Good Question...

Why did God punish the Canaanites for child sacrifice, when He personally ORDERED Abraham to do it?!

[Updated 2/14/97]
Glenn, I have just read your response to the question on the "massacre of the Canaanites" in the "tough question" section. The question I have -- some readers may have already gotten back to you on this -- is, why would God "test" Abraham to sacrifice Isaac while prohibiting child sacrifice to the god Molech? Why is this not inconsistent?

I've reread Genesis 22:1-14 and your response to a similar question regarding Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. What am I missing?

Actually, you are missing what we ALL are--most of the story!

The story in Genesis 22--The "Binding of Isaac"-- is a classic case of a narrator selecting ONLY the details needed to make his point--and ONLY addressing his own authorial question. The passage is so focused on the teeth-gritting commitment of Abraham and his absolute confidence that he would NOT lose his divinely given son Isaac, that the explanatory details are stripped out of the bare events to drive his point home. There is virtually NO dialogue or background given in the passage--highly unusual.

Consider the following:

  1. In earlier encounters with God, Abraham is certainly vocal in his 'pushbacks' to God. In Genesis 15.2-3, he raised an objection to God's promise; in 15.8, he raised a doubt; in 17.17f, he doubts and tries to 'steer' God's blessings; and in 18.23-33, he argued with God on the basis of God's character (Then Abraham approached him and said: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing -- to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"). It is almost impossible to believe that he didn't argue with God THIS TIME, and again on the basis of God's character. But the narrator of the story doesn't tell us about this.

  2. Abraham, Issac, and two servants travel for several days and the text only records one spoken comment (22.5: He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.")! Granted, Abe may have been lost in his thoughts about the coming challenge, but chances are slim that no other words were spoken on that journey.

  3. Abraham and Issac have several hours of travel together, in which only one conversation exchange is recorded (22.7-8: Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?" "Yes, my son?" Abraham replied. "The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" 8 Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son."). Again, no other details are allowed to dilute the narrative.

  4. At the binding site, an altar was constructed (large enough to hold Issac, who was probably between 15 and 37 years old), wood arranged, and Issac bound--a process which probably took 2-3 hours. And not a word between a tortured father and his questioning, precious, son-of-the-promise? I doubt it.

  5. And then after this ordeal, no words are recorded to Isaac or to the servants.

  6. The ONLY piece of background is the opening verse, which is a strange verse in the Hebrew. The construction in the original over-emphasizes that it was GOD who initiated this test, and that it was GOD who spoke to Abraham. The narrator does not want us to assume this was Abe's standard practice, or was Abe' idea, or was an "ordinary" happening. This was so radically different than the expected--and the narrator goes to explicit detail to make sure we are "struck" by the force of the test.

  7. Verse one, however, is only a clue to US--Abe did not have that advantage. He did not know it was a test. He would have been staggered by the contradictions imbedded in this command. Not just the strangeness of the 'human sacrifice' motif (a problem which the narrator ignores, in pursuit of his narrative agenda), but primarily the issue of how God would fulfill His promise to bless the world through Isaac, if he was supposed to kill Isaac?

    This is, of course, the main point of the story. Both subsequent Jewish and Christian traditions drew from this lesson. In Hebrews 11.17-19 we see the Judeo-Christian focus on the faith of Abraham--

    By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." 19 Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.
    Abraham saw an apparent contradiction: (1) God said "kill" Isaac and (2) God said Isaac will have many descendants. Abe drew an obvious conclusion--"God will raise Isaac back to life."

  8. Abraham is given ONE clue that this request is MEANT to be staggering and incomprensible--the presence of the na' particle in the command.

    This particle is normally translated "please" but is NOT translated in the NIV of this verse. I will cite the verse translated by Hamilton (NICOT), so we can see where it fits:

    Then He said: "Take, please, your son, your precious one who you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, where you shall offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the peaks I will identify for you"
    Na; occurs often in the OT, but only 4 times by God when addressing a human. In each case, God makes a STAGGERING request of the human--and three of these are to Abraham!

