Old Testament Scriptures contain constant allusions to the Lord Jesus: “they are they which testify of Me” Jn.5.39. His experiences from birth to kingdom glory are portrayed in prophecy and in picture. Central to the predictions are details of His sufferings and death, and in particular, a range of offerings depict various aspects of what was accomplished at the cross. From earliest days, God gave notice that acceptance with Him was on the basis of sacrifice.
Offerings connected to the tabernacle system were said to have “a shadow of good things to come” Heb.10.1; only a shadow. They had no intrinsic value in themselves and had no ability to “take away sins” v.4; they were foreshadowing something better, something that would be effective in dealing with the whole issue of human sin: the propitiatory work of Christ. That work has a retrospective aspect dealing with the sins of the pre-Christian era, “for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” Rom.3.25; it also caters for the sinner’s need “at this time” v.26. Previous sacrifices were simply pointing forward to that great event at the “consummation of the ages” J.N.D., when “He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” Heb.9.26. Thus we anticipate finding Christ in the offerings of Genesis.
Sacrifices not only prefigured the Lord’s death, but were also a test of devotion to God. So a second expectation is that our reflections on the sacrifices and altars of Genesis will challenge us. God always demanded the best from His people, so sacrificial living has ever been a gauge of loyalty. Saints can adopt David’s perspective and never offer “of that which doth cost me nothing” 2Sam.24.24; conversely, like Malachi’s contemporaries they can “rob God” Mal.3.8. Where do we fit in? Spiritual exercises have the status of sacrifices, and we are implored to “present (our) bodies a living sacrifice”, the sacrifice of our persons, Rom.12.1. We are further enjoined to offer the sacrifice of ourpraises and the sacrifice of our purses, Heb.13.15,16.
We could be reluctant in regard to these demands, selfishly using time, energy and resources that should be devoted to God. It is the sin of Eli’s sons in modern guise; for their personal use they appropriated what ought to have been on the altar and thus “abhorred the offering of the Lord” 1Sam.2.12-17. When negotiating with Moses, Pharaoh suggested a compromise: the people could go minus their animals. The man of God indicated that redeemed people live sacrificially and insisted that their herds accompany them. “Thou must give us also sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the Lord our God. Our cattle also shall go with us; there shall not an hoof be left behind” Ex.10.25,26. Let us apply that principle to Christian living; conversion demands commitment.
Disaster struck at “the Fall”. The tranquility enjoyed by innocent man was now replaced by fear, guilt and suspicion. Added to this mix of unwelcome emotions was what Scripture calls elsewhere “the shame of [their] nakedness” Rev.3.18. Eve was no seamstress and fig leaves were poor quality materials for stitching; with painstaking effort and aching fingers they produced their fragile coverings. Their exertions failed to dismiss their shame and they “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden” Gen.3.8. From day one, fallen man was being taught that self-effort would never provide “the garments of salvation” or “the robe of righteousness” Isa.61.10. Today, as with the prodigal, God attires repentant sinners with “the best robe”; like Bartimaeus, they cast away their garment and come to Jesus. That is, they abandon the rags of self-effort, and believe on Him, Lk.15.22; Mk.10.50; Isa.64.6, but that spiritual clothing is provided on the basis of sacrifice.
So then, God stepped in to arrange needed covering for Adam, a picture of His intervention to provide spiritual apparel to fit men for His presence. Central to His plan was that His Son would become a “sacrifice for sins” Heb.10.26, and it was all foreshadowed in Eden. God could have clothed Adam and Eve by fleecing a sheep, but even at the introduction of sin He was teaching a fundamental lesson: acceptance must be based on sacrifice, and hence an animal must die to provide the coats of skin. A victim’s death is implicit in the narrative.
That sacrifice was sufficient for everyone on the planet at the time, hence the plural word “coats”. Similarly, the work of Calvary is so extensive that Christ’s propitiation is “not for (our sins) only, but also for the sins of the whole world” 1Jn.2.2.
None need perish,
All may live, for Christ hath died.
(William Sanders and Hugh Bourne)
John Nelson Darby and Thomas Newberry agree that the word “skins” should be singular, ‘skin’. From one animal there was provision to clothe both Adam and Eve. Granted, in other situations various animals were offered to depict different slants on what transpired at Calvary, but perhaps the initial lesson is that the death of Christ would be unique and solitary without any hint of a need for repetition. At the cross, there was no other participant; “Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree” 1Pet.2.24, illustrated on the Day of Atonement; when the high priest functioned there was this stipulation: “there shall be no man in the tabernacle of the congregation when he goeth in to make an atonement in the holy place” Lev.16.17. Disciples who had continued with the Lord Jesus in His temptations, Lk.22.28, had no part to play in His cross-work and were dismissed; “if therefore ye seek Me, let these go their way” Jn.18.8.
