The story of God's demand for human sacrifice from Abraham is one of the most difficult in the Bible. It prefigures many of the other atrocities which litter the pages of the Old Testament, incidents where the sacrifice could not be averted as in Deuteronomy 13:13 ("Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to the LORD your God.") or Judges 11: 29-40 (Jepthath's daughter) and the eventual death of the one perfect being in all history -- Jesus Christ himself. Dealing with accounts that by modern sensitivities are seen as horrific can be very difficult, but it is absolutely necessary. The story of Isaac may seem frightening or sad in that a man would actually consider killing his own son, but it also has very powerful symbolic meaning and practical implications for the daily walk of the Christian faith.
Before we can really address the story of Isaac as a constructive part of the Judeo-Christian faith, it is important to recognize and address the baggage which this story carries. According to Edward Kessler's book Bound by the Bible: Jews, Christians and the Sacrifice of Isaac, this story has always caused consternation not only for the faithful, who could often take it in stride, but also for outside observers. "early...critics of Judaism ... cited Genesis 22 when reproaching Jews for portraying God as desiring human sacrifice. Accusations concerning the divine desire for human sacrifice were leveled at Jews on numerous occasions. Later these accusations were directed at both Christians and Jews..." (Kessler, 37) Accusations of human sacrifice and consumption persisted against the Jews even once Christianity became a dominant religion, partly owing to this story. Even today, anti-theists point to this story as evidence that the Judeo-Christian God is illegitimate or even evil. As the Evil Bible Website argues, "It matters not that god let Abraham get out of murdering Isaac. To put a knife up to your son's throat is child abuse." (Baba) Others haven't considered Abraham to be particularly evil, considering the historical surroundings at the time, but have merely pointed out that he did nothing unique in his willingness to kill his son. " 'quarellsome critics' ...did not consider Abraham's actions great or wonderful...[they] contend that child sacrifices had been carried out by others and Abraham's action therefore was not special." (Kessler, 38) If this story of narrowly averted child sacrifice was going to strike the reader as so barbaric and terrible, to the point that many argue Abraham proved himself to be fallen and evil in his willingness to obey God in this case, then one might legitimately wonder why this tale was recorded in the Bible. Is it meant to test the reader's faith the same way it tested Abraham's?
To really understand this story, it is necessary to grasp two points about the historical progression from which it was spawned, namely that in the Old Testament era animal sacrifice was extremely common and that this nearly averted sacrifice would prove a type of Jesus' sacrifice. Ravi Zacharias writes about the importance of Jesus title "Lamb of God," by describing the importance of animal sacrifice in Judaic religions and culture: "the average Jewish family grew up with lambs and sacrifices. The temple probably reeked of animals and their slaughter, especially on the Day of Atonement. The exterior grandeur of the temple housed only a rather grim and messy-looking altar. Every lamb sacrificed was from the possessions of the petitioner and was thus, a lamb of men offered to God. . . not even a representative from among men... [but] a lamb owned by men... [but Jesus] was the Lamb of God." (Zacharias, 25-26) The understanding of a transition from the brutal business of animal butchery to the equally brutal crucifixion required at least one instance in which the lamb of man --Isaac, in this case-- was spared and the focus was placed on faith rather than on violence. Isaac served as an example of a willing sacrifice while Abraham played the role of loving father, which showed how Christ could give himself not like a beast but like a son of God.
Since the beginning of Christian writing, the church fathers have been describing "the figure of Isaac as a model... Of Christ and the actions of Abraham prefiguring the actions of God. Christian typology is based on the premise that the Old Testament prefigures what God would accomplish in the New... interpreting the Old Testament in the light of Jesus." (Kessler, 66 ) There are in fact a vast number of links between Isaac and Jesus in the text, as Dr. J. Dominguez points out in his list of twelve vital connections between Isaac and Jesus. The first of these links is that both are referred to as the only son and the promised seed which has been long awaited. (Gen. 17:16; Gal. 3:16) This aspect shows the degree to which the sacrifice had to be precious. Jesus is unique, of course, in that he was born of a virgin and is the biological son of God. (Matt. 1) However, he is linked to Isaac in this in that Isaac was born miraculously as well, to a barren mother well past menopause. (Gen. 17) As to the actual situation surrounding the sacrifice, there are links here as well. Obviously, both are sacrifices and both go willingly to their deaths in obedience to their fathers. Less coincidentally, both sacrifices take place on Mount Moriah, which in Jesus' time had come to be known as Calvary. In both cases, the story deals with substitutionary sacrifice. A ram dies in the place of Isaac, just as Christ dies in the place of all sinners. Dr. Dominguez also lists a number of post-sacrifice similarities, such as the death of the mother coming shortly afterwards and the situation of the bridegroom. Most importantly, in both cases this sacrifice re-affirms the covenant between God and Man. Pseudo-Gregory of Nyssa describes the way in which God might have perceived this parallelism, describing the Father as saying "I [too] have an only born son who is beloved. This one [Isaac] will live in the world; this one [Jesus] will be sacrificed on behalf of the world. Your son having awaited the slaughter was of no profit to the world, patriarch; the slaughter of My only born son will be the salvation of the world." (Kessler, 66)
It is very clear how Isaac was a type of Jesus, and hence how his story might have helped to prepare the Jewish people for the reception of the Messiah; what needs to become more clear is that way in which the story of Isaac can have real meaning for the modern faithful individual. Much is made in Christian literature, and in the Bible itself, of the importance of walking in Christ's steps. Christ, of course, sacrificed himself for others. He both preached about and embodied the principle of self-sacrifice and the eclipse of self in the worship of God. The greatest mystics have often attempted to follow in his footsteps, giving of themselves for the sake of giving to others and also of becoming closer to God. This, as well, is what Isaac was willing to do. No text speaks of Isaac struggling, or even pleading for his life, even though he was a strong young man and his father was elder, so he surely could have escaped if he had tried. Yet the reader never gets to see Isaac's version of the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Bible never describes this story as God testing Isaac! Isaac doesn't seem to have really had a choice in the subject, and one supposes Abraham was just lucky Isaac went along with it so well. The text consistently speaks of this incident as proving Abraham's great faith. As Christians, we are exhorted to take up our crosses like Jesus (and Isaac), but also to have faith like Abraham. Maybe it is time to ask how we, as Christians, can learn to sacrifice our children to God. This is, more or less the point of the book by Mrs. Kent in which she records her feelings after her good son went bad and killed a man, forcing her to deal with repudiating his deeds. She writes: "Abraham...had a son. I have a son. His son had done nothing wrong. My son committed murder. This book is not about the sons. It is about people who make heart sacrifices while living in the midst of uncertain circumstances... Our 'Isaacs' are the heart sacrifices we make when we choose to relinquish control and honor God with our choices even all seems lost." (Kent, 12) There are many ways in which committed, faithful individuals today can sacrifice their children to God. The Bible calls for all disobedient and dishonoring children to be put to death, and this command is given both by Moses and by Jesus. (Lev. 20:9l; Mark…