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Abraham and Isaac: God Has a Right to Command You to Kill Your Child and Faith Demands You Do It

abraham sacrificing isaac

Years ago, Petrus Klopper, a writer for the Isaiah 53:5 Project and Solid Rock Apologetics, attempted to answer the question, How could God command Abraham to kill his son? I say “attempted,” because Klopper miserably failed at his task, just as every other Christian apologist has failed when attempting to do the same. According to Klopper, God had every right to ask Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Notice that I used the word “sacrifice,” not “kill,” as Klopper did in his title. God, in no uncertain terms, asked Abraham to put his only son Isaac on an altar and sacrifice him. Someone is sure to ask, “don’t the words sacrifice and kill mean the same thing”? Yes and no, and I will demonstrate Klopper’s sleight of hand in a moment by using the word sacrifice.

For those not schooled in the mystical stories of the Christian Bible, here’s the text, Genesis 22:1-13, that tells the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac:

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

According to seventeenth-century Baptist theologian John Gill, God commanded Abraham to:

… offer him (Isaac)  there for a burnt offering; this was dreadful work he was called to, and must be exceeding trying to him as a man, and much more as a parent, and a professor of the true religion, to commit such an action; for by this order he was to cut the throat of his son, then to rip him up, and cut up his quarters, and then to lay every piece in order upon the wood, and then burn all to ashes; and this he was to do as a religious action, with deliberation, seriousness, and devotion… (John Gill Commentary, E-Sword)

According to eighteenth-century Anglican cleric John Wesley, God wanted Abraham to not only kill his son, but also offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Wesley wrote:

…offer him (Isaac) for a burnt offering – He must not only kill his son, but kill him as a sacrifice, with all that sedateness and composedness of mind, with which he used to offer his burnt – offering. (John Wesley Commentary, E-Sword)

Eighteenth-century theologian Matthew Henry, chiming in agreement with Gill and Wesley wrote:

 …offer him (Isaac) for a burnt-offering. He must not only kill his son, but kill him as a sacrifice, kill him devoutly, kill him by rule, kill him with all that pomp and ceremony, with all that sedateness and composure of mind, with which he used to offer his burnt-offerings. (Matthew Henry Commentary, E-Sword)

Nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian Albert Barnes called Abraham’s potential sacrifice of Isaac a “human sacrifice.” Recognizing the moral issue raised by human sacrifice, Barnes writes:

The only solution of this, is what the ease itself actually presents; namely, the divine command. It is evident that the absolute Creator has by right entire control over his creatures. He is no doubt bound by his eternal rectitude to do no wrong to his moral creatures. But the creature in the present case has forfeited the life that was given, by sin. And, moreover, we cannot deny that the Almighty may, for a fit moral purpose, direct the sacrifice of a holy being, who should eventually receive a due recompense for such a degree of voluntary obedience. (Albert Barnes Commentary, E-Sword)

Based on the aforementioned references, we can conclude that God, as a test, commanded Abraham to take his only son Isaac to Mount Moriah, and kill him so he could be offered as a human burnt sacrifice to God.

Klopper makes clear in his post that there are three things God is NOT doing in this story:

  • God was not tempting Abraham
  • God was not instituting or condoning child sacrifice
  • God was not telling Abraham to do wrong

Christian apologists like Klopper will go to great lengths to justify God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. Klopper used the word kill in the post title because he doesn’t want readers to confuse what God is asking Abraham to do with human sacrifice. However, it is clear from the text that the human sacrifice of Isaac is EXACTLY what God is asking Abraham to do.

Is Isaac human? Yes. Does Abraham build an altar to be used for sacrifices? Yes? Did Abraham place Isaac on the altar, preparing to offer him as a human sacrifice to God? Yes. Does Abraham implicitly obey God’s command to sacrifice his son? Yes. Then, pray tell, how is what God commands Abraham to do NOT child sacrifice? Any fair and honest reading of the text shows that God clearly intended for Abraham to kill (murder) his son as a flesh and blood sacrifice.

Similar stories can be found in other tribal cultures, and Evangelicals are quick to label these stories as murderous and barbaric. Evidently, according to Evangelicals, there is some sort of difference between stories of human/child sacrifices to false deities, and the God/Abraham/Isaac story. Try as I might, I can’t find the difference.

Klopper, perhaps realizing that his this is not child sacrifice argument is intellectually vacuous and lame, goes on to say that God is not commanding Abraham to do wrong. Really? In what universe is child/human sacrifice not wrong? Every civilized society in the world condemns child/human sacrifice. Even atheists consider such murderous actions wrong. Yet, somehow, according to Klopper, God asking Abraham to slice, dice, and sauté his son is not, in any way, wrong.

