This always seemed like a very strange story to me. God said in Jeremiah that child sacrifices never even entered His mind (Jeremiah 19:5), and it’s certainly inconsistent with His character as depicted everywhere else in scripture. True, God did not intend Abraham to actually go through with it, but Abraham didn’t know that. Why test Abraham in such a seemingly cruel way? I don’t fully understand the answer, but I do suspect it involves two things: the Old Testament concept of covenant involving a reciprocal exchange, and the type and shadow of God’s future sacrifice of His own son.
The parallels between Jesus’ sacrifice and this one are many. God told Abraham to perform this sacrifice on the mountain of Moriah. David later offered sacrifice there too (2 Samuel 24:17-19) and then Solomon built the Temple on that very spot, making the rock at the top the Holy of Holies (2 Chronicles 3:1). Today, this is the hotly contested spot sacred to both the Arabs and the Israelites, currently the site of the Dome of the Rock. Isaac was therefore a type of the sacrifice for sin which would later be offered in that very place for the sins of Israel, ultimately fulfilled for all time in Jesus.
We know that Isaac was less than thirty-seven years old at this time, since Sarah died when she was one hundred and twenty-seven years old, making Isaac thirty-seven at the time (Genesis 23:1). Because of the parallels with Jesus, some scholars believe he was thirty-three when this occurred, as Jesus was at the time of His death.
Just as God willingly sacrificed His beloved, long-awaited, only Son, born of a miracle, destined to bless the whole world, so Abraham willingly offered Isaac: beloved, long-awaited “only son” of the promise (22:2), born of a miracle, through whom all the nations of the world were to be blessed (22:18).
Just as Jesus carried the cross he was to die on, so Isaac carried the wood he was to die on (Genesis 22:6).
When Isaac (by now surely beginning to suspect) asked Abraham where the sacrifice was, Abraham’s answer was prophetic, whether Abraham realized it or not. He didn’t say, “God will provide the lamb;” he said, “God will provide Himself a lamb” (22:8). Did he understand that this was a prophetic pre-enactment? We know that Abraham did not believe that Isaac would die and stay dead; he either expected God to provide an alternative sacrifice all along, as this statement suggests, or he believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead if need be (Hebrews 11:17-19). Either way, he told the servants, “we will come back to you” (22:5). Not I will come back. Like Jesus was able to endure the cross because He looked past it, to the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2), so Abraham saw past the moment of sacrifice to the moment of God’s redemption, though he did not know in advance what form it would take.
Considering Abraham was one hundred years older than Isaac, there is no way he could have overpowered Isaac in order to sacrifice him. Isaac must have been a willing participant, laying down his life as Jesus did (Titus 2:14). Like Jesus, there is no record that Isaac said anything at all when he was led to slaughter (Genesis 22:9, Isaiah 53:7, Matthew 27:14).
So this sacrifice was clearly a type and shadow, one of many in the Old Testament. God also told Hosea to marry a prostitute as a type of His own marriage to unfaithful Israel (Hosea 1), and told Ezekiel to lay on his side for a year as a symbol of Jerusalem’s upcoming siege (Ezekiel 4). Isaiah walked around naked and barefoot for three years to symbolize the coming judgment against Egypt and Cush (Isaiah 20:3). I’m sure these things got people’s attention, but still—why?
The best answer I’ve heard comes from Charles Capps, though I still feel it's incomplete. Old Testament covenants always symbolized an exchange: the two parties shared both assets and liabilities in common, and the terms of the covenant were like a legal agreement today, outlining what each party must do in order to fulfill his end. The exchange of blood and of names served as symbols for the seriousness of the agreement, and of two identities merging into one. But Abraham (then Abram) was asleep when God cut the covenant with him (Genesis 15)—he thus did not participate as one of the two parties. God later gave Abraham the sign of the covenant, circumcision—but still, Abraham had not really done anything to validate his side of the agreement. Given the heavenly courtroom drama we saw from the book of Job, is it possible that God needed Abraham, our covenant head, to demonstrate his willingness to offer up his only son, so that God could “legally” offer His son on our behalf? If Abraham had not been willing, would he have failed to ratify the covenant of faith, giving Satan a legal loophole to contest the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf?
Years passed, and Isaac grew into manhood. He was our pride and joy, and everything Sarah and I could possibly have wished for in a son: obedient, dutiful, handsome, and so very patient. I often marveled at how mild he was, particularly given his mother’s fiery temper. He was the best of both of us, with his mother’s good looks and common sense, and my quiet trust and confidence in the Lord.
Yet while Isaac seemed content to live his life moment by moment, never fretting about what was to come, Sarah agonized over where to find him a wife.
