Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? How is it morally acceptable to almost sacrifice your son? And How could Abraham obey so readily? These questions have plagued many believers, including myself, and spawned the amazing book Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard. However, I do not believe that we need to believe in a teleological suspension of the ethical in order to understand the ethics and motive for God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
Many theologians consider “you shall not murder” as a moral law that God has placed on human hearts. But just as often times war is an exception to this rule, because so many other religions around Abraham practiced human sacrifice, it would seem plausible to Abraham that God could ask such a thing. Even though the law prohibits human sacrifice, the law had not been revealed to Abraham.
However, just because Abraham was unaware of the law prohibiting human sacrifice does not mean that actually killing Isaac is justifiable. But Abraham did not actually kill Isaac physically, avoiding actual sin.
Even still, Jesus says that,
“You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
But still Abraham loved Isaac completely, and God knew that for He said,
“…’Take your son, your only son, whom you love–Isaac–and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.'”(Genesis 22:2)
I cannot conceive how actually sacrificing Isaac would be morally justifiable. But, then again, Abraham did not actually sacrifice Isaac, in the flesh or in his heart. No teleological suspension of the ethical was necessary, rather only a pure love for Isaac (without anger or hatred) and faith in God. This avoids breaking a known law of God, the physical murder of Isaac, and the inner murder of Isaac.
God was testing him. Why would God need to test Abraham who has already demonstrated more faith than anyone else? Well, the father of God’s chosen people and ancestor to the Christ must have unhesitating faith unmatched by any man that will ever exist (except God’s own Son, Jesus). It would just about wreck anyone if they were called to sacrifice their son, and Abraham loved his son more than anyone. He waited decades for Isaac and had faith that he would have a son in his old age. We can sympathize with the pain that it would bring to Abraham and at the same time be horrified that he would even think about sacrificing Isaac. We are horrified even though Abraham was sacrificing to the Ultimate Good, to God Himself. But it’s important that Abraham did not actually sacrifice Isaac, for doing so would be sacrificing a blemished lamb to a God that requires the unblemished.
While Abraham’s hand was stayed, God’s followed through, piercing the heart of his own Son, his only Son, the Beloved, the One who was and is perfect, the One who deserves glory. While Abraham would have sacrificed his son and, by his faith saved his own name and the nation that would follow, God DID sacrifice His Son to save people from every tribe and every tongue and every nation. He poured out the painfully infinite punishment for sin on His ONLY son to save those who scoffed at him, who call HIM cruel, who HATE him for the suffering in the world, for the very sin and suffering he sacrificed Jesus to cure. Do they not know that God has suffered too? That God suffered more than ANYONE can imagine, alone, to save a world that has turned its back on him yet he still loves? Do we think God does not grieve our treacheries? (Genesis 6:6) God suffered to save me when I spat in his face and cried out “CRUCIFY HIM!” No, almost no one can understand. I can’t understand.
I think God was trying to reveal himself and the pain he would endure to a man of unmatched faith. In asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God was showing Abraham that this unspeakable pain and crushing weight is what He would bear for those he loved. Abraham obeyed.