Did Abraham misunderstand God’s order to sacrifice Isaac?

Question: I was reading again today Jeremiah 32:35, ” . . .burnt children as sacrifices, something I never commanded and cannot imagine suggesting” (TLB).  I know Jeremiah was after the time of Abraham, but why did Abraham even think that God could have commanded him to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? Since we hear not only the Spirit of God speaking to us, but our own selfish voices, and the voice of Satan, too, trying to tempt us, how could Abraham have known that it was God who spoke to him and commanded him to make this pilgrimage, and not Satan? Or did Abraham have no concept of Satan?

Answer: The NIV reads, “though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.” I take it at face value. It did not ever enter God’s mind, nor did he ever command Judah to perform such sacrifices. In fact, the experience with Abraham only confirms that. Though it looked as though God was asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he prohibited him from doing that at the last moment showing that it was not sacrifice of Isaac God wanted but a willingness on Abraham’s part to put his hope, not in what his offspring could bring him, but what God alone could bring him. God was asking Abraham not to find his life in what the promise alone provided, but in who the Promiser was.

Sacrifice of children in the ancient world was intended to so “wow” the god who was being worshiped (because the sacrifice was so great) that he or she would respond and answer the request made by the worshiper. We fall into the same trap at times, thinking that if we sacrifice enough God will have to answer our prayer. But God is not moved by such demonstrations apart from obedience and faith. Anyone who approaches him in their own way, and not as he prescribes, should not expect to receive anything from him. God told Judah how to come to him, and they created instead their own ways modeled after the pagan people of the land. Isn’t that what we do, also?

As to Abaham knowing who was speaking to him, we know from the text of Genesis that Abraham was quite accustomed to hearing from God and knew his master’s voice. Abraham’s concept of Satan may not have been very developed but his firsthand experience with God was. The same One who told him he would have Isaac and made it come true, is the same One who told him to sacrifice Isaac as a test of Abraham’s faith.

Randall Johnson

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