The Lord not only acted alone but also there was no necessity for repetition; it was “once for all” Heb.10.10; “by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” v.14. As early as Genesis chapter 3 God was teaching the singular character and permanent value of the sacrifice of Christ; the provision made was “coats of skin”.
The need for sacrifice had obviously been communicated to Adam’s family, thus Cain and Abel brought their offerings. Cain’s rejection declares again that effort and energy will never satisfy God in respect of sin. Ploughing, sowing, weeding and harvesting demanded exertion. God had spoken of “the sweat of thy face” Gen.3.19, and Cain had experienced it as he worked the soil of a cursed ground; then he presented his produce to God. To his great annoyance, “unto Cain and to his offering (God) had not respect” Gen.4.5. His offering was bloodless and thus valueless. Again, God was showing dramatically that salvation is “not of works, lest any man should boast” Eph.2.9. Cain was “of that wicked one”; he “slew his brother”; “his works were evil” 1Jn.3.12, R.V. His offering was part of his evil works; it was the product of an opinionated, rebellious heart. Multitudes have followed in his wake, religious sinners who have “gone in the way of Cain” Jude 11. They follow works-based religious systems that have no place for the cross and no liking for “the precious blood of Christ” 1Pet.1.19. Like Cain, although allegedly keen to please God by self-effort, they allow latitude for bad behaviour and have a bitter antipathy towards genuine believers.
By contrast, in a way that is not divulged, “the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering” Gen.4.4. Some have conjectured that fire fell from heaven to consume his sacrifice as with Elijah at Carmel, 1Kgs.18.38. This may be the case but we are in the field of speculation! By some means it was evident that Abel had acceptance with God on the basis of his sacrifice. What he brought was “of the firstlings of his flock”. The word “lamb” first features in Gen.22.7,8 but we have the suggestion of it here, and immediately our minds fast-forward to Him Who is the Lamb of God, Jn.1.29,36. The “firstling of the flock” of the first book of the Bible finds expression in the last book of the Bible in Him Who is constantly alluded to as “the Lamb”. So from Genesis to Revelation we have what J. Sidlow Baxter has called, “The developing Bible doctrine of the Lamb”.1
1 Baxter, J. Sidlow. “The Master Theme of the Bible (revised edition)” . Kregel, 1997.
Doubtless, Abel had numerous “firstlings” among his flock, but he selected one; it was “of the firstlings of his flock”. As in chapter 3, the inference is that it was one animal, “his offering”, singular, “a more excellent sacrifice”, singular, Heb.11.4.
Being a “firstling” indicates that the first and the best must always be devoted to God; He must always have priority. Elijah’s instructions to the widow were, “make me thereof a little cake first” 1Kgs.17.13. God’s interests had to take precedence. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness” Matt.6.33. The Macedonians “first gave their own selves to the Lord” 2Cor.8.5. The breaking of bread was to take place “upon the first day of the week” Acts 20.7, an indication of its priority over the normal affairs of life.
The Commentary – Heb. 11.4
The New Testament commentary on Abel’s offering is replete with gospel truth. It was “more excellent” than that of Cain. “More excellent” is a recurring phrase in the Epistle, the Lord Jesus having a “more excellent name” than angels, and exercising “a more excellent ministry” than the “priests that offer gifts according to the law” Heb.1.4; 8.4-6. Contextually, the phrase relates to the superiority of Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s, but it is also a fitting description of the sacrifice of Christ, a clear indication of the vast gulf between it and anything that had preceded it.
Significantly, Abel’s faith is allied with his sacrifice. By offering his sacrifice “by faith”, “he obtained witness that he was righteous”. We often regard Abraham as the prototype of those who are justified by faith, Rom.4.3, but millennia earlier that principle was in place. Based on sacrifice and effected by faith Abel was accounted righteous, hence “righteous Abel” Matt.23.35. By Divine grace, and founded on “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”, we too have been declared righteous, “justified by faith” Rom.3.24,28. A mode of operation that God has had in place since the days of Abel came into play for us. From beyond the grave Abel’s voice was heard; the blood of his sacrifice showed us the pathway to blessing, Heb.11.4.
Our subject is that of offerings, but we digress very briefly to say that in Noah’s ark there is another pointer to the Lord’s death. The fact that it was pitched “within and without with pitch” allows that suggestion, Gen.6.14. The word translated “pitched” is the very familiar word for “atonement”. Noah’s place of shelter was deluged from above, and torrents spewing from the earth’s crust engulfed it from beneath. It anticipates Him Who had “a baptism to be baptized with” at Calvary, Lk.12.50, the One Who said prophetically, “all Thy waves and Thy billows are gone over Me” Ps.42.7.
See the waves and billows roll
O’er His sinless, spotless soul;
O my soul, it was for thee!
Praise Him, praise Him cheerfully.
