19. Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac

Here is a painting of the angle stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. Abraham was the father of faith.
The Sacrifice of Isaac, Domenichino, 1626, Baroque Classicism 

There is a grand unity to the Bible. The story of Abraham itself can seem confusing because there are so many moving parts to it. But the story of Abraham fits together as a unified whole around the theme of covenant. Below is the outline that I will use to discuss the Abrahamic covenant so that hopefully it makes more sense as you grasp the big picture of this remarkable story.

Please read post 18 if you haven’t already as background for this post.

Summary of the Abrahamic Covenant1

1. The Sevenfold Promise of the Abrahamic Covenant – Genesis 12:1-3

2. The Inaugural Blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant – Genesis 14:17-24

The inaugural blessing set in motion the following:

3. The Ratification of the Covenant; Abraham would be a great nation – Genesis 15/fulfilled Deuteronomy 1

4. The Sign and Seal of the Covenant, Circumcision; Abraham’s name would be great (i.e, that kings would come from him) – Genesis 17/fulfilled 2 Samuel 7

5. The Consummation of the Covenant, Sacrifice of Isaac and Oath sworn by God; all of the nations of the earth will be blessed – Genesis 22/fulfilled Matthew 26:26-28

Some time after the covenant of circumcision was instituted, Sarah finally gave birth to a son, Isaac, at the age of 99. God fulfilled the promise to give a natural heir to Abraham and Sarah through which the promise of the covenant would be fulfilled. It had been over 25 years from the call of Abraham in Ur to the birth of Isaac. 

The only thing left now that Isaac was born was for Abraham to consummate the covenant. God put Abraham to the ultimate test to see if he would be faithful to the covenant by exercising obedience to Him. 

Abraham’s Test of Faith

God asked Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son of the covenant, Isaac. Abraham brought Isaac to Mount Moriah (the site of present day Jerusalem) in order to sacrifice Isaac.2 This is very near to the place where he received the inaugural covenantal blessing from Melchizedek years before. Over the years, Abraham’s faith was tried and tested and as a result, it grew deep roots in the soil of the covenant that God had made with him. The reward of Abraham’s faith was the miraculous birth of his son Isaac to his wife Sarah, who had been barren and was past the age of being able to bear children. 

Now Abraham faced one more test of faith. He never knew his God to be one to require human sacrifice as some of the surrounding nations did. He was sure of the covenantal promise that God had made to provide an heir and how that promise was specifically fulfilled in Isaac. He didn’t quite know what God would do, but he trusted Him enough to reason that if he did indeed go through with the sacrifice, that God would be able to raise Isaac from the dead. If fact, he was confident of that for he told his servants, “Wait here, we will worship and then we will come back to you.” 

He put the wood for the sacrifice on Isaac’s back, made sure that he had his knife, and walked with Isaac up to the top of Mount Moriah to the specific place that God had appointed. When he reached the top of Mount Moriah, he built an altar and carefully arranged the wood on the altar. He then bound his son and laid him on top of the altar. He stretched out his hand with the knife, ready to slay his son, when the text says:

“But the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy 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.’

The word “angel” simply means “messenger” or “ambassador.”3 The early church fathers saw these type of appearances as pre-incarnate appearances of Christ, which are called  Christophanies. Other instances of these types of appearances are found in Genesis 16 when God appeared to Hagar and in Judges 13 when God appeared to Samson’s parents. 

If this is a pre-incarnate appearance of the Christ, then the irony is not lost on the situation. Here is the only begotten Son of the Father stopping Abraham from sacrificing his one and only son because one day he would become the sacrifice of God. In the meantime, Abraham sacrificed a ram that was caught in a thicket, that itself being another type of picture of the sacrifice of Christ. 

Also, Abraham is a picture of the heavenly Father who did not spare His one and only Son, but gave him as life to the world. With Abraham and Isaac, we have an earthly type of a heavenly reality.

