All of my life I have heard people of faith in difficult circumstances utter words to the effect of “the Lord will provide.” Most times the things or people that they need arrive in time to help, and usually from the most unexpected quarters.
I was surprised to discover the strange context of the first time that phrase is used in the Bible (at least that I am aware of). It is used in the context of Abraham being told to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice by the very same God who had made it possible for Abraham and his wife to conceive him long past a normal childbearing age.
The story is found in Genesis 22:1-19. God tells Abraham, “sacrifice your only son, whom you love.” on Mount Moriah. This was a three day journey from their camp. Abraham, his son and two servants depart the next morning. It must have been a long three days for Abraham.
The strangest part of God’s order to sacrifice the boy was that God had promised that this particular lad would be the one that Abraham’s descendants would be named after. He would be the one through whose lineage God promised would bring blessing to all families (or tribes or nations) of the earth. How was God going to accomplish that by killing him?
As they approach the site, Abraham tells the servants to stay back and guard the supplies while he and the boy go up the mountain to sacrifice. He tells them that the two will return when they are done. This is a very odd thing to say when Abraham knows that his son will die on the mountain. Perhaps this is the clue that inspires the writer of the book of Hebrews to say, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Hebrews 11:17-19).
When Isaac looks around on the way up he begins to wonder where the lamb for the offering will come from, since they seem to have neglected to bring one with them. Abraham assures him that God will provide the sacrificial lamb. The reader knows, of course, that nothing good will come of this sacrifice unless something miraculous happens.
I notice that the lad’s assumption is that it will be a lamb. Was there some sort of family tradition of lamb sacrifices prior to this incident? Lamb would certainly become a very important part of a later sacrificial ritual Israel, the Passover meal and accompanying deliverance from Egypt. Jesus Christ would die centuries later as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Just as Abraham is about to bring the knife down on the boy’s neck a loud voice from heaven tells him to stop! Abraham had proven that he would obey even this most difficult test: being willing to give up his own beloved son. God provides instead a ram caught by the horns in a nearby thicket. A ram’s blood and body substitutes for his son’s blood and body.
As a result of this turnabout Abraham names the place of this sacrifice “The Lord Will Provide.” So the reputation of what eventually became the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is based on Abraham’s prophetic utterance that somehow God will provide.
What God had provided was, of course, a substitute for the death of a human being. That is a very different thing from what we now expect God to provide for us from day to day (not that this is wrong).
Another thing to note is the phrasing of God’s command to sacrifice Isaac’s “only son,” “whom you love.” Isaac was actually Abraham’s second son. The previous one, Ishmael, had been born of Abraham to his wife’s handmaid because of Sarah’s infertility. They had had to banish Ishmael and his mother because of the family discord they were causing (much to Abraham’s sadness).
Isaac, however, was Sarah’s natural child by a supernatural intervention at age 90. He was the one God had promised to carry on Abraham’s legacy as father of a blessed nation as noted above. For purposes of the promise, Isaac was Abraham’s “only son” whom Abraham certainly loved.
Centuries later, as a small, insignificant remnant of Israel known as Judea was struggling under the yoke of the mighty Roman Empire, a Jewish prophet named John symbolically immerses (baptizes) a cousin named Jesus in the Jordan river. Something amazing happens, as recorded in Matthew 3:13-17.
As Jesus rises out of the water, the Spirit of God descends on him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” A very similar expression from God in heaven appears later in Jesus’ ministry when he is transfigured (made glorious) in front of three of his disciples in Matt. 17:1-5
The expression echoes part of God’s description of Abraham’s son. Another part of the description of Isaac as sacrifice can be found in the famous passage of John 3:16, which says, “For 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.”
A Judean reader of the books of Matthew and John would likely have been familiar with the story of Abraham and the commanded sacrifice of Isaac. Those expressions about Jesus as God’s only Son and as the Son God loves should have brought that particular story to mind, especially in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection. God had provided a substitute for the eternal death of all human beings.
Whereas Isaac figuratively came back from the grave, Jesus certainly literally did so. Whereas Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac resulted in blessing, Jesus’ sacrifice results in eternal life for all who are willing to believe and acknowledge Jesus’ lordship in their lives.
There is nothing new in understanding the story of Abraham and Isaac at the mountain of The Lord Will Provide as a prophetic sign and type of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf.
But it doesn’t hurt to remember it again.