On disembarking the ark, Noah’s priority was to build “an altar unto the Lord” v.20. Prioritising the altar evidences Noah’s spirit of gratitude. He appreciated his salvation and before attending to his personal need for shelter and comfort, he put God first and built his altar. Seafarers in Jonah’s day displayed the same intuitive appreciation of God’s preservation and they “offered a sacrifice unto the Lord” Jonah 1.16. Similarly, for us “the mercies of God” demand an expression of gratitude. Paul argues that the only logical response to “the mercies of God” is to “present your bodies a living sacrifice” Rom.12.1.
Love so amazing, so Divine,
Demands my heart, my life, my all!
A more recent chorus expresses similar sentiments:
Out there amongst the hills
My Saviour died;
Pierced by those cruel nails,
Lord Jesus, Thou hast done
All this for me;
Henceforward I would live
Only for Thee.
Men who brought their basket of firstfruits were equally overwhelmed by gratitude for the way God treated them. They recited their reflections of God’s gracious dealings; “a Syrian ready to perish was my father [Jacob], and he went down into Egypt … and the Egyptians evil entreated us … we cried unto the Lord God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice … and the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt … and He hath brought us into this place … and now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land” Deut.26.5-10. Bringing the firstfruits was the only appropriate response to God’s marvellous ways with them; it would have been base ingratitude to deny Him His due. Paul perceived that the “love of Christ” in dying for all, left him obliged to live unto the One Who died for him and rose again, 2Cor.5.15. Do we share his convictions, or does the love of Christ leave us unmoved and uncommitted?
At Noah’s altar, we now learn why there was a distinction between clean and unclean animals entering the ark, Gen.7.2. Some clean animals were for the altar and would play no part in restocking the earth. They were to be “burnt offerings on the altar”; before the book of Leviticus, categories of offerings were not distinguished. These offerings were essentially for the pleasure of God. Hence when God spoke to Cain about sin lying at the door it is better to retain the word “sin” than to substitute it with “sin offering” Gen.4.7. God was indicating that persistent impenitence on Cain’s part would result in sin leaping at him and devouring him like a wild animal.
Representatives “of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl” were offered on the altar. The full list is not supplied, but under the Law, five creatures are mentioned, the bullock, the sheep, the goat, turtledoves and young pigeons, Leviticus chapter 1. Discussing these would take us into someone else’s territory so this comment will suffice. Respectively, these beasts and birds depict the patient service of the Lord Jesus, Prov.14.4; Ps.144.14; His submissive character, Isa.53.7; His stately movements, Prov.30.29-31; His tears, timing and truthfulness, Isa.38.14; Jer.8.7; Matt.10.16, J.N.D.; finally His homing instinct, as seen in John’s Gospel in constant references to the Father and the place from whence He came. The major thought in Genesis chapter 8 is that everything that was offered was clean, prefiguring the sinlessness of Christ as the necessary prerequisite for His sacrificial work, “He is pure” 1Jn.3.3.
Without a trace of Adam’s sin,
As man unique in origin,
All fair without, all pure within,
Our blessed Lord!
“The Lord smelled a sweet savour” Gen.8.21; Noah’s offerings brought pleasure to God. In Scripture, human characteristics are ascribed to God, the figure of speech that we call anthropomorphism; here one of the five human senses is attributed to Him: He smelled the fragrance of Noah’s sacrifice. According to Strong, the word “savour” carries the thought of an odour being blown, and the imagery is that of a pleasant aroma that was wafting heavenward. The word “sweet” has imbedded in it the concept of “rest”, and thus some marginal renderings translate the phrase, “a savour of rest”. These sacrifices provided God with a sense of contentment. Indeed He responded immediately to Noah’s activity by announcing, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake”. The incorrigible nature of human wickedness would have demanded a flood at regular intervals! It would never happen though, and the inference is that this was because God had “smelled a sweet savour”. He pledged that the varying seasons and climate, plus the daily cycle, would continue “while the earth remaineth”, uninterrupted by another universal flood. The “bow in the cloud” would betoken that pledge, 9.12-17. Noah’s name means “rest”; his offering provided for God a “savour of rest”.
Four of Abraham’s altars receive mention in Scripture, the first three featuring during early days in Canaan. We know nothing of what he offered, so the lessons gleaned will be practical rather than devotional, for the sites of these altars and the circumstances that occasioned them are instructive. (Heb.7.2 shows that it is legitimate to make a point from the meaning of Bible names and places).
The Altar at Sichem – Gen.12.7
After his interlude at Haran, Abraham arrived in Canaan and “passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh” Gen.12.6. Sichem (Shechem) means ‘shoulder’, indicative of strength, and Moreh means ‘instruction’. The twin descriptions remind us that spiritual strength is dependent on instruction as in King Asa’s experience. Having defeated the Ethiopians, he was confronted by Azariah. “Hear ye me”, said the prophet, and instruction was given. That led to this, “Be ye strong therefore”. Strength was dependent on heeding the instructions, 2Chr.15.1-7. Instruction from the Word will build spiritual strength into us, for it is “the word of His grace, which is able to build (us) up” Acts 20.32. Read it for yourself, attend upon its preaching and comply with its instructions.
