In view of this year’s World Discipleship Summit theme, I am offering this study that I hope will encourage and help focus our minds with some insights into this amazing portion of scripture. -- Phillip Lester
An Exposition of Genesis 22 - Messianic Insights into the Akedah (the binding)
Lessons of Trust v. 1-14
Foreshadows of Messiah in the binding of Isaac and the substitute ram v. 9 -14
The reaffirmation of the Messianic Promise v. 15-18
Genesis 22 is one of the most important chapters in all of Jewish history and indeed the human race. In this study I shall attempt to capture the significance and magnitude of this event - both for Abraham and for ourselves. This is much more than an ancient story. Abraham's offering of Isaac provides a dramatic illustration of what God would go through in bringing forth the Messiah. It also foreshadows what Messiah would accomplish on mankind’s behalf. The theme of deliverance through the sacrificed lamb is carried from here into other portions of Scripture (Exodus 12 ; Isaiah 53 ) It finds it ultimate fulfillment in a human being described as the lamb (Isaiah 53:6-7, John 1:29; I Peter 1:18-19).
The Jewish people refer to this story as the Akedah or “the binding”, a gripping account of the resolve of both Abraham and Isaac to bind and be bound, to sacrifice and be sacrificed. For Abraham it was the climax of his faith and the highest calling of his life. The Akedah was his supreme test and because he passed the test, God made an amazing promise that effects all of us (Jews and Gentiles). Many Jewish scholars miss that Genesis 22 reveals God’s eternal purpose and his way of providing not only for Abraham but for “all nations”.
Background information on Abraham
In order to fully appreciate this story, one should be familiar with this unique man originally called Abram. The first eleven chapters of Genesis focuses on the human race as a whole but when it comes time to focus on one individual, the Bible zooms in on this one particular man, selected primarily for his trust in God (12:1-9). While his father Terah may have worshipped other gods, Abram was a worshiper of the one God (Acts 7:2). While there may have been other patriarchs with faith, Abram was in a higher league than any other. Along with his faith, he was blessed with a beautiful wife (12:11), he was a wealthy man (Genesis 12:5, 16) and became even more wealthy when he moved to Canaan (13:2). He was an unselfish man who gave his nephew Lot first choice of the land (13:9). Abram was a man of might, influence, and courage who was able to muster up an army from within his own household in order to rescue his nephew from invaders. He shows himself to be generous and deeply spiritual individual (14:20-22). He was an individual to whom God made great promises and Abram believed that God would fulfill those promises even when it seemed impossible. The Scriptures reveal a very personal relationship between Abram and God. The most challenging promise of God seemed to be the most impossible one, that he and his wife would bear a child in their old age.
The birth of Isaac
The promise to give Abraham a son in his old age was fulfilled when Isaac was born. “ Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.” His name meant “laughter” as Sarah his wife said- “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me”. (21:5-6). Isaac was God’s answer to Abraham on how he would be able to carry on his lineage. “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” (21:12) But Isaac was also the avenue to carry out the purposes of God in bringing forth a nation that would bring forth a Messiah to bless “all nations.”
If Genesis 21 is about laughter, Genesis 22 is about anguish for there we read about God’s great test of Abraham. The story begins like this:
“Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied, Then God said, “Take our 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.”
Although Abraham had another physical child named Ishmael, Isaac was indeed the son of promise and therefore God makes the distinction of referring to Isaac as his “only son”. To Abraham, Isaac was truly everything. As an old man at age 100 this child was the miracle baby he waited his whole life for. For God to tell him to offer him up was like saying “offer up that which matters more to you than any one thing”.
There is no good English equivalent for the Hebrew word “hineni” translated “Here I am”. The term indicates readiness, alertness, receptivity, and responsiveness to instructions. It serves as a kind of refrain throughout the Akedah, Abraham employs it in answer to God here and to Isaac in v.7 and to the angel of the Lord in v .11
God recognizes the relationship of Isaac to Abraham when he says, “whom you love”. This is God’s way of reaffirming that He knows that he loves him. Interestingly, this is the first time the word “love” appears in Scripture. The very essence of love is that of a father to his son and how fitting - that the first time the Scriptures discuss “love” it is found in the context of the love of a father to his son. This is precisely what makes it a test. To sacrifice what we love most constitutes the greatest test.