As I mentioned above, Jewish and Christian traditions have drawn serious lessons from Abraham's actions in this story.

The point of the above was to point out that Israel NEVER EVEN had the problem under discussion. The introductory verse, the comments by Abraham through the narrative, the extraordinary elements in the story, and the rather restricted amount of detail in the narrative simply 'alerted them' that this was NOT to be understood as normative--EXCEPT Abraham's response of faith and faithfulness. The passage, when taken in full and in context, simply did not create the tension for the reader. Commentators point this out from the literary features of the passage:

"The introduction, 'After these things God tested Abraham,' is of great moment, both from a dramatic and a theological perspective. It serves to cushion the listener from the full impact of the horrific command to Abraham, and it diverts attention from the question whether Isaac will be sacrificed to whether Abraham will stand up to the test." (Wenham, WBC)

"In the case of Gen. 22, if one focuses exclusively on v. 2, then God appears to be deceptive, irrational, and self-contradictory, if not cruel. If one focuses, however, on the whole narrative--the provision of the ram, the command to Abraham not to let the knife fall, and the subsequent promises to obedient Abraham--then the view of God that emerges is quite different. As de Vaux has said, 'Any Israelite who heard this story would take it to mean that his race owed its existence to the mercy of God and its prosperity to the obedience of their ancestor'" (Hamilton, NICOT).

"The first verse of this narrative provides a necessary preliminary understanding of the events of the chapter. Without it God's request that Abraham offer up Isaac as a 'burnt offering' would be inexplicable. By stating clearly at the start that 'God tested Abrahaham' (v.1), the writer quickly allays any doubt about God's real purpose. There is, then, no thought of actual sacrifice of Isaac in the narrative, though in the mind of Abraham within the narrative that, of course, was the only thought that was entertained. The whole structure of the narrative focuses so strongly on the Lord's request that the writer apparently sensed the need to dispel any suspense of suspicion about the Lord's real intention." (Sailhammer, EBC).

Let's note some details from the text, and from the above discussion:

  1. The introductory verse sets up for the reader the fact that God never intended to allow the sacrifice of Isaac.

  2. The text makes it clear that Abraham KNEW this was "THE GOD" that spoke--not an intuition, not a vague revelation, not a practice, not a hunch, not a demonic communication, not a 'whisper'. Abraham had had LOTS of practice at recognizing God's voice--there was no mistaking the Authority!

  3. 22.2 sets this up as a very private experience (pronoun is 'go by yourself') for Abe/Isaac.

  4. For such an awesome test, God would have to make it 'borderline' as opposed to outright evil. He couldn't have said 'Go, murder your son', but 'Go, sacrifice your son' is "close enough" to His absolute right over our lives. It's ambiguous enough (at the time) to allow the doubt to fester in Abraham's heart.

  5. It is clear that God never intends this sacrifice to conclude, from the provision of the ram at the worship site.

  6. God gives Abraham a clue that His request is intended to stagger and stretch the trust of Abraham.

  7. The distance to the worship site is even odd. It is either very long, to draw out the dramatic tension, or close to Abraham's encounter with Mechizedek, or a figurative revelation of the future death of the messiah (see HSOB, in. loc.).

  8. Abraham stumbles around, doing things out of sequence, absentmindedly, strangely.

  9. He fully expected to return to the servants with Isaac (after the worship ceremony!).

  10. He assured his son that God would provide an animal for the ceremony (which He did).

  11. Isaac must have cooperated in faith with his dad, requiring SOME disclosure and/or instructions.

  12. The Angel of YHWH stops him with an urgent "Abraham! Abraham! Do not...".

  13. "Somehow" in the middle of nowhere, there is a ram caught in the bushes, at this time and place!

  14. The worship site turns out to be where the later Temple will be built in Jerusalem (2 Chrn 3.1).

  15. Because of Abraham's loyalty, the Angel of YHWH re-confirms the Abrahamic promises but INTENSIFIES THEM considerably! New elements (e.g. victory over enemies, blessing the world thru Isaac, 'sand of the seashore') are given to Abraham and to Isaac.

  16. These new, "enhanced" promises would have been heard by Isaac, who would have seen first hand how God regards obedience--regardless of self-interests or natural loyalties. Isaac would have realized that the whole incident--scary though it was--ended up greatly to his benefit!

  17. Jewish and Christian tradition understand this narrative to be NOT a sanction of 'child sacrifice' but a SUPREME TEST of Abraham--partly because of the ban against such practices.

  18. The bare-bones structure of the narrative tips us off not to make too much out of the story BEYOND what the narrator is trying to communicate--the resolute obedience and trust of Abraham. Every safeguard is placed in the passage to show us that actual child sacrifice (or human sacrifice) is NEVER intended by God, and that the issue for Abraham was matching up his heart/will with his knowledge that Isaac simply could not stay dead for very long, if he did die at all! [This fact alone shows this situation to be radically different than the infant/child sacrifices of the surrounding nations--they never expected a resurrection, only death to appease an angry or uncooperative deity.]

  19. Abe obviously knew that Isaac had to live (the promises, and vs. 5), but he probably wasn't sure how--a resurrection or last-minute switch (as happened). The text leaves them both open as options.

  20. If Abe believed that the sacrifice would go through, then he was convinced that it would be 'reversed' or 'un-done' very quickly and completely. Perhaps in his mind, the "sacrifice plus complete reversal" resolved the ethical dilemma for him. This would still require a HUGE amount of faith and a HUGE amount of self-control over a father's heart.

It is interesting to note that in this single experience, Abraham gets a glimpse of how the world will be blessed through his descendants--the sacrificial death of the only-begotten, perfectly submissive, Seed of the Promise, perfectly cooperative, precious loved, Son of the Heavenly Father.

All in all, the passage goes to great length to (1) make sure we don't misunderstand the test as being an 'inconsistency' and (2) make sure we don't get off track in understanding the lesson--about Abraham's faith and loyalty. Subsequent generations of the faithful looked to this event as a 'challenge point' by which to gauge our commitment to Him. Are we loyal and do we trust the Lord of Love to 'make it right in the end'? Have we, like Abraham, experienced enough or seen enough of His faithfulness, kindness, grace to not doubt Him in moments of ambiguity and confusion?

It should be obvious that there is simply no comparison between this test of faith--a model of the Father/Son at Calvary--and the ritual (and irreversible) sacrifices of infants by the Canaanites. The two stand in starkest contrast to one another.

There is no inconsistency here--had Abraham disobeyed the command by the Angel to stop, then judgment would have no doubt fallen upon him. If Abraham had disobeyed (and killed Isaac) and God NOT PUNISHED him--THAT would be an inconsistency with the treatment of the Canaanites. But without the actual completion of the sacrifice, there cannot be a true comparison nor 'consistency' issue.

But this was a test for Abraham...a unique situation in human history...and cause of blessing for us all...God and Abraham were very intimate at this point in their relationship, and only Abraham is called in scripture the "friend of God"...God cared so much for His friend that he allowed him such a test, in order to even further increase the blessings to His it is with His children today (cf. 2 Cor 4.17; I Peter 1.6-7).

But...for those fathers among us...and for those Christians among us...we must quiet our hearts before the deep and mysterious reality that at the Cross, was a Father's agonizing heart, and a perfect and obedient Son, and a deadly knife in a divine, reluctant, but resolute Hand, but no one to call out "Yahweh! Yahweh! Do not..."--no one to stay that stroke, no one to free the willing Innocent...who can understand the depth of Will and Love that held that act on course...I tremble...

glenn miller, 2/14/97

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