Home » Was the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) About Substitutionary Atonement?

Was the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) About Substitutionary Atonement?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
5 minutes read

History fans are well familiar with the ancient accounts of pagans sacrificing their children to appease their angry gods. The ancient Persians are a good example:

 Embarus, a native of the island Pyraeum, offered his daughter in sacrifice to appease the wrath of the gods.[i]

It was the pagan gods who demanded human blood for their wrath to be satisfied, and it was the Canaanites who practiced sacrificing their children to their gods, a practice that God forbade in the Law of Moses:

You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31)

But Deuteronomy did not convince Donald Macleod, a member of The Gospel Coalition, as he explained that God offered his Son to Himself as a sacrifice:

[God the Father] is engaged in the most solemn business that earth can witness. He is offering a sacrifice. The cross is his altar, and his own Son the sacrifice.[ii]

According to Macleod, God did exactly what he forbade Israel from doing. But in light of this, how should we read the binding of Isaac story in Genesis chapter 22, if not Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac to God?

In his book and sermon, John Piper shares a story about a pastor friend who preached to a group of men:

At one point in his message, he paused and asked the men if they knew who killed Jesus. Some said, “the soldiers did.” Some said, “The Jews did.” Some said, “Pilate.” But my friend waited a moment and then simply said,
“His Father killed him.” [iii]

Piper then continues, pointing our attention to Genesis 22:

…Just as Abraham lifted the knife over the chest of his son Isaac, but then spared his son because there was a ram in the thicket, so God the Father lifted the knife over the chest of his own Son, Jesus—but did not spare him…[iv] 

Piper parallels Father Abraham (almost) killing his son Isaac with Father God (allegedly) killing his Son Jesus. Somehow, Piper considers both to be blood sacrifices for sin. But if this parallel is correct, and Abraham did offer his son Isaac to God, then who did God offer his son Jesus to? However, the point of Genesis 22 is not at all about wrath, punishment, or forgiveness of sins. It is not insignificant that the ancient readers of Genesis 22 knew child sacrifice was forbidden by the Law (Deut 12:31; 18:10; Lev 18:21; 20:2–5). But surely you do not need me to quote Bible verses to know that murder – especially of your own child – is wrong and evil. In any event, God did not desire Abraham to sacrifice his son because God intervened to stop him. God called out to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him” (Genesis 22:12). God provided a substitute, a ram caught in the thicket (Genesis 22:13). God did not kill the ram. Abraham did. There is no allegory here suggesting that God would wield the knife over his own Son parallelly. Instead, there seems to be a stress test of Abraham’s faith. The New Testament refers to the story of the Binding of Isaac yet never uses it to suggest — as Piper did — that God killed Jesus. In the New Testament, the Binding of Isaac is mentioned in Hebrews chapter 11, among a list of other acts of great faith recorded in the Old Testament.

Regarding Isaac, we must remember that Abraham was not yet familiar with the sacrificial system, which will only be given hundreds of years later. During Genesis, and as we saw previously, sacrifices were mainly about giving something as a gift to God. This is also what we see in Genesis 22. God asks for Abraham’s son. He never said, “I need your son to be killed so I can forgive your sins.” In Genesis 22, we witness the strength of Abraham’s faith willing to give up his son. But Abraham also knew God promised to bless his seed through his son Isaac. Therefore, God tested him to see if he really believed what He promised him:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

In Romans 8:32, although not a quote, an obvious allusion is made to the Binding of Isaac. In that verse, Paul did not see the sacrifice of Jesus as God pouring his wrath on Jesus, but in relation to God giving good gifts. According to Paul, God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.” (Romans 8:32). Just as Abraham was willing to let go of his son, so did the Father. In Genesis, God did not kill the ram (so he could spare Isaac’s life). God only supplied the ram as Abraham killed it. In the New Testament, God did not kill Jesus but supplied him so mankind may offer him. We killed Jesus, not God.

Jesus’s faithfulness meant he could be sacrificed as the innocent lamb of God who is without blemish (Exodus 12:5). Just like God provided Abraham with a ram, so God provided us with the Lamb we ought to sacrifice: 

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. (Romans 3:25).

Even before the New Testament, the binding of Isaac was a very famous story in Judaism. Yet, it was never seen as one about atonement: 

Jewish interpreters show no sign of understanding Isaac’s sacrifice as atonement for sin…Paul merely wanted to express here the depth of God’s commitment to his people and did so in language that probably presented itself readily to mind both because of his familiarity with Genesis 22:1–18 and because of the use he had just made in Romans 8:12–30 of the common Christian conviction that Jesus was God’s Son (8:17, 29; cf. 5:10).[v]

So, Genesis 22 is yet another example of a Bible story taken out of context to promote false doctrines about an abusive God.

This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
A free sample is available here.

[i] Bell’s New Pantheon; or Historical dictionary of the gods, demi-gods, heroes, page 286.

[ii] Donald Macleod, “Christ Crucified”, p. 64.

[iii] John Piper, “Future Grace”, Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers, 2012, page 110. Also available in his sermon “Unsparing Pain, Unsparing Pleasure” on desiringgod.org

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Frank Thielman, Romans, ed. Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 422.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist