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One very popular theory we hear in the Church today is that Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was some kind of foreshadowing event that predicted how Yahweh would one day send Christ to die on our behalf. This is a very foolish claim to make and if you don’t understand why, keep reading.
Let’s start with some honest facts. Everyone finds this story disturbing. It makes us very uncomfortable to read that our loving God would suddenly command one of His faithful followers to go slaughter his own son and then burn his body as a sacrifice. What do we humans do when we don’t want to believe something? We reject it. We try to twist it into something else that we find easier to deal with. This is what we do with the Isaac story. Some theologians claim the whole thing never happened. Others try to make it more palatable with the following claims:
- Abraham knew right from the start that God wouldn’t really make him go through with it.
- Abraham believed that even if Isaac died, God would raise him from the dead.
- God had made Abraham a Covenant—obviously that couldn’t be broken, so the whole thing was just a weird exercise.
Of course all of these statements are just attempts to wriggle away from what makes us uncomfortable. The truth is that God is bound by NOTHING. He can change His mind, break His promises, and toss out His covenants anytime He darn well wants to. The Church has become so arrogant today that she thinks it’s just fine to go around telling God what He can’t do. God can’t break His word. God can’t contradict the Bible. God can’t change His mind. God can’t lie. God can’t do evil. Baloney. God can do it all—that’s what it means to be GOD. When you are merely a created being, you are confined by the limitations which your Creator places on you. God places many limitations on us humans. If we don’t respond to Jesus the way He wants us to, we will burn in Hell. Eternity is not a choose-your-own-ending affair. God defines what our two eternal options are and then He demands that we do certain things before we get to experience the pleasant choice. So as much as we love to go around touting our free will, there are only three truly free Beings: Yahweh, Jesus, and the magnificent Holy Spirit. We humans are not free. When God gives us a command, He expects obedience.
What’s reverent about Abraham treating God’s command like some kind of joke? What’s righteous about him inwardly scoffing in his heart about the idea that God would actually allow him to go through with slaughtering his son? These are the attitudes we try to pin on him today, yet in doing so, we only reveal the depth of our own defiance. Just because WE wouldn’t take God seriously about barbecuing our children doesn’t mean Abraham didn’t. Abraham was serious about pleasing God. Abraham was reverent. Our little “God would never” protests do not please God, nor does our claim that God isn’t allowed to break His own Covenant. He’s GOD. No one tells Him what He can’t do.
The reality is that Abraham had no confidence whatsoever that God wouldn’t allow him to go through with sacrificing his beloved son. How do we know this for certain? Because of the way God responds to Abraham after He calls off the test. God knew that when Abraham reached for his knife as he stood in front of his very frightened son’s body, he was planning to inflict a fatal wound. Abraham wasn’t trying to play chicken with God. It had taken three days for father and son to hike all the way to the place God had specified. It had taken time to build the altar and gather the material needed for a fire. And in all that time, God hadn’t intervened. Even when Abraham had seized the boy and started binding him with rope, God hadn’t intervened. Even when Abraham hoisted Isaac onto the uncomfortable pile of rocks and got his knife ready, God hadn’t intervened. Did Abraham think all was lost as he reached for his knife? He most certainly did. In his heart, Abraham gave Isaac up completely in that moment. He finally let the boy go, and that was exactly what God was after.
Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
But the angel of Yahweh called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”
And he said, “Here I am.”
The angel said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (Gen. 22:10-12)
If God hadn’t commented on this scene, then we could get away with pretending that Abraham didn’t really believe God would make him go through with it. But God’s response to Abraham’s actions gives us a clear view into Abraham’s heart. He had every intention of murdering his son in order to please his God. He wasn’t going to hold anything back, Covenant or no Covenant.
So what was the point of this traumatic ordeal which must have permanently damaged the trust between father and son? God has already told us what the point was.
