By Stephen Green (first published in Christian Voice: June 2005)
Genesis 22:1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, 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.
3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
11 And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen.
There are a couple of problems with this passage which need dealing with before asking a question that is rarely considered. Firstly, the Hebrew word translated 'tempt' in verse 1 means 'test'. The little word 'eth' which comes after and before 'Abraham' means 'even' as if to intensify the name 'Abraham' or to express surprise. It links to verse 12 in a way. God knows all things from the beginning, so why did He need to 'know' the Abraham feared Him? Of course God knew, in one sense, that Abraham would not withhold Isaac, but God wanted to see that fact, experience it, and 'know' it in another sense. So we see Abraham's faith expressed in his works. We see his trust in God, the core of his being, expressed in what he does, in his doing.
Another question is, "Why did God ask Abraham to do such a dreadful act, and then stop him at the last minute?" We know that God Himself regards human sacrifice as an abominable evil. We read that God values obedience higher than sacrifice (1Sam 15:22) and yet here is God requiring the obedience of a sacrifice which He would later tell Jeremiah never came into His mind.
And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (Jer. 32:35)
WHY DID ABRAHAM NOT JUST SAY 'NO'? Why did God ask this of Abraham? After all, when God made His covenant with Abram, as he then was, "he believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness" (Gen 15:6) Was this simply to test Abraham, and to see if he would really put obedience to God above everything he held dear? We never read that Abraham had fears of losing his possessions, family and health as did Job. (Job 3:25) Abraham put God first in faith and obedience, as the Lord knew.
There is another disturbing question for me: 'Why on earth did Abraham agree to do such a wicked deed as to kill his only son, the son of the promise?' When a soldier is asked to carry out an unlawful order, he can tell his superior, "No, Sir, I shall not do such wickedness." The fact that Abraham's faith was so strong that he knew God would restore Isaac to him even if he did sacrifice the boy is not quite the point, for me, and that is not to disparage the word in Hebrews in any way (Heb 11:19). Despite Abraham's faith in God's ability to raise Isaac from the dead, I am still puzzled that Abraham agreed to doing something which we in our day and we should hope he in his would never consider. It is not even as if Abraham was unused to arguing with God. Why did Abraham not say to God, as he did when pleading for Sodom in Gen 18:25, "Be it far from thee to do ... shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" Why did Abraham go along with it?
I want to suggest that sacrificing one's first-born son because your God or god asked you to was not such a dreadful thing to do for the peoples among whom Abraham moved. Abraham had known all about Sodom and the cities of the plain, even though he chose to live outside them, unlike his cousin Lot. He knew all about the Canaanites. The culture of the Amorites, one of the Canaanite nation-states, was well known to Abraham, even if its iniquity was not yet full (Gen 15:16). Child sacrifice was a normal part of life for the Canaanites and the Sodomites.
PAGANS WORSHIP CREATION ITSELF In paganism, aspects of God's creation which are important to the economy are elevated to divine status. There is no sense in paganism of a transcendent loving creator God who exists eternally outside His creation and sustains it by His power. Rather, the gods are all around, within creation itself, and they are fickle and cruel. We are fairly well aware of some of the myths of the Greeks, later borrowed by the Romans, and the Norse. When myths are invented around the gods, the gods are cast in man's image, with all our frailties, faults and petty jealousies. The god of thunder and lightning can and will send thunderbolts on a whim which can split the mast of the ship of someone with whom he has fallen out.
At a day-to-day level, rain is important in its season, so the rain-god must be appeased, and the god of thunder too, in case heavy rain comes to ruin the crops. If fishing is important, as it was to the Philistines, there will be a fish-god, and that of the Phillistines was Dagon (Judg 16:23). Dagon, of course, was no match for the true God of heaven and earth (1 Sam 5:2-7). The plagues which Moses was commanded to pronounce against Egypt brought judgment one by one against the pagan gods of Egypt, but they also illustrate the lengths to which pagan people go in their deification of parts of creation. The Egyptian economy was highly sophisticated, and agriculture was so important that not only were cattle deified (Exod 9:6) but the scarab beetle, which breaks down and recycles cattle dung, became a god (Exod 8:16). There were frog gods, locust gods, river gods and gods of animal and human health, gods of war, gods of weather, goddesses of the earth, gods and goddesses in the stars.