Isaac, a Type of Christ

There are many parallels between the sacrifice of Isaac and the crucifixion of Jesus.4 They were both sacrificed in that geographical location. Both Isaac and Jesus had a miraculous conception. Just as Abraham led Isaac up the mountain with the wood on his back, so the Father would lead His Son up to his crucifixion on the mountain with the cross on his back.  Isaac and Jesus were both submissive to their fathers and their fathers greatly loved them.  They were both bound and laid on the wood/cross.

They both came back from the dead – Jesus literally and Isaac figuratively. 

“The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.'” 

There is a lot to discuss as far as the ramifications of the Abrahamic Covenant that I will continue to discuss in the next post, but I would like to conclude this post by discussing the eschatological nature of this covenant.

As the covenant-making process unfolds in Genesis 15, 17, and 22, the three main covenantal promises of 1) great nation, 2) great name, i.e., kings, and 3) a blessing to all nations are reinforced and build to a crescendo:5

Chapter 15 Great Nation

Chapter 17 Great Nation   Great Name

Chapter 22 Great Nation   Great Name  Blessing to the Nations 

This follows the same order of how the promises are laid out in Genesis 12:1-3. After the blessing of Melchizedek, the promises have to be ratified through covenant-making rituals. The great nation promise is ratified by the animal ceremony. Once it is ratified, it is repeated again in chapter 17 as the new promise of a great name is now ratified through the covenant of circumcision. These two ratified promises are repeated in chapter 22 where the third promise of blessing to the nations is now ratified. The promises are layered upon each other as they are ratified. 

The eschatological fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant is the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ to all the nations.  The Abrahamic Covenant was God’s blueprint to reconcile a fallen world back to Himself. The scope of the covenant was global. The nation of Israel was the instrument through which God would work to accomplish this purpose. The Messianic promise of Genesis 3:15 and the Noahic Covenant were simply precursors to the Abrahamic Covenant, and the other covenants of the Bible – the Mosaic, the Davidic, and the New Covenant – flow from the Abrahamic Covenant. 

It was only when Abraham sacrificed Isaac that the promise of all of the nations being blessed was ratified. In consummating the Abrahamic Covenant by the sacrifice of Isaac, God was declaring that promises of the covenant will only be realized by the death and resurrection of Christ. This is the only hope of the nations, the only way they can receive God’s blessing. What started as a promise in Genesis 12:1-3, ended with the sacrifice of the son of that promise.

The entire Abrahamic Covenant from beginning to end points to Christ. The text above says, “…and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain a blessing for themselves.” St. Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians says that the word “offspring” or “seed” is singular and not plural, referring to Christ.6 This is why the entire covenant is laden with sacrifice from the liturgical ceremonial sacrifice of bread and wine by Melchizedek, to the halving of the animals, to circumcision, and finally to the sacrifice of the firstborn son of the promise. Even in circumcision we have a picture of Christ, for the book of Colossians relates circumcision to the death and resurrection of Christ. 

“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the Gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall by blessed in you.’ For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.” 

-Galatians 3:8-9

How would you respond to someone who says that the God of the Old Testament was barbaric for commanding human sacrifice? Please leave you comment below. Thank you!

Footnotes:

  1. Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, pp. 93-110, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 1998
  2. “Jewish Archaeological Sites: Mt. Moriah,” Jewish Virtual Library, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1995, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mount-moriah
  3. Andrew, Augustus Paul, “Some Do Not Believe He’s an Angel,” Ancient Hebrew Research Center, https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/god-yhwh/some-do-not-believe-hes-an-angel.htm
  4. Spain, Derek, “The Answers: 30 similarities between Abraham offering Isaac on Mt. Moriah and God offering Jesus on Mt. Calvary,” Living for Christ, https://derekspain.com/2014/03/10/the-answers-30-similarities
  5. Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, pp. 94-96
  6. Galatians 3:7-18

Balentine, Samuel E., editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology: Two-Volume Set, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2015

De Mieroop, Van, A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC, 3rd Edition (Blackwell History of the Ancient World), Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, N.J., 2015

Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 1998

Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 2009

Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018

Weinfeld, M., “Covenant Terminology in the Ancient Near East and Its Influence on the West.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 93, no. 2, 1973, pp. 190–199. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/598892

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