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R&V In the Word: Abraham and the God of Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” … 

… When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Genesis 22:1-2, 9-12 NIV (Read the full account here.)

For as long as I have been a Christian, the story of Abraham and Isaac has troubled me. Why would God test Abraham in such a way? How could the same God who told Moses who he was, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin,” how could that same God demand such a thing? And likewise, the same God revealed himself in his Son, Jesus, whose entire ministry was committed to mercy, not sacrifice?

It is the same God. The God of Abraham and Isaac’s story is committed to mercy, not sacrifice. The other religions and gods of Abraham’s day demanded sacrifices, even human sacrifices, to try to appease the gods of storms and harvests. The Hebrew word for “God” that is used throughout the beginning of this story is elohim; it is a plural word for God and it’s used to reference God over 2,600 times in the Bible—occasionally in reference to other gods.

But the name given to God when he stops Abraham from sacrificing his son in verse 11 is Jehovah. This was the proper name for Israel’s One True God.

Other gods (elohim) in this world will ask you to sacrifice your son to appease them, but not this God (Jehovah). 

This God disrupts the narrative you’ve always known, the path of self-harm, self-hate, obedience to an unachievable perfection, bitter and backbiting treatment of loved ones, and all of the other ways we try to sacrifice ourselves or someone else to appease a god we worship (our addictions, our desires, our demons), when the One True God has made another way. A way of freedom. A way of mercy. A way of love.

The Old Testament stories capture a people in pursuit of the One True God, who throughout the Scriptures keeps showing them who he isn’t. And then God shows up in the person of Jesus Christ, in the flesh, to show exactly who he is.

Points of Reflection

  1. Have you ever believed something about God that God has corrected? How has he done it?
  2. Do you know other names for God? What do those names mean to you?

For the Kids

  1. How do you think Abraham felt when God asked him to sacrifice his son, Isaac?
  2. How do you think Isaac felt?
  3. How do you think they both felt when God interrupted the sacrifice?


There are a lot of troubling Bible stories. The Bible is our sacred book of faith, given to us as a special revelation to know God and see how we can relate to God, and yet there are strange stories we may have learned as children, only to revisit them with adult eyes and balk. The story of Abraham and Isaac challenged me: I used to hate this story, but when I pressed in and asked God (and others) to help me dig deeper, God opened up his Word and showed me light where I had only seen darkness. What stories of Scripture challenge you? Press in and do some digging: find wisdom teachers and pastors you trust who can help you wrestle with those words. They are worth the struggle.


If you are fascinated by the strange tribal world that existed in and surrounding the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, there is a wonderful book that helps shed light on the life and culture of the Bible, called The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels by Thomas Cahill. This book was extremely influential for me as I sought to understand more of the Old Testament stories.
Listen or read online through your local library’s Libby app, or buy on or through a local independent bookstore near you.

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