By Reuben Archer Torrey
One of the most frequent objections is that the Bible says that God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering. It is claimed that this story justifies the horrible practice of human sacrifice. Some years ago when an insane man actually did kill his son as a sacrifice to God, infidels proclaimed far and wide that the Bible in its story of Abraham and Isaac warranted and was responsible for the action.
Not a few Christians have been bewildered and distressed by this story. How shall this apparent difficulty be removed? It can be easily met and removed in the same way most Bible difficulties may be met and removed, namely, by noticing exactly what the Bible says and all that it says.
Notice in the first place that the Bible nowhere says that God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac. It is constantly said by enemies of the Bible that God did command Abraham to slay Isaac, but this is not in reality what the Bible says. Exactly what the Bible says is that God commanded Abraham to "offer him for a burnt-offering" (Genesis 22:2). Literally translated, God commanded Abraham to "make him go up [that is, upon the altar] for a burnt-offering." Abraham was merely commanded to lay Isaac upon the altar as a whole offering to God. Whether when he was thus laid upon the altar and presented to God, God would require him to go further and slay his son, he did not know. All that God commanded was to make him go up onto the altar, ready to be slain and burned if God should so require. Did God so require? The record expressly declares that He did not. On the contrary, God plainly forbade the actual slaughter of Isaac (Genesis 22:11-12). That the original command was not to kill Isaac but merely to offer him up is as plain as day from the fact that we are explicitly told that Abraham did exactly what God told him to do. "Abraham offered up Isaac" is the Bible statement (Hebrews 11:17), but Abraham did not kill Isaac--that he was not told to do.
It is as clear as day, then, that the divine commandment to offer up was not a command to slay. The story as told in the Bible is not that God had first commanded Abraham to slay and burn Isaac and that afterward when He saw that Abraham was willing to do even this He took it back and provided a lamb to take Isaac's place. The Bible story is that God commanded Abraham to make his son Isaac to ascend the altar to be presented to God as a whole offering, and that Abraham actually did this which he was commanded to do. And this did not, either in God's original intention or in the execution of the command, involve the slaughter of Isaac.
This story, then, in no way justifies human sacrifice in the sense of the actual slaying of a human victim. On the contrary, the whole force of the narrative is against such sacrifice. Instead of being commanded it is explicitly forbidden. It does, however, justify the offering of ourselves to God wholly, as "a living sacrifice" (Romans 12:1). But this is not all that the story as it actually occurs in the Bible tells us. It goes on to tell us that so far from God commanding Abraham to slay his son, when Abraham was about to go beyond what was explicitly commanded (namely, the offering of his son), and slay his son (which was not commanded), God intervened and positively forbade it. Jehovah sent His own angel to speak in an audible voice from heaven forbidding the shedding of Isaac's blood: "Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him," called the angel of Jehovah out of heaven (Genesis 22:12).
This story, then, far from encouraging human sacrifice, positively and explicitly forbids it, and that in the most solemn manner. So all our difficulty with this narrative disappears when we look carefully with open eyes at the record and note precisely what is said.