The Lord had promised Abraham (formerly known as Abram, until he was renamed by the Lord) that he would one day have a son of his own with his wife Sarah. Finally, in their old age, Sarah, as promised, gives birth to a son, Abraham’s long-promised heir. Abraham names his son Isaac and has him circumcised on the eighth day as a sign of the Lord’s covenant into which Isaac is born. Thus, God has finally, after all these years of promises to Abraham and Sarah, given them their own son. The promise of salvation through the coming Christ will be carried on through Isaac.
Yet, when Isaac is older the Lord tells Abraham, “Take 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” (Genesis 22:2). After all the years of promises and waiting, Abraham finally has his own son Isaac from his wife Sarah, as a result of the Lord’s grace. Now, though, the Lord tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son! If Abraham kills Isaac, how will the Lord fulfill His promise to bless all people through Abraham’s offspring and make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the beach? However, Abraham trusted in the Lord, as the New Testament book of Hebrews explains: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-19).
So, Abraham heads off for the mountains taking Isaac, a donkey, and two servants with him, along with wood for “the burnt offering.” After three days they come within sight of the mountain, and Abraham leaves the servants with the donkey. He lays the wood on Isaac and takes in his hands a torch and a knife. Isaac, the promised only-begotten son of Abraham, carries the wood on which he will be sacrificed. As they head to the mountain together, Isaac says to his father, “My father! … Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham replies, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:7-8).
God most certainly does. Immediately before Abraham is about to kill his son, the “angel of the LORD” calls to him and says, “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 22:9-12). Then, Abraham sees a ram stuck in a thicket, so he takes the ram and uses it for the sacrifice rather than his son. The Lord has indeed provided a sacrifice in order to save Abraham’s son. In response, Abraham names the mountain, “The LORD will provide” and later generations said, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided” (Genesis 22:14).
The Lord did provide on the mountain. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, the Lord provided a sacrifice to be killed in the place of Isaac. Abraham offered up his only son, but the Lord provided a sacrifice in his place, saving him. It is interesting that this event occurred on Mount Moriah, the very place where the later temple will be built, and the very place where Jesus Christ will be taken by his parents.
In Luke’s Gospel, Luke relates the events surrounding Jesus’ presentation at the temple by his parents (cf. Luke 2:22-40). Luke notes that when the time came for Mary and Jesus’ purification according to the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph went to the temple in Jerusalem to “present [Jesus] to the Lord.” The law to which Luke refers is in Leviticus 12, where the Lord gives the appointed times of purification for a woman after childbirth. The purpose of the purification times is to give the woman time to rest after giving birth.
Leviticus 12 says that if a woman gives birth to a boy, then she is considered unclean for seven days. On the eighth day, the boy is to be circumcised; Jesus‘ circumcision is also related in Luke’s Gospel as occurring on the eighth day. Then, the woman is considered unclean for another 33 days. After this time she is to bring an offering to the priest, originally at the tabernacle, which by Mary’s time had been replaced by the temple. Interestingly, in Leviticus, the prescribed offering is a lamb for a burnt offering, and turtledoves and pigeons for a sin offering. However, if the woman can’t afford a lamb, then she can bring just a pair of turtledoves or pigeons.
Mary and Joseph are poor, so they bring simply a pair of birds as prescribed in Leviticus. Yet, it’s interesting that the lamb for the sacrifice is there as well. John the Baptist has referred to Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (cf. John 1:29). Thus, when Mary brings Jesus to the temple, she is carrying this little lamb of God, the one who will be sacrificed on the cross in our place, dying for our sins.
This again calls to mind Abraham’s words to his son Isaac: “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). Indeed, God did do so in Genesis 22, as noted above. The angel of the Lord prevented Abraham from sacrificing his son and substituted a ram, a male lamb, in his place instead. Thus, God provided the lamb for the burnt offering in place of Abraham’s son. Furthermore, all this occurred on Mount Moriah, the place where the temple was later built, the very place where Mary goes with her son to present him to the Lord.
The Lord has indeed provided for himself the lamb for the offering, and it is His only-begotten son. This Son, Jesus Christ, has died in our place for our sins. He is the perfect, unblemished Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by dying for our sins and then rising to justify us before God, making us right in God’s eyes by bestowing upon us his righteousness.
Thus, in many ways, the account of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah points forward to the death of Jesus Christ, God’s only-begotten Son. We, as sinful human beings, deserved to die an eternal death, separated from God and each other. However, the Lord provided on His mountain. On the mount of the cross, the Lord provided the sacrificial Lamb who died in our place in order to save us. The Lord did not spare His Son, but sent him as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins.
(The preceding is excerpted and adapted from my book The Christian Story: As Seen Through the Old Testament).
(Image: The Sacrifice of Abraham, 1531, by Lucas Cranach the Elder – torino.repubblica.it, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32545570 )