“He’s already over thirty years old!” she insisted one evening when we were alone. “We should send a servant now!”
“The Lord has not told me to do that,” I reminded her, “and yes, I’ve asked Him about it, and I’ve continued to ask Him. He will tell me when the time is right. Isaac is the promised child, Sarah. Obviously he will have to marry.”
“When?” Sarah demanded. “I’m over one hundred and twenty years old, Abraham, Father of Nations! I’d like to live to see my grandchildren!”
What she did not say was that Hagar, her longtime rival, already enjoyed five grandsons through Ishmael, and three granddaughters as well. Sarah’s animosity for her former maid had simmered after Isaac’s birth, but had reignited once Ishmael had married and his wife began to bear children.
“Patience, my love,” I murmured, kissing the top of her head. She huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “He will marry. He will have children. Our descendants will be as the grains of sand and the stars in the sky, remember? Surely you cannot doubt that now.”
She sniffled. At long last she grumbled, “I don’t doubt it, I’m just sick of waiting. I don’t see why you can’t just send a servant back to Ur. Why do you have to wait for the Lord to tell you to do it? Isn’t it obvious that’s what has to be done?”
I raised my eyebrows at her. “Really?” I let my question hang in the air between us. She knew exactly what I meant: the last time she had tried to help God out, Hagar had borne Ishmael, and Sarah herself had gained a lifelong enemy.
She sighed. “All right fine, but—will you please at least ask Him again?”
I nodded, squeezed her shoulder, and went out of the tent. I spotted Isaac sitting off by himself and gazing up at the stars, as he often did. He gave me a cheerful little wave. I smiled back.
I froze, and instinctively glanced back in Isaac’s direction, even though I knew the voice had not come from him. He had not turned to look at me, though—apparently the voice was only in my head this time.
“Here I am,” I answered the Lord, taking another tentative step away from my tents and flocks, toward the wilderness.
He went on, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
I stopped walking. I had heard the words, but I had to repeat them in my mind several times before I understood their meaning.
“Do what, Lord?”
He repeated the words, but did not elaborate. For a brief flash, my imagination conjured the image of my only son’s bloody lifeless body, the trail of smoke ascending to heaven.
“No,” I said aloud, but not to the Lord—to my imagination. Instead, I did as Isaac was doing: I looked up at the stars of the sky. That was the promise. He was the promised child. I’d been through this already. The Lord had made it very clear that He would bless Ishmael for my sake, but Isaac was the one through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed, and the one through whom I would be the father of nations. Yet Isaac was not married and had no children yet.
That meant he had to live. The Lord just told me to kill him, but he had to live.
I either wouldn’t have to go through with it, or else—God would raise him from the dead. From the ashes, if necessary.
I didn’t want to think about what my relationship with my son would be like after I’d slain him, not to mention my relationship with Sarah. But I couldn’t think about that. My imagination tried all night long to return to the moment of slaughter. Every time, I redirected it to afterwards: the moment when Isaac and I would climb down the mountain, together.
I did not sleep at all.
The next morning I rose before sunrise, eager to get this whole ordeal behind me. I split the wood for the sacrifice, saddled my donkey, and when Isaac rose, I told him to do the same, as well as two servants I intended to take with us. I told the servants to prepare food and water for our journey, and I told Isaac to bid his mother goodbye. I could not do so; my heart was like stone in my chest, and I knew Sarah would take one look at me and demand to know what I was hiding. Isaac surely knew something was wrong, too, but he did not pry.
We rode for three days in the direction of the land of Moriah, and spoke as little as possible. I caught Isaac glancing at me with concern on more than one occasion, but it was all I could do to grit my teeth and picture the two of us coming down that mountain together.
He promised, I reminded myself fiercely. God promised. God never lies. God cannot lie. I might have asked myself why God would ask something of me that seemed so far out of character for Him, if I had had the capacity to do so—but it was as if I had tunnel vision. All my attention was focused entirely upon what I had to do, and all my energy upon clinging to God’s promise that somehow, against all hope and against all reason, it would turn out the way God said it would. I had no mental space left over for questions.
By the third day, I felt like all of my muscles were made of solid rock. Whenever one of the servants tried to speak to me I either did not answer at all, or I snapped my reply. At last, I looked up and saw the mountain of Moriah in the distance. I knew that was it.
“Stay here with the donkey,” I told the servants. “The lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.”
I saw Isaac watching me with a troubled expression as I took the wood I had split from the donkey’s back, and placed it between Isaac’s shoulders instead. My hands trembled so badly that I could barely get the saddlebag open to retrieve the knife and the flint. Then I turned my back on Isaac, heading for the mountain with fierce determination.
When we had left the servants far enough behind us, Isaac ventured at last, “Father?”