SUN AND MOON AFFECT FERTILITY Pagans will have tree gods (Deut 12:2) and they will plant groves (Deut 12:3). They will make images of their gods. The images are only wood and stone, gold and silver (Psalm 115:4-8; Acts 19:24) which are powerless in themselves, but they reflect the demonic entities behind them (1Cor 10:20).
Possibly the most important gods will be the sun and the moon. Ziggurat towers, such as that of Babel, had tiers to worship various gods, with the sun or moon honoured at the very top, the nearest point to heaven itself (Gen 11:4). Even today, the symbol of Islam is a star and crescent moon, a real giveaway of its demonic origin. Both the sun and the moon are seen in paganism as affecting fertility; the moon, because its cycles are closely related to the menstrual cycle of women, and the sun, because its heat sustains life and because it appears to die at night to be reborn in the morning. Pagan festivals grow up around its equinoxes and solstices. Interestingly, the Israelites celebrated the new moon, whilst the pagans observed its polar opposite, the full moon. Festivals around the cycles of the sun are not present in the worship set out for the Israelites. Pagan fertility images inevitably become centred around sexuality, with representations of over-endowed women and giant phalluses. Pagan priests enact sexual intercourse, simulating that which the sun and the moon and other fertility gods are thought to do. The more they do that the better, as they see it, so temple prostitutes come into being for the purpose. When God says "they committed adultery" with the pagan idols, it is more than a linkage of the betrayal of idolatry with that of adultery; it is also a reflection of the sexual nature of pagan worship.
In pagan Ireland, the king was not crowned, he was married to the goddess Eire, thought to represent the land. The idea of 'Gaia' in New Age thought is similar today. Incredibly, despite its irrelevance to procreation, homosexuality is included in pagan worship. Semen is thought to have magical seed-planting properties, which explains the rituals with specially-consecrated women. However, a male is also thought to display power through ejaculation and to acquire potency and maleness through receiving semen. The presence of female and male prostitutes also becomes a way of raising money for the temple, which is why God condemns that along with all other aspects of paganism (Deut 23:18).
HUMAN SACRIFICE With all that being said, and there is more and worse that could be said, the worst expression of paganism has to be that of human sacrifice. If certain parts of God's creation are exalted, others will be naturally debased, and in a pagan system, man is far from the summit of creation which he occupies in Hebrew thought. On the contrary, men and women in a pagan culture are expendable. If there were no other indication that Satan himself is behind pagan worship, this alone would do. God Almighty is satisfied with the perfect blood of the Lord Jesus, so satisfied that His blood only had to be shed once to cover the sins of many (Heb 9:28). Satan on the other hand is never satisfied no matter how much human blood is shed. There are well-known blood-thirsty goddesses such as Kali and Eire, but in truth, wherever there are pagan fertility rites, there is human sacrifice.
In the Inca and Aztec civilisations, human beings had their hearts ripped out. In some ritual magic, there will be a ceremonial dagger. But in Canaan, the dominant deity went by the name of 'Molech', (Lev 18:21 &c) and the sacrificial apparatus involved the representation of a huge mouth, inside which was built a fire. Parents considered it an honour to sacrifice their children by having them thrown into the giant mouth, while ritual chanting would have drowned out any screams and the anguished cries of second thoughts. Perhaps that society believed that the children would become gods themselves, or be reborn in some way. Perhaps they believed the children were only 'passing through' the fire. The Bible lends credence to this idea when it speaks of the kings of Judah, Ahaz and Manasseh, leading that tribe into sin by sacrificing their own children, having them 'pass through the fire' (2Kgs 16:3, 21:6) along with other ritual magical rites.
THE CURSE OF JERICHO There is more. When Israel destroyed Jericho, Joshua cursed it with a prophecy than whoever rebuilt it would do so with human sacrifice: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it. (Josh 6:26) The curse fell on Hiel the Bethelite in the early days of king Ahab (1Kgs 16:34). It was not unusual to dedicate cities and fortified courts by burying children alive in the foundations. I also believe Satan derives power from the shedding of innocent human blood. The sacrifice of the first-born is particularly powerful. When Elisha helped Jehoram to defeat Moab, the king of Moab sacrificed his eldest son upon the wall in a last-ditch attempt to turn the battle. It worked, as we read: And there was great indignation against Israel; and they departed from him and returned to their own land (2Kgs 3:27).
