One of the more challenging Old Testament stories for me has always been God’s request to Abraham that he should sacrifice His son. Of course, God did not allow Abraham to go through with it, but the explanation frequently given for this story is that it was a test of Abraham’s faith, and that God wanted to give an illustration about the coming Savior. It is on this last point that I would like to explore in more detail.
One interpretation as a parallel to the Cross would be that Abraham represents the Father, while Isaac and the ram reveal the substitutionary-vicarious sacrifice for sin that would be made by Jesus. In other words, the ram was offered in place of Isaac just as Christ took our place and suffered our punishment at the hand of the Father. This view takes the position that sin must be punished by God but that Christ voluntarily took that punishment on our behalf.
I think that there is another way of looking at this story that unquestionably does direct our eyes to Calvary, but yet without pointing to a God who must punish sin.
It is important that we re-create the setting for this story, and that we try to identify as much as possible with Abraham’s time and culture. I had always assumed that Abraham’s family, going back for many generations, had remained loyal and faithful to the One true God. In other words, in my mind, God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son would be no different than God testing my faith by asking me to sacrifice my son. This verse then provided quite a shock for me the first time I “saw” it:
“Joshua said to all the people, ‘This is what the LORD God of Israel says: Long ago your ancestors, Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor, lived on the other side of the Euphrates River and served other gods. But I took your ancestor Abraham from the other side of the Euphrates River. I led him through all of Canaan and gave him many descendants. I also gave him Isaac.” (Joshua 24:2-3 – GODS WORD)
There was a time when even Abraham and his family served other gods! It would appear that this was a rather dark time in the world, in terms of a true knowledge of God. Abraham and his family were therefore coming out of the false worship of that time, which we know involved many competing polytheistic religions that had one feature in common: the belief that the gods needed to be appeased through sacrifice. Appeasement theology is the absolute hallmark of paganism, and this idea runs rampant through the entire Old Testament.
Just to give a few examples
“When the king of Moab realized that he was losing the battle, he took seven hundred swordsmen with him and tried to force his way through the enemy lines and escape to the king of Syria, but he failed. So he took his oldest son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him on the city wall as a sacrifice to the god of Moab. The Israelites were terrified and so they drew back from the city and returned to their own country” (2 Kings 3:26,27).
Why did the Israelites flee in terror? Because the god of Moab had just been appeased by the ultimate act of devotion – the sacrifice of the kings own son! Of course, the Israelites should have known that there is only one God and that there is no god of Moab. But, in their mind, such an act of devotion might stir the god of Moab into action and they were terrified.
Child sacrifice was seen as the highest form of dedication to ones god. It is very interesting then to discover that when God called Abraham to do the same, he did not question God as he had on other occasions. For example, Abraham was not timid to question God about His plans with regards to destroying Sodom and Gomorrah:
“Surely You wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, You would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely You wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Genesis 18:25 – NLT)
But on this occasion, he got up and was on his way.
As another example of the rampant appeasement theology of paganism, notice what the priests of Baal were doing as they danced around the altar:
So the prophets prayed louder and cut themselves with knives and daggers, according to their ritual, until blood flowed. They kept on ranting and raving until the middle of the afternoon; but no answer came, not a sound was heard. (1 Kings 18:26-29 – GN)
They were appeasing their god, “according to their ritual” and Baal obviously needed to see much flowing blood in order to act.
In addition, we read that the practice of king Ahaz was a copy of the surrounding false religions:
[Ahaz] “followed the example of the kings of Israel. He even sacrificed his own son as a burnt offering to idols, imitating the disgusting practice of the people whom the LORD had driven out of the land as the Israelites advanced. At the pagan places of worship, on the hills, and under every shady tree, Ahaz offered sacrifices and burned incense.” (2Kings 16:3-4 – GN)
It seems unthinkable, but even Solomon for a time served the cruel god of Molech – a “god” who required that babies should be placed in his red hot metal hands. The wisest man that ever lived became trapped by appeasement theology!
Listen to the sad words of God with regards to this form of worship:
“They have built altars to Baal in Hinnom Valley, to sacrifice their sons and daughters to the god Molech. I did not command them to do this, and it did not even enter my mind that they would do such a thing and make the people of Judah sin.” (Jeremiah 32:25 – GN)
It seems that sin has hard-wired us to believe that God is angry with us and that He needs to be appeased.
When I was 11 or 12, I used to practice hitting golf balls in the large backyard of my parents home. One day I decided to move from the pitching wedge to the woods, “just one time”. I wasn’t very good and I assumed that the ball would merely dribble through the grass a few feet as it normally did. What a surprise! The ball rocketed off the tee and out of view, and then I heard the unmistakable sound of breaking glass. Running toward the sound, I peeked through the trees and saw the broken sliding glass door of our neighbors’ house. The tall man who lived there was not at home. Our family had never talked with him, and I had only seen him a few times working in his garden. What would he do to me? Out of fear, I kept quiet about it. But, over the next few days, guilt and shame plagued me. For some time after, I walked by his house and imagined an angry man running out to give me a good beating for what I had done.
Now, the point of this story is not to suggest that children should not be disciplined or to say that God does not discipline His children. What I did was wrong and it was doubly wrong not to tell my parents. The point is that we sometimes imagine God to be like an angry man in his house who has had His window knocked out. In fact, at times we use words that suggest we would be merely pleased if we could only be “covered” by something so that the “man” (representing one view of the Father) does not see us as we really are. We side with Elihu’s view of God:
“I won’t ask to speak with God; why should I give him a chance to destroy me? God’s power is so great that we cannot come near him.” (Job 37:20)
The reality, of course, is that despite our great sin, God stands at the door of our hearts and knocks! The reality is that God in human form hung out with sinners and tried to win their hearts and minds. It is very difficult for us to identify with the great love of God – a God who looked out on those who tortured Him to death and said, “Father, forgive them.” These words of Jesus did not reflect Jesus pleading with the Father to forgive – rather this is the message of the One who said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Both Father and Son are one in heart, mind and character. On the Cross, Jesus revealed that God is love and forgiveness personified. Jesus came to reveal the radical natural of God’s forgiveness and love for humanity, not to change the Father’s mind by receiving a punishment at the Father’s hand.
I would see the story of Abraham and Isaac then as the first message to a new nation: “I am not like the other gods. I do not need to be appeased! Please stop killing your first born children. I want to come close to you. I want to dwell with you as your Heavenly Father. I want you to have the kind of trusting friendship with me that I have had with Abraham.”
Of course, many times God went on record in the Old Testament as saying that He did not to be appeased by blood and sacrifice. A few of them were quoted in the last article. And, many times he clearly said in words that the ultimate goal is intimate relationship and friendship. But in this case, God used a vivid story which would have had a much greater impact in Abraham’s day than mere words and claims. The story of Abraham and Isaac should have been a strong message to a world steeped in appeasement toward angry gods that “The God of Abraham is radically different! He doesn’t ask for child sacrifice. He Himself will provide the sacrifice!”