Question: "Why did God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?"
Answer: Abraham had obeyed God many times in his walk with Him, but no test could have been more severe than the one in Genesis 22. God commanded, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22:2).
This was an astounding command because Isaac was the son of promise. God had promised several times that from Abraham’s own body would come a nation as multitudinous as the stars in heaven (Genesis 12:2–3; 15:4–5). Later, Abraham was specifically told that the promise would be through Isaac (Genesis 21:12).
Given that God’s testing of Abraham involved a command to do something He elsewhere forbids (see Jeremiah 7:31), we must ask, “Why did God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?” The Bible does not specifically address the answer to this question, but in our study of Scripture we can compile a few reasons:
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was to test Abraham’s faith. God’s tests prove and purify our faith. They cause us to seek Him and trust Him more. God’s test of Abraham allowed His child—and all the world—to see the reality of faith in action. Faith is more than an inner spiritual attitude; faith works (see James 2:18).
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was to validate Abraham as the “father” of all who have faith in God. “Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:9). And we today “who have the faith of Abraham” also find that “he is the father of us all” (verse 16). Without Abraham’s response to the command to sacrifice Isaac, we would have difficulty knowing all that faith entails. God uses Abraham’s faith as an example of the type of faith required for salvation.
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was to provide an example of absolute obedience. After God gave the command, “early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey” and headed out with his son and the wood for a burnt offering (Genesis 22:3). There was no delay, no questioning, no arguing. Just simple obedience, which brought a blessing (verses 15–18).
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was to reveal God as Jehovah-Jireh. On the way up the mountain to the place of sacrifice, Isaac inquired as to the animal to be sacrificed, and his father said, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). After God’s provision of a ram to take Isaac’s place on the altar, “Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide” (verse 14). Thus we have another character-revealing name of God: Yahweh-Yireh.
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was to foreshadow God’s sacrifice of His own Son. The story of Abraham prefigures the New Testament teaching of the atonement, the sacrificial offering of the Lord Jesus on the cross for the sin of mankind. Here are some of the parallels between the sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrifice of Christ:
• “Take your son, your only son, whom you love” (Genesis 22:2); “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).
• “Go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there” (Genesis 22:2); it is believed that this same area is where the city of Jerusalem was built many years later. Jesus was crucified in the same area that Isaac had been laid on the altar.
• “Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2); “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
• “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac” (Genesis 22:6); Jesus, “carrying his own cross,” walked to Calvary (John 19:17).
• “But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7); John said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
• “God himself will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:8); Jesus is likened to a spotless lamb in 1 Peter 1:18–19 and a slain lamb in Revelation 5:6.
• Isaac, who was likely a young man at the time of his sacrifice, acted in obedience to his father (Genesis 22:9); before His sacrifice, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
• Isaac was resurrected figuratively, and Jesus in reality: “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Hebrews 11:19); Jesus “was buried, and . . . was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4).
Many centuries after God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). This is a reference to Abraham’s joy in seeing the ram caught in the thicket in Genesis 22. That ram was the substitute that would save Isaac’s life. Seeing that ram was, in essence, seeing the day of Christ, the Substitute for all of us.