Does God Condone Human Sacrifices?

Posted September 23, 2014 by Sean McDowell

“Abraham!” God called. “Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.” “Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the Land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you” (Genesis 22:1-2).

Difficulty: Does God condone human sacrifices?

Explanation: At the time of this event, Abraham’s pagan neighbors sacrificed their children to their gods. On the surface it appears that God used his authority over Abraham and commanded him to do something that violated God’s own standard of morality. How do you explain this apparent contradiction?

First, it is clear in other passages of Scripture that God is opposed to human sacrifices. “Do not permit any of your children to be offered as a sacrifice to Molech, for you must not bring shame on the name of your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:21). Repeatedly he made it clear human sacrifices were forbidden (see Leviticus 20:23 and Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10). It is actually clear from the text that God’s point is that he does not want child sacrifice. This is why the passage begins by saying that “God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1).

So why would God command Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? In verse 1 of Genesis 22 it says “God tested Abraham’s faith.” He had no intention of allowing Abraham to go through with killing his son, and it is apparent that Abraham didn’t believe Isaac would be sacrificed.

It took Abraham, his son, and two servants three days to travel to Moriah where he was to offer the sacrifice. When they were almost there, “Abraham told the servants, ‘The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back’ ” (Genesis 22:5). Abraham didn’t say, “We will worship and I will come right back.” He included his son in the return trip and said, “We will come right back.” Abraham obviously believed God would somehow intervene. And if he didn’t intervene, Abraham believed he could raise Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:19).

This is further reinforced when Isaac asked about the sheep that was supposed to be sacrificed, which they did not have. “ ‘God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son,’ Abraham answered” (Genesis 22:8). And God did. When Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, God stopped him and instead provided a “ram caught by its horns in a thicket” (Genesis 22:13). God didn’t condone human sacrifices, yet he wanted Abraham to demonstrate that he would live out the commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

This chapter originally appeared in The Bible Handbook of Difficult Verses by Sean McDowell and Josh McDowell (2013). Used by permission from Harvest House Publishers.