Another troubling account for atheists is the one where God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering.
Abraham was old, and his wife Sarah hadn’t given birth to any children, so she gave him Hagar her maidservant, who gave birth to Ishmael. However, when Abraham was 99 years old, God told him that Sarah would bear him a son. This made Abraham laugh, because of their old age, so God told him to name the son Isaac, meaning “Laughter.” A year later, as God had promised, Sarah gave birth to Isaac.
Some time later, Abraham was put to the test. God said to him: “Take, please, your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as a burnt offering, on one of the mountains that I will say to you.” 1
I think the word “please” is here, in the Hebrew, not only because God was giving Abraham a choice, but also because he was inviting Abraham to perhaps push back, as he did before about Sodom. But this time, there was no pushback. Abraham set out as he was asked to do. He took two of his young men, and Isaac his son, along with the wood for the fire, to the place God had said. On the third day, he looked up and saw the place from a distance. He said to the two young men: “Sit here with the donkey, but I and the boy, we will go further on, and we will worship, and we will return to you.” 2
The original Hebrew makes it very clear that Abraham expected the boy to return with him to the place where they had left the donkey. But how could he say this, since God had told him to offer Isaac up? God had previously told Abraham that what would be called his offspring would come through Isaac, but Isaac was still only a boy and had no offspring. If God had miraculously enabled Sarah to have a child, even though she was past the age of childbearing, then clearly God was able to do something miraculous here. This is why Abraham knew his son would return, even if he had to sacrifice him.
Abraham took the wood, and put it on his son as they walked on. Did Isaac know what this was all about? It appears not. “And Isaac spoke to his father Abraham, and said, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Behold me, my son!’ And he said, ‘Look! The fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ And Abraham said, ‘God will see to himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’” 3
They went a little further, and then Abraham built an altar, arranged the wood, bound his son, and put him on the altar above the wood. Just as he was stretching out the knife to kill his son, “a messenger of YHWH called to him from the heavens, and said, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Behold me!’ And he said, ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy, and do not do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, and you have not held back your son, your only one, from me.’ And Abraham raised his eyes and saw, and look! behind was a ram caught in the bushes by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and he offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” 4
Even though the story had a happy ending for Isaac, although admittedly not for the ram, why would God even ask something like this in the first place? Obviously the account says it was a test, but why put Isaac through what must have been an increasingly traumatic ordeal?
I would suggest that God was teaching both them and us a powerful moral lesson. God was about to give Abraham’s offspring the land of Canaan, and the inhabitants of the land practiced child sacrifice. If we are shocked that God would put Isaac through this ordeal, even though Isaac didn’t even die, how much more shocked should we be at the Canaanites, who put their children through this, and actually went through with the slaughter?
I think God was having Abraham act out an apparent injustice, namely the slaughter of Isaac, to highlight the real injustice done by the people of Canaan, who actually practiced child sacrifice. It would certainly have impressed upon Abraham’s mind that God wanted his people to be different. By preventing Isaac’s death at the last minute, God indicated that he didn’t want child sacrifice.
The experience may have been traumatic for Isaac, but this was precisely the point. It would have given him a strong emotional understanding of just why child sacrifice was wrong, which could be taught to his offspring forever through this powerful and emotionally charged story.
In addition, I would also suggest, just as I have shown that Jacob’s life in Padan- Aram contains analogies related to molecular biology, God was also using these events as a teaching aid for us to understand his larger plan.
There are several clues in the story to suggest this. Isaac wasn’t Abraham’s only son. He already had Ishmael. Yet the account says that Isaac was his “only son.” Abraham traveled with two men. He arrived at the place, but then on “the third day” he saw it from a distance. The two men were instructed to stay behind with the donkey, as Abraham went with his son to worship and then to return. His son carried the wood to the place where he was to be put to death.
When Isaac began to question his father, Abraham said, “Behold me, my son!” The phrase here translated “Behold me” is often translated as “Here I am,” but in Hebrew it literally means, “look, me” or perhaps “look at me.” We have already seen how “look!” is often an indication for us to look deeper. Our attention is perhaps being drawn to the role of the father and the son in this drama.
The deeper meaning of the story is that of resurrection. In Jewish scripture, the “third day” is about being raised up. For example, the prophet Hosea spoke in Israel’s voice when he wrote: “Come, and let us return to YHWH, for he has torn to pieces, but he will heal us. He struck us, but he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us. On the third day he will raise us up, and we will live before him.” 5 The “third day” is associated with the resurrection of the dead.
The author of the book of Hebrews, found in the New Testament, also interpreted the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the same way, saying that Abraham reckoned that “God was able to also raise him from the dead, from which place he also received him in a parable.” 6 In other words, the story was meant to be a parable about Abraham’s faith in a resurrection, and about God’s means of providing the way out of death, by a son who would carry his own wood to his death, and experience a trauma that would ultimately bring about incredible blessings.
This is why God said to Abraham, immediately after doing what he did: “By myself I swear, says YHWH, that because you did this thing, and you did not hold back your son, your only one, that I will certainly bless you and will certainly increase your offspring as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your offspring will inherit the gate of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth will bless themselves by your offspring, because you listened to my voice.” 7
This would make sense if the drama was ultimately about being raised from the dead. But how the nations could possibly bless themselves as a result of Abraham’s offspring would remain to be seen.
Isaac’s son was Jacob, whose life in Padan-Aram, as I have already discussed, seems to have been intended as an analogy for various molecular biological processes. Jacob was renamed Israel. His last son was Joseph, who also seems to be an analogy for death and resurrection. Let me briefly recount his story, without going into too much detail here.
Joseph had dreams indicating that his brothers and family would bow down to him. His brothers hated him for this, threw him into a pit, and sold him into slavery to Egypt for 20 pieces of silver. Then his brothers told his father Israel that he was dead.
However, according to the story, God raised Joseph up in Pharaoh’s court, until he became the second most powerful person in Egypt. Joseph foretold a famine across the Earth, so Pharaoh put him in charge of preparations.
When the famine hit, all the Earth went down to Egypt to buy grain, including Israel’s sons. They had to deal with Joseph, but they didn’t recognize who he was. Eventually, he revealed himself to them, and they were utterly speechless.
Joseph explained that it wasn’t really them behind all of this, but God, and that God had placed him in his position to preserve the offspring of Israel. Pharaoh heard about the arrival of Joseph’s brothers, and invited Israel and his family to live in the best part of the land.
This is, in abbreviated form, the story of how Israel came to be in Egypt. 8 They lived there and multiplied for a few hundred years, until a later Pharaoh saw them, collectively called the Hebrews, as a problem and decided to use them as slaves. But the story of Joseph, Israel’s beloved son, also has a deeper hidden meaning, which I will discuss later.
1 Genesis 22:2. 2 Genesis 22:5. 3 Genesis 22:7,8. 4 Genesis 22:11-13. 5 Hosea 6:1,2. 6 Hebrews 11:19. 7 Genesis 22:16-18. 8 Joseph’s story can be found in Genesis chapter 37 and then chapters 39 to 45.