I’m going to file this under infrequently-asked questions, but good ones. I was recently asked, “How is Abraham’s attempting to sacrifice Isaac praiseworthy? How is it any kind of moral example, and what does the command say about God?”
My short answer: It’s not a moral example. It’s in there to shatter Abraham’s preconceptions.
Remember Abraham was a Semite. Semitic gods (or their priesthoods) tended to demand that you sacrifice your animals, your virginity, and sometimes your children. In the books of Judges, Kings and Chronicles, we learn that the worship of YHWH was just one of the religions practiced in ancient Israel; the Jews on the whole didn’t really grasp the concept of monotheism till their return from exile in Babylon. One of YHWH’s longest-lasting competitor religions worshiped a deity called Moloch, whose priests sacrificed worshipers’ children (see the Jewish Encyclopedia on Moloch).
With dangerous deities like these, the possibility of having to sacrifice your child on demand was always there. When Abraham heard this command from his new God, no doubt he was mortified; but I doubt he was nearly as shocked as we modern readers are. That’s what Abraham’s culture expected gods to demand. Abraham’s only ray of hope was that after he sacrificed his own son, God would raise him from the dead – because He had promised Abraham offspring through this son.
But as the story unfolds, God interrupts the sacrifice and provides a ram to substitute for the child. Lesson for Abraham: This God is different – he does not want the sacrifice of your children; you offer sacrifices in their place.
The lesson later generations of Israel are meant to learn from Abraham and Isaac is not simply “Be as obedient as Abraham.” Rather, it is “God will never demand your children in sacrifice. Instead, the thing you offer stands for you and your family.” The same theme is repeated in Exodus 13: fathers are commended to dedicate every firstborn to God, of man or animal. But for a firstborn child, you redeem them with an animal sacrifice.
Redemption was one of the first foundation stones in the new faith of Abraham’s descendants. The sacramental understanding that you eat a sacrificial meal together in fellowship with the God it’s offered to, couldn’t arise as long as Abraham’s descendants thought their God was a threat to their children, just as a healthy trust in our own father can’t happen when he’s an abuser. So at the very beginning, God rules out that fear forever.
By impressing on Abraham that sacrifices are offered instead of people, He sets the stage for the later ideas of substitution, scapegoats, and personal redemption (cf Lev.25:25 and the whole book of Ruth.) Those are all important concepts that will later foreshadow Christ.
In a way, the lesson to Abraham relates to how the West talks about hell today. In modern evangelicalism, sometimes God is a threat: He’s planning to hurt you forever in hell, unless you get your doctrines and regulations straight, and mean it when you pray. Jesus goes to the cross, so God can hurt him instead of you, and you can go be with God forever. To my mind, that puts us back where Abraham started, trying to please a divine abuser.
The Passion of Christ does fulfill the Old Testament types of the scapegoat that carries away sins and the paschal lamb that turns away wrath; but the universal Christian sacrament of the Eucharist ought to teach us to identify Christ’s suffering and resurrection in our own sacrificial meal, the present life-giving and deified body of Christ. Rather than harking back to demonic beliefs about mythical deities who wanted sons to die, we ought to be fixing our eyes on the Lord who came to personally assume our nature, enter into our death, lead us to life, and sit down with us at the sacramental Wedding Supper of the Lamb.