The Mystery of Abraham’s Sacrifice
(Revised, July 2009)
During Eid ul-Adha, an imam instructed Muslims to sacrifice with the right intention. He emphasized heart issues, rather than focusing merely on external things such as blood and meat. I listened with interest to the Muslim preacher as he urged his audience to perform their Qurban sacrifice with sincere god-consciousness (taqwa).
The verse from the Qur’an on which the sermon was based, says that Allah has made sacrificial animals “subject to you, that ye may be grateful… that ye glorify God”. (Surah 22:36,37) His words reminded me of two quotations from the Bible,
I don’t need the bulls you sacrifice; I don’t need the blood of goats. What I want instead is your true thanks to God; I want you to fulfill your vows to the Most High. ... I will praise God’s name with singing, and I will honor him with thanksgiving. For this will please the Lord more than sacrificing an ox ... (Psalm 50:13,14; 69:30,31)
God-fearing people should ask themselves, “How do sacrifices in the Bible and the Qur’an enable us to glorify God and express gratitude?” I have thought much about this and trust you enjoy reading some of the insights I’ve discovered.
All of us who believe in the God of Abraham agree that sacrifices ought to express our gratitude and should inspire us to glorify God. These two themes are important aspects of worshiping God so it is fitting to look at Abraham’s epic test through this lense.
Jewish people, Muslims and Christians agree that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son showed he was whole-heartedly devoted and submissive to God. The ordeal climaxed with God rescuing his son at the last moment. Abraham glorified God for this awesome deliverance by naming the place, “The Lord will provide”. This name focuses our attention on God as the one who deserves credit for intervening at the critical moment and providing a ransom. Not only so, by choosing this name, Abraham hoped that future generations would not forget this momentous event.
A Lasting Memorial
The Scripture not only says Abraham called the place, “The Lord Will Provide”, it goes on to say, “And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided’.” (Genesis 22:14) The chosen name focuses on the Lord, showing that Abraham was deeply God-conscious. Not only so, he was confident God would provide in the future. Notice he did not call the place, “The Lord HAS Provided” as though the ram was in focus. Rather he said, “The Lord WILL Provide”. Let us also remember that Abraham had earlier said to his son, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8)
This suggests that the name points to something else besides the ram, which Abraham anticipated would be provided. Coming to the end of the story one notices a peculiar turn of events – Abraham sees an animal caught by its horns in the thicket and sacrifices it instead of his son. But what animal was it? A ram or a lamb? Scripture states it was a ram. This makes sense because a lamb doesn’t have horns and therefore can’t be “caught in a thicket” (like a ram can).
This distinction between lamb and ram confirms our understanding that Abraham expected a future provision. There is no doubt, of course, that God provided the ram and Abraham was thankful for it. But it is also clear that Abraham believed God was going to provide a lamb. Therefore Abraham chose a name that would inspire future generations to anticipate this provision. Not only so, when God’s promise is eventually fulfilled, we can expect much thanksgiving and praise will be given to God. Let us keep this in the back of our minds as we trace the theme of a sacrificial lamb through the writings of the prophets. We will see how God kept alive his promise to provide a lamb. We will see how this promise gradually unfolds in a series of glimpses.
The Prophet Moses Glimpsed the Lamb
Abraham sacrificed a sheep in place of his son, so also did Moses. I am referring, of course, to the titanic conflict between Moses and Pharaoh – a story which is familiar to readers of the Bible and the Qur’an. A series of confrontations happened in which Pharaoh hardened his heart more and more. The mounting tension reaches a climax. The LORD unleashes a punishing killer plague that breaks Pharaoh’s resistance and forces him to let the Israelites go free.
Notice, however, that the angel of death which God sent posed not only a threat to Egyptian families but also to Moses and his people! God had commanded the angel of death to kill every first born son, including Pharaoh’s son and Moses’ son (Gershom). Mercifully, however, God provided a way of ransom. He commanded each family to slaughter a Passover Lamb so that their firstborn sons would be spared. Markings from the blood of the lamb were to be put on the door-posts of each home.
Thoughtful readers will recognize that the ransom of Moses’ son by sacrificing a lamb is similar to Abraham’s experience. In fact, it is remarkable that the particular animal Moses was instructed to sacrifice seems to fulfill what Abraham prophesied!
From that time on, Israelites were commanded to remember this event by celebrating Passover festival. Like Eid, which commemorates the ransom of a son by slaughtering a sheep, Passover was also celebrated by slaughtering a lamb in place of a son. It is true that Eid ul-Adha does not strictly require Muslims to sacrifice a lamb, however, the ransom principle is clearly in view.
