What was the Sign of Abraham’s Sacrifice?

Abraham is one of the most foundational characters of the Old Testament in helping us to understand the Gospel. He lived 4000 years ago traveling from what is modern-day Iraq to live as a wanderer in what is modern-day Israel. We saw in the Session on External Evidence that cities and names from his era are referenced in ancient tablets preserved for us today. So the setting of his account is entirely historical. There is no evidence from archaeology to dismiss his account and there is rather good reason to take this account seriously.

So I would like to look at a well-known part of the account of Abraham, the part where God asked him to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac, for whom Abraham had waited many years, and on whom all his hopes for his future progeny rested.  This story is also known as the binding of Isaac.

So Abraham encounters his greatest test and it gives us a ‘peek’ into the Gospel.  I encourage you to read the full account in Genesis concerning the test of the sacrifice of his son here.

The sacrifice looking to the future

We can see from the account that this was a test for Abraham, yet it is also for us.  But to ‘see’ this we need to note a few observations from the account.  Here is the pertinent portion of the account:

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So 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.” (Genesis 22:13-14)

Notice the name that Abraham gave to that place where the test occurred. He named it ‘The LORD will provide’. The question we need to ask is: ‘Is that name in the past tense, present tense or future tense?’ It is clearly in the future tense. And to be even more clear the comment which follows (which Moses inserted when he compiled this account into the Jewish Torah about 500 years later) repeats “…it will be provided”. Again this is in the future tense and thus looking to the future.  But this naming occurs after the sacrifice of the ram (a male sheep) in place of Isaac. Many who read the account think that Abraham, when naming that place, is referring to the ram caught in the thicket and sacrificed in place of his son. But when Abraham names the place the ram is already dead, sacrificed and burnt. If Abraham is thinking of the ram – already dead, sacrificed and burnt – he would have named it ‘The LORD has provided’, i.e. in the past tense. And Moses, if he was thinking of the ram that took the place of Abraham’s son would have commented ‘And to this day it is said “On the mountain of the LORD it was provided”’. But both Abraham and Moses clearly give it a name in future tense and therefore are not thinking of that already dead and sacrificed ram.

Where the sacrifice happened

So what are they thinking about then? If we look for a clue we see that the place where God told Abraham to go at the beginning of this Sign was:

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (v.2)

This happened in ‘Moriah’. But where is that? Though it was a wilderness area in Abraham’s day (2000 BC), a thousand years later (1000 BC) King David established the city of Jerusalem there, and his son Solomon built the First Jewish Temple there. We read later in the Old Testament historical books that:

Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to his father David (2 Chronicles 3:1)

In other words, ‘Mount Moriah’ in the time of Abraham was an isolated mountain top in the wilderness but 1000 years later through David and Solomon it became the central and capital city of the Israelites where they built the Jewish Temple. And to this very day it is a holy place for the Jewish people.

Jesus and the Sacrifice of Abraham

And here we find a direct connection to Jesus and the Gospel. We see this connection when we consider one of the titles attributed to Jesus.  Now Jesus had many titles associated with him.  In the previous post I looked at the interplay of titles ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God’ used at his trial.  And perhaps the most well-known title of his is ‘Christ’. But there is another title given to him that is not as well known, but hugely important. We see this in the Gospel of John when John the Baptist says:

The next day John (i.e. John the Baptist) saw Jesus (i.e. Jesus) coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I meant when I said ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me’”. (John 1:29-30)

In other words, Jesus was also known as ‘The Lamb of God”. Now consider the end of Jesus’ life. Where was he arrested and crucified? It was in Jerusalem (which as we saw is the same as ‘Mount Moriah’). It is very clearly stated during his arrest that:

When he [Pilate] learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at the time.’ (Luke 23:7)

In other words, the arrest, trial and sentencing of Jesus happened in Jerusalem (= Mount Moriah).

Back to Abraham. Why did he name that place in the future tense ‘The LORD will provide’? How could he know that something would be ‘provided’ there in his future that would so precisely mirror the drama of the scene he enacted on Mount Moriah? Think about it – in that drama Isaac is saved from death at the last moment because a lamb dies in his place. Two thousand years later, Jesus is called ‘Lamb of God’ and is arrested and dies on the same spot!  Both Abraham and Moses claimed that it was revealed to them by God.

A Divine Mind Reveals Himself

And indeed it is as though there is a Mind that is connecting these two events separated by 2000 years of history.

The prophecy in the sacrifice of Abraham on mount moriah is a pointer to jesus

The sacrifice of Abraham was a Sign – pointing forward 2000 years – to make us think about the death of Jesus.

But what makes this unique is that the earlier event is pointing to the second event two thousand years later.  We know the earlier was configured to point to the later because the name given by Abraham and Moses was ‘The LORD will provide’ i.e. it looks to the future.  The figure illustrates how the earlier event alludes to the later one and was configured to remind us of the later event.  This is evidence that this Mind is revealing Himself to us by coordinating events though separated by thousands of years.  This is evidence that God has spoken.  Take a look here for a discussion on other possible explanations.

Good News for you and me

But this account is also pertinent to us for more personal reasons. At the end of the exchange God declares to Abraham that

“…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:18)

If you belong to one of the ‘nations on earth’ (and you do!) this has to concern you because the promise is that you then can get a ‘blessing’ from God himself!  Even only a possibility of a blessing from God should move us to investigate further.

