This article is adapted from chapter 3 of Long Story Short: The Bible in 12 Phrases (Christian Focus, 2018).
As Abraham lifts the knife above Isaac, many Christians reach for the scissors, at least mentally. We want to pull a Thomas Jefferson and snip out the story from our Bibles.
In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son. Many conclude that this, surely, is an embarrassment to modern sensibilities, an affront to our common humanity. It’s an unbridgeable barrier to faith for any right-minded enquirer, isn’t it?
Bob Dylan retells the story like this:
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?” (“Highway 61 Revisited“)
“What?” isn’t Abraham’s response in the Bible, but Dylan is putting words to our alarm: You must be puttin’ me on! Child sacrifice? In a holy book? What should we make of such a story?
I love Genesis 22. It is perhaps my favorite chapter in all the Bible. I don’t want to get out the scissors; I want to get out the magnifying glass. Because if we train our eyes to see what’s there, this chapter becomes not a barrier to faith but an almighty boost.
But we need to begin with some basics.
What Is the Bible?
Sometimes Christians are the worst at answering that question. Some will reply, “The Maker’s Instruction Manual,” or “God’s Road Map.” Creative types have even given us an acronym: BIBLE stands for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Most often people, whether Christian or not, see it essentially as a moral guidebook.
But if we read Genesis 22 through that lens, we’re in for a shock. When God says, “Sacrifice your son,” how should we react? Go and do likewise? No. If we copied or endorsed each practice in the Bible, we’d be in a terrible mess (not to mention jail).
Genesis 22 should be read the way the whole Bible should be read.
Genesis 22 should be read the way the whole Bible should be read. First and foremost it’s a biography—the Spirit’s testimony to the Son. And when we see it this way, the entirety of Scripture comes into focus.
Testimony to Jesus
The key to the passage is to ask this question: Who is Isaac? Answer: Abraham’s offspring. He’s the immediate fulfillment of the cosmic promises God has been making since Genesis 12. The offspring of Abraham will save and bless the world (Gen. 12:2–3, 7; 15:5; 17:4–8). In the meantime, the “offspring” of Abraham will be the nation of Israel. In the long run, the “offspring” is Christ (Gal. 3:16). But in the first instance—before the Abrahamic people and before their Messiah—we get Isaac.
Picture baby Isaac lying in Abraham’s arms. What do you have? You have the hope of the world. No Isaac, no Israel. No Israel, no Christ. No Christ, no salvation. So whatever you do, Abraham, don’t drop him!
And then we read Genesis 22: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Everyone is shocked by this verse, but to the attentive reader it’s actually more shocking, not less, because we know who Isaac is. He’s the offspring of Abraham, the hope of the world! Through Isaac will come all God’s blessings to the nations. And now God wants him slain as a burnt offering (i.e., a sacrifice of atonement, Lev. 1:4). Apparently this is the way God will save the world—through the beloved son offered up on a mountain.
Notice that this mountain is in “the region of Moriah.” Mount Moriah will become temple mount in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 3:1). At some point the penny may just drop.
I was once teaching this story to teenagers, sketching the picture layer by layer: “Isaac is the only beloved son, the hope of the world, the source of all blessing. He’s trudging up the hill with wood on his back (Gen. 22:6); remind you of anything? It’s a hill near Jerusalem; ring any bells?” Suddenly, it was as if someone electrocuted a girl in the front row. In a good way. She started thumping her friend next to her—really thumping her—with the kind of violence born of pure joy: “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. It’s Jesus! It’s Jesus! It’s totally Jesus!”
Instead of Genesis 22 being an insurmountable barrier to faith, with Jesus at the center it becomes an incredible boost to faith.
That, essentially, is why the Bible was written. It was written to make us say, “It’s Jesus, it’s Jesus, it’s totally Jesus!” When we read the Scriptures like this, they start to make sense. Instead of Genesis 22 being an insurmountable barrier to faith, with Jesus at the center it becomes an incredible boost to faith. Remember that Genesis 22 records an event two millennia before Christ was crucified. But from the beginning, the Bible has always been testifying to history’s central event.
He Will Provide
Abraham’s faith shines through the chapter. He reassures Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (v. 8). Somehow a substitute will be provided. Somehow God will offer a lamb and everything will be okay. Abraham knows that Isaac is the promised one, the hope of the world. So whatever happens, Isaac will make it through—Abraham has this resurrection-shaped faith (Heb. 11:17–19).
On this occasion a ram is provided. Which means the “lamb” is yet future. So the whole episode concludes: “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” (Gen. 22:14).
Notice the future tense. God will provide. What will he provide? The Lamb of God, the Offspring of Abraham, the Beloved Son, the Hope of the World.
One day, on that very mountain, God would provide the ultimate atonement. And many knew it. For centuries afterward they would point to that hill and say: “The true sacrifice is coming, and that’s where he’ll be provided.”
What’s It All About?
God didn’t ask Abraham to go through with the sacrifice. But one dark Friday, God would provide. The beloved Son of the Father would walk willingly up that hill, carrying the wood on his back. And there he would be slain to save and bless the world.
If we attempt to read the Bible primarily as a rulebook, it crumbles between our fingers. With such a mindset, Genesis 22 is a scandal and a barrier to faith. Yet when Scripture is read as intended, we see it as a testimony to Christ. Suddenly we realize that all the Bible, and all believers in every age, are fixed on the one truth that towers above all others: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
- 20 Quotes from Glen Scrivener on the Whole Bible Story (Matt Smethurst)