Journaling, Spiritual Growth

Why the Story of Abraham & Issac Isn’t a Barbaric Tale: It’s the Story of Mercy & Freedom

I still remember my mom reading me The Tale of Three Trees. It’s a children’s story about three trees who all had very different dreams. One wanted to hold treasure, the other dreamed of sailing with kings, and the last wanted to be the tallest tree in the forest.

As the story continued, I remember leaning in as my mom read, all of their dreams seemed to be shattered. The first tree was turned into a feed box. The second, a little fishing boat. And the third, was just slabs of lumber. 

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Turns out all of their dreams did come true, just not in the way they pictured. The first tree did indeed hold treasure, the greatest treasure of all as Mary laid baby Jesus down in the manger. The second tree realized a king was indeed on her grand ship when he silenced the storm and calmed the waves. And the third, initially felt ugly and cruel as a man was nailed to her, but later realized that whenever people would think of her, they would think of the love of God. 

I thought of this child folklore as I read the story of Abraham and Issac. Like the third tree, many who read this think of it harsh and cruel, even barbaric. Out of context, the world tries to spin the story of a hateful God. How dare he ask Abraham to slaughter his own son? Doesn’t that go against everything else in the Bible? 

This story can be hard to reconcile, even among Christians. Scholars have debated and tried to explain it for centuries. As I read it again, yes, it is hard to reconcile if you read it as a stand alone story. If you read this one story without the context of seeing the Bible as one big story about God, then yes, God can be twisted into a barbaric and unloving man in the sky. 

But the Bible was made to be read as a whole. Each one of the sixty-six books are equally as important pointing mankind to one large story – the story of salvation. 

Jen Wilkin explains this backwards view of reading the Bible: 

I believed that the Bible was a book about me…We ask (the Bible) to tell us about ourselves, and all the while it is telling us about I AM. We think that if it would just tell us who we are and what we should do, then our insecurities, fears and doubts would vanish. But our insecurities, fears, and doubts can never be banished by the knowledge of who we are. They can only be banished by the knowledge of I AM. We must read and study the Bible with our ears trained on hearing God’s declaration of himself.

Jen Wiklin, Women of the Word

I am guilty of this. Too often I read the Bible with the lens of showing me how to live or to remind me that I am loved. While this is true, if this is the first and only lens I use when I read the Bible, I make the Bible about myself. But the Bible is God’s story. Each and every page points to him. And each story – tells the same overarching story.

With this in mind, I read Genesis 22 again.

We can learn a lot from Abraham in this passage. We see Abraham’s obedience: how he rose early and traveled three days, three days perhaps full of wrestling spiritually with God but resolving to obey.

We see Abraham’s faith, trusting God to keep his promise: he tells the servants that they would return, implying that both of them would return from the mountain. Romans tells us that he was fully convinced God would do what he promised. Hebrews tells us that he had faith that God could even raise Issac from the dead (before any such miracle had occurred). 

The Story of Jesus

Yes, we can learn a lot from Abraham’s example. However, this story isn’t just a story about Abraham’s faith – it’s a story about God. 

And this story is not about a vengeful God asking Abraham to commit a barbarous act of human sacrifice. It’s a story about God pointing to Himself one day being slaughtered in a barbarous act of human sacrifice. For us.

I think about Christ watching the scene unfold in front of him. Abraham taking the wood and laying it on Issac to carry up the mountain. How he would one day do the same for his beloved people. Carry the crude yet beautiful wood up the mountain himself. I wonder if he felt God’s hand on his shoulder as they heard Issac question Abraham “My Father, where is the lamb?” knowing that he would one day too cry out “Abba, why have you forsaken me?” I wonder if God shared a tender look with Jesus as they watched Abraham and Issac both walking together up the mountain. Some two-thousand years later, God too, would walk beside Jesus as he dripped with sweat and sorrow, smearing his holy blood in the dirt as he walked up the same mountain to be our sacrifice.

I wonder if Christ caught his breath as Abraham reaches out his knife-filled hand, knowing that he would one day stretch out his own hands. This was the plan from the beginning of time. As he spoke the trees into existence, he knew he would one day be hanging from one.

He tells Abraham to stop. God saves Issac. But no one tells God to stop – he stretches out his own hands and then the knife of sin falls. He is the sacrificer, he is the sacrifice. And God saves mankind.

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain. – Revelation 5:12

Issac’s question was answered that day. While a ram took Issac’s place, Jesus is the lamb who took all of our place. While the story seems harsh, it is only a glimpse of the harsh reality of our sin. That God would allow his own son to be murdered in our place – that is the beauty of the Gospel.

Christ was sacrificed in our stead, as this ram instead of Isaac, and his death was our discharge. “Here am I (said he,) let these go their way.’’ 

Matthew Henry

That is the reckless, wild love of God.

The Story of Freedom

God directs Abraham to a very specific mountain for the sacrifice to take place – Mount Moriah. Remember, the Bible tells one big story. Mount Moriah is also where Solomon’s Temple was built – it was a permanent Temple for God to abide rather than the moving Tabernacle during that time period. It is near the same mount that God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, where he does sacrifice his only son.

The Mount of the Lord is also mentioned in Isaiah.

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.

Isaiah 2:3

Teach in Hebrew means to send out the hand, to show with his fingers. Goosebumps pricked my arms as the Holy Spirit caused deeper understanding. He teaches us his ways, the way to the Tree of Life (Eden Restored), by sending out his hands and bearing his cross. He takes up our sin with his fingers and puts it upon himself – removing it from us and the curse of death.

When we go up to God’s mountain, he comes down to us. Nehemiah says God came down and spoke to them, giving them right rules and laws. He gave them bread and water yet the people stiffened their necks. The phrase come down held a specific meaning to those living in Biblical times. According to the Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, the term in Arabic literally corresponds to go for a drink, go to the spring for water.

This is the mercy of God. He doesn’t just redeem and save us, but he came down in flesh to give us access to the Living Water.

The passage in Nehemiah tells us that God personally descends his throne to come down to speak with us. He stepped into our mess wrapped humanity. He offers a solution to our sin problem, provision for us to know him. And yet, people stiffen their necks. They pound their hardened hearts. They cling to their idols and roll their eyes at his right rules and laws.

We, much like the Israelites, struggle with the same issues.

Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters…

Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.

Isaiah 55: 1a-2

Do you know what spend means in this verse? It doesn’t just mean pay in Hebrew, it also means to suspend, as on a cross. Jesus spent himself in full, buying our way out of evil and the wretchedness of sin.

So while the cross was means of murder, it is also the means of freedom.

Bread? The Hebrew root word is fight, battle, do war, prevail.

In other words, Isaiah is saying, why do you spend your freedom chasing things that enslave? Why do you spend your freedom by not fighting against the enemy – by wasting time and energy on things that don’t help us wage war against the enemy? Why do you fight against yourself?

The story of Abraham and Issac is so much more than a story about a close call with human sacrifice. It’s a story about the cross. The story of the cross is so much more than a story of death. It’s the reality of salvation and freedom and purpose.

Don’t harden your heart, my friend. Don’t stiffen your neck. Don’t disregard the truth of the Gospel. It has the power to change your life. Lean in. Draw close. The hands he stretched out are still stretched out for you.

Let’s climb God’s Mountain…He’ll show us the way he works so we can live the way we’re made.

Isaiah 2:3, MSG


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