Ella's Dad at Ragged Edges posted a very challenging set of questions in this week's Christian Carnival, which I wanted to try to answer.
I think Joel at Chez Joel is on the right track, suggesting that God knew beforehand how Abraham would respond and how God would provide the real sacrifice, and that this experience had more to do with showing Abraham something about himself, that he was prepared to be obedient to God even unto an ultimate sacrifice.
But I think there is something more to it as well.
It is easy to forget that God knows the whole sweeping scope of life on this Earth. He knows how He created everything, He knows every twist and turn, He knows how and when it all ends.
But for us, we read in His word the stories of Genesis, and no matter how these stories are intended for us to learn, they all chronologically occur before God has reached out to Moses and called Him to serve and lead His people. The Ten Commandments at this time exist in God's intent, but they haven't been communicated by God to man. Abraham lives in a time when humans worship many gods, and the One True God has quite astonishingly befriended him.
Abraham uses ritual sacrifice as a means of atoning for sin or placating his God. His neighbors no doubt did the same. Other peoples, near and afar off, do the same, but to other gods. Some even sacrificed children.
It is difficult from a time of revealed Salvation to fully understand the fears and superstitions and jumble of observances that must have been the ancient world. Today, we see what Abraham was about to do to his son Isaac as a crime, we struggle with how a Just and Perfect God could call upon Abraham to do what we would know as evil, if he followed through and God had not stopped him in time.
Abraham was fully obedient to God, and trusted that whatever God would tell him to do would be right. He didn't question or second guess as the story is told. He knew Isaac to be a gift from God, supernaturally given to Abraham and Sarah beyond all expectation, and that God had promised Abraham that he would be the Father to many nations. God knew that he would be this obedient, and as it turned out, Abraham's faith in God was well placed, and God provided the sacrifice in place of Isaac.
In the Old Testament, there are many ways in which God and His Holy Spirit (not to mention His angels) work that are profoundly different from the ways we experience the world (and word) today. Life was more brutal, God allowed and even ordered the children of Israel to completely annihilate certain tribes and people groups, to scatter and enslave in some cases, and to occupy the lands of others.
In our way of thinking, and in today's context, these would seem like evil instructions, and if God told people to do such things today, it would indeed seem that God Himself was directing His people to do evil in His Name.
But God knew things that these primitive people did not, and these Chosen People, His tribes of Israel and Judah, might easily have been wiped off the face of the earth absent His providence. He must have brought them through these times of brutality because that was the way it could be done, and there were things the children of Israel needed to learn: about themselves, about their neighbors, about God himself.
And there are things that His followers today learn from this story.
God wants our full attention, our full commitment, our complete sacrifice of self, to "die to self" in fact so that he might be glorified. He wants us to obey even when it doesn't make sense to us, even when it doesn't seem like the right thing to do.
And one final point. Genesis describes Abram becoming Abraham at the moment that God chose to call Abraham His friend. Abraham spoke to God as a friend as well.
I remember someone once remarked (or I might have read this in a study), that God wanted to share something of the great work that God was going to do with His Son Jesus. God wanted His friend Abraham to experience what God Himself would experience by giving His one and only begotten Son to be taken in sacrifice for fallen man. This allowed Abraham to experience God on a very personal level, and God was able to see in Abraham the love and conviction of Abraham in that he too was willing to sacrifice Isaac, if that's what God needed to call him to do.
That's my $.02, and thanks Ella's Dad, for a great post.