As mentioned earlier, Isaac was given to Abraham in his old age and thus he was given a name which means “laughter.” This boy was truly Abraham’s laughter, his joy, his everything. We can only imagine the horror within Abraham as he contemplated this command from God.
We are struck right away with Abraham’s responsiveness to God. His entire life could be summed up with one word and that is trust. Here was a request that appeared to make no sense. To offer up a child may have been the practice of other heathen nations but this was not a practice of the Hebrews. Some tribes and nations did practice infanticide and abortion, but the Hebrews did not. To them life was sacred and no one dare remove it. But God clearly told him to do so. There was no mistaking the voice of God in this instance.
From a human perspective there are several ways Abraham could have reacted. First of all, Abraham could have challenged God with the unreasonableness of such a request. Abraham was not a wimpy individual. He could have rebelled and refused. He was a man of courage and might and at times Abraham was downright tough and feisty. He was a man who could draw up an army to fight battles and he was a man who at times bargained with God. But in this situation he is being asked to give the most important thing in his life and there is no challenging or bargaining. This was different than when he protested God’s apparent decision to destroy the innocent with the guilty in Sodom (18:22-32) That was not an issue of trust. This was. He was being asked to make a sacrifice involving the very thing that he treasured most and Abraham made no objections.
Imagine how we could have responded. Abraham could have struggled with many issues such as how much should he trust God? He trusted in God his whole life. From the decision to move and relocate to Canaan - God gave him the land. When God promised to give he and his wife a child in their old age, he believed and it came about. Now he is being asked to kill that promised child. He wasn’t ignorant. He knew what was at stake. Abraham knew that all the promises for the future resided in this child. If he killed Isaac there would be no future nation. Surely, he thought, “Does God knows what He is asking of me?.” How could it not have been a struggle? We can only imagine the anguish and the turmoil. While it must have seemed totally confusing, the only thing we read about is Abraham’s trust and obedience. The story continues,
“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.” (Genesis 22:3-5)
Abraham proceeded to obey. The record says “Early the next morning.” In other words there was no procrastination or prolonged delay. There could have been several circumstances that could have made it easy to justify delaying the obedience. Certainly Sarah, like all good Jewish mothers, could have asked “And where do you think the two of you are going?” “I’m not letting him out of this tent for you until he gets older.” We don’t even know if he ever mentioned it to Sarah but that could have definitely delayed the entire process - but he did neither of these. Instead, he went forth.
“We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Note that Abraham believed that he and his son somehow would be returning.
On this point the book of Hebrews in the New Testament gives us an insight into Abraham’s level of faith and how it impacted his reasoning:
“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:17-19)
The writer of the Book of Hebrews points out that Abraham made some significant connections with seeing how God had already worked in his life. According to Hebrews 11, Abraham concluded that God must be able to give Isaac back life after he killed him. This reasoning was based on the way that he saw God fulfill his promises. Certainly this did not lessen the pain of the test but it shows us the depth of Abraham’s trust in God. This was not a stone-faced man without a conscience. This was a man who had walked with God and whose love for God went even deeper than his love for the most precious gift given to him by God.
His willingness to offer the most precious thing in response to God was the highest moment of his faith. Even in this request he remained trusting in God. The climax of this moment was about to take place.
“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.” (Genesis 22:6-8)
The relationship between Abraham and Isaac.
