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. The worship of YHWH was just one of the religions competing for mind share 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 god called Moloch, whose priests sacrificed worshipers’ children. (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, I’m sure he was mortified, but I doubt he was nearly as shocked as modern readers are. That’s how gods acted in his culture.
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 Church has always maintained, as King David writes in the Psalms, that there is no place separate from God: “If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, there You are…” Heaven and hell, delight and torment, are the soul’s response to the living God who fills all creation.