This week, we’re looking at the (in)famous story of Abraham and the command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. If you’re just joining us today, you really need to begin from the start of the story on Monday. And we began by asking: why would God ask Abraham to do such a thing?
But you see, this wasn’t an unusual command in the Ancient Near East. According to the religions of the surrounding nations, their pagan gods would often require the sacrifice of children in order to please them. In fact, a few hundred yrs later God forbids this practice categorically in Leviticus, showing how widespread it was:Lev 18:21 ‘Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech’ (a Canaanite god). Lev 20:2 ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner living in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death. The people of the community are to stone him.’
King Ahaz, one of the most evil of the Israelite kings, is condemned for doing this:2 Ki 16:3 ‘He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.’
So to Abraham, God wasn’t asking anything that unusual – he would surely have seen it or heard of it being done before.
What’s more, God had the right to ask this. Far more so than these other so-called gods who were made up by humans. God created the world, so he owns it.Ps 24:1 ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it’
In fact, a little later when God brought Israel out of Egypt to be his chosen people, he claimed ownership on every firstborn male. He had the right to the life of each one of them – but allowed the parents to pay a ‘ransom price’ to buy them back.
So in the story of Abraham and Isaac, God is reminding us that has the right to the life of every person in the world, as their creator. He can ask for it at any time. And our sinfulness and rebellion gives him good reason to ask for it.
But… he didn’t. And that’s the point God is trying to make in this story. He has the right – more so than any idol – to require the lives of ourselves and our children as penalty for our sin. Yet he chooses not to exercise that right.
At this stage, Abraham didn’t know that much about God – certainly he hadn’t revealed himself as the God of mercy who acts to save his people in the unmistakeable terms of the Exodus, or the Cross of Christ. So this is one crucial part of God revealing who he is. And his point here is that he’s not like all the other gods around.
God is saying that with him, things are different. With pagan gods, humans have to take the initiative to offer sacrifices to appease the gods, trying to earn their favour. Here, God in very graphic terms shows that he is different. Although the scene looked like it was going to play out like all the gods around, just when all hope appears lost, God provides the sacrifice. He takes the initiative, he provides the sacrifice, we don’t contribute anything. An act of grace, in contrast to all the alternatives around.
This difference can be seen in two ancient silver cups discover in the boggy marshes of Ireland. The first is known as the Gundestrup Cauldron (right) and comes from a century or two before Christ, a the time when the Irish worshipped violent pagan gods. It is adorned with pictures of gods and warriors. One panel shows a gigantic cooking-god holding squirming humans and dropping them into a vat of oil. These gods demand human sacrifice to appease their appetite.
The second cup is called the Ardagh Chalice (left) and comes from the seventh or eighth centuries after Christ, a time when the Irish had turned to Christianity. Like the first it is a work of magnificent craftsmanship, but the God it depicts is radically different. It has a simple but intricate patterning. But this is a cup of peace, designed to be used in communion. As the worshipper lifts it to their lips they are reminded that this God does not demand human sacrifice, but instead sacrifices himself for us.
God, in sparing Isaac, makes the point that he is different from all the other gods around.
“Fair enough,” you might say, but why put Abraham through what could be viewed as psychological torture in order to make this point?