Isaac trusted Abraham just like Abraham trusted God (Fathers take note - your children’s trust in you is a true reflection of your trust in God). Here we see Isaac going completely along with his father. However, he sees the knife and fire but doesn’t see any animal to offer. Things seemed worrisome. Something just did not seem right. Perhaps he was getting a little worried about his father’s love (just as Abraham may have been worrying about God’s love). The doubts in his heart caused him to speak up - He says “Avi” or “Daddy” and inquires about the absence of a lamb for the offering. Abraham’s response is “Yes my son”- as if to say,” you who are my still precious son.” From Abraham there is complete reassurance of his love. He reaffirms to Isaac that things are ok.
“Where’s the Lamb?” Isaac is no dummy. He figured something is definitely missing. He had been with his father on numerous occasions of worship and understood the need for an animal to offer. Isaac’s question however, is the great question of the Bible. How interesting that this question is being asked by this boy who contained all hope for the future. Consider this: the entire nation was in this boy. The future Messiah was in this boy. The offering that would eventually be offered up for the world was in this boy.
The Submission of Isaac
Abraham reassures Isaac with the answer that “God Himself will provide the lamb”. As they continue their walk the moment arrives.
“When they reached the place God had told him about Abraham built an alter 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.” (22:9-10)
What an amazing submission on the part of Isaac. He allows his father to bind him and place him on the wood. He is a young man but he’s not a little kid. He can rebel. His father is very old. Instead he completely trusts his father. Isaac looked up to see his father who loved him, played with him and kissed him and who he trusted everyday of his life. Now his father has tied him up and laid him on the wood. This terrifying experience gets more intense as he now sees his father stretch out his arm holding a knife over his heart. No doubt Isaac knew his father well. He knew that his father’s love for God and for him was real but what could he do? What a horrible moment and yet he isn’t fighting him. There is no struggle or resistance only submission. The theme of trust of a father to bind his son and the trust of the son to be bound echoes into Psalm 22 with the trust of the Messiah to be pierced.
Abraham looks into his son’s eyes. Here is the child he waited his whole life for. This was his dream child, his laughter, the surprise of his life that he once cradled. All his hopes are in this boy. No doubt there were tears streaming down his eyes. Imagine the sweat, the crying and the heart pounding as he surrenders to do God’s will. The father lifts up the knife over the heart of his son-about to strike quickly - hoping to lessen the amount of pain. Suddenly he hears a voice:
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 without held from me your son, your only son.” ( Genesis 22:9-12)
The Test is Over
God now says do not lay a hand on the boy - not to do anything to him. Imagine the relief, the sweat and pounding of the heart for both Abraham and Isaac! With the threat of a violent death gone, no doubt there is a tremendous relief where they probably embraced and kissed each other and Abraham reassured Isaac of his love.
This was not a cruel trick. This was a test. God knew full well the magnitude of what Abraham was about to sacrifice. The climax of the story though, comes when the Scripture states that God was impressed with Abraham’s level of faith. God was moved!
We now come to observe another amazing event. In one way Abraham’s words came true - God did provide an offering.
“Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place the Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” (22:13-14)
The deeper significance of this event would only be appreciated thousands of years later when another substitute would be found with thorns. He also would be taken to be sacrificed as an offering in the place of others.
The Reaffirmation of the Messianic Promise
Often times people end the story at this point but the story does not end here. The angel of the Lord called out to Abraham from heaven a second time to personally respond to Abraham’s incredible faith. In showing his willingness to sacrifice his only son, Abraham moved God to make an amazing statement. God was so moved he swore a promise of incredible significance.
“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 seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” ( 22:15-18)
The Result of the Test: God’s Promise to seal the Covenant
God swears by himself on rare occasions in order to express the certainty of a promise. This is one of those rare moments in Scripture. In this instance God Himself puts Himself up as collateral that He will come through on an agreement with Abraham. In a covenant both parties share a mutual pledge. Whatever one party offers - the other party will be willing to offer. Abraham was willing to offer up his own flesh and blood to seal his covenant with God. God’s readiness to respond. Now God responds to Abraham’s obedience with a similar commitment. God would be willing to offer his most precious thing just as Abraham had. Abraham did his part and now it would be sealed by God doing his part. Abraham had done his part and God says, I swear that I will do His part in blessing all nations through his seed.
