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Solid Food: Faithful Obedience or Sinful Practice? (Genesis 22:1-19)

Why do you read the Bible?

Some actually read the Bible looking for problems with God. For example, atheists and some religious persons read the Bible looking for what they conceive to be contradictory actions of God or contradictory scriptures. They hope to prove that the Bible is not the inspired word of God because it contains contradictions. We should not read the Bible to find problems with God or contradictory scriptures. The problem is not with God, but with mankind. It is mankind that has sinned. It is mankind that has acted contradictory. It is mankind that has made mistakes. The Bible is the perfect story of how mankind, with his problems, can be saved from sin through obedience to Jesus Christ. The Bible contains no contradictions!

The fact that the Bible contains no contradictions has not kept some men from trying to find some in the Bible. Many alleged contradictions have been proposed. Some think that they have found a contradiction in Genesis 22. Is there a contradiction between God’s command to sacrifice Isaac and the prohibition elsewhere in the Bible against child sacrifice? Did God command one thing here in Genesis 22 and call it a sin in other scriptures? Some answer “Yes.” Let us examine this text and other scriptures to see if a contradiction really exists.

“And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah. And offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” (Genesis 22:1-2, ASV).

Genesis 22:1-2. What are we to say about this text? Did God approve of child sacrifice in Old Testament times? Is Abraham being told to do the very thing that God condemns elsewhere? It is clear from God’s word that child sacrifice was sinful. Each time we find a reference to it in Scripture we find that it was wrong (Leviticus 20:2; 2 Kings 16:3; 21:6; 23:10; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Ezekiel 23:36-39; see also 2 Kings 3:27; Micah 6:7). It was wrong to cause a child “to pass through the fire.” Why was it wrong? It was wrong because God forbade it (Leviticus 18:21). It was wrong because God had not commanded it (Jeremiah 19:5). It was wrong because it did not come from the mind of God, but from the mind of men (Ezekiel 20:30-31). It was wrong because is was an abomination unto the Lord (Deut.12:31; 18:10). In short, it was wrong because it was not authorized. Is Genesis 22:1-2 an example of child sacrifice? Absolutely not. Why? What we have in Genesis 22:1-2 was permitted by God and it was commanded by God. It came from the mind of God, not man. It was not an abomination. It was authorized by God.

Genesis 22:3-14. There is no question that child sacrifice is wrong. The question is, “Was Abraham engaging in child sacrifice?” or, “Did God really intend for Isaac to be killed?” Does Genesis 22 contradict the scriptures mentioned above? Some Bible commentators see Genesis 22 as an example of child sacrifice which was a common Canaanite practice in Abraham’s day. According to these scholars, Abraham was merely doing what he had seen others do with their children. The problem with this approach, as explained further below, is that Abraham did not get the idea to sacrifice Isaac from the surrounding culture; the command came directly from God. Many other Bible commentators attempt to resolve this problem by saying that God never really intended for Isaac to be put to death, just “offered.” One commentator says that God wanted Abraham to perform the “spiritual sacrifice” of his son, not the actual killing of his son. Additionally, some Bible scholars attempt to solve this apparent contradiction by pointing out that Abraham did not actually sacrifice Isaac, but instead offered a ram. (See Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, p.53; Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p.96; and, John W. Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, p.238.) It is true that God wanted to test or prove Abraham’s faith (v.1; cf. God did not “tempt” Abraham; James 1:13). And it is also true that after God saw that Abraham was going to completely obey His word, that God stopped the act and provided a ram for substitution (vv.11-14). But this approach does not do justice to the context which shows by God’s wording and by Abraham’s actions that both God and Abraham fully intended to physically sacrifice Isaac. The approaches suggested above by some commentators do not provide a solution to the apparent problem. If it was sinful for Abraham to actually kill Isaac, then it was wrong for God to plan this sinful act (vv.1-2), and it was wrong for Abraham to promptly, thoroughly and completely prepare for this sinful act (vv.3-10). If there had been no ram, and if Abraham had actually killed Isaac, Abraham would not have sinned. How do we know this? The writer of Hebrews gives us an inspired commentary on Genesis 22. Examine what he said about Abraham on this occasion.

“By faith Abraham, being tried, offered up Isaac: yea, he that had gladly received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; even he to whom it was said, In Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God is able to raise up, even from the dead; from whence he did also in a figure receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-19, ASV).

