February 28, 2013

Why God Commanded Abraham to Kill Isaac

by Wyatt Graham

abraham isaacWhat’s your first thought when you read that God bids Abraham to slaughter his son Isaac in Genesis 22:2? Notwithstanding our natural abhorrence to child sacrifice, we have just read that God himself outlawed murder (Gen 9:6). We could think that God criminalizes himself by this order but wry readers know that something is amiss.

Until this point, God has only had humanity’s good in mind (cf. Genesis 1–2’s repetition of “good”) and this story is no different, for God’s command works for Abraham’s good. What we might miss is that the story has already taken us, as readers, by the hand to tell us the end from the beginning. Genesis 22:1 says, “God tested Abraham.” As insiders, we know that this is a test.  

From the get-go, then, the tale of Isaac’s sacrifice is never a story only about Isaac’s sacrifice. In reality, the story concerns God’s test that aims to strengthen Abraham whom he loves (cf. Proverbs 3:12). The little sentence, “God tested Abraham,” implies that God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, something only the readers know, while Abraham remains in the dark.


At a central point in the story, Isaac asks his father where the lamb is for the offering. Abraham responds confidently yet vaguely, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (22:8). That Abraham’s son, Isaac, asks his father about the lamb, which Abraham supposes will substitute for his son Isaac, strongly echoes the Passover (Exodus 12:3–5, 26). Yet this conspicuous conversation in an otherwise quiet story focuses the lens on God.

Admittedly, Abraham expresses faithfulness in his obedience but God provides everything for Abraham; God is the real hero of the story. For example, God himself provides the ram to sacrifice in place of Isaac (Genesis 22:13). Although a lamb is expected (22:8), God’s provision of a ram in this case should remind readers of the only other ram sacrifice found in Genesis (Ch. 15). In that ceremony, a ram was sacrificed to ratify a covenant that promised that Abraham’s offspring, including Isaac, would bless Abraham and the entire world. God also provides a ram of the covenant in substitution for the son of promise, the son of the covenant, Isaac.

ramGod’s provision for Abraham also comes in the form of testing which evokes faithfulness in Abraham. Because faithfulness amounts to fearing God, when Yahweh’s messenger sees that Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac, he says, “ Now I know you fear God” (22:12). Particular language that includes “fear of God” (22:12), “obedience” (22:18) along with the concepts of sacrifice and covenant (22:16–18) places the story within a covenantal context. Deuteronomy 13:4–6 includes many of these covenantal words in God’s “test” of Israel (Deuteronomy 13:6), and Deuteronomy 8:6 couples faithfulness to God’s covenant with fearing God. Piecing everything together, Abraham’s faithfulness to Yahweh’s test provokes a demonstration of covenant faithfulness on Abraham’s part, or in the language of Genesis 22: the fear of God.

The entire world will receive blessing (Genesis 22:18) because Abraham “obeyed” God and God seals that promise with an oath (22:16). Significantly, this blessing comes through Abraham’s offspring who will possess the gates of his enemies according to Genesis 22:17. God’s testing of Abraham forced Abraham to act faithfully towards God so that God could bless the nations through the faithful Abraham. In short, Abraham’s test had cosmic implications.

The Apostle Paul reveals these cosmic implications in Genesis 22:17 by writing, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings’, referring to many but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring’, who is Christ.” (Galatians 3:16). Christ, the offspring of Abraham, possesses the gates of his enemies (an idiom for victory) and blesses the world through his death and resurrection – all a result of God testing Abraham and provoking his faithfulness—that is, his fear of (22:12) and obedience to (22:18) God.

God’s bidding to sacrifice Isaac produced a miraculous reversal so that through Isaac’s offspring, Mary birthed Jesus who would bless the world. God provided everything necessary to His plan—the test to produce faithfulness in Abraham, the ram to substitute for Isaac, and the oath that sealed Christ’s coming. God is the real hero of this story.

Wyatt Graham

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Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He also blogs at www.wyattgraham.com. Follow him at @wagraham.
  • When I went to Israel, our tour guide told us that there is no way God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac, because that would be meaningless. God simply would never command someone to kill their son, and there could be no redeeming value to that kind of illustration. Thanks for this post Wyatt.

    • It was my pleasure! Thanks for reading.