Sacrificing Isaac : A Look at Genesis 22

I recently stumbled upon some school work done by young children. In the assignment, the teacher asked each of her students to come up with an analogy for what God is like. Here are some of their answers:

1. God is like scotch tape, you can't see Him but you know He's there

2. God is like Sears, He has everything

3. God is like Hallmark Cards, He cared enough to send His very best

4. God is like Tide, He gets the stains out that others leave behind

Interestingly, I think these comments can help us make sense of and understand the story of Abraham taking his son Issac to be sacrificed on the mountain. Of course, that story occurs in Genesis 22 and begins with these words: "Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, 'Abraham!' 'Here I am," he replied. Then God said, 'Take your son , your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.'"

For starters, there may be grammatical clues that alert the reader that they are not meant to take this story as seriously as Abraham did. For example, E. Speiser has noted that the Hebrew "Elohim" here has the definite article "ha" attached to it (thus, "haelohim). While this is not an incredibly strong argument, it can be the case that when the definite article is attached to a pronoun in Hebrew, it is done so for the sake of emphasis (more on this in a moment). Also, in Hebrew, the common word order is Verb-Subject-Object. Now, when this word order is interrupted in Hebrew, it is almost always on purpose and for the sake of emphasis; that is done here in 22.1. So, it could be argued, from a grammatical standpoint, that the author of Genesis 22 may have been "over-emphasizing" things so much, so that there would have been no way the reader would have taken the command as seriously as Abraham did. Thus, from a grammatical standpoint, the seemingly harsh and terrible story really gets softened. However, when understood contextually, the story really gets softened and is actually not very disturbing at all.

It is well known that in the ancient world, the cult of Molek (a.k.a. Molech) existed. One of the signature marks of this cult was that its devotees often sacrificed their children as offerings to the god. For example, Leviticus 18.21 says, "Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord." And Leviticus 20.2 says, "Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives any of his children to Molek must be put to death. The people of the community are to stone him." (Other verses mentioning Molek include: Leviticus 20.3, 4, 5; 1 Kings 11.7; 2 Kings 23.10 and Jeremiah 32.35.)

It is within this context that the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac must be read. I would argue that from the start, God was not seriously going to have Abraham go through with this act. In fact, that would defeat the purpose of the story. That would also mean overlooking the "softening" grammar in the opening verse. It would also not make sense of God's providing of the ram. Anyway, I believe that God was meeting Abraham on his level here; He was teaching Abraham a lesson about who He was. For sure, Abraham was familiar with Molek and Molek's cult. So, it was not unthinkable, at least not to Abraham, that a god would ask his followers to do this. But here's the catch, God had Abraham go through all of this so that, in the end, He could make the point: "Abraham, Molek's followers claim that Molek wants their devotion, well, I am the same way, I am just like that. However, I am also very different. I do want your devotion but I will not ask you to kill your son to prove your devotion to me."

Just like the sayings of those children at the beginning of this post, Abraham had an experience here where he learned what God was like. Yet, in learning what God was like, he also learned what God was not like. And what an evangelistic tool this could have been. Imagine Abraham speaking to one of Molek's followers and saying, "You know, about Molek, God is like that, but...guess what, He's also very different!"

I don't know about you but this story has always bothered me. However, when read in its proper literary and social contexts, it makes all the sense in the world. In fact, I think it is an incredibly profound story now that I see the ingenuity behind it. And doesn't God still work like that today? Isn't He always up to something in our lives, something where He can teach us about who He is and what He is like? Have you ever had any of those experiences? And can you experience this story differently now? What say you?


  1. I never saw it that way, and it makes sense - like you, i've always had trouble coping with that story.

    i like "God is like scotch tape..." On another tack, isn't it interesting that those children all describe God in terms of advertising slogans.

  2. wsk,

    glad i could shed some light on this for you.

    as for the advertising slogans, yes, that is interesting. might it suggest that our kids are watching too much tv or are being too media driven? whatever happened to kids playing outside and learning from nature or hanging out with friends or other things? i am seeing more and more that kids are having a much harder time using their imaginations.

    what about something like, God is like a mudball or a creek or a game of kickball, etc.? why were there none of those types of statements? good insight!

  3. --what about something like, God is like a mudball or a creek or a game of kickball--

    LOL a mudball??! is that the ultimate Good Thing for little boys? ;)


  4. --God is like a mudball--

    it does shed some light on the concept of fashioning us from the dust in His image (perhaps there was some divine spit involved).


  5. Well, kids do relate to different things today than what we did when we were that age; just as we related differently than our parents. Times change, for better or worse and thus the things we relate to change. Just look how different we are than the people in the first century; just one reason it is sometimes difficult to understand particular passages and the original meaning. Working with youth and being a parent has helped me to understand the differences in such an illuminated way that we cannot force our childhood onto children of today. They must live and find their own path and things to relate to. As long as they relate with God as well they will be fine. He comes to us the way we are.

  6. Jason,

    I agree with you about not forcing our childhood on other children. But then again, I was never arguing that we should. You said, "Times change for better or worse..." But don't you think that if they are changing for the worse we should curtail it? Why should we let things change for the worse, just because we think things change? We shouldn't.

