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, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about." Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you." Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?" "Yes, my son?" Abraham replied. "The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together. 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" (vv. 1-12, NIV).
Three things stand out to me from this account.
1. Abraham did not act surprised that God commanded him to perform a human sacrifice.
I think this is because human sacrifices were common in the culture in which Abraham lived and since others had shown their devotion to their god via human sacrifices, it was not thought odd by Abraham that he would be asked to do the same thing.
Some defenders of the Canaanite genocide have claimed that one of the reasons why God was just in commanding the extermination of the Canaanites after the Exodus was because of their despicable practice of child sacrifice. Yet if you read the passages carefully, it seems that Yahweh's problem with it had to do with the fact that the sacrifices were made to a false god. There is no record that Yahweh said human sacrifice per se was wrong. As David Dilling points out, if one claims that human sacrifice per se is wrong, then the death of Jesus was wrong. He writes: This view, carried to its logical conclusion, would eliminate the necessity of the sacrificial death of Christ. This in turn eliminates the atonement and thereby abnegates the whole Christian gospel.("The Atonement and Human Sacrifice," Grace Theological Journal 12.2 [Spring, 1971]: 27).
2. Abraham is praised for his willingness to obey the command to perform human sacrifice.
In vv. 15-18 of Genesis 22 is found:
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."
3. If Abraham's faith and obedience is praiseworthy, then so is the religious faith and sacrifice that religious terrorists demonstrate.
Stewart Shapiro writes:
Lots of people did what Abraham was prepared to do--sacrifice a close relative in obedience to a higher power. We are told, more than once, that Abraham loved Isaac. I presume that at least some pagans loved their children too. It is only natural to love one's offspring. The only difference between the pagan who sacrificed a child, and Abraham who tried and was stopped, is that the latter was (supposedly) following the true religion. But does one get special credit, and praise, just for being right? If it is indeed praiseworthy to (be prepared to) kill one's child in obedience to a deity, then Abraham and his pagan counterparts are on a par. If the pagan's child sacrifice was too immoral to deserve praise, then so was Abraham's ("Faith and Reason, the Perpetual War," in Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, ed. Louise Antony, pp. 11-12).
Actually, the pagan's faith and devotion are even more praiseworthy because Abraham may have expected God to intervene miraculously and either prevent him from completing the sacrifice (which is what happened) or raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:17-19). Thus, it really wasn't a sacrifice at all for Abraham, whereas, for the pagan it was a costly sacrifice.
Nowadays, we read almost daily of people who kill innocent human beings claiming that they are doing what God wants. We call them terrorists, or would-be terrrorists if (like Abraham) they are stopped at the last minute. Whatever else we may think of such people, I presume that we do not doubt the sincerity of their beliefs. They must be sincere, many of them deliberately kill themselves in the process. It is the beliefs themselves that are sick, demented, irrational. No God would want this, we tell ourselves. The philosopher in me still asks the quesstion. What's the difference between the near sacrifice of Isaac and contemporary religious terrorism? (p. 12)
To answer Shapiro's question, there really is no difference. Abraham thought that God told him to sacrifice Isaac. Religious terrorists believe that their God has told them to kill, and, in some cases, even to sacrifice themselves in the process. Christians would say that these people are deceived and perhaps even under the influence of Satan. Yet, they cannot in principle deny the possibility of God telling someone to kill an innocent person if they believe the account in Genesis 22.