The Old Testament contains numerous passages that modern readers find disturbing, and one of the most troubling is the story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19). We would never sacrifice our children even if a voice claiming to be God told us to, so it is difficult for us to understand why Abraham would do it. Moreover, if a voice told us to do such a horrible thing, we would take that as definitive proof that it wasn’t really from God; he would never ask us to do such a thing. As a result, both God’s command and Abraham’s obedience seem incomprehensible to us today. How could God command such a thing, and why would Abraham go through with it?
I think there are two keys to understanding this disconcerting story. First and foremost, God didn’t actually require Abraham to kill his son. Rather, right as Abraham was about to lower the knife to perform the sacrifice, God stopped him (Genesis 22:10-11). He was simply testing Abraham (Genesis 22:12), and that’s really important to keep in mind. God didn’t actually intend for Abraham to kill his child, so we can’t fault him as if he did.
Secondly, we have to dig a bit deeper and understand why God would never ask this of us. God is all good, so he would never ask us to do anything immoral. Consequently, if we heard a voice telling us to do something as heinous as murdering our children, we would know with absolute certainty that it wasn’t from God. This may seem like common sense to us, but not everybody throughout history has considered human sacrifice immoral. For example, many Native American cultures of Mesoamerica (most famously the Aztecs) sacrificed people to their gods, and we find several references to people and cultures doing it in the Old Testament (for example, Deuteronomy 12:31, Judges 11:30-39). This, I would suggest, is the key to understanding Abraham’s obedience.
See, many people in his day had no problem with the practice, and since he was willing to sacrifice his son to God, it seems that he was one of those people. And that makes all the difference. If a disembodied voice asked us to kill our children, we would know it wasn’t from God because we know that human sacrifice is wrong, but since Abraham apparently didn’t know that, God was able to expect Abraham to believe that the request really did come from him. As far as Abraham knew, God could very well ask for human sacrifice, so God simply used that incorrect understanding to test him.
Putting It Together
When we put those two points together, we get a pretty good understanding of this troubling story. God was just stooping down to Abraham’s level and using his immature understanding of morality to ask him to do something he would never ask us to do. Moreover, since he didn’t actually want Abraham to kill his son, he wasn’t really telling Abraham to commit murder. Instead, God was just testing him, and that’s lightyears apart from genuinely commanding someone to kill their child.