There is so much in this chapter. To start with, Abraham loved his son Isaac dearly, just as he also loved Ishmael. This trial of offering up Isaac goes to the centre of our faith in many ways, that of trusting God. It’s true that we must die, or what we most cherish must die, for our faith to be exposed and living. It’s as Jesus said, “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it remains alone, but if it dies it will bear much fruit.” It’s the same with our own lives – unless we are willing to trust God at the loss of all things, even our own reputation and life, we cannot know his love and power: the one who is the source and giver of life. Like Job said, “Though he slays me, yet I will trust in him.” Here Abraham walks out this trust in real time, on record that he believed God, in the open, before the accusing powers of satan.
Some say this incident played out a covenant agreement with God. Just as Abraham freely offered up his son, God would likewise do the same for his covenant partner Abraham and offer up his son to save the world. This Genesis narrative reflects the pagan terms of the day, which people understood. The concepts of sacrifice, even human sacrifice, were very common then. But these were human terms, not God’s own terms. In God’s practice the situation is very different. God doesn’t demand his son die, or even offer him up himself, but God knows that coming in his son to be delivered into the hands of human wrath will free our hearts and relationships from sin and death. So, God takes this step in the incarnation, coming to us in the flesh, to die in our sin and expose our sin to the world, so its power over us may be broken.
But I think one of the biggest lessons of this chapter is that it is where God puts an end to sacrifice. Through this trial God shows Abraham (and the nation Israel that would follow) that God doesn’t want sacrifice, which is a pagan custom and not godly. This is a main purpose of the event and narrative. It is to teach Abraham not to follow the customs of the pagans, which were rife in Canaan where Abraham lived. It’s to furnish Israel with a true story, a narrative of transformation for the nations, in which child sacrifice was common but was rejected by God and was bought to an end in Abraham’s walk with God. From now on Abraham’s seed would be a glaring testimony in the region and to the whole world against pagan child sacrifice, and later through their Prophets, the whole concept of sacrifice in general would be challenged and brought down.
Lessons about sacrifice were very hard for humanity to learn. The whole concept stems from the idea that the law must be satiated, that there must be some payment for wrong that brings about peace. The task of the ancient priests was to officiate at this ritual, where some other animal or other person, even children, would be offered to re-establish the legal/ spiritual/ social equilibrium in the community. The priest officiated at the offering of others, known today as scapegoating. It’s a practice to sustain the establishment, as the establishment in Jerusalem used the killing of Christ to sustain their own interests and perpetuity.
This whole concept of sacrifice is exposed and overthrown in Christ. At the cross it was shown that this sacrificial system was a system of violence, that perpetuated a spiral of recrimination and hostility against others, which was highlighted in their finger-pointing against the innocent son of God. This kind of pagan sacrifice goes to the heart of all human society, even those societies today that claim to be unreligious. This is human nature, the nature that pagan religious practice ritualises. Today it is ritualized in courts and legal contracts and media assassinations, but it’s no less religious: no less pagan. The religious belief is that sacrificing others will improve our lives. The religion of self.
In an alternative priesthood, Christ shows that the offering of ourselves (rather than the offering of others) brings peace. Now, as followers of Christ, we exist in this new priesthood of service, and this is New Testament “sacrifice:” self-giving for the healing of community. Old Testament priests offered others for peace. New Testament priests offer themselves for peace. This is the turning point and heritage that Christ brings to our fallen world, in moving us to new creation. Christ puts an end to the offering of others. He refuses that game and instead lays down his own life, to free us from our blind religion of self-service, to show us the true God. This is all played out in Abraham’s experience, though not fully understood until partially explained by the Prophets and finally revealed in the gospel of Christ.
“First, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” — though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he (Christ) said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will (God’s will of self-giving rather than shedding the blood of others.)” He sets aside the first (priesthood) to establish the second. And by that will (new priesthood), we have been made holy (cleansed from the pagan religion of self) through the sacrifice (self-giving) of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (which opened our hearts and turned us to truth and reconciliation.)” (Hebrews 10:8-10)