Difficult Bible Passages: Genesis 22

Was God wrong to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

One of the more puzzling and questionable stories found in the Old Testament has to do with God calling on Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice. Sometimes known as “The Binding” (Hebrew: the Akedah), the story is found in Genesis 22. It is admittedly a worrying portion of Scripture, given that it seems God is commanding Abraham to do something he has elsewhere forbidden, as in Jeremiah 7:31.

There are different ways to deal with this problem. One is to simply dismiss the entire chapter. Or to claim God was wrong. Or to claim that God is the author of evil. Or that we should reject God, at least in this instance. And Christians too of course can have legitimate questions about all this. Consider a brief exchange I recently had with one social media friend:

Her: Bill, the story in the bible I have the hardest time accepting us when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his own son Isaac! I will never accept that story as acceptable because it goes against God’s own commandment of “Thou Shall Not Murder” so it doesn’t even remotely make sense that God should ask Abraham to do that! Yes I understand God Himself sacrificed his own Son but we as humans are asked not to murder


Me: Thanks. It was more a test of faith and trust – as we know, God provided the sacrifice. God already knew what was in Abraham’s heart, but perhaps Abraham needed to know as well. And if a good and loving God told him to do this, then it did make sense. In the same way we metaphorically are called to give our own children (or spouses, or careers, or anything and everything) up to God – we too are to be willing to make great sacrifices for God. And as we read in Gen 22:8, Abraham already seemed to know that God would provide a different sacrifice.


Her: Bill, He asked Abraham to murder his own son, that’s not right & goes against His own commandment, it didn’t make one iota of sense, that’s not good or loving & imagine the trauma Isaac went through as well.


Me: There are many things in Scripture that we as fallen, finite and fallible human beings might question. But we must take real care in actually thinking that we are wiser, more loving, and more moral than God is. That is a risky place to be in. That does not mean we stop asking questions, but it means we show a bit of humility, knowing that he is God and we are not. Again, Isaac was NOT killed.

Those are some of the brief replies that one can make about this perplexing narrative. But more things can be said. Let me offer a few more short responses. One, God is the author of life and death, and he can both give life and take it away. That is his prerogative. Two, this was, as I mentioned, a test. God knew he was not going to take Isaac’s life. The question is, how about Abraham? He believed God would provide an alternative: “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (v. 8).

Three, Abraham was the subject of great promises given by God. He was promised descendants coming from him being as numerous as the stars in the skies (Gen. 15:5-6). Four, he had already experienced the miraculous in having the womb of Sarah opened by God (Gen, 21:1-3). So he could believe that God was quite able to resurrect his son if he did sacrifice him (see Heb. 11:17-19)

Five, as the ‘father of faith’ that Paul and others would appeal to (eg., Romans 4:9), he was indeed strong in faith, and God allowed him to see this worked out in this episode. Six, he became a type or prefiguring of God being willing to offer his own son for our sins. In that sense, God will not ask us to do something that he was not willing to do himself.

Seven, mention must also be made of Isaac’s deep trust, both in his father and his father’s God. And eight, we too are called to at least metaphorically sacrifice what and who we love most for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus spoke about this when he even warned about loving one’s parents more than loving God (Luke 14;26).

But still, this was a very real test for Abraham and a very difficult one. And ethical questions can remain. Obviously, oceans of ink have already been spilled on this matter. Atheists and God-haters are happy to say that God is an ogre and an evil monster because of things like this.

And as mentioned, believers too can have real questions about the whole affair. In addition to the points that I raised above, a few more things can be said. First let me offer some philosophic and apologetics remarks, and then close with some theological and devotional comments.

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Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan (Author) Amazon logo

As to the former, Paul Copan in his helpful 2011 volume, Is God a Moral Monster? devotes a full chapter to the Akedah. Recall that Abraham already experienced God’s goodness and faithfulness in the past, so in a sense he was well-prepared for this extreme test: “Because Abraham already knew God’s faithful – and even tender – character and promises, he was confident that God would somehow fulfil his promise to him, however this would be worked out.” He goes on to say this:

We’ve seen that the narrative context of Genesis reveals repeated divine assurances and confirmations that Isaac was the child of promise and instrument of blessings to the nations. Abraham truly knew that Isaac would live to adulthood and have offspring in fulfillment of God’s promise; so, if necessary, God would bring Isaac back from the dead: “we will return,” Abraham promised his servants. So if Abraham knew God would fulfill his covenant promise, then Abraham’s taking innocent human life in this case—according to God’s command—was morally permissible.

As to the latter, here are some thoughts on the episode from some well-known pastors and preachers. James Montgomery Boice says this:

This test involved a conflict apparently within the words of God himself. God had promised posterity through Isaac. But God had now also commanded Abraham to kill him. How could this problem be resolved? There were only two ways. Abraham could have concluded that God was erratic, wavering from one plan to another because he did not know his own mind. This had not been Abraham’s experience of God. The long wait for the son had taught him better than that. Or Abraham could have concluded that, although he – being finite and sinful – was unable to see the resolution of the difficulty, God could nevertheless be trusted to have a resolution, which he himself would certainly disclose in due time. This was the harder of the two solutions to accept, but Abraham’s experience of God led him in this direction.


Abraham acted in a manner consistent with his knowledge of God. That is, he trusted him, concluding that whatever God’s purposes may or may not have been in this situation, God had at least shown that he could not be his enemy. God was his friend. When the command to sacrifice Isaac was first given, Abraham did not understand how, if the command were carried out, the promise could be fulfilled. But that was alright. Abraham left the difficulty with God, which is the essence of true faith. What is faith? Faith is believing God and acting upon it. That is what Abraham did. God had shown that he could be trusted, so Abraham believed God and acted, even though he could not understand the solution to the difficulty.

