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Please explain: Why did God cruelly command Abraham to sacrifice his son?

For many people, it’s an Old Testament Bible story that is confusing, even alarming. For every Sunday school student who has colored the picture of Abraham lifting his knife over his son Isaac, there is a parent who’s thinking, What kind of God would ask a father to do that? That seems so cruel! Why would a loving God make such a demand of a believer?

Although we must confess with St. Paul, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Romans 11:34), the fact is, in his Word, God gives us a glimpse of his good purpose for putting Abraham through the trial that he did.

God tests his children

Throughout Abraham’s life, God had made him some remarkable promises. By the power of the Holy Spirit, those promises had worked saving faith in Abraham’s heart. But God knows that faith, when never exercised, soon grows weak and flabby. So God, in love, resolved to put Abraham’s faith to the test. God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22:2).

Just for a moment, put yourself in Abraham’s sandals. What thoughts would be going through your mind as you made the three-day trek to a distant land? God, why are you doing this to me? Why would you force me to give up my son after Sarah and I waited so long to hold him in our arms? And God, what about your promise? You promised that the Messiah would come from the line of Isaac. How can that happen if Isaac is no more? God’s command to sacrifice Isaac would have made no sense at all.

So the question is, why did God make such a seemingly senseless demand of Abraham? What was God’s purpose in testing Abraham so severely? Actually, God himself answers that question for us—but only after Abraham passes the test. At the moment when Abraham was about to plunge the knife into his son, God stopped him. Then God said to Abraham, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12). In other words, by his actions, Abraham had revealed the contents of his heart. By his actions, Abraham showed that his love for Isaac was not greater than his love for the God who gave him his son in the first place.

But you realize, don’t you, that it’s not just Abraham’s faith that God puts to the test? Often he puts our faith to the test too. He tests our faith not for his benefit—he already knows exactly how strong or weak our faith is. No, God tests our faith for our benefit. He wants to give us an opportunity to put our faith into action in our lives.

For that reason, sometimes God allows things to happen that are difficult. Sometimes we are confronted with a situation that seems to make no sense at all, like the death of an infant child. But God promises to use each of these situations as an opportunity for us to fear, love, and, especially, trust in him above all things.

God’s children trust their Father

Consider for a moment the many ways that Abraham expressed his trust in God throughout the extended test God put him through. The fact that, at God’s directive, Abraham wastes no time heading out toward a yet unidentified mountain was an expression of Abraham’s trust in God.

When Abraham arrived at Moriah, he tells his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you” (Genesis 22:5). Do you realize what an amazing expression of faith that is? Notice that Abraham says, “We will come back to you.” What is Abraham confessing? He’s confessing that he firmly believes that Isaac is going to accompany him back from the sacrifice. Abraham is convinced that if he puts Isaac to death, God is going to bring him back to life again. Why did Abraham believe that? Because God had made Abraham a promise to make Isaac into a great nation.

By his actions, Abraham showed that his love for Isaac was not greater than his love for the God who gave him his son in the first place.

The writer to the Hebrews describes Abraham’s thought process: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Hebrews 11:17-19). God made Abraham a promise. Abraham believed it and acted on it, even when it didn’t seem to make sense.

In the end, it was God’s promise—and Abraham’s faith in that promise—that allowed Abraham to raise the knife over his son. In effect, Abraham was saying, “God, I’m going to trust you.” Abraham’s action on that mountain was a believer’s way of confessing, “God, even though I don’t understand why you are asking me to do this, even though this is breaking my heart, still I’m going to leave the final outcome in your hands.”

In fact, when young Isaac asks, “Father, . . . the fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham responded, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:7,8). In other words, “Son, I’m not sure how it’s all going to work out, but I’m trusting that God will handle the details.” That’s all Isaac needed to hear. Isaac trusted the promise of his earthly father, just as Abraham trusted the promise of his heavenly Father.

Isn’t the same thing true for you and me today? When we are faced with difficult situations, when our faith is being tested, when we are asked to endure things that don’t make a lot of sense to us, God invites us to do what Abraham did. He invites us to cling to his promises. In his Word, God promises that he will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). He promises that he will use all things to serve our eternal good (Romans 8:28). He promises that he’s preparing a place in heaven for those who believe (John 14:3).

It’s all these promises and more that allow us to say with Abraham, even in the middle of the most severe tests, “God, all I can do is trust you.” And with that, God’s purpose for every test we face will be achieved.

Author: Robert Raasch
Volume 108, Number 2
Issue: February 2021

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