“through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” ( 22:18)
The blessing that would impact “all nations “ was specifically tied to Abraham's seed. This echoes the “Seed Promise” theme of the Bible. As mentioned earlier, this is the thread that ties both the Old and New Testament together- the coming of the Messiah - this special Person from the line of Abraham who would bring about salvation for sinners.
The connection of this covenant promise in Genesis 22:18 to the coming of Jesus would later be elaborated by Paul in the book of Galatians, The significance of this verse cannot be overemphasized.
“Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “ to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Messiah (Christ). (Galatians 3:15-16)
God did Provide the Lamb
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. (Romans 8:32)
The answer to Isaac’s question “Where is the lamb for the offering” was actually only partially answered by the ram caught in the thicket. The answer was foreshadowed, not only by the ram, but also in the images of the future lambs that were sacrificed during Passover, as well as the lambs that would be later offered in the daily temple sacrifices.
The Ultimate Lamb
In all actuality, the ultimate lamb that God would provide was residing in this very child who asked the question “Where is the Lamb?”. The truth was that “the Lamb” of God was actually in Isaac. How interesting that this question is being asked by a boy whose descendant someday would be that Lamb.
Provided by God
Abraham’s answer that “God Himself will provide the lamb” would be echoed by the prophets (Isaiah 53:6-7; Psalm 22). It would ultimately be provided by God Himself in a way that would reveal His mercy, grace, and infinite love for sinful man.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)
That God Himself would provide the lamb is truly the answer to the question of how can men be freed from their sin? This was the covenant that God made with Abraham. It was a promise that He swore He would keep. The answer to the removal of sin is not in our keeping of the law but in the providing of a lamb “whose blood would wash away the sins of the world.”
A Human Lamb
The theme of the sacrificed lamb is carried from here into other portions of Scripture (Exodus 12; Isaiah 53) until it finds it ultimate fulfillment in a human lamb as Isaiah predicted (Isaiah 53:6-7).
Later a Jewish prophet known as John the Baptist would look upon Jesus of Nazareth and say, “Look the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). He was referring to the fact that there before him stood the man that was destined to be that Lamb of God who would be sacrificed on behalf of the human race. It was a radical term to apply to any human being. John did not hesitate to apply the term to his cousin, Yeshua of Nazareth who consequently did not hesitate to accept the application to himself, fulfilling that pronouncement. As Peter would later explain,
“the precious blood of Messiah (Christ), a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” (I Peter 1:19-20)
Peter takes his image of the lamb from the famous Isaiah 53 prophecy:
”He was a led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:6-7)
The lack of resistance on the part of Jesus and his submission was due to his amazing trust in God, Messiah’s trust in God during his suffering was foreshadowed in Isaac, and also foretold in Psalm 22 and is also reflected upon by Peter when he said ,
“When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed’’ ( I Peter 2:23-24 )
Just as Isaac completely trusted in his father at the moment of his impending death so also Jesus showed the same trust. His last words upon the cross were
. "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46)
God’s response to Abraham - He kept His Covenant Promise
So the LORD did as Abraham did. As the God of Israel never breaks his promise - so the Lord did exactly as Abraham did. As it was written in Psalm 2, 22, and Isaiah 53, In the same way that Abraham did not withhold his son, so God would not withhold His son :
The parallels are quite remarkable:
As Abraham laid Isaac on the sacrificial wood, so the Fathers laid his son on the wooden beams of a cross.
As Abraham binds his son to the wood, so the Father bounds his Son to the wooden cross.
As the High Priest would lay his hands on the sacrificial lamb, so the Father would lay upon Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6).
As Isaac willingly submitted himself to death, so the Son submited himself without resisting;
As Abraham lifted up the knife, so the Father allowed the Romans to use a sword that would pierce His son.
All of this took place with the same love the same passion, the same anguish.
However, in the case of Jesus there was no voice to let up on the execution or to stop it.