And some thoughts from Stuart Briscoe:

While it is clear that typology is part of revelation and therefore that the interpretation of types is a valid means of communicating the truth, we should be careful not to be too exuberant in our perceptions of types or too creative in our interpretations thereof. With that in mind we may see in Isaac a type of the Suffering Son who willingly submitted Himself unreservedly to the Father’s will. In Abraham we have a poignant picture of the Father who “did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32) and in the ram a type of the Lamb who died as a substitute for the sins of the world.


When I was a boy I heard a preacher say, “I have five sons and I would not offer up any one of them for any one of you! But God had only one Son and He offered Him freely for the sins of a world that did not even heed His action nor desire His grace.” I have not forgotten that and when I look at Abraham’s action I see something equally unforgettable! Truly a high point of faith!

Lastly, a few words from R. Kent Hughes. In his expository commentary on Genesis, he shows us the relevance of all this:

We see that the God who tests is also the God who provides—the Tester is the Provider. Both truths are actual fact, but they must be appropriated by faith. When God tests you, he will provide for you. So we see that the Lord who tests is the Lord who provides. That is what we need to see about God. As we go through the tests of growing a greater faith, as God tests us and stretches us, we believe, and he provides. He always has provided. He provides for every believer. He always has. So when we are called to give our “Isaacs”—those things that are most precious to us—we need to understand when we do it that God is Jehovah Jireh—God provides.

Amen and amen.

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14 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Genesis 22”

  1. Thank you, Bill, for being prepared to tackle the most perplexing parts of the Bible for the benefit of your readers.

  2. My thoughts are
    1. that God is asking Abraham to kill not murder his son. It’s is not intentional (premeditated killing) so God is not instructing him to murder Isaac. English, as in Hebrew, there is a difference between killing and murdering. Killing may include ending the life of animals, while “murdering” is restricted to killing people with intent.
    2. the 6th commandment was given by God to us, not by God to God. So God is not breaking any commandments.

  3. Thanks Bill. I just have one query that doesn’t change the conclusions you have, but I do want to know your thoughts.

    “God knew that he was not going to take Isaac’s life”

    In Genesis 22:10-11, the Angel of the LORD says “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son”.

    How did God know in this specific instance that Abraham would not kill Isaac, given the Angel of the LORD said now I know?

    Like you said, I still think it is a test, but I’m not sure the test is contingent on God knowing in advance.

    Many thanks, Matthew.

  4. Thanks Matthew. If we do not think that God knows all things, or has full knowledge of future events – as the freewill theists hold – then it may seem like legitimate statement that was made by the angel. But if we believe God is indeed omniscient, then we see the statement as being more rhetorical in nature, and for the benefit of Abraham (and the readers). In the same way God’s question to Adam was rhetorical (he did in fact know!): “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).

  5. Thanks Bill for bringing this Bible incident to our minds. I believe it is a test to show the supernatural world (including Satan) that Abraham’s heart was fixed on trusting God, even when it meant giving up his son. Abram had previously not trusted God when he went into Egypt with Sarai his wife but since Isaac was miraculously born he had trusted God but this was a very big step further. Also, in Genesis 21, Abraham is at Beersheba then in Gen 22:4 it says ‘on the third day Abraham saw the place afar off’ meaning they had travelled for three days to the place God had told him. On my Bible map Jerusalem is about 40 miles away from Beersheba. Could they possibly have travelled to where Jesus would be sacrificed so what Abraham was doing was revealing to the world that someone would be sacrificed here one day but God would bring him back to life again.

  6. Thanks Bill. I am not a freewill theist, and neither am I a biblical scholar. I just hold the text as supreme authority (as you do). But as I believe that God knows everything, then this statement is rhetorical. Your answer seems reasonable.

    It is an interesting area though. Forgive me for going a little off the topic at hand, but in Jeremiah 19:5 God clearly says a particular wickedness did not enter his mind. Is that a literal statement or a rhetorical or other type of statement so that it still true that God is omniscient? Our something else I have missed?

    Many thanks, Matthew.

  7. Thanks again Matthew. Yes that passage too we would see as being rhetorical in nature – a literary device used to express how repulsed God is at the very thought of child sacrifice. The principle of letting Scripture interpret Scripture comes into play here. That is, we consider the whole counsel of God, and we assess those passages that might be somewhat less clear in the light of those passages that are more clear. As such, we believe all of Scripture points to an omniscient God who knows all things. That includes potential things as well as actual things. Therefore we judge a passage like this with that understanding.

  8. I was puzzled that you didn’t cite Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which was a classic work on this very subject. Is there any reason why?

  9. God was justified in providing His Son a sacrifice for man because a man was shown to be willing to sacrifice his own son for God. It is likely to do with dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s in preparation for the judgement but it certainly does testify as to how clearly Abraham heard from God.

    I love the double entendre of “God will provide Himself a sacrifice”. You often don’t see the significance of prophecy until it happens.

  10. God is never wrong God is always right. It is impossible for God to be wrong because God is a perfect infallible supreme being. God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was also just a test. God also intervened and told Abraham not to do it just as he was about too.

  11. What I like about Kierkegaard’s exegetical reading of this biblical passage is that he grapples with the psychological cost of what God required Abraham to do and the anxiety that Abraham must have felt in grappling with the absolute duty that he had to obey God’s command. However, despite human doubt and anxiety, Abraham took Isaac and prepared to carry out God’s command. In effect, as they say in some circles, he ‘let go and let God.’ Having tested Abraham’s faith thus, God provided a reprieve because Abraham had showed his obedience. It may be a difficult thing for our western rationalist minds to hear, but nevertheless, as Christians, sometimes we do have to undertake leaps of faith like this.

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