“Yes, my son.”
“We have flint and wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
I swallowed before I answered. My mouth was so dry. At last I managed, “Son, God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” I stopped walking, as I listened to my own words. I had not meant to phase it that way; the words simply slipped out.
God will provide Himself the lamb.
God will provide Himself, the Lamb.
Over and over the words rattled around in my mind as the mountain grew nearer. I did not understand their significance, but I had a feeling that the words meant more than what I had consciously intended: that we would find a lamb at the right moment for the sacrifice.
Isaac asked no more, and we walked on, then climbed, in silence.
At the pinnacle of the mountain, Isaac dropped the wood upon the ground. An inner tremor seized my body, but I breathed through it, assembling the stones for an altar. Isaac helped me, though I could not look at him anymore, and he did not dare address me.
When the altar was built, I painstakingly arranged the wood. I had been in such a hurry to get here and get this over with, yet now that the moment was here, I wanted to delay it as long as possible. But at last, there was nothing more to do. The time had come.
I had a length of rope in my pocket. I took it out and turned to my son. He watched me with wide, solemn eyes. We looked at each other for a very long moment, and I knew he knew. I further knew that if he resisted me, this would be impossible. He was thirty-three years old; I was one hundred and thirty-three. He could overpower me with hardly any effort at all.
At last, he stretched out his wrists toward me. I swallowed the lump in my throat, and took a step toward him, then another. I bound his wrists together. Tears ran freely down my cheeks and his as he climbed upon the altar, allowing me then to bind his ankles as well. When this was done, there was nothing to do but retrieve the knife. When I had clasped its hilt and approached my son, I could hardly see for weeping. I raised the knife over his chest.
“Abraham, Abraham!” called a voice from Heaven.
The knife clattered to the ground, and I fell to my knees.
“Here I am,” I gasped.
“Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
I cried out and buried my face in my hands, weeping violently with relief and pent-up anguish.
“Father, look!” Isaac managed to break through my sobs.
When at last I looked up, I first heard the rustling behind me and then turned around to see a ram with its horns caught in a thicket. I staggered to my feet, unbound Isaac’s ankles and wrists, and he climbed off of the altar. Then he gently took the knife from my hand, crossed to the ram, and slit its throat. Once it was dead, we untangled its horns and dragged its body to the altar. I took the flint and set fire to the offering.
“The Lord did provide,” Isaac whispered to me over the blaze. “Just as you said.”
The clouds above parted, and we both looked up. Then the voice declared, “By Myself I have sworn, because you have done this this, and have not withheld your son, your only son—blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gates of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”
When the Lord finished speaking, I looked at Isaac, breathless.
“Did you hear it too?”
Isaac nodded at me, eyes wide. He reached out and clasped me by the forearm, and I leaned into his shoulder. We sat like that until the ram was consumed and turned to ash, and the smoke began to trail away.
At long last, Isaac murmured, “You told me before that the Lord had already promised those things to you. I was not aware that the covenant was conditional.”
I shook my head. “Neither was I, until four days ago.”
I had recovered enough now that I could stand. We had brought nothing with us but the knife and the flint, as the wood had all been consumed. Isaac retrieved these for me, and together we made our way back down the mountain.
“Why, do you think?” Isaac asked at last, when we were about halfway down. “Why was the covenant dependent upon your willingness to sacrifice me, even if He didn’t mean for you to actually do it?”
I shook my head. I had been mulling over this same point, but I knew that if the Lord had intended to tell me, He would have done so already. Covenants between humans were always conditional; there were always terms for each party, and each side must fulfill his terms, or the covenant was null and void. I had been asleep when the Lord had made His first covenant with me, though. In my vision, the two parties who walked between the pieces of the sacrifices were a smoking firepot and a flaming torch. I had an inkling then that God Himself represented both parties: He was cutting the covenant with Himself, though I didn’t know what that meant. I was unconscious, and thus, a mere passive recipient. Years later, when God had told me to circumcise every man of my household, I had actually been relieved: here at last was something I could do to participate. And yet, in retrospect, this was not truly participation in the covenant, so much as a sign of the covenant. A covenant meant the two parties shared everything in common: what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine. We hold all of our assets and our liabilities in common. Yet God had all the assets; I had none that He had not first given me. I therefore had never ratified my side of the covenant.
Not until today. Today, it became binding.
God will provide Himself, the Lamb. Yes, God had given me Isaac, and in that sense He had provided the lamb. He had then provided the ram as a substitute. But there was more to it than that…
“Father?” Isaac prodded me.
I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I said slowly. “I have a vague idea that you and I are re-enactors on a stage. But… what were we reenacting?”
Isaac looked at me. “Or foreshadowing?”
His words gave me chills.