Note that what Abraham did in Genesis 22 he did “by faith.” The entire eleventh chapter of Hebrews is about men and women acting “by faith” in God’s word. Read this chapter again. God would command something and these men and women would obey His word “by faith.” Remember, faith comes by hearing God’s word (Romans 10:17). When Abraham acted “by faith” on this occasion, he was not sinning. Nowhere in the Bible is a person described as sinning, who, at the same time is acting “by faith” in God’s word. You can’t sin by acting “by faith” in God’s word. The idea to sacrifice Isaac did not come from Abraham, the surrounding Canaanites or even Satan; it came from God. Abraham was going to sacrifice his son. As far as Abraham was concerned, Isaac bound on the altar, was as good as dead. The writer of Hebrews says that Abraham even believed that God would raise Isaac up after he sacrificed him (cf. note the “we” in Genesis 22:5). Why did Abraham believe this? Because of God’s promise spoken earlier in Genesis 21:12. Abraham did not sin in Genesis 22.

Genesis 22:15-19. After the angel of the Lord showed Abraham the ram for the sacrifice, the Lord, with an oath (cf. Luke 1:73; Hebrews 6:13-18), blessed Abraham (cf. 12:1-3; 3:14-18;15:5-6; 17:1-8). God did not bless Abraham because he was about to sin but did not. God blessed Abraham because of his prompt obedience. Abraham obeyed God’s voice (Genesis 22:18; cf. Genesis 26:5). Again note what James, the inspired writer says about this event.

“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar? Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect; and the scripture was fulfilled which saith, And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God. Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith” (James 2:21-24, ASV).

James says that Abraham was “justified” by God on this occasion, and that God put “righteousness” to his account because of his active, working faith. Nowhere in the Bible is a person committing sin described as “justified” and “righteous” before God. You cannot be “justified” and “righteous” by sinning, nor can you be called a “friend of God” by an act of sin. To put it another way, you cannot sin by “obeying the voice of God” (Genesis 22:18). James is talking about saving faith in this context and uses Abraham as an example of saving faith. Abraham did not sin in Genesis 22.

The solution to the apparent contradiction in Genesis 22 is found in the nature of the act. Just because child sacrifice is the common factor in Genesis 22 and other passages like Leviticus 18:21, does not mean that they are the same case. Genesis 22 is an example of faithful obedience to God’s word, and Leviticus 18:21 is an example of an unauthorized sinful practice. Remember, all of God’s commandments, including Genesis 22:1-2, are “righteousness” (Psalm 119:172). A righteous God will not command a person to do something sinful. Humans being burned is a common factor in Joshua 7:25 and Leviticus 18:21, but that does not mean they are of the same nature. Joshua 7:25 is an example of divine “capital punishment,” and Leviticus 18:21 is an example of an unauthorized sinful practice. A human sacrifice is the common factor in the cross of Christ and Leviticus 18:21. The cross of Christ (John 3:16; 1 John 4:9-10 and many other scriptures too numerous to list here) is the supreme example of God’s love for sinful mankind, but Leviticus 18:21 is an example of an unauthorized sinful practice. Question: Did God violate His own word concerning child sacrifice when He sacrificed His only begotten Son on the cross? (Isaac’s sacrifice in Genesis 22 is actually a type of Christ on the Cross. What was nearly done by Abraham on Mt. Moriah was actually done by God at Calvary when He sacrificed Jesus and then raised Jesus from the dead.) Both the writer of Hebrews and James help us to understand what happened in Genesis 22. Abraham acted “by faith,” and he was “justified” and made “righteous” by his actions. The entire nature of Genesis 22:1-2 is different from the cases of child sacrifice forbidden in Scripture.

Genesis 22:1-19 is not a thorny contradiction in God’s word. Neither is it a quick fix solution to God’s grace and man’s sin. God’s grace did not overlook Abraham’s supposed sin in Genesis 22. There was no sin there to overlook. God’s grace forgives sins that are repented of and confessed, and God’s grace punishes unrepentant sin, but God’s grace does not overlook (ignore) man’s sin. Genesis 22:1-19 should be read for what it is, the story of the pinnacle of faith in the life of a great Patriarch who walked with God. God tested Abraham with a supreme test (an actual human sacrifice), and Abraham passed that test. May we all do the same when God commands great things for us to do today. When God speaks to us, let us all act promptly and completely “by faith,” regardless of the great sacrifices to be made.