Theoretically speaking, a Muslim could understand Allah as the great Provider and Redeemer (Al-Faadi – the One who ransoms, compare Surah 37:107). No God-fearing person would want to deny this attribute and rob God of the glory he deserves. Unfortunately, however, Muslim scholars have omitted this name from the prominent list of 99 beautiful names of Allah.
This clue from Moses’ life throws some light on the question which has been in the back of our minds, “What is the lamb that Abraham foretold would be provided by God?” However, this clue does not fulfill all aspects of Abraham’s prophecy. For example, although the Passover Lamb was provided by God, it did not take place on Mount Moriah, the special place where God had directed Abraham to sacrifice. Let us consider another clue from one of the other prophets.
The Prophet Asaph Glimpsed the Lamb
Abraham’s prophecy comes into clearer focus in the writing of Asaph (Psalm 78). Writing hundreds of years after Moses, Asaph reminded his generation about Israel’s rescue from Egypt. With each passing century, this story should have been ingrained in the minds of each new generation through celebrating the yearly Passover festival. But sadly they had not faithfully observed this festival. They neglected it so much that the memory of this story had faded and, indeed, was now ‘hidden’. Notice in the introduction of the psalm that the lessons their forefathers had learned were ‘hidden’.
O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old – what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power and the wonders he has done. (Psalm 78:1-4)
It is interesting to see how Asaph explains his intention to teach by means of a ‘parable’, which implies there is a hidden insight or lesson to be learned from the story. “What is the kernel of truth that is ‘hidden’ in this parable?” I suggest that you read the entire Psalm and look at the turning point – the moment when God intervenes and redeems the Israelites (vv. 35-51). Notice also, how the psalm ends by mentioning a special mountain where God’s sanctuary is located. This mountain introduces another vital theme which is repeatedly mentioned in the writings of the prophets.
Do you recall how Abraham’s story ends? “And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.’” (Genesis 22:14) This scripture specifies where the provision of a lamb will take place – on the mountain of the LORD. Earlier God instructed Abraham where he must go to sacrifice his son – Mount Moriah (verse 2). It is interesting to see how this mountain is mentioned again over a thousand years later in relation to Solomon’s temple. But first, let us see what Moses (and the Psalmist) said about this mountain.
Moses predicted that God will “plant them (Israel) on the mountain of your inheritance – the place, O Lord, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O LORD, your hands established.” (Exodus 15:17) Similarly, Asaph speaks of Mount Zion as a special place on which the Lord “built his sanctuary like the heights, like the earth that he established forever.” (Psalm 78:68,69)
Naturally we are curious to know more about this special mountain of the LORD that Abraham, Moses and the Psalmist esteemed so highly. Second Chronicles 3:1 says, “Solomon began to build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah where the Lord had appeared to his father David.” It is truly remarkable to see how these prophets, who spanned more than a millennium, could provide clues that connect like pieces of a puzzle.
Not only so, this worship center in Jerusalem was the very place where Israelites brought their yearly sacrifices of a Passover Lamb. Is it coincidental that these lambs were sacrificed at the very place where Abraham promised God would provide a lamb? Obviously God knows the future and makes things work out according to his purpose so we should not be surprised to see these details fitting together.
Let us review what we’ve learned so far: The prophets consistently teach the principle of ransom, the sacrifice of a lamb and they point to a particular place where God will provide the promised lamb. There is, however, something that still seems unclear. At Solomon’s temple thousands of lambs were sacrificed but the original prophecy we looked at implies Abraham was expecting “a lamb”. How can we make sense of this?
The Prophet Isaiah Glimpsed the Lamb
The prophet Isaiah sheds light on this by focusing people’s hope on the coming of God’s Messiah. Notice how he describes the Messiah.
He was pierced for our transgressions ... crushed for our iniquities ... and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter ... the Lord makes his life a guilt offering. (Isaiah 53)
No doubt you noticed that Messiah is likened to “a lamb”. Also, he is described in terms of a ‘guilt offering’ whose life is given as a sacrifice. Furthermore, Isaiah describes the Messiah’s punishment and death in terms of a ransom – i.e. he will die in the place of others. Isaiah’s prophecy harmonizes with the key themes that we have been explaining beginning with Abraham. Notice also that Isaiah focuses on a single person. This gives us a clearer picture of what Abraham meant when he promised God would one day provide “a lamb”.
The Prophet John Glimpsed the Lamb
Hundreds of years after Isaiah, another prophet also spoke about the Messiah as a Lamb. His name was John (Yahya in the Qur’an). The Injil records that John the Baptist said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) If we look carefully at Christ’s life we see that he fulfilled Abraham’s prophecy in three ways.