Klopper makes one final argument which, according to his Fundamentalist-infused mind, should silence every critic. It is the one argument, next to faith, that Christians will turn to when no other argument will work: God is God and he has a right to do/command whatever he wants to. Klopper states his argument this way:

God has the right to take human life and could therefore authorize Abraham to do so in a particular case. Note that had Abraham decided of his own accord to sacrifice Isaac, he would have been wrong and his act would have been condemned by God (as were other human-initiated sacrifices).

According to Exodus 20, murder is a sin. Thou shalt not kill, right? But, according to Klopper, if God authorizes (commands) someone to commit murder (human sacrifice) then it is okay. Hmm, so then, Christians who have, in the past, said that God commanded them to kill their children or spouse, these murderous behaviors are okay, right? I’m sure that Klopper will object to my line of inquiry, but is this not exactly what he is saying? Or is he making a distinction between murderous stories in the Bible and those found on page one of the newspaper? Evidently, if a God-sanctioned murder is recorded by an unknown author in a so-called divine religious text, that makes the slaying moral. However, if a devout twenty-first-century Christian — a person we can see and talk to — says and does the same, it is not a God-approved murder. This makes “perfect” sense to me.

human sacrifice
Comic by Scott Maynard

Surely we can all agree that a God, ANY God, commanding someone to commit murder is wrong. It matters not whether it is Abraham or Victoria Soliz, a woman who tried to drown her 3-year-old son in a puddle because Jesus told her to do so. While Evangelicals will attempt to make a distinction between God speaking to Abraham and God speaking to someone like Soliz, there is no difference between the two. Both are hearing voices in their heads that are telling them to murder their child. And hearing voices in one’s head commanding immoral, unethical, or dangerous acts is always a sure sign of mental distress or illness. Despite knowing this, Klopper is determined to present Abraham as a great man of faith who was willing to do whatever God commanded him to do.

It is too bad that Klopper is boxed in by his belief that the Bible is an inspired, inerrant text. Such a belief requires Klopper to accept the Abraham/Isaac/human-sacrifice story as factual history. While Klopper does make numerous spiritual applications from the Genesis 22 text in his post, he is hamstrung by the requirement to accept the text as history. Jews, on the other hand, treat this text as an allegory or a metaphor. They understand, along with everyone else except Evangelicals, that no one in his or her right mind should accept Abraham sacrificing Isaac as literal truth.

And here’s the thing, IF Abraham had actually murdered Isaac, twenty-first-century Evangelical preachers would be preaching sermons about Abraham’s great faith and his willingness to explicitly obey God, even if it meant murdering his own son. Praise Jesus!! (And how is this any different from the Muslim who believes God is commanding him to kill in Allah’s name?)

Let me be clear, any deity who demands his followers to murder as a test of obedience is not a deity worthy of our worship.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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13 Comments

  1. Avatar
    GeoffT

    I’d forgotten the bit where Abraham is allowed to release Isaac then goes and grabs a poor ram that happened to be around. Sacrificing this innocent ram may appear to pale into insignificance against the sacrifice of a human boy, but it demonstrates the callous disregard for life that the writer clearly had. It also exposes the lie that the story is not about human sacrifice. It makes sense only in the context of a culture in which both human and animal sacrifice is the norm.

  2. Avatar
    BJW

    Yeah. I always had trouble with this story, so of course I tried not to think about it. But when I did, I said to myself, “Isn’t God telling a lie? He isn’t going to have Abraham really kill his son, is he?” But either God is lying about Abraham sacrificing Isaac, or God meant it and then allowed Abraham to stop and kill the ram instead. Either way, God does look like a pretty poor god.

  3. Avatar
    Merle

    It is interesting to read the words that Christians have traditionally used when describing this story. The act of murder they describe is outrageous.

    I have used this story many times in debates (e.g., https://www.christianforums.com/threads/my-abraham-challenge.7969749/ )

    I once heard my pastor joke that Isaac had emotional scars from the event! Darn right! In today’s psychology-crazed evangelical world, the event is just a potential psychological issue that may have required some therapy for the child. I heard nothing in that sermon about setting out to chop up the body in a ritual child sacrifice.

    Many people have told me Abraham didn’t actually kill Isaac, so no harm, no foul. But the problem is that he set out with the intention to kill Isaac, and that was wrong.

    I have sometimes asked people if they would set out to do what Abraham set out to do if they heard something like Abraham heard. The head of the elder board at my church, a man with a family, replied that he hoped that he would. I hope that he wouldn’t.

    This is a great article. I now link to this page at https://mindsetfree.blog/dare-to-question/is-the-bible-the-best-moral-guide/ .

