Seeing Christ in Abraham’s Offering of Isaac

Concerning the Genesis 22 account of Abraham offering Issac as a sacrifice, atheist Richard Dawkins stated, “By the standards of modern morality this is an example of a disgraceful story simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical relationships…”1 Apparently to Dawkins and other prominent atheists this anecdote is an example of how the Bible is a terrible source for determining human morality because it promotes child murder. Having been exposed to the Bible since birth, I admit that I may be too familiar with the story to find it so harsh. But I think the bigger reason is that I have been blessed to have had people teach it to me with reasonable and competent biblical interpretation skills2. When you understand the story as God intended, the morality of it is turned on its head and is an incredible story of how God works and teaches.

There are a few reasons I say this. First, I say it because while God did ask Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice and Abraham was willing to do so, it’s not as simple as Abraham blindly following a cruel command from God to kill. As we will see below, Abraham trusted God to raise Isaac from the dead. And trust was indeed a part of the command, as always is when following the Christian God. For some, this may not take the sting from the part of the story where Abraham raises his knife, but it does change Abraham’s perspective. Abraham did not think he was going to lose Isaac and God never intended to take him. In my opinion, it’s a bit haughty to be more upset at this story than Abraham apparently was. Additionally, since pagans in that era did sacrifice their children to their powerless gods, the true God may have been showing his uniqueness and sovereignty by intervening and preventing the sacrifice from happening. And there may be several things about this story I don’t yet know that may cause me to not see it as a harsh command from God.

But there is one reason this story is important that rises above the rest and that is that it points to Christ, 2,000 years before he came to earth to die and conquer death. There are numerous phrases in Genesis 22:1-8 that parallel Christ’s Good Friday sacrifice and Easter Resurrection. Let’s look at them one at a time:

1. “Your only son whom you love” (vs. 2, cf. Hebrews 11:17, John 3:16)

In my opinion, this phrasing isn’t an accident. By saying that Isaac was Abraham’s “only” son, he did not mean “sole” or “without others.” It would have to mean something different since Abraham had Ishmael as well as other sons we read about in Genesis 25. To find the answer, we can see that a similar Greek phrase used in direct reference to Isaac as Abraham’s “only” son in Hebrews 11:17 is also used of Christ in the New Testament. Several times in John, Jesus is referred to as God’s “only” Son. Here the “only” means his ‘unique’ Son rather than “sole” or “without others.”3. Jesus is unique and not God’s only child because the Bible says all followers of Christ are children of God. I think the identical phrasing that describes Jesus in John and Isaac in Genesis and Hebrews is an intentional parallel. 

2. Mount Moriah (vs. 2)

Although it is not agreed upon by all scholars, it is at least possible that this place is where both the temple was built later in the OT (2 Chronicles 3:1) and also where Jesus would be crucified4.

3. “Offer him as a burnt offering” (vs. 2)

This sacrifice meant the giving up of something at great cost. But since there was a human son involved in this particular sacrifice instead of an animal, and we know that Christ was also human son who was sacrifice once for all (1 Peter 3:18), the allusion to Christ is probable.

4. “On the third day…” (vs. 4)

This one is easy to see as it relates to Good Friday and Easter. You might think this is coincidence. Maybe we are seeing too much in the text to think that Abraham waiting three days after Isaac “died” to see him “come back to life.”(According to Hebrews 11:19, Isaac did die in the sense that Abraham had already determined in heart to kill him. And according to Hebrews 11:19, he did “come back to life.”) But with all the other allusions to Christ’s death in this story, I don’t think this is coincidence.

5. “We will return to you.” (vs. 5, cf Hebrews 11:19)

This is a significant one to me, and strongly verified by Hebrews 11:19 which as we’ve seen says that Abraham believed God could raise Isaac from the dead. In the Genesis text, Abraham says “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” [Italics mine.]5 Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac, but says they both would come back. I think Hebrews 11:19 keeps this from reading too much into the text. On the issue of Isaac coming back from the dead in Abraham’s mind, both OT and NT are clear.

6. “Put the wood on Isaac” (vs. 6)

We know that Christ had to carry his own cross (John 19:17).

7. “God will provide the lamb” (vs. 8, cf. Gen. 22:14)

And God did provide a ram instead of Isaac. And this is the source of the name Jehovah-Jireh, as this is what Abraham called this place. Romans 8:32 says “God didn’t even spare his own son” and John the Baptist says “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” Jesus is the lamb God provided once and for all. This is why the name Jehovah-Jireh has special meaning even today for the followers of Abraham’s God.  

Finding Christ in the Old Testament is essential to the story of God’s plan of redemption set into motion from the beginning of time. I’ve heard it said that Christ is most obvious in the Old Testament in Genesis 22, Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. I think the teaching above affirms that Genesis 22 has a well-deserved place in this list.

  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 275
  2. Dr. Robert J. Morgan was the first person I heard present this information as I’m going to present it, at a student life retreat at Welch College in 2002, and I’ve heard many others present it since then
  3. The New English Translation textual notes explain: “Although this word is often translated ‘only begotten,’ such a translation is misleading, since in English it appears to express a metaphysical relationship. The word in Greek was used of an only child (a son {Luke 7:12, 9:38} or a daughter Luke 8:42). It was also used of something unique (only one of its kind) such as the mythological Phoenix (1 Clement 25:2). From here it passes easily to a description of Isaac (Heb 11:17 and Josephus, Ant. 1.13.1 {1.222}) who was not Abraham’s only son, but was one-of-a-kind because he was the child of the promise. Thus the word means “one-of-a-kind” and is reserved for Jesus in the Johannine literature of the NT. While all Christians are children of God (τέκνα θεοῦ, tekna qeou), Jesus is God’s Son in a unique, one-of-a-kind sense. The word is used in this way in all its uses in the Gospel of John (1:14, 1:18, 3:16, and 3:18).”
  5. This is the NIV translation. Some translations leave out the “we will” before “come back to you” because it assumes the same antecedent as the verb “worship” just before it.  But “come back to you” is also in the first person plural—-the we/us form.  There is no way, at least grammatically speaking, that Genesis 22:5 says that Abraham was going to come back alone.

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married nearly seven years and have a 3-year-old son, Liam Erasmus. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

5 thoughts on “Seeing Christ in Abraham’s Offering of Isaac

  • March 14, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    Your point about child sacrifice is a good argument against people like Dawkins. In a way, this moment was God communicating his condemnation of child sacrifice. At a time when the gods of Canaan demanded the blood of children, Yahweh is making it clear that this is NOT the way he is worshiped.

    • March 14, 2016 at 4:31 pm

      I read that somewhere in one of my books and tried like the dickens to find it so I could cite it but never found which book it was in. I’m not the most well read person but I read enough that I forget where I have read things.

  • March 15, 2016 at 10:58 am

    Abraham’s faith throughout this is what has always struck me most. He believed fully that God would raise Isaac. Wow. It humbles me when I think of all the things God has promised that I forget in hard times or in the midst of a difficult choice. Isaac was the promised child. Abraham knew that. Because he believed what God had told him about Isaac, he knew that God would provide a way.

    • March 15, 2016 at 11:11 am

      There are so many layers to the story and if it were fiction it would be among the best writing ever. The fact it’s not shows that God is a tremendously creative and deep author in real life. You have the amazing faith of a man in as intense a command as there could be, the uniqueness of God in preventing the sacrifice and the parallels to Christ all in a single chapter.

  • April 2, 2019 at 2:42 pm

    Some of our newer readers might have missed this since we published it over three years ago. Take a few minutes to read it if you haven’t yet. Or, read it again as it is worth a second look.


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