But how is this ‘blessing’ given?  For starters, the word ‘offspring’ here is in the singular. It is not ‘offsprings’ as in many descendants or peoples, but in the singular as in a ‘he’, not through many people or a group of people as in ‘they’.   Again, this points to Jesus, the offspring of Abraham.  Just like the ram saved Isaac from death by dieing in his place, so the Lamb of God, by his death, saves us from the power of death.  The Good News of the gospel is foreshadowed beyond that of chance coincidences in the remarkable account of the sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, the same spot where 2000 years later it ‘was provided’

[Click here for this Sign explained to those with an Islamic perspective and an interest in Eid al-Adha and Ibrahim (PBUH).]

 

 

Addressing objections to the Signs of Abraham & Moses

In my previous post I noted that a really good comment had been submitted on the External Evidence Session, basically questioning the value of external evidence.  The comment noted that external evidence does not tell us whether or not the gospel stories were legendary extrapolations built around a historical kernel of events.  I agreed, but submitted that at the very minimum external evidence can be used to weed out pretenders from contenders, similar to how first-year university courses are often designed to weed out students with insufficient motivation or aptitude.

First-year courses also serve as the foundational prerequisites upon which the more useful upper-year courses are built – the ones that give the knowledge and information that we really use.  In a similar way we are now in a position to integrate the External Evidence Session with that of Session 5 – where we opened a case to see if there is a Divine Mind behind the biblical account.

Abraham sacrifices his Son

In that 5th Session we looked at two very important stories in the earliest section of the Old Testament – in the Pentateuch of the books ascribed to Moses.  We first looked at the account of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, which (though many are not aware of it) we showed to be the place where the city of Jerusalem was eventually established.  And we saw that there are allusions in this account of Abraham that have fascinating parallels with, and point to, Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem.  It is the fact that the allusion predates the event it alludes to by thousands of years that makes it so especially intriguing.  It points to a drama/literary mind, but since no human mind can coordinate events far into the future it opens the possibility that there is indeed a Divine Mind coordinating these events.

Tacitus: External Evidence Corroborating where Jesus was crucified

Now the first (and most obvious) rebuttal to this is that the gospel writers simply made up the ‘detail’ of Jesus’crucifixion being in Jerusalem to make it ‘fit’ that Abrahamic allusion.  But now we know from external evidence that Tacitus (a historian not at all sympathetic to the gospel) places that event in Judea.  He says:

Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, … but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated…(Annals XV. 44)

Josephus: External Evidence Corroborating Jesus

Josephus, the Jewish historian from the same period agrees with Tacitus in saying that:

At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die.  (Antiquities Book XVIII, III)

And Josephus tells us in his Antiquities in the two paragraphs just preceding this quote that:

But now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Cesarea to Jerusalem, to take their winter quarters there …Pilate was the first who brought these [pagan] images to Jerusalem and set them there …But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem (Antiquities Book XVIII, III)

In other words, though the Roman center had previously been in Cesarea, Pilate was in Jerusalem when Jesus was executed.  So we have two external sources with unbiased or negative motives that corroborate the crucifixion of Jesus being under Pilate in Jerusalem.  Thus we know that the Gospel writers did not fabricate this detail to make it ‘fit’ the allusion from Abraham.

Moses’ Passover Account

Similarly with the Mosaic Passover story we saw allusions pointing to the Passover as the time of year when Jesus was to be executed.  For Jesus’ death to fall on that same festival by chance is slim indeed.  Adding to that is that the Mosaic account tells us that this festival is a ‘sign for us’ and it comes with so many parallels to Jesus crucifixion.  Did the Gospel writers fabricate this link to the Passover to make it ‘fit’ the allusion from Moses?

Jewish Talmud: External Evidence

We did not cover this particular item in the External Evidence session, but in the Jewish Talmud is preserved this statement about the execution of Jesus.

“Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve.  Forty days previously the herald had cried, ‘He is being led out for stoning because he has practised sorcery and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy.  Whosoever has anything to say in his defence let him come and declare it’.  As nothing was brought forward in his defence he was hanged on Passover Eve” cited in FF Bruce,  Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. 1974 p.56

So we have, once again, hostile witnesses, that though disagreeing on the meaning of Jesus, place Jesus’ crucifixion (ie hanging) at Passover.  They would be the last people to have any motive to do so because it strengthens the meaning of Jesus that they are vehemently at odds with.

So we cannot simply dismiss the fulfillment of these allusions that we looked at in Session 5 as simply fabrications on the part of the gospel writers.  We have to take it seriously as history.

And that does partially address an issue that was raised when Justin asked:

The main issue at hand, I think, is the apparent impossibility of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection…can that really be addressed in this way?

In other words, how can one verify the miraculous?  And we here are confronted with a strengthening case for a Divine Mind in these accounts since, using external evidence, we cannot dismiss their fulfillment simply by saying that the gospel writers made it up.  These particular details are verifiable.  And if there is a Divine Mind, i.e. God, then certainly miracles are possible.  Now, I titled Session 5 as an ‘opening case’ because I think if there are only these two allusions it is certainly conceivable that coincidence could explain them.  But it does open up a possibility that surely warrants further investigation.  Are there more, even ones that are more explicit?  Here is a good place to start to investigate.