When Child Sacrifice Still Remains


The story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac is a rather popular story for various reasons. Even Emanuel Kant used the story in his understanding of the moral imperative. However, I believe there are hints in the story that indicate more cultural nuances then we usually pick up on. 

In fact, I do not believe that Abraham is celebrated for almost sacrificing his son, but is shown that child sacrifice as worship for any deity is wrong. Unfortunately, this is still a message we need today as we continue to be given messages that push us to sacrifice our children for the worship of a god.

Looking at the passage

First, let’s explore the passage in depth a little more. The major thing to notice is that there is the possibility that there are two different deities speaking in this story.

According to Genesis, Abraham came from Ur, a place that was known for being polytheistic and having child sacrifices. In fact, the existence of other gods is assumed in most of the BCE writings in the Bible. This is most clearly seen in verses that say things like “you shall have no other gods before me,” which denotes henotheism (the adherence towards one god even though there is believed to be multiple). Abraham almost certainly believed in the existence of multiple gods.

In this passage specifically, it is laid out in a way that highlights that the god that told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is, in fact, separate from Y- (abbreviation used to hold respect for those who do not use the divine name).

Everything between verse 1 and 10 is framed with “elohim” being the god doing the speaking. Elohim, although and honorific form of the word “el,” simply mean “god” and can be used for any god or goddess, as it does not denote gender. Since the writers did not hold to monotheism, it is possible, if not more accurate, that we should simply understand this to be “a god” who is speaking to Abraham.

However, it is Y- that intervenes and stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, which causes Abraham to call the place “Y- will provide” as a contrast to what he said to Isaac, “elohim will provide.”

Unfortunately, most of our English translations won’t allow for this understanding as the English associates the call to sacrifice with Y-. However, I would like to offer an alternative understanding to the two verses that associate the call for the sacrifice with Y-:

…for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.  (v. 12b, NASB)

…for I know you currently fear elohim, but you have not withheld your only son from me. (Alternate Translation by Kalie)

In the alternate translation, it is possible to see that Y- is saying “I know you fear that god, but you did not withhold your son from me when I told you to stop.” Technically speaking, both translations are equally valid. By the context, the distinction between the elohim and Y- lends to this alternate understanding.

…because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son… (v. 16b, NASB)

…because you have made this saying and did not withhold your only son… (Alternate Translation by Kalie)

The difference in these translations comes from the understanding of two Hebrew words, עָשָׂה and דָּבָר, translated “done” and “things” in the NASB and nearly all other translations.

The first issue is that ‘asah, עָשָׂה, literally means to do anything (it is used for God creating the world to any other action possible) and should only reflect the idea that some form of verb is being carried out. The second is that dabar, דָּבָר, literally means “spoken word.” In my estimation, it is far more likely that dabar, in this verse, refers back to Abraham’s statement in verse 14.

Thus, Y- is like saying something like, “because of your statement showing assurance in me as opposed to elohim (verse 8) and did not withhold your son when I told you to stop…”

In this understanding of the situation, Abraham’s faith is seen in his decision to stop the practice of child sacrifice, which was being required by the elohim and the culture Abraham was raised in that required child sacrifices, and “give” his son to Y- through allowing him to live. Abraham’s faith was shown in letting go of the practice that led to death.

Now, let’s move to today when we live in a world where people, like those who write for The Gospel Coalition, have finally said the quiet part out loud: “it is better to sacrifice your children in worship of your god than it is to affirm their gender.”

This may seem like a stretch, however, TGC published an article the day before Thanksgiving telling its readers that being unaffirming to your trans kid, even to the point that they attempt or even complete suicide, is a positive because you “love Jesus more.”

The Gospel Coalition is currently telling parents to push their kids towards death for their version of Jesus.

We have not come as far as we might think since ancient times. We still live in a society that chooses to harm children as some form of worship to their idea of God.

There are very few things that I will say for certainty when it comes to the Bible, but I can say for certain that sacrificing your children for your god is evil and unbiblical. Our faithfulness to the divine does not come through the sacrifice of others, but through the letting go of the harm we inflict on others.

We need to be asking ourselves, is sacrificing our children’s mental well-being and even their life a valid form of worship of the divine that requires love?

The story of Abraham and Isaac should stand as a reminder that the death of others, especially our children, is never an acceptable outcome for our beliefs.

Kalie May Hargrove