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28 | Does an MRI scan reveal why God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

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Hi my name is Dean Smith and in this podcast, we are going to take a look at an MRI scan done on a person about a decade back and see if it provides the answer to a question that has plagued theologians for generations and that is this: why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt Moriah.

This account found in Genesis 22  has been a tough one for Christians because throughout the Old Testament, we find repeated statements that God abhorred human sacrifice and utterly condemned this practice that was common throughout Canaan.

One of the worst forms involved Molech, a large bronze statue that was heated until it was red-hot and the people would place their children on the idol’s hideous outstretched arms where the heat killed them, or they rolled off the arms into the fire. During the sacrifice, the hundreds of people watching would be in a frenzy, chanting and singing, so they could drown out the screams of the children being sacrificed.

Yet we read how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son in Genesis 22:2:

He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”

Genesis 22:2 NASV

But as Abraham raised his knife, an Angel of the Lord intervened and stopped Abraham from doing it. The angel then revealed a ram caught in a thicket to be the substitutionary sacrifice for Isaac.

Now it could easily be argued that the Angel was never going to allow this sacrifice to take place, but why did God even ask Abraham to do it in the first place?

The Book of Hebrews explains why Abraham was willing to do it. In Hebrews 11:19, the writer states that Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead.

And because of this some believe that this story was pointing ahead to God’s willingness to offer His only son, Jesus, as a sacrifice. And we do see some parallels, because God told Abraham to take up his son, his only son and John 3:16 reads that God so loved the world, that He gave his only son that whoever believed on Him would have everlasting life.

So we understand why Abraham was willing to do it. We understand that the story was a prophetic picture for us looking ahead to God’s willingness to send His son to be the ultimate sacrifice for the world.

But why did God ask Abraham to do this?

We find three words in the first verse of Genesis 22, that tell us why. It reads simply this:


Probably the worst test I ever took in university was my Biology 203 exam. It was so scarring I still remember the name of the course that I took over 40 years ago. The professor was one of the worst teachers I ever had. In a monotone voice he droned on and on, listing fact after fact, hour after hour, Latin name after Latin name. It tested your mind to remember all those meaningless facts.

It tested your mind to stay awake in his class.

But God’s test of Abraham was even harder because God wasn’t testing Abraham’s mind, God was testing Abraham’s heart.

So what was God testing?

Well to understand that let’s talk about that MRI scan I mentioned earlier. The scan took place about 10 years ago as part of a documentary produced in 2011 by the British Broadcasting Corporation entitled “Secret of the Superbrands.”

The documentary producers, Alex Riley and Adam Boome, were trying to figure out why people were so loyal to certain brands. They were particularly intrigued by the massive line-ups that took place at that time when Apple released it new and latest and greatest iPhone.

Now it doesn’t happen so much today, but back then when Apple announced the day it would release its newest iPhone, people would start lining up hours before the store opened to make sure they were among the first in line to get one.

People would even show up the night before with sleeping bags, with the intent of sleeping outdoors in rain or shine, so they could be among the first to get in the store when it opened.

These line-ups would stretch around the block.

Riley and Boome wanted to find out what was causing such intense brand loyalty that people would do this? So to figure this out, one of the things they did was have a neuroscientist scan the brain of one of those Apple devotees as the person was using their iPhone.

What they discovered shocked them. They found that an unexpected area of the brain lit up, indicating usage.

Riley and Boome said:

 “The results suggested that Apple was actually stimulating the same part of the brain as religious imagery does in people of faith.”

Secrets of the Superbrands

The user’s area of the brain associated with religion was activated when the person was using their iPhone.

Was this an indication that using an Apple product was a religious experience for some users?

If it was, what in the world was going on from a religious perspective?

Throughout the Bible, there are repeated warnings against idol worship. But one of the most unusual passages is found in Ezekiel, because it gives the warning an unusual twist:

“Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts and have put right before their eyes the stumbling block of their iniquity…”

Ezekiel 14:3

Did you notice the twist, the prophet was not referring to idols made of wood or stone, rather he was referring to “idols in the heart.”