1) Jesus predicted he would die as a ransom, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) These words are consistent with the ransom principle which we’ve seen is so foundational to our understanding of God.
2) Jesus predicted that he would be put to death in Jerusalem, i.e. Mount Moriah (see 2 Chronicles 3:1). “Jesus took the twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.’ The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them and they did not know what he was talking about.” (Luke 18:31-34)
3) We find further confirmation that Jesus is God’s Lamb as found in Luke 22:7-20. This scripture together with the following chapter (23) makes it clear that Christ was put to death on the same day when Israelites sacrificed the Passover Lambs (compare 1 Corinthians 5:7).
If we look carefully at these three points we will see that they form a series of interlocking puzzle pieces which confirm that the Messiah died to take away the sins of the world. I realize that some readers may disagree, indeed, some may resist this conclusion so strongly that they may suspect Abraham’s prophesy of the lamb is merely a fabrication.
Zealous Muslims have sometimes argued that the Bible is riddled with corruptions. They have a way of explaining the amazing unity of the Bible, whereby later scriptures fit hand-in-glove with earlier prophecies by fulfilling them. They allege that this appearance of thematic unity merely confirms how cunningly Satan has deceived and mislead the people of the book.
One might wonder, “How can intelligent Muslims make such farfetched accusations?” They draw these radical conclusions because the Qur’an emphatically denies Christ’s death on the cross. Also the ahadith teaches that in the last days Isa (Jesus) will destroy the Satanically empowered antichrist and BREAK THE CROSS.
Bearing this in mind, let us imagine, for the sake of discussion, that we could remove the alleged ‘fabrication’ pertaining to Abraham predicting God would provide a lamb. Let’s suppose we ‘revise’ the story so that Abraham did not name the place of sacrifice, “The Lord WILL Provide”. Instead he named it, “The Lord HAS Provided”. Making this revision would certainly make the biblical account appear to be more ‘in tune’ with the Qur’anic story.
However, by interpreting the story through Quranic glasses our attention shifts from God to Abraham. God’s role is diminished and our attention focuses on Abraham. Muslims end up admiring Abraham for the exceptional love and obedience he showed to God.
On the other hand, if we allow the Bible story to stand as it is, we see that Abraham points to (or prefigures) an outpouring of Divine love that surpasses Abraham’s noble example, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) God showed how much he loved us by giving his ‘one and only Son’. John Gilchrist observed that “Muslims once a year remember a man’s love for God by being willing to sacrifice his son for him. But for us every day of the year we commemorate God’s love for us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins so that we may be totally forgiven.”
Christians recognize the cross for what it really is – the ultimate expression of God’s love, where he gave his only Son as a sacrifice for us. The cross shows what a ‘momentous ransom’ the lamb was – a sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world. The provision of a ram in Abraham’s experience was significant but it was not the ‘momentous ransom’ as the Qur’an says. It is clear, therefore, that Eid ul Adha puts the emphasis in the wrong place. The ram was not significant, in and of itself. It merely served to foreshadow a greater ransom – a lamb from God himself.
It is good to admire Abraham since he did pass an extremely difficult test but this should not diminish our appreciation of the love God showed towards mankind. When we magnify God’s role we glorify and give him thanks as he deserves. The Bible (properly understood) acknowledges the incomparably great love that God showed toward mankind. It glorifies God and his Messiah, saying, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) The cross, on which the Lamb of God died, is a fitting demonstration of God’s love.
In Conclusion, We Ought to Give Thanks to God
You recall that at the beginning we saw how the Qur’an and the Bible link thankfulness and sacrifice. Now as we conclude, it is fitting that we should ask, “What am I grateful to God for?”
During Eid-ul-Adha Muslims thank Allah that Abraham didn’t have to slaughter his son. Some Muslims are also thankful that they don’t have to sacrifice their first born sons. No doubt they are also thankful for sacrificial meat as a provision from God. But surely there is more to be thankful for, is there not?
If one wants to be a true son and daughter of Abraham we ought to appreciate the Lamb as promised by God himself. The last book of the Bible records a heavenly vision in which throngs of people express their gratitude to God. Notice how John the apostle saw,
a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb."
In addition to this multitude of people, John also saw countless angels worshiping God. They said, “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor … be to our God for ever and ever Amen!” (Revelation 7:9-12)
What are these people thankful for? Salvation! To whom do they give “thanks and honor”? The answer is clear; “To God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.”
If thankfulness is a unifying theme of scripture so also is the Lamb. We have traced the story of the lamb from the first book to the last book of the Bible. We have unwrapped this story one step at a time through the prophets. Now we see it reaching a fitting climax in John’s vision of the end of time. Indeed, it is significant that Revelation mentions the Lamb 19 times!
