A Sacrifice & a Substitute

How many people are familiar with the story of Abraham and his call from God to sacrifice his only son? Oh, how this story has raised many an uncomfortable question for believers! Why did God promise Abraham a son and then command him to sacrifice him on an alter? Why would God do such a cruel thing, even if He ultimately spared him? Could there be a bit more below the surface?

This famed, often questioned, account of Abraham and his call to sacrifice Isaac, known to the Jews as the “Akedah,” comes to us in Genesis 22 (we will focus on verses 1-19):

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.

5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.

6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.

9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.

12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,

16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:

17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;

18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.

In summarization, we understand that Abraham took his son and two servants up to Mount Moriah, and at the base of that summit, he left his men behind, going on as just he and Isaac. At the altar above, as he prepares to fulfil the command as it had been given him, the Lord’s angel interrupts him, providing instead a ram for sacrifice. Now, as Dr. Chuck Missler has pointed out, we mustn’t let the familiarity of this oft-repeated tale mask the implications hidden within it. Thanks to his insights, we have the privilege of seeing them a bit more clearly.

To begin, I will ask you a question: is God a liar? Of course not! Abraham knew this as well as you and I do. That said, it is absolutely reasonable to point out an often-missed consideration: Abraham knew that Isaac would be OK! Consider what God promised Abraham two chapters earlier, in Genesis 17:

“And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.” (verse 19)

There we read of how God explicitly promised Abraham that he would have a son, and that God’s covenant would carry on with Abraham’s descendants! I’m sure that Abraham found comfort in this knowledge, knowing that God was not a liar thus even if he did sacrifice Isaac, the Lord would make a way for him to return and sire a lineage! Furthermore, it bears mentioning here that, though popular illustrations or Sunday school books tend to render Isaac as a child, consider that Abraham “took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son (verse 6).” Was it a young boy packing an alter’s-worth of wood up the side of a mountain, or could it be instead that he was, by this point, a young man? There are other evidences that lend themselves to this, but for the sake of time I’ll leave it at this.

Pointing back to Abraham’s assurance that all would be well, let’s consider verse 14:

And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

He knew that, no matter what exactly took place, something wonderful was at hand, and he certainly expected that both he and Isaac would return to the base camp where he left his two servants. We find this assurance clearly expressed in verse 5:

And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.”

Stepping back for just a moment, how long did this sequence of events, from God’s first call for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to the final moments where that sacrifice was averted? About three days (verse 4). Knowing that God has called for the life of his son, it is not unreasonable to ascribe Abraham with a certain sense of resolution on the whole matter. As far as Abraham was concerned, no matter how God was to accomplish the promises that he made, Isaac was as good as dead once the command had come down to him, and this holds some implications that we will examine shortly. Furthermore, we can see this confirmation of his dedicated faith, knowing that something miraculous would be necessary to spare Isaac, in Hebrews 11:17-19:

“By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.”

It’s amazing how much we miss when we just read through the Bible and fail to cross-examine the text, referencing one account with another, bolstering this fact with that, etc. As amazing as our look at the Akedah has been already, I want to go a bit deeper.

The mountain upon which Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac was significant itself. Mt. Moriah, you see, is more than just a simple mountain; it’s actually a geological ridge system situated between the Mount of Olives on one side and Mount Zion on the other. In fact, other geological features of the area include (a) the Kidron Valley to the East, (b) the Hinom Valley to the South, and (c) the Tyropean Valley to the West.

Abraham and Isaac approached the mountain from Beersheva on the South side, some 6000 meters above sea level, continuing to walk North to a height of 777 meters, to the site where he was to sacrifice Isaac. Intriguingly, the two passed a significant site at about 741 meters above sea level; a site where David would purchase the threshing floor of Araunah, and where Solomon would eventually build the temple! (See 1 Chronicles 21:18-26)

There is something else to point out here: the peak of the mountain that was to be Isaac’s offering spot is very near another famous site, one laying just outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. This sight is known as Golgotha!

The whole series of events points ua back to verses 7 and 8 of Genesis 22. As Abraham and Isaac ascent the mountain, Isaac looks at his father and says he sees the wood and fire, but where is the lamb? Abraham answers, saying: “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering…”

Put that together for a moment: In Genesis we read of how Abraham was to go and sacrifice his only son upon Mt. Moriah. The trip took three days during which Isaac was effectively “dead” to Abraham, as this father knew his son had a purpose to fulfill. At the site, just in the nick of time, the Angel of the Lord (understood by many scholars to have been a preincarnate appearance of Christ) provided a ram, an adult male lamb whose horns were caught in the thornbush, for the sacrifice instead, sparing Isaac. And all this took place historically at a site where another Father would sacrifice His only son as the perfect lamb of God, who wore a crown of thorns as he died!

Scholars have noted for many years the dramatic parallels between Isaac and Christ, noting the details that I have just pointed out, everything for the significance of the site to the personal details of the players. Looking beyond this though at what Missler has noted in his teachings, we find that the similarities one step deeper…

When we read down to verse 19, we read of how Abraham descended the mount and he and his two servants, who had been waiting on him, went home to Beersheva. Where is Isaac at? Why isn’t he mentioned? We know that he survived, so why isn’t he found amongst their return?

What you will find is that Isaac is actually not mentioned again for two chapters, only coming back into the scriptural record when he joins his bride at the well at LaHai-Roi. You see, even beyond the obvious similarities between Isaac and Christ in Genesis 22, we see how the extended account carries the theme forward, as Isaac “disappears” from the text until he meets his bride, just as how Christ has physically absent from this world now but is anxiously expected to return for His bride (that being the church).

References:

  1. A Typology of Easter: The Akedah,” Chuck Missler, khouse, February 2008 Personal Update News Journal

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