In the Hebrew language, the heart was an all-encompassing word describing a person’s emotions, will and intellect. So when referring to “idols in the heart,” this was not a description of physical object made of stone or word, but rather emotional attachments that generated a religious devotion similar to real idols.

These “idols found in people’s heart” were just as real as stone objects. The  prophets go on to say that these idols found in a person’s heart were stumbling blocks (v.4) that actually affected a person’s walk with God (v. 5), because they led to estrangement, causing people to distant themselves from their true God.

So is this what was being seen in the MRI scans? Possibly.

So going back to the story of Abraham it leads to the question had Isaac become an idol in Abraham’s heart?

God had given the ancient patriarchs, Abraham and Sarah, repeated promises that they would have a child. But the promise was delayed and delayed yet again and finally Abraham and Sarah took the matters in their own hands and arranged for Abraham to take Sarah’s maid-servant as a concubine wife through which they had Ishmael.

But God said, no, Ishmael was not the promised son.

It was a struggle that had went on for years and finally in their old age, God gave them their miracle son, Isaac.

And all God’s promises of having descendants that numbered like the sands of the seas rested on the survival of Isaac.

Can a child become a idol to parents? Is there ever a temptation for parents to live their lives through their children?

Had Isaac become an idol in Abraham’s heart? Is this what God was testing?

There comes a time when all parents have to turn their children over to God and Genesis 22 was Abraham’s moment.

You know I had a run in with an “idol of the heart” several years back. It involved a spiffy leather coat, yes I know the word spiffy dates me, that at one point crossed the line from clothing to idol. I was really proud of that coat and I remember the moment when the Holy Spirit asked me to give that coat to the pastor of the small church I attended.

I can still recall the struggle I had doing that. It took me weeks before I finally agreed to do it. I remember going to the pastor’s house late in the evening and saying that God wanted me to give him that coat.

Why was it such a struggle?

Here is the thing, I was working, making a good wage and I could have easily bought another coat. I was also regularly giving to the church, so that wasn’t the issue.

So what was the problem? The issue was that this particular leather jacket had become an idol in my heart. That jacket had a hold on me and God wanted me to pull down that “idol in my heart.”

This act of giving it away broke the control the coat had over me. Today I own a leather jacket, but there is one big difference, “I wear it, it doesn’t wear me.”

I am not suggesting you have to give away objects, because in Abraham’s case he only had to be willing to do it. This is what the Holy Spirit asked me to do. God deals with each of us in unique ways. If you have a problem in an area, ask the Holy Spirit for help and guidance.

But idols of the heart can come in all different forms, children, leather jackets, and cell phones. But it doesn’t even have to be an object, because we are simply talking about an unhealthy emotional attachment.

It could even be social media when people become so obsessed with posting and getting their likes it can become an idol of the heart.

Many psychologists are warning about the unhealthy obsession that people have with social media, as they are constantly checking their various social media accounts such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram to the point that it interrupts real social interactions, work and even sleep.

Some will even become anxious, even depressed, when they are put in a position where they can’t check their social media posts or latest text messages.

Studies have shown that 20% of the people with social media accounts cannot go more than three hours without checking them. And those with what is described as “social media anxiety disorder,” yes they even have a name for the condition, cannot go even a few minutes without checking their accounts.

In her article, Social Media and Teen Anxiety, Leah Shafer says teens are particularly vulnerable to this, where the lack of likes or re-shares can lead to depression and even suicidal thoughts. Shafer cites one study conducted by researchers from Florida State University and San Diego State University that discovered 48% of teens who spend five hours a day on social media display at least one risk factor for suicide compared to only 33% of teens who spend only two hours a day.

Some people are not running their social media channels, the channels are running them.

Look there is nothing wrong with children, leather jackets, cell phones and social media. It becomes a problem when we turn it into an idol of the heart.


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