Archaeologists in Peru recently discovered a terrible instance of child sacrifice: 140 children killed at once—their ribcages still bearing the trauma of the brutal removal of their hearts. It’s a horror that reminds us that religions are not all the same, not always benign—and that there is no limit to human depravity.
But, before we’re too quick to claim the moral high-ground, there’s an awkward incident in the Old Testament that’s sometimes cited as evidence that biblical faith is no different: God’s command to Abraham that he should sacrifice his son:
[God] said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you”
What is this doing in the Bible? Does it prove that Jewish and Christian religion is just as bad as the rest? Is it sign of some more primitive stage of undeveloped religion? Here are four observations that might help us to understand what’s going on:
1. The Sacrifice Doesn’t Actually Happen
One point that’s often overlooked by those hoping to score points against the Bible is that this is a human sacrifice that doesn’t happen. God intervenes. This is key. Abraham was raised in a culture where such sacrifices were normal; where human life was a disposable commodity that could be used to gain spiritual blessing for those in power. Archaeologists have learned that it was standard practise in Sumerian Ur for the servants of important people to be murdered (sometimes in grisly ways) and buried with their masters.
But, by commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son and then stopping the proceedings, God creates a dramatic break. He doesn’t just stop the sacrifice, he stops a religious expectation. He shows that he isn’t like the other gods who want costly and barbaric bribes in exchange for their blessings. Abraham’s God is a giver. As the patriarch prophetically puts it “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” (v 8).
By commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son and then stopping the proceeding, God creates a dramatic break. He doesn’t just stop the sacrifice, he stops a religious expectation. He shows that he isn’t like the other gods.
The point here is that the call to sacrifice Isaac is a moment in God’s progressive revelation of himself. It comes as a contrast to pagan culture and makes a point that does not need to be repeated. God won’t ask us to sacrifice our children. He has made himself clear on this.
2. The Bible Never Condones Sacrificing Innocents
If there were any doubt about this, there are many passages in the Bible that denounce child sacrifice (Lev 18:21; 20:2-5; Dt 12:31 18:10; 2 Kings 3:27; 16:3; 17:17, 31; 21:6; 23:10; 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6; Ps 106:35-38; Hos 13:2; Isa 57:5; Jer 7:31; 19:4-5; 32:35; Eze 16:20-21,36-37; 20:26, 31; 23:37, 39). When the Old Testament talks about child sacrifice, it consistently depicts it as a sign of extreme depravity—for example, one of the evils that provoked God to shatter the nation and send its people’s into exile:
And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.
(2 Kings 17:17-18)
Of course, these passages come after Abraham, but we shouldn’t imagine that God’s attitude was different in Genesis. The sanction against unjust killing goes right back to Noah: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Gen 9:6).
3. God Wants Living Sacrifices
As I said above, God would never ask us to do what he asked Abraham to do. But the events of Genesis 22 still have great relevance for us because God still demands that we trust and obey him. God still tests his people to prove whether their faith is genuine (1Pet 1:6-7). He still insists that we put him first and love him more than family, money, comfort or life itself. When we read accounts of the persecuted church (whether ancient or modern) we are quickly reminded that Christians can be subjected to trials that are every bit as distressing as Abraham’s.
And every test forces us to ask the same questions that Abraham had to answer. Can I trust this God? Do I believe that he’s good enough and powerful enough to keep his promises to make this work out for my good?
We know Abraham’s answer and what God did with it:
“… because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
But God makes more wonderful promises to Christians. He says that our sufferings will lead to maturity and joy (Rom 5:3-5); he assures us that we will be looked after in this life and the next (Mark 10:28-30); he insists that even our hardships are signs of his fatherly love (Heb 12:4-11).
[If God] did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8:32-34, 38-39)
4. The New Testament Gives us a Clearer Picture
Abraham had seen enough to believe that God could be trusted. He’d seen God give children to geriatrics, restrain kings, defeat armies, make and keep promises, predict the future, listen-in on secrets and judge cities. Although he didn’t know how, he knew God would find a way to deliver Isaac (according to the writer of Hebrews Abraham was hoping God would fulfill his promise by raising him to life; see Hebrews 11:17-19).
But Christians can have a much clearer picture of God. We know how his plan to save us works: it involves the (self)  sacrifice of his own Son for our sins. It involves a resurrection that will end death forever. It involves God providing for himself the last and only real sacrifice ever made.
Christians have a much clearer picture of God. We know how his plan to save us works: it involves the (self) sacrifice of his own Son for our sins; it involves a resurrection that will end death forever. It involves God providing for himself the last and only real sacrifice ever made.
The relationship between the Old Testament is one of shadow and reality, sign and fulfilment (e.g. 1Cor 10:11; Heb 10:1-10). This means that we can’t look at the sacrifice of Isaac (or any other part of the Old Testament) in isolation. If we really want to know what the incident means—and what God is like—we need to read the Bible in the light of Christ.
I am grateful to David Graieg for his help with, and contributions to, this post.
 The one passage which might be mistaken as an exception here—Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter in Judges 11—isn’t. The foolish vow that gave rise to the act is never commanded by God or endorsed in the Bible. Like so many other things in the book of Judges, Jephthah’s actions point to the general decline of Israel. Even her deliverers are fools. Israel needs a king (see Judges 17:6; 19:1; 21:25).
 See John 10:18. Note that Jesus’ sacrifice isn’t God demanding an innocent third party foot the bill for human benefit (the logic behind pagan human sacrifice). Jesus is God as well as man so he is both the one demanding the sacrifice and the one offering it. He is both victim and the priest of his own sacrifice (Heb 9:12). There is, in other words, no room for the oft-repeated nonsense about the atoning death of Christ being “divine child-abuse” inflicted on an unwilling Son by the God the Father.