  4. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Ah yes, another Sunday School story told to us kids to instill certain values during our indoctrination process. The main points of the story that I remember being told as a 3rd grader were as follows:

    1) one must ALWAYS be obedient to God because he is faithful to keep us on the right path. He demands utter obedience from us, and in return, he will keep us from doing bad things. Don’t question God because he knows best.

    2) always be obedient to your parents. They know more than you do, and God commands that you obey your parents (see Commandment # 5). If you do not obey your parents, you will suffer the consequences and Hod cannot protect you from your disobedience.

    3) you must offer yourself willingly as a sacrifice to God. Look at Isaac and at Jesus – they knew they were going to be killed for God’s glory, but they didn’t fight. They trusted God’s plan. You must do so too. Isaac was probably a grown man, or nearly so, he coukd have fought his father, but he was obedient to his father and to God, and see how things turned out?

    Great values for 9 year olds to learn so that their critical thinking skills are muted and they become good obedient pawns for the glory of God. “O-b-e-d-i-e-n-c-e obedience is the very best way to show that you believe.”

  5. Avatar
    clubschadenfreude

    “God has the right to take human life and could therefore authorize Abraham to do so in a particular case. Note that had Abraham decided of his own accord to sacrifice Isaac, he would have been wrong and his act would have been condemned by God (as were other human-initiated sacrifices).”

    the classic Christian morality of might equals right. These people are really quite the disgusting and evil cultists that one would find in any good thriller novel.

  6. Avatar
    Matilda

    We took 11 yrs to conceive our first child. Once she arrived, I secretly worried that the omnibenevolent god I trusted might ask me to sacrifice her in some way to prove my loyalty, just like Abraham. Maybe like Hannah, begging for her barren state to end then giving Samuel to the temple and only seeing him once a year. I secretly thought, god made families, children are born needing all the loving care and attention possible from parents so they grow up to be well-adjusted adults. A preacher told my church around then that persecution was coming, x-tian parents would be told unless they renounced jesus, their kids would be taken away, or killed. I decided my child came above all else, I’d deny jesus if I had to, on this one issue and ask his forgiveness at the pearly gates for this one omission made during a life in which I tried to be obedient to him in every other way.

  7. Avatar
    Troy

    I’ve always read the story as a backhanded way of condemning human sacrifice. Rather than just say “we don’t sacrifice people”, there is a story to explain it.

  8. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    As hard as i try to focus on the various views/aspects of this scenario, try to force the intellectual, so to speak, the more an image of a child’s wide, terrified eyes overcome me till I am blubbering and wiping at my own. How is it possible to harm oneself sufficiently to ever agree to even listen to such a concept as that presented in the first book of the Bible, the Genesis? What a wretched state of humanity is portrayed by concepts so ugly, so inherently sick. But is the HOLY book! The one and only! As I repeat again and again, Church Christianity is formal training in harm, first self-harm and then, quickly following, harm to others. Love your neigbour as yourself is hogwash and horseshit unless humans are primary and not secondary to flying pink elephants and holy books.

  9. Avatar
    Kadeph

    I’ve often imagined an alternative version of this story…
    Jehovah sends a weak angel down, little more than a voice, charging him with making Isaac marry Rebecca instead of the one he wanted (part of Jehovah’s human husbandry plan).
    Isaac refuses, telling the angel that he (the angel) can’t make him, he’s “just an invisible voice”.
    Angel: “…challenge accepted!”
    .
    .
    .
    “Abraham, this is Jehovah. Take now your son…”
    .
    .
    .
    “Last chance” whispers the angel into Isaac’s ear as Abraham raises his knife.
    “Ok, I’ll marry Rebecca!”
    “Abraham, stay thy hand…”

  10. Avatar
    Charles

    Sad thing is that the Anti-theistic atheists can’t understand or get is that the LORD had no intention of allowing Abraham to go through with killing Isaac.

    It foreshadowed the death of God the Son Jesus Christ who died for all sin.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Charles,

      And you know this how, exactly? Do you know the mind of God?

      Jesus died on the cross, right? For the Abraham-Isaac story to foreshadow Christ’s death, Isaac would have had to die. That didn’t happen. Besides, this is just your opinion. You have no evidence for your claim being true.

      I understand the Bible quite well. I am more than willing and able to engage you on this subject or any other subject, for that matter.

      I have no idea what an anti-theistic atheist is. Seems redundant. I am, for the record, an agnostic atheist. I am, however, anti-capitalism, anti-Trump, anti-diet pop, and anti-designated hitter. 🤣

      Thanks for commenting.

      Bruce

  11. Avatar
    Mary

    Always thought this was the sickest thing i’d heard when i was a kid being forced thru the church experience. The adults tried to justify the story constantly. Between the pentecostal nutty stuff and this story, it may have been the start of my questioning the usefulness of the entire religious establishment.

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Bruce Gerencser