“He was oppressed and afflicted yet he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7)
During a solemn Passover week in Jerusalem, the foreshadows and prophecies all came together when Jesus, although an innocent man, was executed under the shadow of misjustice and political pressure. By all accounts Jesus did not fight for his life or even seek to defend himself legally although he had grounds to do so. Although he knew he could call twelve legions of angels to rescue him he chose to suffer in order to be what mankind needed - an offering for sin. As a result, the Abrahamic Covenant was sealed with His blood and because God provided the lamb, he was able to say “it is finished.”
“But He was pierced for our transgressions he was crushed for our iniquities”. (Isaiah 53:5)
The Cross was not a Test Sacrifice but a revelation of Love
When one understands that Genesis 22 reveals as much about God as it does about Abraham then we can begin to get glimpse of the extent of love God has for us. For in Genesis 22 Abraham was only tested in his sacrifice of his son but in the crucifixion, Jesus was not being tested and no one said, “Its ok now we know you love the human race you don’t have to go through with it.” No voice came to intervene and stop the ordeal of the Fathers sacrifice of His son . As Isaiah the prophet described God actually had to “watch the suffering of his soul” (Isaiah 53:10-12)
More than an Ancient Story
In closing, one must ask the question: Who in the world could make this story up? Who could have put all this together but God? The obvious and subtle parallels with Jesus on the cross, the foreshadowing of a substitute offering, the prophetic imagery and the historical fulfillments are just too intertwined to be coincidental. The only explanation is that there is a God who knew from the beginning what would take place.
The theme of deliverance by the blood of an unblemished lamb was carried throughout the early Scriptures and finds fulfillment in one person - Jesus Christ.
At the Cross we get a glimpse of the anguish that God went through in order to provide a substitute offering for us. It is there at the cross that we begin to realize his faithfulness and love towards us and the enormous price that would be paid to set us free. It is there that we gain a deeper appreciation of the submission of Jesus as he trusted in God to take care of him during the ordeal of the crucifixion. As Isaac would come to watch the ram slaughtered instead of him We must appreciate that someone was sacrificed instead of ourselves. We must always treasure the sacrifice that was given for us.
What Abraham was asked to do, in the end, God the Father, did Himself. We must never lose our wonder in the love of a Creator who sacrificed that which He loved more than anything in order to bring us back to Himself. Someone has said “the Cross is God’s way of saying this is how much I love you. This is how much I am willing to spend to have you back.” Its hard to see how the Jewish leaders of Jesus day could miss the Messianic significance of this event. But Jesus says they did. “Your father Abraham rejoiced; and he saw it, and was glad! “(John 8:56)
“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me.” (.John 5:39)
“For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me. “ (John 5:46)
Just as they missed the Messiah (Him) in Moses writings - so they missed (the Messiah) Him in his actual appearance and words as he stood before them. Let us make sure we don’t miss Him! The following lyrics composed by singer songwriter Michael Card tell the story of Genesis 22 while poetically describing the spiritual significance of this event;
God Will Provide a Lamb by Michael Card)
Three days journey to the sacred place
A boy and a man with a sorrowful face.
Tortured yet faithful to God’s command
To take the life of his son - with his own hand.
Chorus: God will provide a lamb. He was offered up in your place.
A sacrifice- so spotless and pure- to take all your sins away
Here’s wood and fire - but where’s the sacrifice? There’s the questioning voice and the innocent eyes.
Is this son of laughter that you’ve waited for - to die like a lamb to please the Lord?
A gleaming knife an accepted choice. A rush of wind and an angel’s voice.
A lamb in the thicket- caught by its horns. And a new day of trusting the Lord is born.
Chorus: For God has provided a lamb. He was offered up in your place.
What Abraham was asked, to do He has done - He’s offered His only Son.
In the end, the very thing Abraham was asked do, God Himself did in the offering of His Son on our behalf. Hopefully this study helps us to never lose our wonder and gratitude for His incredible provision for each of us revealed on the mountain of Calvary. --Phillip Lester -June 30, 2012