“…for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (Gen. 22:12)
This whole thing was about correcting Abraham’s slipping priorities. Why was there ever a question that God wasn’t first in Abraham’s life? Because the promised child was becoming a bit too important in the old man’s eyes. God was starting to feel crowded, so He came up with a way to swiftly get Abraham back on track. By now, Abraham and God have a long personal history together. They have a solid bond. God isn’t about to let His little man slip away without a fight. When you’ve waited twenty-five years for God to give you a son you desperately want, it’s hard not to start obsessing. Abraham has already driven away his first son Ishmael for Isaac’s sake. Isaac is the shining star of the family—the heir to all of his father’s great wealth. No doubt he was spoiled rotten and probably a bit of a brat. But when God saw that Abraham was getting too attached to his son, He made His move. God wants to be first—totally first, not sharing the position with someone else. Isaac needed to be shoved way back from God’s throne in Abraham’s heart.
Personally destroying something you care about is a very powerful way to detach yourself from that thing. If I take a hammer to your phone, then you will think I was a jerk and fixate over the loss of something that was very important to you. But if you’re going to be the one who smashes your own possession, then a different mental process must take place. First you must choose to sever whatever heart bond you have formed with the object that you’re going to destroy. And once you make this mental shift, it’s never the same again. When Abraham looked at Isaac after God called off His test, he no longer saw someone he couldn’t stand to lose. Instead, he saw someone that he was willing to throw away for God’s sake. This ordeal had a very powerful, long-lasting effect on Abraham’s mind and soul. For Isaac, it had to have been extremely traumatic. A boy is going to be cautious about moving within dad’s reach again after he’s been seized and bound. No doubt there was a healthy distance between these two as they made the long journey home again. No doubt Isaac was extremely glad to run into his mother’s protective embrace. And yet the damaged trust would have only worked in Yahweh’s favor by preventing the previous bond of intimacy from being restored to its original strength.
Now those who don’t like the idea of God readjusting our priorities in such a traumatic way choose to fixate on how Abraham responded to his son as they trekked alone to the sacrificial spot. Never dreaming what dark plans had been formed against him Isaac asks:
“I see the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. (Gen. 22:7-8)
Here is where people will say, “See? Abraham knew that God would come up with some last minute solution.” But, no, he didn’t. The reality is that Abraham was a very old man at this time whereas Isaac was a vigorous youth. If Abraham had dropped the bomb on his son too early, Isaac might have gone sprinting off and Abraham would never have been able to catch him. A boy who is used to being showered with favoritism doesn’t readily agree to hang around while dad prepares to murder him. This answer that Abraham gives is an attempt to keep Isaac calm and cooperative until everything is set up. Then all Abraham has to do is grab the boy in some kind of hold that he couldn’t easily slip out of and quickly immobilize him with ropes while Isaac was still feeling confused. This was a plausible plan, for “Uh-oh! I think Dad is about to kill me!” isn’t the first thought a boy in Isaac’s position would have. Before this event, he and Abraham were very close—so close that Yahweh had become jealous.
So what does all of this have to do with Christ? Not a thing. As we’ve discussed, the sacrifice of Isaac was about adjusting Abraham’s priorities. The sacrifice of Jesus was about atoning for the sins of the world. Isaac was going to be a burnt offering. Jesus was crucified. Isaac had no clue what was going on until it was too late. Jesus knew from the very beginning why He had come to the earth. Isaac was having his life taken from him by force. Jesus voluntarily laid down His life.
Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. Yahweh offered His Son up voluntarily. Abraham acted out of love for God. Yahweh and Jesus acted out of love for us. Abraham wasn’t required to follow through with his sacrifice. Yahweh certainly followed through with His. Abraham’s ordeal only affected a few people. Yahweh’s sacrifice affected the entire human race. How can we possibly argue that these two events have anything to do with each other? We can’t. These two events are totally unrelated, and that’s a very good thing. Because if the sacrifice of Isaac was supposed to be foreshadowing what Yahweh would do with Jesus on our behalf, then Yahweh would have changed His mind at the last minute and said, “Never mind, I’m not going to go through with sacrificing My Son after all.” Then where would we be?