The Akedah: Prophetic Reflections

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.” Abraham too the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked off together. Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the lamb1 for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the lamb1for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together. They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of the LORD there is a vision.” (Gen. 22:4-14, NJPS)

The Akedah is rich with imagery, especially when read Christologically, but I want to focus on Abraham the prophet in this post.  First of all, let’s note that Abraham was called a prophet by God in Genesis 20:7, lest anyone think I’m forcing the title on him unjustly.  In vs. 5 of the above-quoted portion of Scripture, Abraham prophesied his son’s survival (even if unwittingly, see Rashi) when he told his servants that he and Isaac would return after ascending to worship.

But there’s something else at work here.  When Isaac asked where the lamb (שׂה) was for the burnt offering, Abraham responded by saying that God would “see to the lamb (שׂה)” (or “provide Himself the lamb”); yet this isn’t what happened.  When Abraham raised the knife to slay Isaac and the angel of the Lord stopped him, he looked up to see a ram (איל) caught in the thicket.  It was this ram (איל), not a lamb (שׂה), that Abraham sacrificed to God.

I believe that Abraham had a prophetic vision of the cross of Christ when he uttered those words.  The New Testament is ripe with references to Jesus being the ‘Lamb’ (Jo. 1:29, 36; 1Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:12-13; et. al.)  In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus speaks of his impending death (8:21-30) and then contends with the Jews over who the true disciples of God are (8:31ff).  His opponents appeal to being descendants of Abraham to show that they have never been in bondage, and they even claim God as their father.  Jesus’ response is to point out that they have not responded in faith as their ancestor Abraham had, and that had God truly been their father, they would have believed in Jesus because he had done the works of the Father. 

Jesus claimed that eternal life belonged to those who kept his word, which was followed by a charge that he had a demon.  The Jews saw this as a affront to their father Abraham and the prophets, who kept God’s word and died anyway (they obviously missed the significance of what Jesus was saying).  But all of this opened the door for Jesus to say: “Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’” (John 8:56, NRSV)  What day was it that Abraham saw?  I believe that while atop mount Moriah, Abraham had a vision of the crucified Christ.  I believe that this is what led him to utter the words, “God will see to (or provide Himself) the lamb.”  Given the placement of this in John’s narrative (after Jesus’ speaking about being “lifted up” i.e., crucified, cf. Jo. 3:14), I suspect that John saw this as well. 

B”H

1 I have chosen to use the 1917 rendering of ‘lamb’ as opposed to the updated version’s ‘sheep’ here.

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