Of Human Sacrifice
Abraham and Isaac
The Biblical record of the offering of Isaac has been a source of confusion and misunderstanding for many years. It is difficult to understand why God apparently asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. If God is the giver of all life, how could He ask Abraham to offer up his only son whom God had promised him? The account of Abraham and Isaac simply has not made sense, and thus critics have constantly wrestled over it.
The record of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22: 1 begins, "And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham .... " The first misconception has stemmed from the word tempt. In Hebrew "tempt" is bachan, meaning "to prove." "Tempt" must be incorrect because James 1: 13 says that God never tempts.*
Although God never tempts, it is possible for Him to prove man. God proves us as we prove ourselves.
Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man. – James 1: 13
He gives us His Word and as we walk on it, we are proved. But God does not tempt us. Only Satan tempts.
Hebrews 11: 17a records, By faith [believing] Abraham, when he was tried [proved] offered up Isaac ....
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt [prove] Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
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. -- Genesis 22: 1, 2
According to these verses, God told Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which God would tell him.
Our whole problem may be that we do not understand what a burnt offering is.
For Biblical research students it is of interest to note that in the Aramaic Peshitta text the word yhda, "burnt," is never used in this story. The word alta, "offering," is used throughout. Thus, could it be that every sacrifice is an offering, but not every offering a sacrifice?
God never asked Abraham to put a fire under Isaac. This idea has come to us because of teachers we have heard, books we have read and pictures we have seen. We have in mind the image of Abraham walking Isaac up the mountain, gathering the sticks, building the altar, tying Isaac and preparing to slay him when suddenly a ram is noticed behind them. This is not the Word of the Lord. What did the Lord tell Abraham to do?
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. -- Genesis 22: 2
This is all that God commanded Abraham to do. So when we understand what a burnt offering is, we will then have the key to the correct understanding of this verse.
To most of us a burnt offering concerns burning something with fire. But in Eastern custom a burnt offering does not indicate the presence of fire. When speaking of people as being a burnt offering, it did not mean sacrifice by fire. A burnt offering was a total, unreserved commitment of self to God. Let us note carefully this truth so plainly taught in the record in Judges 11 of Jephthah who gave his daughter as a burnt offering.
Judges 11: 30-40:
And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,
Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's and I will offer it up for a burnt offering [Carefully notice Jephthah's promise.].
So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord delivered them [the children of Ammon] into his hands.
And he smote them ....
And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.
And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.
And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.
And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.
And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains.
And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel,
That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament [visit*] the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year. -- Judges 11: 30-40
[*King James has the marginal note "talk with." Young's Concordance says "to give praise."]
Eastern custom teaches us that an unmarried maiden is a disgrace not only to the girl herself but also to the family. An unwed daughter indicates that a curse of God is on the family. Often such parents give these maidens as servants to serve at the temples for the rest of their lives. But before the young lady is committed, the maiden vacations in the mountains with relatives and a few close friends and together they have consecration ceremonies for two months, bewailing her virginity - that is, lamenting the fact she did not marry and produce offspring. Then the maiden bids farewell to all her relatives and friends. Once the girl enters into the service of the temple, she cannot be released to go back to her friends, relatives nor parents.
Jephthah gave his daughter permission to go to the mountains for two months. When she came back, her father took her to the temple. There she followed the ceremony all such girls go through. Her head was shaved at the door of the temple and she put on a long robe. She then remained in the temple the rest of her life. During special times each year, people would go and praise her, talk with her and compliment her for obeying her father's will. This account of Jephthah's daughter shows that a burnt offering means that she was living in the temple serving God.
Jephthah had promised God that whatever first came out of the doors of his house to meet him when he returned from battle he would give as a burnt offering. Having no other son or daughter, this child was the only hope of perpetuating Jephthah's family line. The total commitment of his only daughter to God's service was Jephthah's burnt offering. Jephthah felt especially bad because his family line had come to an end.
Just as Jephthah's daughter was dedicated to temple service for her lifetime, so Isaac was totally dedicated and consecrated to the commitment for all Israel believers for all ages as God's people. All Israel was called in Isaac. *
*Hebrews 11 :17,18 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called.
Now let us go back and carefully examine God's command to Abraham. God did not say that Abraham should take wood with him to start a fire. God told Abraham to take Isaac to a mountain and to offer him. Then we read that Abraham prepared himself with all those other things. This shows us that Abraham deliberately went beyond God's commandment.
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 into the place of which God had told him. -- Genesis 22: 3
This is the first place we get the idea that Abraham was going to burn Isaac. God's revelation was one thing; Abraham's sense-knowledge was something different.
As you recall, God had revealed long before that He was going to give Abraham a son by Sarah; but Abraham did not believe this until he was old. In the meantime, he took Hagar as his wife and Ishmael was born. Abraham did this by his sense-knowledge. God did keep his promise and Isaac was born to Sarah in her old age. Abraham again acted by his erring sense-knowledge regarding God's commandment concerning the offering of Isaac. Abraham lived near the Canaanites and had seen them burn human sacrifices to their gods. So when God said to Abraham, "Take him and give him as a burnt offering," Abraham immediately injected his own ideas and thought, "Well, that means I'd better take the wood along."
... and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
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.
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. -- Genesis 22: 3b-6
Isaac was not just five or six years old at this time. He was a grown adult, age thirty.
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?
And Abraham said, My son, God will
provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering:
went both of them together.
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. -- Genesis 22: 7 - 9
The Scriptures do not say that God told Abraham to build an altar nor to lay wood on the altar nor to bind Isaac and lay him on the altar. God had told Abraham what to do, but Abraham was the one who thought of a literal burning. He was using his own imagination, influenced by the actions of his unbelieving neighbors, and interjecting his own ideas.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. -- Genesis 22: 10
Look how really wrong Abraham was.
And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. – Genesis 22: 11
And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him; for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. – Genesis 22: 12
Had this been God's will, as Abraham thought it was, there never would have been an angel needed to suddenly terminate the action because God cannot contradict Himself, He cannot change His will. It was not God's will to literally burn and kill the young man. This was Abraham's idea. Yet, even though Abraham went beyond God's request and was wrong in so doing, he proved his utter willingness to relinquish his son. Therefore the angel of the Lord could make the following declaration in Genesis 22: 12, not because Abraham went beyond God's request, but because he was committed to total relinquishment of his son.
... for now I know that thou fearest [has awe or reverence for] God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. -- Genesis 22: 12b
Paul wrote concerning sacrifice in the book of Romans to us who are in the Church age.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present [yield] your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. -- Romans 12: 1, 2
What good are we to God as dead sacrifices? He needs us as living, active sons to be faithful and carry out this work, totally committed to Him until death. By living according to God's Word, we are proved by Him and are "burnt offerings."