This kind of culture, in which child sacrifice was taken for granted, was the one in which Abraham lived and worked. To offer one's own eldest, and in this case only, son was par for the Sodom and Canaan course. Abraham seemed outwardly to see nothing unusual in it, whatever secret inner turmoil he may have been in. But before we become too self-righteous in our condemnation of that culture, let alone Abraham's apparent acceptance of it, we should consider what we do in our civilisation today.
OUR VERSION OF PAGANISM When we think for a moment, we will realise that we in Britain do exactly the same today as they did then. Firstly, we allow innocent blood to be shed by abortion. Chillingly, the child who is sacrificed in that way would normally have been the first-born, regarded by God as dedicated to Him (Exod 13:2,15; Luke 2:23), not sacrificed, but redeemed. If first-born children are so special to God, Satan must be delighted that so many are murdered in the womb. The hospitals and abortion clinics of Britain must truly be the engine-room of evil in our land. If Satan does indeed feed on human blood, six million lives in thirty-five years must have powered misery throughout our land, whilst at the same time being a judgment and bringing judgment on our land. Secondly, we do not make restitution for the blood shed in murder. That too is innocent blood and without the matter being put right justly, as God commanded Noah (Gen 9:6), the blood defiles the land every bit as much as that of an innocent child.
It must have given Satan great satisfaction that in the only part of the United Kingdom where abortion is still illegal, Northern Ireland, murderers have not even faced detention but have been released as part of a political deal. Apart from that, our legislators played a macabre trick in the mid-1960s when they removed the death penalty from the guilty, by the State, where it belongs, and imposed it upon the innocent, in the family, where it does not.
Can we regard our own civilisation as anything other than pagan? If the definition of a pagan culture is one in which one or more aspects of God's creation are worshipped instead of the creator (Rom 1:25) then we qualify, on the grounds that we have elevated man himself - either as an autonomous individual or as 'society' - to be his own god. We can trace this concept back to the so-called 'Enlightenment' (2Cor 11:14) but its roots are in the fall of man. Man is taken as the only measure. In short, we worship ourselves. So how does a society which worships man end up killing man himself? It is possibly by losing the fear of God and his laws, and especially the knowledge that man is made in the image of God (Gen 9:6) and that human life is therefore sacred. The Lord Jesus Himself taught that when the fear of God goes, there is no regard for man (Luke 18:2). In that line of thought, the right of the individual to enjoy whatever lifestyle he or she chooses, or make whatever decisions he or she wishes to make, or even, in a collectivist system, the assumed needs of society, all or any of those will trump the sanctity of one human life. In Britain today, human life is cheap and becoming of less value day by day.
GOD WILL PROVIDE HIMSELF We have, as a civilisation, adopted the morality of ancient Canaan, with its sexual license, its injustice and its child sacrifice. But to return to Abraham, at the very moment when the knife was poised to fall, God intervened. The angel called out to him to stop, and he turned to see the ram caught in a thicket (vs 13). The ram made the perfect substitutionary sacrifice, fulfilling what Abraham himself had said earlier to his son: "God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering." (vs 8) That prophecy is perhaps deliberately ambiguous, and Abraham might not even have realised it. God certainly did Himself provide the lamb in the thicket, but in the person of the Lord Jesus, God would provide Himself actually to be the ultimate sinless sacrificial victim.
To ask again why God set up the whole incident, the purpose of testing Abraham no longer appears sufficient. The account is there for our benefit and that of all generations. I believe God was making a statement that He was different from the pagan gods. He was making the point that he does not desire human sacrifice in as graphic a way as possible. He was also using Abraham to prophecy that God Himself would in due time not spare to offer His only son, for our sakes (Rom 5:8).
FORGIVENESS OF SIN In our culture, just like that of Sodom and Canaan, killing one's own children is lawful and even expected. It is, however, still a grave sin in the eyes of God, both individually and collectively (Judg 10:10; Prov 24:11-12; Dan 9:5) The only good news is that even such sin as abortion can be atoned for individually and collectively by repenting and trusting in the holy One who took upon Himself the punishment which our sin deserves. There is forgiveness in Jesus (Matt 9:2). Abortion is often done in an attempt to blank out the natural effects of fornication or adultery, but can one sin on top of another ever put anything right? In chilling words which echo down the ages, the prophet Micah asks and then answers the question:
Micah 6:7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?