At this place of instruction and strength the Lord now appeared to Abraham, Gen.12.7. At Haran the heavens were silent, but sojourning in the land, God spoke once more. Formerly, He had referred to a land that He would show Abraham, 12.1. He now speaks of “this land” that He would give to his descendants, v.7. The mention of his “seed” enshrines the promise that this childless man would yet be a father, with his progeny so numerous as to occupy that extensive land. The building of this first altar at Sichem was a grateful response to the fact that once more he had had a communication from heaven; it was a spontaneous rejoinder to the precious promise of descendants and land. For ourselves, sacrificial living is the only suitable response to spiritual instruction and the provision of spiritual strength; it is expected of those who have been given “exceeding great and precious promises” 2Pet.1.4.
Significantly, Abraham’s altars are said to be “unto the Lord” vv.7,8. “The Canaanite was then in the land” v.6, but Abraham was unashamedly declaring where his allegiance lay; Jehovah was his God, and from the start he served notice that he would never be drawn into a religious alliance with these idolaters nor divide his loyalties with their gods. Let us be as open in our witness for the Lord, and in new circumstances be as quick to declare where our loyalties lie.
The Altar at Bethel – Gen.12.8
Abraham’s next stop was to the east of Bethel, and this time he located on a mountain. Preservation is the thought connected with him encamping under the shade of “the oak of Moreh” v.6, R.V.; the thought here is that of elevation. Samuel’s residence was at Ramah, meaning “the heights” 1Sam.7.17. Apply the spiritual lessons from the locations of these men of God. We really must rise above the commonplace and never be satisfied with mediocrity. Lot was content with a “well watered” plain, 13.10, but that would never satisfy Abraham; his spiritual ambition rose above the ordinary.
The Lord Jesus indicated that “A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid” Matt.5.14. Abraham’s encampment was hardly “a city”, but its location made it equally obvious. That is substantiated in the word that Scripture uses for his “tent” v.8. According to Strong, its meaning is something shining, or conspicuous. Again, the inference is that in a debased Canaanite culture, there was now a man who stood out; he was distinct; he was unique. The challenge is, do we have the exceptional features that distinguish us from the neighbours, colleagues, and unsaved family members whom we describe generally as the people of the world?
We are now told the precise location of Abraham’s tent. He had “Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east” v.8. Bethel means ‘house of God’, and Hai (Ai) means ‘a heap of ruins’. Located between the house of God and the heap of ruins, Abraham would have the consciousness of God’s presence, and yet the awareness that elsewhere there was destruction. Surely it depicts the believer’s present situation. The assembly is the present day house of God, and is “the pillar and ground of the truth” 1Tim.3.15. The inference is that those associated with it should be involved in testimony to the heap of ruins around us, throwing out the lifeline of gospel truth to those in need. In that environment Abraham “builded an altar”. For us, commitment to the house of God and involvement in the work of the gospel demands sacrifice. A relaxed attitude to God’s interests is never legitimate.
With his tent convenient to Bethel, and the altar a token of his spirit of worship and sacrifice, one further feature of this pilgrim is now divulged; he “called upon the name of the Lord” v.8. Men first called on the Name of the Lord in Gen.4.26; “then began men to call upon the name of the Lord”. The word “then” is significant. Enos had been born, meaning ‘frail mortal man’. When men realised that life was fragile and their bodies were mortal, then they began to call on the Name of the Lord. For us, it started when we called for salvation, Rom.10.13. That initial confession of dependence leads to a life of dependence, and daily we call on His Name for needed help. Let the distinctiveness of the tent, the devotion of the altar and the dependence of calling on His Name feature in our lives also.
The Altar at Hebron – Gen.13.18
Prior to his third altar there was a further promise of the land, Gen.13.14-18. Abraham now relocated, and he encamped “by the oaks (terebinths) of Mamre” Gen.13.18, R.V. Mamre was an Amorite on whose land he settled and with whom he had a working relationship, 14.13. Significantly, that location was “in Hebron” 13.18. For the first time in Scripture, there is mention of this notable environment. “Hebron” means “association”, or “fellowship”, and illustrates our need to live in fellowship with God, reading His Word to hear His voice, and speaking to Him in prayer. Caleb’s yearning for Hebron as his inheritance should epitomise our attitude to this matter of living in fellowship with God; “Give me this mountain” Josh.14.12. May we, like Abraham, be comfortable at Hebron, another place where he built an altar unto the Lord. The spirit of worship and sacrifice sits easily with a life at Hebron. When we are out of touch and following “afar off” we elect for easy options and shy clear of the demands of sacrificial discipleship.
