Problem Management — religious Q&A
Sacrificing Isaac

Human sacrifice is condemned in the Bible, so how could God have expected Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac?

Obviously God didn't expect the sacrifice to be completed, but he did want Abraham to demonstrate how strong his faith was. Unfortunately, most tellings of the story lose much of the significance of this event by omitting two important details.

The usual depiction of Isaac as a victim is inappropriate. Isaac wasn't a young child at the time, but more likely in his late twenties or early thirties, while Abraham himself was a very old man. Whatever Abraham was going to do could not have been done against Isaac's will. A vigorous man like Isaac would have had to cooperate fully while being tied up by an old man. I imagine that Isaac feared that his own faith might fail and he might resist at the last minute, and so he himself asked his father to tie him up.

The usual depiction of Abraham as willing to kill his son is also misleading. Yes, he unquestioningly proceeded to carry out the task, but not without faith in what God had already promised for Isaac: Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, [and] with his seed after him.. Since Isaac was still childless, Abraham knew that no matter what he did that day, he was not capable of causing God's promise to fail.

This is the great faith for which Abraham is renowned. Not that he could kill his son without question, but that he could accept God's promise without question.

Isaac's life was saved at the last moment when God provided a lamb to be sacrificed in his place. Centuries later, during the plagues in Egypt, the descendants of Isaac's son Jacob saved their own first-born sons by putting the blood of a sacrificed lamb onto their doorposts to display their faith. The Israelites commemorated this event as the holy day of Passover.

The New Testament tells us that this annual Passover foreshadowed God's sacrifice of his own son Jesus, who is referred to as the Lamb of God. Just as Isaac carried the wood that was to be used in his sacrifice, so too, Jesus was forced to carry the wooden post upon which he was executed. Jesus was killed in the mid afternoon just as the lambs were being ceremonially slaughtered in preparation for the feast of the Passover. Christians use this sacrifice to pay the death penalty for their sins, and they show their acceptance of it by ceremonially drinking wine that symbolizes the shed blood.

God's covenant with Abraham and Isaac was passed on to Isaac's son Jacob, whose descendants became the twelve tribes of Israel, which include the people known today as Jews. Isaac's brother Ishmael's descendants became the people now known as Arabs. Following Mohammed's teaching in the Qur'an, Muslims believe that it was in fact Ishmael that faced the sacrifice, not Isaac.

The faithful Abraham (Avraham, Ibrahim) is respected as one of the greatest prophets by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike.