It is baffling to consider the enormity of infinity. Abraham’s resignation to sacrifice Isaac is extraordinary. Think of the total cost of Isaac’s sacrifice. Abraham would lose his son. Isaac was his only true heir, not including Ishmael, who he had already sent away. By killing Isaac, Abraham ended his own family line—a great shame in his culture. Isaac was the promised child from God. Abraham waited decades, far into his old age to finally receive this child of promise through which he would have descendants that outnumbered the stars. By killing Isaac, God’s gift was destroyed and his promise rendered impossible. Additionally, it is reasonable to believe that murder was punishable by death. In Genesis 9:6, God declares that “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” It is fair to assume that Abraham is aware of this declaration from God. By killing Isaac, he sentences himself to death. Even more, Abraham directly trespasses against the explicit edict of God.
Much is at stake: cultural approval, his own wellbeing, the fate of his family, God’s promise, his dear son’s life, God’s consistency, morality, and likely much more I have failed to recognize. And yet all I have called attention to is more than enough to make me quiver. How could Abraham even consider killing Isaac? I come to one firm conclusion: Abraham knew beyond doubt that God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. I focus on the idea of doubt. If Abraham had even the slightest inclination to doubt the message he had received, he never would have come close to sacrificing Isaac. If the message could have been doubted at all, it would have been immediately dismissed. Too much was on the line, most of all God’s consistency. God himself declared that murder is punishable by death. And yet, God told Abraham to murder Isaac. Trying to separate this call to sacrifice from murder is futile; if Abraham had slain his son, it would unarguably have been murder.
This is what is so absurd to me: Abraham, in faith, follows God’s command to sacrifice Isaac even when God directly contradicts Himself. Abraham’s faith in God is so utterly beyond reason and understanding. His faith is not in God’s consistency; it seems impossible for it to even be in God’s goodness, for to think anything good can come out of killing Isaac amidst all the destruction it would cause is truly insane. Abraham’s faith must wholly rely on God Himself. This statement seems too abstract to understand. When a person trusts in another, do they not do so because they have proven themselves trustworthy? Surely God has proven himself trustworthy to Abraham. He delivered Isaac despite his old age. He brought Abraham and his wife safely to a foreign land. Asking for Isaac’s death, however, is unique. This request is entirely contrary to the character of God as He has revealed Himself thus far. And yet, it cannot be questioned that God is the One who gives the command to kill Isaac, or else Abraham never would have begun the trip to Moriah. But even not questioning the command, how was Abraham’s trust not broken by God’s inconsistency?
This I cannot answer. Perhaps it was because God’s commands cannot be disobeyed. Abraham, in this scenario, must have been in a sort of trance, blindly following God’s direction with no free will. I do not think this is likely, otherwise he would not have suffered anguish. He could have, in his trance, blamed God for killing Isaac. But that was not the case; it was Abraham who by his own choice and strength raised the knife to slay his son. My guess is that Abraham trusted God because he knew Him personally. This still is a mystery. Could Abraham have known God as physically as another person? Did God physically manifest to meet Abraham face-to-face? Genesis 18 appears to say so. Was their relationship less physical but more real? Could they have connected on a deeper level, a spiritual level—as hard as that is to understand? If so, what part of this relationship and Abraham knowing God in such a profound way saved Abraham’s faith in God?
Here is another suggestion. I have no proof for this possibility, nor do I think I believe it to be true, but I will articulate it regardless in the only way I know how. Let me write a myth—a narrative. Abraham, in his personal relationship with God, somehow experienced the infinite beauty of God. Like Moses, He had seen the living God. Unlike Moses, however, who received a glowing face so bright it had to be veiled for the sake of the Israelites (Exodus 33-34), Abraham received an unbreakable trust in God. His trust was what Peter desired when he demanded “I will lay down my life for you!” in John 13:37 but did not have until after Christ’s resurrection in John 21:15-22. In fact, it was greater still. Abraham was laying down his life, and his son’s, and his family’s patriarch and heir. He would give more than Peter wanted to. Because he had beheld the glory of the Lord, Abraham could give all. So, even in the act of God delivering a command that contradicted His own word and character, Abraham still beheld God’s beauty and his trust shone all the more brightly. And so he departed for Moriah, still riddled with anguish, for he was a reasonable man and understood the ramifications his actions would have. And yet Abraham had faith.
This “not-unlikely tale” may address how Abraham came to sacrifice Isaac—although not all-sufficiently—but one significant concern still remains. Is God mad? Is He inconsistent? How can He command murder and condemn it at the same time? This I also cannot sufficiently answer. With that being said, I do know that any possible answer must be found in God staying Abraham’s hand. By keeping Abraham from the actual act of murder, God seems to save Himself from contradiction. While God demanded Isaac to be murdered, He ultimately kept it from happening. Therein we also see the intention behind God’s demand in the first place: to test Abraham. Isaac’s life was not needed in its own right. God later makes Himself abundantly clear in hebraic law how detestable human sacrifice—especially child sacrifice—is (Deuteronomy 18:10, Leviticus 20:1-5). What, then, was God doing when He demanded Isaac be sacrificed as a burnt offering? He was testing Abraham alone. His message was clear. Abraham had to choose to either follow or disobey God.
It seems as though God, if He truly is consistent, never could have let Abraham go through with the action. It would have been nonsensical, for to love God and to follow His commands are synonymous. God commanding Abraham to murder was telling him to not follow God’s previous command, effectively making God’s message as ridiculous as saying “I command you to hate me.” And yet Abraham’s faith was so great that he was willing to accept God’s self-contradiction just to follow Him. God had to stay Abraham’s hand to prevent His self-contradicting command from coming to pass. Perhaps Abraham recognized this. Our only inclination that Abraham believed God would not demand Isaac from him was when he answered his son’s question, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Some argue this was a deflection of the question in a sense; Abraham was unsure what to tell Isaac so he came up with something clever to say. It was not a lie, but it still left the possibility of Isaac being sacrificed as the lamb God provided. Fair enough. I would go so far as to say Abraham may have known better. I could be so bold as to say Abraham knew that God would provide an actual animal to sacrifice in Isaac’s stead. I could believe that. It is more realistic to believe the former situation.
Even if Abraham knew God would provide an out for him, he still would have had to attempt to kill his son. His anguish could not have been reduced. Abraham knew what had been demanded of him, and his faith demanded he follow through with the action—he would sacrifice Isaac. If God’s angel had theoretically not called out to him, or Abraham failed to hear the angel’s call (maybe this is why the angel had to call twice; he was over a hundred years old) he would have slaughtered Isaac no different than Jephthah slew his daughter. God knew this; Abraham’s hand did not quiver, and so His angel called out twice.
What can be said? Abraham’s infinite resignation was far greater than I can comprehend. He was willing to forfeit morality and God’s consistency. If there had been any doubt in the message, Abraham never would have made the first movement toward Moriah. Yet, Abraham knew the Lord commanded him, so he followed his command without question. His faith necessarily must have been beyond reason. By God’s grace, Abraham was stopped before he drove a knife into his dear child, which he fully intended on doing. Abraham’s awe-ful faith was proven, he received the full promise God had in store for him: not only would he be the father of a great nation, but through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
This crazy faith is something I myself share in. It is audacious to say, but I cannot deny my God. I, too, have encountered the Living God. There is no room for doubt in me. I know God. Is my relationship as profound as Abraham’s? No. I have never walked with my Lord. Have I been tested as Abraham was? By no means, and I doubt I ever will be tested to such an extant. Few are. Tests will still come, as many already have. I will not be deterred from following Jesus Christ. My confidence is not from or in myself. My focus is wholly elsewhere. Faith is not a matter of the strength of the person, but on how heavily the person depends on God, dwells in His house, gazes at His beauty. Peter did not sink as long as he kept His focus on Jesus. And I share with Peter in saying in all honesty “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” (John 6:68).
“I will worship, with all of my heart
I will praise you, with all of my strength
I will seek you, all of my days
I will follow, all of your ways
“I will bow down, and I’ll hail you as king
I will serve you, I will give you everything
I will lift up my eyes to your throne
I will trust you, I will trust you alone
“I will give you all my worship
I will give you all my praise
You alone I long to worship
You alone are worthy of my praise”
(“You’re Worthy Of My Praise”, Jeremy Camp)