Having confirmed to Abraham that he would be the progenitor of a multitude, Gen.15.5, God expanded that by promising “this land” as his inheritance, v.7. We call the promise of the land, the Abrahamic Covenant. This Abrahamic Covenant was a one-sided contract whereby God pledged the land of Canaan to the patriarch and his descendants, v.18. Abraham had accepted the promise of a seed, v.6, but now he wanted a guarantee of the land.
In ancient times, when two parties reached an agreement there was an elaborate process involving sacrifices, and the dividing of the animals. Then the two ‘signatories’ to the arrangement walked between the pieces, indicating that they had struck a deal. Thus here, God demanded that various creatures be available for sacrifice as an integral part of the covenant ritual. Abraham had no need to walk between the pieces, because as noted, this agreement was all on God’s side; no obligation was being placed on the patriarch. The miraculous element in the whole procedure would be that God alone, depicted in the smoking furnace and the burning lamp, would pass between the pieces of the sacrifices to satisfy Abraham’s request for a token that His word would be fulfilled.
In situations where sacrifices like this were required there was again a foreshadowing of the cross. Here, promised blessing was based on sacrifice, and thus it is with us. A great range of spiritual blessings flow from the cross and the totality of these blessings is encapsulated in the term, our “inheritance”.
Probably the significance of the “three years” lies in the fact that these creatures were in their prime, foreshadowing the perfections of the Lord Jesus that fitted Him for sacrifice. At a practical level, only the best would do for God. Later in life, Abraham was called upon to give his best when commanded to surrender Isaac, chapter 22. We might all ask, “Why do we settle for less than our best in our commitment to God?” He is God; He demands the best and He deserves the best because He gave the best.
Abraham’s obedience was exact. God’s command was, “Take Me an heifer of three years old …” v.9. Scripture records, “And he took unto him all these” v.10. This was complete obedience, the kind of obedience that the Lord’s disciples displayed when finding the colt for the triumphal entry; “And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them” Matt.21.6. The statement is simple, and yet such unqualified obedience is crucial to our spiritual wellbeing.
The sacrifices that were laid out for the Divine Visitor attracted the vultures, and “Abram drove them away” v.11. There is a spiritual lesson in Abraham’s actions. The Lord Jesus used voracious birds to illustrate Satan’s activity, Matt.13.4,19. As the sacrifices point forward to the death of Christ, there is the reminder that His work at the cross is under constant attack from the evil one. Erroneous doctrines are sourced in “seducing spirits” and are branded “doctrines of devils” 1Tim.4.1. Not least are the dogmas that discount the value of His sacrifice or infer the need for repetition. We need to drive these influences away by “earnestly contend(ing) for the faith” Jude 3. Like Paul, in gospel preaching determine “not to know any thing … save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” 1Cor.2.2. Within your sphere of influence, never allow what is depicted by these scavenger birds to impinge on the truth of the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ.
The Horror of Great Darkness
Abraham had been almost twenty-four hours without sleep. In the darkness of the previous night he had believed God’s promise and received the pledge of the land. Daylight hours had seen him organising the various sacrifices and warding off the swooping birds, and now with the sun setting, exhaustion overtakes him, and he falls into “a deep sleep” v.12.
This is the first sunset scene of Scripture, and attending it was “an horror of great darkness”. The “horror of great darkness” was a fitting accompaniment to the tidings that Abraham would hear. The promised descendants would inherit the promised territory, but the road to that goal would be lengthy and rugged; the bondage of Egypt would intervene. With us, the story is similar; “the God of all grace … hath called us unto His eternal glory … after that ye have suffered a while” 1Pet.5.10. “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” Acts 14.22. It is a Biblical principle that suffering precedes glory.
Consolation and Confirmation
The information just received could have crushed Abraham, but God graciously brought words of consolation, and again confirmed His intention to entrust the land to his seed.
God passing between the pieces of the sacrifices as “a smoking furnace” is another pointer to the oppression that Israel would experience in Egypt; their deliverance is depicted as being from “the iron furnace” Deut.4.20; God had chosen them “in the furnace of affliction” Isa.48.10. The “burning lamp” suggests that amidst affliction the lamp of hope would burn. The anticipation was that God’s promise to Abraham would be brought to fruition in their liberation and relocation to the land.
In legal affairs, the title to land is drawn up carefully with well-defined boundaries. Here, God delineates the territory promised to Abraham, vv.18-21. The nearest that Israel came to possessing it totally was in the halcyon days of David and Solomon, but during the last thousand years of human history, the Lord Jesus “shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth” Ps.72.8. The Abrahamic Covenant will be finally implemented, a unilateral agreement on the part of God ratified by sacrifice.
God reserved Abraham’s severest trial for his latter days. Something quite so demanding would have been inappropriate for a new pilgrim. It illustrates Paul’s statement to the Corinthians; “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able” 1Cor.10.13. There are tests at each stage of our spiritual development, closely monitored by a gracious God, and He apportions them in keeping with our capacity and experience.
“Abraham”. God spoke, and the man was so in touch that there was an immediate response, “Behold, here I am”. It was the same with Ananias. “Ananias”. “Behold, I am here, Lord” Acts 9.10. It would be wonderful if like these men our fellowship with God was such that we were instantly sensitive to His voice. He will not now speak audibly, but He still communicates through His Word, and through His servants. It is for us to be alert to Divine instructions, and available for Divine intentions; “Behold, here I am”.
“Take now thy son”. The sacrifice would be immense, but God was not asking Abraham to do something for which He was not willing Himself. In Isaac’s case, a substitute was provided, v.13, but the Scriptures describe God as “He that spared notHis own Son” Rom.8.32.
Nailed upon Golgotha’s tree,
Faint and bleeding, who is He-
Hands and feet so rudely torn,
Wreathed with crown of twisted thorn?
Once He lived in heaven above,
Happy in His Father’s love,
Son of God, ‘tis He, ‘tis He,
On the cross of Calvary.
(Henry H. Milman)
“Thine only son Isaac”. In commenting, the Hebrew Epistle puts it like this: “he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son” Heb.11.17. The phrase indicates that the term “only begotten” has to do with uniqueness, superiority and supremacy rather than the concept of generation. Isaac was not literally Abraham’s “only son”; Ishmael was his senior by a number of years. Understanding the idiom “only begotten” in the manner explained is vital when connecting it with God’s Son; the Bible describes Him as “His only begotten Son”, e.g. Jn.3.16. Never think of Him as coming into being subsequent to the Father in the same way that a human son succeeds his father. Their relationship is eternal, a unique relationship which, when understood, magnifies the cost to God to provide a rescue plan for rebellious humanity. In calling Isaac Abraham’s “only son”, God was stressing his uniqueness among all others connected to Abraham, including Ishmael.
To emphasise the close relationship between father and son, the Divine instructions add this touching phrase, “whom thou lovest”, the first mention of love in the Bible; it is the love of a father for his son. It illustrates the eternal bond of affection that existed between Father and Son, for the Lord Jesus said to His Father, “Thou lovedst Me before the foundation of the world” Jn.17.24. Previously, He referred to His Father’s love when speaking of Himself as the good shepherd. “Therefore doth My Father love Me, because I lay down My life, that I might take it again” Jn.10.17. The “because” explains that the love was merited, for the object of that love was One Whose obedience as a Son was unqualified, and was expressed in “the things which He suffered” Heb.5.8.
“Get thee into the land of Moriah” v.2. Through time, this became the Temple Mount, 2Chr.3.1. David had bought the land from Araunah (Ornan) the Jebusite, 2Samuel chapter 24. That day, Araunah offered David every facility wherewith to sacrifice to the Lord, but the king rejected his proposal, refusing to offer God something that had come at no personal cost, v.24. Perhaps as he stood there, the history of Moriah came flooding to mind, Abraham’s willingness to give his all; in light of that, to have offered something that came at no personal expense would have seemed shameful. Let the events at Moriah be a challenge to us, for Abraham’s activity and David’s attitude are exemplary.
It was a three-day trek to Moriah, v.4. Abraham had time to weigh up the cost of obedience; there was opportunity to think twice and retrace his steps. However, he was resolute, for he knew that Isaac had to survive. God’s promises of a massive progeny and the land for them to occupy were bound up in that boy, and so he stepped out with the thought firmly entrenched in his mind that God would raise Isaac from the dead: “accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure” Heb.11.19. In the event it was substitution and not resurrection that ensured Isaac’s survival, Gen.22.13, but even the mention of the “three days” is a reminder of resurrection: “He rose again the third day” 1Cor.15.4.
“Abraham rose up early in the morning” v.3. Abraham’s swift response and hasty preparations are a voice to those who delay their response to the Lord’s commands.
Events at Moriah foreshadow the death of God’s dear Son, so the statement of v.4 is significant: “Abraham … saw the place afar off”. It illustrates the fact that Calvary was in God’s mind from eternity. Peter indicated that, when he described the Lord Jesus as being as “a lamb … who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world” 1Pet.1.19,20. The great plan of redemption was devised long before either creation or the Fall.
Last Stages of the Journey
The location was now in sight, and father and son travelled the last lap together; the “young men” were left with the ass, v.5. Again, we can hardly read it without thinking of the Saviour. In Gethsemane He had taken with Him Peter, James and John, but there came the point where He said to them, “Sit ye here … and He went a little farther” and was engaged in communion with His Father, Matt.26.36-39. Earlier He had indicated that He would be abandoned by all but His Father; “Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave Me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me” Jn.16.32. Together, without human companionship, Father and Son moved forward to the place of sacrifice. This too is prefigured in the statement in vv.6,8, “they went both of them together”.
