Why would a loving God demand someone to sacrifice his own child, especially his first born and one that is the answer to a prayer; a child whose birth is literally a miracle? What kind of God makes such a gruesome and barbaric demand? This is a God who demands human sacrifice and finally, as if to say, “I was only joking.” calls off the whole thing at the last moment. This is absurd! Or is it?
Some people in your family refuse to believe in God because this passage makes Him seem savage and you naive.
So let’s try to answer the opening questions. First when we are reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, we can’t read it as if it was written in a vacuum. It was not. These powerful words come to us from real people through the ages who lived real times and real situations.
Abraham is living in the Middle East as a mystic and a nomad surrounding by nomadic cultures and civilized cultures like Egypt. Many of these cultures practiced what is indeed a barbaric practice: human sacrifice.
Many do not know that human sacrifice actually was common in some cultures until they became part of the Roman Empire. It was the Romans who put an end to it in their territory and the Spanish who put an end to it among the tribes they found in the Americas.
So human sacrifice was actually a common pagan practice in many cultures from Greece to the Americas from Borneo to China. Even the Gospels mention blood mixed for sacrifices offered by Pontius Pilate.
Jewish scholars will explain that what is happening is that God is inviting Abraham to demonstrate in the most extreme fashion his love for God. But you need to see this in context. Abraham is called out of the pagan world, for he is the first of all of us who believe. In that pagan world, for a god to demand human sacrifice is not unusual. It is here that God is demanding a response from Abraham demonstrating that he loves God this much and in the process, God is showing definitively that this process not unknown in other communities surrounding him is not going to be part of the worship of the descendants of Abraham. The angel stops him because yes, he has demonstrated his love in the way he knew, now he will know that he will be called to demonstrate it through self sacrifice not through human sacrifice found among surrounding cultures.
When Abraham’s Hebrew descendants, however, abandoned God they would practice the worst sin of the Bible which is idolatry and often idolatry involved human sacrifice. So they would not only abandon God they would regress. Their motive would often be success. The gentile farmers seem to have more fruitful crops on their farms than we do, we should worship their god instead.
In the movie, the Passion of the Christ directed by Mel Gibson, the children who chase after Judas represent those who were sacrificed by the Hebrews when they practiced idolatry. That exact practice is one of the locutions against Judah in Jeremiah 32.
In the book of Daniel, we see three men Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego thrown into the fire for not worshiping the idols of Babylon. They are being sacrificed. It is why this story is so important, for they survive unharmed showing King Nebuchadnezzar that the only true God worth sacrificing to is our God who seeks exclusively the self sacrifice of love of God and neighbor.
Jesus would come and take this evolution to a new stage. It was Hammurabi in pagan Babylon who taught an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth as a standard of justice seven hundred hundred years before the reign of King David. Jesus changes it completely to love your enemies, do good to them and pray for them, this is the mark of the Christian.
We see in the New Testament that the tradition continues with St. Paul reminding us that we need to experience a renewal of our minds and live in a new form of wisdom.
Now what was called human sacrifice has become the tragic reality of genocide in societies that reject the transcendent God. Meanwhile, Christians seek humble love and obedience to God as their standard of behavior NOT what the cultures around them are doing, even if it is a “god” that commands it. True Christians who seek Christ in faith and reason have the vocation to be on the forefront of true progress by living out the call of divine wisdom and love.
However, if we turn from this call we, like those addressed by Jeremiah, will also follow the negative and disturbing practices of a wayward culture because when cultures turn from the wisdom of God they devolve.
This brings us to you. God has called you who are watching this from New Hampshire to Canada, from Michigan to Lowell whether you are sitting in a living room, lying in a bedroom with a wheelchair next to you, a hospital bed or even a watching this in a coffee shop. We as Catholics have a calling to live the wisdom of God so that we can testify to it and become sacramental signs and symbols of the Divine wisdom that calls for personal sacrifice out of love for others and for God Himself—nothing more or less.