Near the end of Jesus’ earthly life he instructed his followers to eat a meal in remembrance of his death, resurrection and return. (Luke 22:7-20) This meal continues the theme of the Passover Lamb which began with Abraham’s prophecy. A thousand years later this theme was enacted in terms of a memorial feast under Moses (Pesach) – a festival that was meant to be observed on a yearly basis. With the coming of the Messiah, the festival of Passover continued, although in an adapted form. Indeed, it culminated in the Lord’s supper in accordance with Christ’s clear instructions. (1 Corinthians 11)
In this article we’ve probed hidden meanings and searched for clues to piece together Abraham’s puzzling prophecy of a lamb. Having the benefit of hindsight, we discovered that this mystery is solved by the Messiah. We saw, through the centuries, how God gradually unveiled various clues, including the parable in Psalm 78. It is not surprising that the Messiah also used parables, “He did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’” (Matthew 13:34,35) This quote has a familiar ring – interestingly, it comes from Psalm 78.
The psalmist implied that most people are slow to discern what the lamb means. Even those who were privileged to be Messiah’s companions did not understand when Jesus foretold that he would die in fulfillment of prophecy, “Its meaning was hidden from them and they did not know what he was talking about.” (Luke 18:34)
Considering how appropriate it is to couch truth in parables, it is not surprising that the gospel is called a mystery. For example, the apostle Paul wrote about his commission to
present the word of God in its fullness – the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints ... God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:25-27)
Questions for Further Reflection
We’ve seen that ransom is an underlying principle of sacrifice from the time of Abraham to the Messiah. However, there is another aspect of sacrifice – purification – which was introduced at a later stage in our discussion. The question might arise in the mind of Muslim readers, “Why was purification not mentioned in connection with the Passover Lamb sacrifice?” Could it possibly be, that purification from sin was inserted later as a corruption?
In answering this question we note the Qur’an teaches that Mosaic sacrifices involved purification from sin, thus removing the basis of this objection. Yusuf Ali, a widely respected translator of the Qur’an, explains in his footnote to Surah 2:62 that this Mosaic sacrifice was for “purification from sin”. Gaining forgiveness of sin by means of sacrifice is a theme that pervades scripture.
Why then is it not found in the Passover story? If we take a closer look at Passover we see that it does imply purification from sin. The Passover story unfolds with a series of increasingly devastating plagues striking Egypt because of Pharaoh’s continuing hardness of heart. The final plague struck the one whom Pharaoh cherished the most – his first-born son (and all other Egyptian first-born sons). This was such a crushing blow that it forced Pharaoh to let the slaves go free.
However, there was something unusual about this plague – it wasn’t restricted to the Egyptians. Scripture makes it clear that the threat of death was issued against both Israelites and Egyptians. If Moses people did not take advantage of the ransom lamb provided by God, the death angel would have entered their homes, killing their first-born sons. We might ask, “If God was intending to free the Israelites – and we know he was – why was it necessary for the death angel to go anywhere near the Israelite homes?” “Surely God could have instructed the death angel to strike only the Egyptians.” Wouldn’t this have been an equally effective way of forcing Pharaoh to release Moses’ people?
The puzzle behind these questions begins to make sense when we realize that the Egyptians were not the only ones who were sinful – the Israelites were also guilty. God would have been unfair if he had only penalized one nation and implied that the other one was innocent. Justice demanded that he pronounce a death sentence on all. The Qur’an bears testimony to this, as does also the Bible: “If God were to punish men for their wrong doing he would not leave on the earth a single living creature.” (Surah 16:61, compare also Romans 3:1-23; 6:20-23)
In conclusion although the story of the Passover Lamb did not explicitly mention purification from sin, it was implied. An article that explains sin and sacrifice is available here.
Note: All Biblical quotations (unless specified otherwise) are taken from the New International Version. All Qur’anic quotations are from Yusuf Ali’s translation.
If you have questions or you now believe in the Lamb of God and you want to accept God’s gift of salvation for yourself please contact me.
Another mystery to ponder: The temple in Jerusalem, where thousands of sacrificial animals were slaughtered for purification, is now the most disputed real estate on earth – desecrated by a bloody conflict that threatens world peace. Both disputants – Jews and Muslims – claim this holy site belongs to them. Ironically, both groups expect the Messiah will bring an era of peace in the last days. Is it possible that Jerusalem will eventually fulfil its meaning – city of peace? If God’s Messiah is the solution to the puzzling prophecy of the lamb is it not possible that he will also fulfil prophecy and bring worldwide peace? These questions are answered in an article, entitled Converging Destinies: Jerusalem, Peace and the Messiah.