Isaac’s Substitute Explained


“Many readers over the years have had understandable objections to this story. They have interpreted the ‘moral’ of the story as meaning that doing cruel and violent things is fine, as long as you believe it is God’s will. No one has spoken more vividly about this than Søren Kierkegaard, whose book Fear and Trembling is based on the story of Abraham and Isaac. Kierkegaard ultimately reasons that faith is irrational and absurd. Abraham thought the command made no sense at all and contradicted everything else God had ever said, yet he followed the command.

Would this command have been totally irrational to Abraham? Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the story does not take into consideration the meaning of the firstborn son in Jewish thought and symbolism. Jon Levenson, a Jewish scholar who teaches at Harvard has written The Death and Ressurection of the Beloved Son. In this volume he reminds us that ancient cultures were not as individualistic as ours. People’s hopes and dreams were never for their own personal success, prosperity or prominence. Since every was part of a family, and no one lived apart from the family, these things were only sought for the entire clan. We must also remember the ancient law of primogeniture. The oldest son got the majority of the estate and wealth so the family would not lose its place in society.

The Bible repeatedly states that, because of the Israelites’ sinfulness, the lives of their firstborn are automatically forfeit, though they might be redeemed through regular sacrifice (Exodus 22:29, 34:20) or through service at the tabernacle among the Levites (Numbers 3:40-41) or through a ransom payment to the tabernacle and priests (Numbers 3:46-48). When God brought judgment on Egypt for enslaving the Israelites, his ultimate punishment was taking the lives of their firstborn. Their firstborns’ lives were forfeit, because of the sins of the families and the nation. Why? The firstborn son was the family. So when god told the Israelites that the firstborn’s life belonged to him unless ransomed, he was saying in the most vivid way possible in those cultures that every family on earth owed a debt to eternal justice – the debt of sin.

Why had Isaac not been sacrificed? The sins of Abraham and his family were still there. How could a holy and just God overlook them? Well, a substitute was offered, a ram. But was it the ram’s blood that took away the debt of the firstborn? No.

Many years later, in those same mountains, another firstborn son was stretched out on the wood to die. But there on Mount Calvary, when the beloved son of God cried, ‘My God, my God – why hast thou forsaken me?’ there was no voice from heaven announcing deliverance. Instead, God the Father paid the price in silence. Why? The true substitute for Abraham’s son was God’s only Son, Jesus, who died to bear our punishment.

The only way that God can be both ‘just’ (demanding payment of our debt of sin) and justifier (providing salvation and grace) is because years later another Father went up another ‘mount’ called Calvary with his firstborn and offered him there for us all.

Only if Jesus lived and died for us can you have a God of infinite love and holiness at once. Then you can be absolutely sure he loves you.”

Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods (Hodder & Stoughton, 2009) 

(I do not own this material)

It is 1am and I am typing all this out. This is how much this story means to me. This is how much Jesus means to me. God bless.


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