Laying the wood “upon Isaac his son” leaves us with the mental image of the young man trudging upward, laden with the combustible material that would consume the sacrifice, v.6. Again, our thoughts fast-forward two thousand years. In the Gospel of the Son, John’s Gospel, we view the Lord Jesus “bearing His cross” and going forth “into a place called the place of a skull” Jn.19.17. John makes no mention of Simon of Cyrene. The wood of sacrifice was laid upon the Son, and He bore “His cross” to the place of execution.
Every illustration breaks down somewhere, and a notable contrast between the picture and the reality is that Isaac had no prior knowledge of impending events and hence his enquiry, “Where is the lamb?” v.7. The Lord gave detailed intimations of His sufferings, right down to the spitting and the scourging, but Isaac was in the dark as to what awaited him on that lonely hillside.
“Where is the lamb?” “My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering” v.8. Here, God provides a sacrifice; in 1Sam.16.1, God provides a sovereign; “I have provided Me a king”. The Lord Jesus is both sacrifice and sovereign as indicated by Peter, “the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” 1Pet.1.11.
Translators are divided about where to position the word “Himself” in Abraham’s response, but both stances seem legitimate. Some convey the thought that God Himself would take the initiative to provide the lamb of sacrifice, and that is a Biblical concept. Mutinous humanity would never have moved to seek reconciliation with the Almighty, but in supplying the Lamb, He was reaching out to provide peace. Some translate the sentence with the word “for” inserted, so that it was “for Himself” God provided the Lamb, and that too is in keeping with Biblical revelation. When Paul is defending God’s integrity in justifying sinners without compromising His justice, he shows that to allow Him to remain “just”, He provided the Lamb; the Lord Jesus was “set forth to be a propitiation”, Rom.3.24-26. So it was “for Himself” that the Lamb was provided. The Lamb satisfied Divine justice, while providing for human need.
There are foreshadowings of “the place, which is called Calvary” Lk.23.33.
“The hour” arrives, they reach “the place”,
The cross they raise on high,
The Lord of glory and of grace,
They leave to die.
At Moriah, there would be dramatic intervention to halt proceedings. God waited until Abraham had built the altar, laid the wood, bound Isaac, and stretched him on the wood. Now he was fingering the knife. Only then was there the insistent voice from heaven. God was testing Abraham to the limit, and the aged pilgrim reacted by proceeding unflinchingly.
As observed, Abraham was no stranger to building altars, but we can hardly imagine the emotions that raged in the old man’s heart this time as he laboriously installed each stone in its place. With meticulous care he arranged the wood. Now there was deviation from the normal practice. Instead of selecting a fine specimen from herd or flock, he “bound Isaac his son” v.9. The Scripture again stresses just how demanding this was; it was “his son” who was bound; it was “his son” that the flashing blade would slay, v.10, but still this giant of faith proceeded. Commentators are agreed that the binding of Isaac must have involved co-operation on the part of the young man, just as the binding of Christ necessitated His submissiveness. The One Whom they “bound … and led Him away” Jn.18.12,13, had just declared Himself to be the “I am” vv.5,8. Ultimately, figuratively, they would “bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar” Ps.118.27. Isaac’s subjection is but a faint picture of the One Who “gave Himself a ransom for all” 1Tim.2.6.
“Abraham, Abraham” v.11. The “double call” expresses urgency, and as a stay of execution is announced, Abraham drops his knife, v.12. Again, this is in vivid contrast to events at Calvary when God “spared not His own Son” Rom.8.32. There the call was, “Awake, O sword … smite the Shepherd” Zech.13.7. An angel intent on destroying Jerusalem was told to “put up his sword again into the sheath” 1Chr.21.27. Peter was instructed, “Put up thy sword into the sheath” Jn.18.11. The word to the sword of justice at Calvary was, “Awake … smite”.
Jehovah bade His sword awake;
O Christ it woke ’gainst Thee!
Thy blood the flaming blade must slake,
Thy heart its sheath must be;
All for my sake, my peace to make,
Now sleeps that sword for me.
(Anne R. Cousin)
With proceedings halted, Abraham once more “lifted up his eyes” Gen.22.13; a ram had been ensnared by its horns in the undergrowth. The way it was trapped ensured that no damage rendered it unfit for sacrifice; it would still be “without blemish”, for it depicted Him Whose life was stainless and pure.
How that ram came to be there, and how its presence was concealed until this crucial moment, and why its approach had been so noiseless is all a mystery, but Abraham saw it as God’s provision and thus he called the place, Jehovah-jireh, meaning, ‘the Lord shall see or provide’.