    As far as kids finding ways to relate to others & God on their own, I'm all for it. But that is where you kind of contradict yourself. You "work with youth" but why? Are you not trying to help them relate to God in ways that they are unable to on their own; to bring them to a deeper understanding of the things of God and who God is? Isn't that the goal? I would say so! Otherwise, what is the point?

    As for God coming to us the way we are, you are right about that too. Where you fall short is in realizing that God expects that we won't stay that way. He expects us to grow. And as a parent, you know that you must teach your kids and help them relate, they cannot just "grow" on their own. The same goes with youth ministry.

    I would venture to say that video games and things are fine but not when they sacrifice group building and fellowship time. Sure, kids can relate to one another through video games sometimes but other times, they get in the way. I think that the obsession (and cost) of video games today is bad, it has taught our kids to not be creative, to be lazy, to not get outside and play, to be overweight (though this is not the only reason they get overweight) and a host of other things.

    In the end, you make some good points but I think you are also overlooking some very important points.

  7. Michael,

    I agree, if they are changing for the worse then we need to try and change them, thus the reason for ministry. And that is the point of ministry to help them develop new ways to relate to God but also to allow them to see the relationships they already have. I don't think I contradicted myself at all just because I work with youth. I think it is a positive thing to see them relate to God in ways that maybe we didn't at their age. Being a minister is a learning experience as well as a teaching experience. We can learn things from our youth just as they leran from us. So, going into the ministry doesn't mean I know everything and they know nothing as it seems you imply but that maybe, just maybe, we can learn from one another and one of those things is new ways to relate. I think it is a good thing they see God in things outside the church building such as games, slogans, etc. We should try to nurture that and not be close minded thinking our way of relating is the only way.

    Yeah, we will change after accepting God but that still doesn't change my original point of God coming to us the way we are. I think Paul, among many others (myself included), are very thankful He does this and are also very thankful of the change afterward. I, in no way, implied we dont change. I think that is a given otherwise what is the point.

    Kids relate well to video games, they fellowship together while playing by having the same interests. Again, there are different ways to reach kids today and they don't have to be the same for everyone. They do have some good points to them while I agree they do have bad. Games shouldn't be the only thing kids are into. But, I don't see in my post anything about games to begin with so I am not sure where you got that part from. We could say, for instance, sitting and reading books has contributed to the obesity of kids. Really, what is the difference, books are pricey, they cause our kids to be lazy, not get outside and play, etc. But, obviously, I am all for reading as well, I am just trying to show there are negatives and positives of everything.

    I might not have included some points in my original post but they werent oversight; I was not writing a huge all-encompassing discertation but merely some thoughts to stimulate thought. Apparently it worked.

  8. Jason,

    I got the video game thing from my conversation with wsk, I said that our kids are playing them too much. When you said "kids relate differently today," I took that as a reply to mine and wsk's convo. As I said, I do not think video games are evil; I left two of my video game consoles for the youth in the congregation to have in their youth room and I played video games. However, I do think that to overlook the negatives of the games is a bad thing, that is what I'm speaking of. There is way too much video game playing.

    As for kids getting overweight by reading, that's a good point and it is possible. However, I'd rather them be learning and getting an imagination while doing it.

    I never implied that we couldn't learn from youth, I think you put those words in my mouth; I surely didn't say them. Hopefully we are open enough to learn from them; why wouldn't we be? Good thoughts, Jason, which have engendered some good debate and soem good discussion. By the way, I didn't take it as such but if you were referring to me as being "close-minded" (your first paragraph, last sentence), I think you are a bit off. However, that remark may not have been directed towards me, if not, then I agree with your comment in-general.

  9. Michael,

    My bad, I thought you said they were watching too much tv, I don't see the video game thing. But I do agree, just as in your sermon, we can do some things in excess that shouldn't be and others in moderation that should be in excess. I believe video games fall in the first category; shouldn't be done in excess while relating to God should be; that is what I want in my life and for everyone else.

    I also agree with having them read; I would also rather them read than play games. I was just using that as an illustration, I could have used what we are doing now; the internet. A lot of things have both negative and positive. Although, I think kids would argue games breed imagination. I might agree with them - maybe.

    I am glad you did not take that sentence as a shot at you; it wasn't. I have ran into people, not just in the ministry field, who are closed minded to things and perhaps that stemmed from there.

    It seems we both agree we need a good mix of things to reach people in today's culture but the conclusion should be a relationship with God.

  10. jason,

    you're right about the explicit video game mention, i guess i just lumped it with "media driven". i think we do agree, for the most part, but you are right about the moderation thing. doing things in moderation is not always the best. sometimes it is. we can pray in excess for example, abstain from alcohol and eat in moderation.

    i didn't take your statement as a shot at me, but i wasn't 100% sure. anyways, i'm glad you found your way back into the blogosphere! and you're right, some might see this as a waste of time but it has reached thousands of people with the Gospel, so, I would have to disagree with them.