4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” – Genesis 22:4-14 ESV
Three days into their journey to the region of Moriah, Abraham saw their final destination in the distance and decided to leave his servants behind. He and Isaac would travel alone to the place of sacrifice. Abraham, perhaps hoping to hide his true intentions from his unwitting son, told his servants, “The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back” (Genesis 22:5 NLT). Some have determined this to be a statement of faith on Abraham’s part, suggesting that he was confident that God would spare his son. But it seems more likely that Abraham was waiting until the last minute to let Isaac in on the true nature of their journey.
Moses describes how Abraham took all the elements he would need for the sacrifice, including a knife, a blazing torch, and wood. Then he adds the heartwrenching notation: “And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son” (Genesis 22:6 ESV). Isaac was carrying the very wood upon which his young life would be consumed.
For those of us living on this side of the crucifixion, it should be easy to recognize the similarities between Isaac and Jesus. Both entered the world through miraculous, God-ordained births. Isaac was born to an elderly and barren woman. Jesus was born to a young virgin girl. Each of them was deeply adored by their respective fathers. And just as Abraham was facing the prospect of sacrificing his son, centuries later, God would offer up His one and only Son as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). There is even a striking similarity between Isaac bearing the wood for his own sacrifice and Jesus carrying the cross upon which He would be crucified.
But for the Jews for whom Moses recorded this story, none of these links to the future death of the Messiah would have been apparent. For them, this story would have had significance because it involved Isaac, who would later become the father of Jacob, the man whom God later renamed, Israel. And it was from this one man that they owed their very existence. To hear the story of how Jacob’s father was almost put to death by order of Yahweh must have left them appalled and confused. How could their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, order such a thing? And, of course, they would have been viewing this entire scene through the lens of the Mosaic Law. They had been given clear instructions to avoid the religious rituals and customs of their pagan neighbors.
You must not worship the Lord your God the way the other nations worship their gods, for they perform for their gods every detestable act that the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters as sacrifices to their gods. – Leviticus 12:31 NLT
And yet, Abraham had no written law to guide his actions. He was operating according to the spoken word of God Almighty, and His instructions had been very clear.
“Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.” – Genesis 22:2 NLT
The disconcerting nature of this divine command would have left them filled with questions. Why would God require the sacrifice of the very son whom He had miraculously provided to Abraham and Sarah? What possible good could come from something so seemingly wicked? But the key is found in three words found in the opening verse of this chapter: God tested Abraham.
The people of Israel were very familiar with the concept of divine testing. In fact, their ancestors had spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, enduring ongoing tests from Yahweh that were designed to increase their dependence upon Him. The book of Deuteronomy records Moses’ powerful words spoken to the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the land of Canaan for the first time.
“Remember how the LORD your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell. Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the LORD your God disciplines you for your own good.” – Deuteronomy 8:2-5 NLT
So, it seems highly likely that they would have understood this test that Abraham was having to face. They knew that Yahweh expected obedience from His people because obedience was a sign of dependence and faith. And they knew what disobedience looked like because they had grumbled and whined about their dislike for manna. During their years wandering in the wilderness, they had spent more time complaining to Moses than they spent worshiping and expressing gratitude to God.
As Abraham and Isaac made their way to the site of the sacrifice, Isaac couldn’t help but notice that something was missing.
He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” – Genesis 22:7 ESV
To the young Isaac, this was a glaring oversight. Why had his father failed to select an unblemished lamb before they left home? How were they going to find a suitable animal out in the wilderness? But Abraham calmly answered, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8 ESV). Once again, there are those who believe this was an expression of Abraham’s faith. They suggest that Abraham somehow knew that God would provide a substitute. But, according to the author of Hebrews, Abraham was declaring his belief that Isaac was the lamb that God had provided. The sacrifice would take place. But Abraham still believed that God would fulfill His covenant promise, even if it meant raising Isaac from the dead.
It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.” Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead. – Hebrews 11:17-19 NLT
Abraham fully intended to go through with God’s command. He did not delay, hoping for a last-minute reprieve. He did not scan the horizon, hoping for a lamb to miraculously appear. No, Moses records that “Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice” (Genesis 22:0-10 NLT).
One can only imagine the turmoil going on in Abraham’s mind and heart. Every fiber of his being must have been conflicted as his fatherly instincts waged war against his desire to walk before God and be blameless (Genesis 17:1). Interestingly enough, Moses provides no insight into Isaac’s reactions. The young boy appears to remain eerily silent throughout this ordeal. He asked no further questions. He refused to put up a struggle. And, just as Abraham prepared to shed the blood of his own innocent son, God intervened.
“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” – Genesis 22:21 ESV
Abraham clearly loved Isaac. But he reverenced God. The Hebrew word for “fear” is יָרֵא (yārē’) and, in this context, it refers to reverent awe for God that is expressed through obedience. Abraham did not do what he did out of fear of God’s wrath, but out of reverence for God’s holiness and power. His obedience was an expression of his faith in an all-powerful and perfectly righteous God.
As the author of Hebrews suggests, “Abraham did receive his son back from the dead” (Hebrews 11:17 NLT). In Abraham’s mind, Isaac’s death was a foregone conclusion. But, at the very last second, his son’s life was spared. God provided a substitute.
Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. – Genesis 22:17 ESV
This verse foreshadows another sacrifice that would take place centuries later. It too would involve a loving Father and His precious Son. But this time, there would be no last-minute reprieve. There would be no substitute. In fact, the Son would serve as the substitute for sinful mankind. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the tremendous cost that our Heavenly Father paid so that we might live to see another day.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? – Romans 8:32 ESV
Abraham had his son returned to him, and out of gratitude and a growing reverence for this gracious and compassionate God, he named the place Yahweh-Yireh (which means “the Lord will provide”). Isaac was spared, not because he deserved it. But because God had plans to offer a far more significant and superior sacrifice. And the apostle Paul declares the glory of this future gift the Lamb who would take away the sins of the world.
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. – Romans 3:23-26 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.