It's one of those questions that must cross the mind of everyone who seeks God. As we read Genesis chapter 22, that question was obviously pivotal for Abraham - the Father of Nations - too!
LAUGHTER - This story of Abraham and his longed for son "Isaac" (Hb - laughter) takes a turn that is unexpected and definitely not a laughing matter. It's a story about acting in a harsh and fatal way in response to doubt.
DOUBT - It begins with a doubt as to how God was going to fulfill his promise. Did God mean that 90 year old Sarah would bear 100 year old Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky and sands of the desert? Really! How absurd sounding that is! So for the rational minded like Sarah and Abraham perhaps their inability to have children is a sign that God needs then to intervene and help God in the fulfillment of His promise. So, Hagar was given by Sarah to Abraham and they had a son named Ishmael. However, innovative (and unfortunately disastrous this all around bad idea was) this is not what God had in mind. God is indeed almighty and capable of all things is He not?
AN ANNUNCIATION - God speaks to Sarah and Abraham through travelers who are passing not far from their tent on a hot and monotonous day. The overwhelming hospitality of Abraham and Sarah to these guests is rewarded as the travelers proclaim that Sarah will bear a son. It's unbelievable and Sarah and Abraham both laugh at the prospect, but that's exactly what happens. Sarah has a son and she and Abraham name him Isaac, which in Hebrew means "laughter" lest they forget their moments of doubt. So it was indeed what God said would happen. We often need to be reminded in our very scientific and logical world that impossible and incredible things are still happening today and God is their source.
THE QUESTION - So what is God thinking by commanding Abraham to sacrifice his only son - the son of the Promise - Isaac? I'm sure Abraham was not laughing now! However shocking this question is, it's not the real question. The real question is what does God want me to do to show Him how much I love him? That's the question? How much do we love God. And this would be exactly the question which Abraham must have asked himself as he moved into the promised land of Canaan and was surrounded by people who worshipped the god, Molech - who required believers to sacrifice their first born children to him or else!!!! Evidence of such sacrifices are found throughout the Bible - Lv 18:21; Lv 20:1-7; Ez 36:13; Ez 23: 37-39; Ez 16:20-22; Jr 32: 35; Jr 7: 31; Jr 19:5; Is 57: 5; Micah 6:7; Wis 14: 22; Ws 12: 1-7; Dt 12:31; 2 Kgs 16:3; 2Kgs 21: 6; 2Kgs 23:10. There's even reference made in the New Testament - Acts 7:19. As numerous the references are it demonstrates that the sacrifice of first born children was not just something that pagans did, but it was something practiced by the people of Israel too! Remember, the question is what does God want me to do to show Him that I love him? From the heinous and wicked practice of child sacrifice among pagans and the people of Israel comes the name of a place outside of Jerusalem where such abominable sacrifices were performed. We know the place as Gehenna - the Valley of Hinnom - which after generations of being a place of child and human sacrifice becomes a garbage dump just outside the walls of Jerusalem.
To what length? There is no doubt in my mind that the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son of the Promise to God is written to condemn the practice of immolation of children or sacrificing the first born. I can also see it as a real temptation for Abraham. As he looked around and saw the length to which pagan worshippers of false and angry gods would go - he must have been shocked and yet impressed. Do I love my God that much that I would sacrifice my only son and the fulfillment of the promise? Do I have that much trust in my God as they seem to have in their false gods? Abraham answers "Yes." If it is what God wants Abraham to do to show God his faithfulness and love, then Abraham will do it. So here comes the important point! God does not want this sacrifice. The word for angel in this section of chapter 22 makes it clear that God Himself stops such an unspeakably heinous sacrifice. God does not want us to do this! Do not miss the point that Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son and promise if that is the Will of God. Thank goodness God tells us this is not nor never is such a thing His Will.
What a relief! Hopefully this is a relief for us all as we reflect on this story of Abraham. For all those times that we almost were convinced that killing is the answer and God would approve it under this or that circumstance the story gives us reason to rejoice. God does not want us to kill, sacrifice our sons/first born - even if everyone else does it, this is not how we are to ever show our faithfulness and love for God. As we sigh with gratitude we look around in our own world and see very religious people and groups within every major religion who believe that killing, murder, and death are indeed demanded and expected by the god they worship. This is not only their perception of what God demands, but they often go out and act on this perception with horrible and even catastrophic consequences. God says no to killing! Not under any circumstance! Are we listening to Him! What a relief to know that there are ways of being faithful to God that even He does not approve or condone! Not just killing but discrimination, persecution, hatred, anger, and torture all in the name of God are condemned.
So what about Jesus? This, of course, is the next question. So if God told Abraham not to sacrifice his son and the promise, what about our belief that God gave his only son, Jesus, to be sacrificed for an end of sin and death? Like Abraham, God was willing to give His only son if it meant an end of sin and death for his sons and daughters who he created out of love. Unfortunately, God's willingness is separate from the demand of Roman and Jewish Officials that Jesus be tortured and crucified upon the cross. Our God who was willing to make this ultimate sacrifice to demonstrate His infinite love for us would have been more than happy for the Romans, Jewish Leaders, and/or crowds to cry "Stop" instead of "Crucify Him!" and not go through with it. I guess there's the difference, those whose very lives and religious practices incorporated killing had no sense that what was happening to Jesus needed to stop and so it didn't. But God, would not be undone or defeated! God would show His awesome power not by death and carnage but by raising Jesus, His son, from death to life. This event that would change the world continues to call us to be people of life. We should not give in to the worlds' cry for death.
NO DOUBT ABOUT IT - So, back to the question. What are we to do to show our love for God? Clearly, we know from this story in scripture what we are not to do and what displeases God. So when we witness the use of fear, hatred, anger, threats, death, and murder in obedience to God we can rest assured that this is never what God wants and there's no doubt about it!