The ram hardly satisfies Abraham’s prophecy of the provision of a lamb, v.8. We have seen his statement as an inspired prediction of the coming of the Lamb of God, but the ram met the present need, and was offered “for a burnt offering in the stead of his son” v.13. We have treated this incident as a picture of the Son of God destined for the altar. With this new development another concept emerges; we are now faced with an illustration of the doctrine of substitution, suggested in the phrase “in the stead of”. Those unsympathetic to typical teaching may feel that spiritual gymnastics are necessary to suddenly switch Isaac to being a picture of the sinner! Remember though that in other Scriptures there is a double type; sweet savour and sin offerings present different aspects of the death of Christ. There were two goats on the Day of Atonement. Two birds were offered at the cleansing of the leper. However, even if you are not completely happy with the picture, rejoice in the doctrine, “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” 1Pet.3.18. “The Son of God … gave Himself for me” Gal.2.20.
Altars and offerings feature less with Isaac and Jacob than with Abraham. The record of Isaac’s one altar is in Genesis chapter 26. After disputes with the men of Gerar he settled at Beersheba, and “the Lord appeared unto him the same night” v.24. As with Abraham, the altar seemed to be a response of gratitude to the promises of God, and like Abraham, mention is made of his tent and of him calling on the Name of the Lord, v.25. There is no need to revisit the spiritual lessons already gleaned from these factors.
With Isaac, there was the added issue of his servants digging a well. Significantly, mention of the altar precedes the reference to the well. Before ever there could be the refreshing ministry of the Holy Spirit as typified by water, the Lord Jesus had to pass through death and be raised and glorified; “the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified” Jn.7.39.
When the fleeing Jacob was overtaken by Laban and it became evident that he was no longer endangered, he “offered sacrifice upon the mount” Gen.31.54. Doubtless the ritual was related to his agreement with Laban, but likely it too was another response of gratitude to the Lord, for it was God’s intervention that saved him from Laban’s fury, v.29. We learn again, that recipients of Divine favour should respond in a sacrificial way.
Encountering Esau was another emergency for Jacob, and with that trauma past he again built an altar calling it El-elohe-Israel, that is, ‘God, the God of Israel’ Gen.33.20. He revelled in his new name, Gen.32.28, and avowed his allegiance to his God in a pagan environment. He was not ashamed to call God his God, and in process of time it emerged that God was not ashamed to be called his God, Heb.11.16. The spirit of sacrifice was exhibited by a man who rejoiced in a relationship with his God. Believers can display the same appreciation of the relationship that we have with Deity. Paul described the Saviour as “Christ Jesus my Lord”, and because he was in a saving relationship with Him, no price was too high in terms of sacrificial living, “for whom I have suffered the loss of all things” Phil.3.8.
Jacob was under orders to build his next altar at Bethel; “make there an altar unto God” Gen.35.1. Immediately he made plans to comply, ridding his encampment of anything that would be inconsistent with Bethel the house of God, and the spirit of worship and sacrifice that was demanded, v.2. He resolved immediately to obey the command; “I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went” v.3. Once more there is the thought that God’s merciful dealings with us demand a response at the altar. The command to build and the resolve to build were consolidated by the act of building, “he built there an altar” v.7. His good intentions did not wither on the vine, another challenge to our own failure to get around to doing things!
Jacob had formerly called that place Bethel, Gen.28.19, but now he renames it El-bethel, that is, ‘the God of Bethel’. It appears that he is now enthralled with the God of the house of God, another lesson for us. The present day “house of God” is the local assembly and it should be very precious to everyone associated with it, but loyalty to its principles and commitment to its functioning should never eclipse devotion to the God of the house. There is a general principle that “in this place is one greater than the temple” Matt.12.6. Christ must always take precedence.
Sacrifices are last mentioned in Genesis when old Jacob was en route to Egypt to meet Joseph. He suspended his journey at Beersheba, “and offered sacrifices unto the God of his father Isaac” Gen.46.1. It appears that he had set out without really seeking guidance from God. Perhaps he now remembered how Egypt had been so disastrous for his grandfather Abraham. Maybe he was aware of the command to his father, “Go not down into Egypt” Gen.26.2. Cautiously, he halts at Beersheba, doubtless to seek sanction from heaven and thus he offered his sacrifices. Immediately there was a response from above: “fear not to go down into Egypt” Gen.46.3 with the promise of the Divine presence, v.4.
Once more there are lessons. Firstly, Jacob’s sacrifices were offered immediately he learned that Joseph was alive. We have already emphasised the importance of the response of gratitude. Secondly, subsequent to the sacrifices there was guidance for the way. Those who present their bodies as a living sacrifice will know something of the “good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” for them, Rom.12.1,2. Being on the fringe of Christian living hardly qualifies us for knowing His design for our lives.
Thus the curtain falls on sacrifices and altars in this first book of Scripture. The theme will be developed in ongoing revelation, but even in the early stages of human history, God teaches us truth about His Son, and challenges us with the need for sacrificial living.