?
First of all, I think we need to realize that there is simply no reason to get upset about the story ... unless it is true. After all, we do not take seriously what a fictitious villain does in a fairy tale. We don't get upset about that at all because we know it isn't true. It only becomes a serious issue if it actually happened, so let us accept it as true and see why God would have done this.
Cultural context is vital
If God were to suddenly appear to you, you would probably expect him to do it within your own cultural context. So, the first thing we need to do is to find out what the cultural context was almost 4,000 years ago — during the time of Abraham.
Abraham would have seen the sacrifice of Isaac in a very different way than we do today.
It turns out that we have numerous references to human sacrifices in the ancient middle east during the time of Abraham and afterward.
Apparently, sacrificing one's own children was a common practice of the ancient Canaanite cultures within which Abraham lived. It was a way of showing the highest possible devotion to the local gods such as Molech, or Baal in return for invoking the favor of their god for success, wealth, health, and especially in emergency situations.
For example, we have an account of the king of the Moabites sacrificing his son on the city wall during a siege when the city was in danger of falling to its enemies. The sacrifice of a child was the greatest possible sacrifice a person could make.
From a 21st century perspective, human sacrifices are so out of the norm that they seem bizarre and appalling to us, and it is now so mainstream to judge past societies by today’s standards. Consequently, we fail to understand the mindset of the day.
what makes Abraham's sacrifice unique
When God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it was something that would have been entirely normal to the culture of his time, but he may have found it surprising.
Never before, or since, did God ask for the sacrifice of a child. In fact, about 500 years later, when the sacrifice of children had become even more rampant among the Canaanites, God commanded Israel to never sacrifice their children as burnt offerings, referring to the practice as an abomination.
The takeaway is that God’s command to Abraham is unique in what it asked him to do. Furthermore, the command was given within the context of God already promising Abraham, multiple times, that his descendants would come through Isaac.
So for Abraham, the question was, did he really trust God more than the Canaanites trusted their gods Molech or Baal? This was the decision he had to make.
Whatever he decided would change him at the very core of his being, and how he lived from that point on. That one-time event, bizarre as it must have seemed to Abraham, would unleash an increasing series of consequences that would ultimately change the course of human history.
The difference between all the other human sacrifices and the one Abraham was asked to make was that God had a surprise waiting for Abraham (unlike the local gods of stone, metal, and wood).
Those who worshipped the pagan gods got nothing in return but the ashes of their child. Abraham would offer the greatest sacrifice he could possibly make, but God would provide a replacement instead and Abraham would not only keep his son, but through him, all the nations of the world would have an opportunity to receive the gift of eternal life and spiritual rebirth.
How we should analyze Abraham's sacrifice
Some 400 years later, God explicitly commanded Israel at Mt Sinai to never sacrifice a human being to any god, not even Him. But Abraham lived four centuries earlier. He lived in a very different culture and he would have seen the sacrifice of Isaac in a very different way than we do today.
First, it is critical that we analyze this event from the viewpoint of that ancient culture, not from our contemporary culture today. Second, God used the mindset of that ancient culture to produce a change within Abraham that would have consequences that continue to unfold to this day.
If you carefully read the account, you can make at least four observations.
Four observations of Abraham and Isaac's story
1. The significance of testing
The first observation is that the purpose of the event is stated in the first sentence; God was going to ‘test’ Abraham. The Hebrew word used here is nasah. The idea was that the ‘test’ would have the effect of changing the person to become closer to what God intended him or her to be.(1)
Each one of us is slowly changed over the course of our lives by the events that impact us deeply. Some of the wisest and most respected people in the world are those who have had to make extremely difficult decisions or who have suffered deeply.
When we apply this idea of God testing Abraham, he would not be the same person when it was over. To pass the test, he must change from the state of valuing his son more than anything else to the state of having reverence and trust for God that is above all other things. That kind of reverential fear and awe only comes when one realizes Who and What God is.
2. The significance of a decision
The second observation is that God did not stop the test until Abraham took up the knife to kill his son. Why?
I'll never forget the first time I walked out to the end of a high diving platform. I had already decided I was going to dive off it, but when I got to the end of the platform, I discovered that the 'real' decision would not be made until I actually dove off it into the water below, which was just a blur to me because I wasn't wearing my glasses.
For exactly the same reason, it was not until the moment when it was time to plunge the knife into his son that the test truly took place. The decision one way or another had to be made, and the change in Abraham would occur only if he made the right choice. The very instant he made the decision to go through with it, God stopped him. Abraham was now a different man.
3. A significant shift
The third observation is that God said, "Now I know that you fear (or stand in awe of) God" (Genesis 22:12[https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=genesis+22%3A12&version=NIV]). That is a very odd thing for an all-knowing Being to say.
In the philosophy of religion, omniscience is generally defined as the ability to know all that is logically possible to know. In Abraham's situation, it was not a case of learning a fact that was previously true but unknown to God. Instead, it was a case of a fact that had just become actualized in the world - a new state of affairs that did not exist until the moment of Abraham’s final decision. Abraham, by his decision, had shifted from one state to another.
4. A greater purpose
The fourth observation is that something much bigger had happened that would change the future history of the world.
God told Abraham that because of what he had decided, he would be greatly blessed, his descendants would be greatly multiplied, and all the nations of the world would be blessed.
A small intervention in history by God had subtly changed one man from that day forward in how he viewed the world and interacted with other people. Those small changes unleashed an exponentially increasing series of interacting consequences into the future that led to the birth of the nation of Israel and the first arrival of Jesus the Messiah, an event that radically changed the future of the world.
We can see in the account that it never was God’s intention for Abraham to actually sacrifice his son. Rather, what we have in this account is a glimpse into how God orchestrates history with small, personal changes in the past that lead to huge changes in the future.
It also is an example of how God gives us hints in the past of what will happen in the future.
We are told that Abraham’s sacrifice took place on a mountain “in the land of Moriah”.
Approximately 1,000 years later, the Jewish temple was built on a mountain called Mount Moriah, and a thousand years after that, Jesus the Messiah, the one who said he is “I AM” the name of God himself, offered himself on a nearby mountain as a sacrifice in exchange for people of every language, ethnic group around the world so that he could rescue us from eternal death. And he did this to satisfy his own requirements of flawless, perfect justice so that He could then carry out the demands of flawless, perfect honor and love for every person who will put their trust in Jesus, just as Abraham did so long ago.
So, we have an interesting comparison we can make. Abraham offered his son Isaac to God, not realizing at first that what God had in mind was a living sacrifice, not a dead one. Furthermore, God would provide Abraham a wild ram to die in place of Isaac.
Four thousand years later, God asks each one of us as individuals to present our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice and, if we do, he will give back to us something far greater and more wonderful than we can imagine.
The takeaway is that just as Abraham had a decision to make, so do you and I. It will cost you everything you value most, but on the other hand, you will receive back something beyond priceless, and that has been my own experience.