Imagine being told that you have no choice but to murder your own son. How would you deal with that situation? Disbelief? Bargaining? Rebellion? There are many ways that we could choose to try and come to terms with that sort of task, but imagine being Abraham. He is literally commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as an offering. What is the point of this moral conundrum? Has Abraham lost his mind?
These are all perfectly natural questions to ask when reading through this narrative, but I don’t believe that this is the correct way to look at the story. As people, we tend to instantly put ourselves in the position of the person we perceive to be the main character of the story. As parents, we quickly identify with Abraham. As children, perhaps we identify with Isaac. In either case, we immediately want our character to question the authority. We look at Abraham and wonder why he didn’t push back against God, and perhaps he did but it simply isn’t in the story. We want, Isaac to resist his father, and perhaps he did but it isn’t in the story. Without these details available, we might try to justify and rationalize the way that Abraham addresses the situation. Speaking of his devotion to God, his unquestionable loyalty and faith in order to even attempt to carry out such an act. Well, this may be true, Abraham was faithful, without a doubt, but I am not sure that he saw the situation the same way that we do when reading through Genesis. He understood that God is the main character.
The book of Genesis, and this narrative in particular, is about God rather than man. It is about separating the God of creation, the God of Abraham, from any other notions of divinity out there. In Canaanite culture, it was common for a child to be sacrificed to Moloch (also Molech) in hopes of increasing fertility. The child would be boiled alive in a statue of Moloch, who had the body of a man and the head of a bull. The Philistines, where Abraham is residing during this particular narrative in Genesis, would sacrifice their children to Dagon in exchange for fertile crops. And so, Abraham, as well as any contemporary reader of the book of Genesis, would not have been as nearly put off by the idea of child sacrifice as we are today. This is most likely why Abraham did not attempt to barter with God to save the life of his child, or at the very least, this may be why such actions were not recorded in Genesis. What would have surprised the contemporary reader of Genesis, someone who had witnessed child sacrifice and was very familiar to the practice, is the part where God stops Abraham from going through with it.
This portion of the story completely differentiates the God of Abraham from any known contemporary idea of divinity. Not only does God not require child sacrifice, but He intervened to save the child’s life. All that this God asks for is faith, devotion, and love, a far cry from any contemporary form of worship. Put yourself in the shoes of a Canaanite woman who may be pregnant with her very first child, and imagine reading this story. Imagine what thoughts you may have given that your culture is going to ask you to sacrifice the very child you are carrying. This would have been a very powerful story in a culture where child sacrifice is considered normal.
While we shouldn’t disregard the strength of Abraham’s faith, I don’t feel that it played such an important role in this story as modern readers would prefer. Given the culture at the time, the request of Abraham to sacrifice his child was most likely expected, and any questions that Abraham may have had for God about His promises for his child would have been settled in faith. However, this story does more to differentiate God from Pagan deities than anything else, and I think we would do well to remember that.