Israel, Isaac, And The Lamb

Worthy is the Lamb!

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!”[1] What believer in Jesus doesn’t know these words from the Book of Revelation? Indeed, the image of the Lamb is not only one of the central images in this visionary book, written about the end of the first century, we find it here in almost every chapter (Rev. 5:6; 7:14; 13:8, etc), but is also essential to the whole of Christian theology. The Lamb has been one of the central symbolic images of the Christian religion since the very first centuries of its existence. Accordingly, one could expect the pages of the New Testament to be filled with imagery of the Lamb – but, surprisingly enough, aside from the book of Revelation, we almost don’t find this image here. We don’t find it in the epistles of Paul; and there is only one passage in the gospels where Jesus is referred to directly as the Lamb:  in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, John the Baptist utters the enigmatic exclamation: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” A little further on, he repeats his announcement: ‘Behold the Lamb of God![2] We find these words in only one chapter in the gospels and repeated in no other place! This fact evokes questions, doesn’t it?  Where does John take this image from? What did John mean by these words? A modern Christian reader sees in these words only Jesus Christ, the sinless Lamb sacrificed for the sins of the men, – but how did the Israeli observers understand John’s proclamation?

The Akedah Lamb

Let us first turn to the Tanakh in our search for answers.  It may surprise you to discover that also in Tanakh, the Hebrew word for lamb rarely appears. However, it is not difficult to guess where we first meet the word “lamb”: of course, it’s found in Genesis 22, in Akedat Itzhak (“the Binding of Isaac”). When Isaac is being led to the mountain by his father, he asks Abraham, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?[3]  Thus, the word was pronounced, and the question asked; the Lamb looking “as though it had been slain”[4] from the Book of Revelation begins here with Isaac’s innocent, trusting, almost naïve question: “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

Many Christians are perfectly aware of this connection and parallel between Isaac and Jesus. What you may not be aware of, however, is a Jewish haggadic tradition that states explicitly, that on Mount Moriah Abraham offered up two sacrifices: he began with the sacrifice of his son and ended with the sacrifice of the ram – Isaac was slain or burnt and then rose from the dead. This doctrine had established itself sometime between the middle of the second century BC and the beginning of the Christian era; within this tradition, Isaac is explicitly said to be the lamb of the burnt offering:  אתה השה לעלה בני – “You are the lamb, my son.”[5] Not only was the Aqedah considered a genuine sacrifice, but it became the sacrifice, sacrifice par excellence, whose lasting benefits would be felt for all time.

Within this doctrine, “the ashes of Isaac” and “the blood of Isaac’s Aqedah,” though contradicting the plain meaning of the Scripture, were to serve forever as atonement and advocate of Israel in every generation. The Binding of Isaac was thought to have played a unique role in the whole economy of the salvation of Israel and to have a permanent redemptive effect on behalf of its people. The future atonement for the sins of Israel would result both from Isaac’s self-offering and from the spilling of his blood. This is exactly what Abraham is asking for when prays in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah: “May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, that when Isaac’s children are in trouble, Thou wilt remember that binding in their favor and be filled with compassion with them!”.

John 1:29 ceases to be a crux when inserted into this proper setting. For the Palestinian Jew in the first century, all lamb sacrifices – including the Passover lamb – were a memorial of the Aqedah with its effects of deliverance, forgiveness of sin, and messianic salvation. “According to ancient Jewish theology, the atoning efficacy of all the sacrifices in which a lamb was immolated …  depended upon the virtue of the Aqedah, the self-offering of that Lamb whom God had recognized as the perfect victim of the perfect burnt offering.”[6] That the Aqedah does not play a greater role than it does in New Testament soteriology, might be explained by the fact that the slightest allusion to it would have sufficed to recall its significance to the Jewish Christians – and undoubtedly, we do have these slight allusions in the New Testament.

The Passover Lamb

The next time we meet up with a lamb is, of course, in the Book of Shemot,[7] chapter twelve, which details the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Again, this story is deeply connected to our discussion: just as the Akedah, Pesach[8] holds a unique place in God’s plan for Israel and in Jewish tradition, the Jewish Passover, as it was understood at the time of Jesus, provides not merely the background, but the very foundation of New Testament soteriology. The slain lamb in Exodus, with whose blood the doorposts were stained, was the symbol, the promise, and the basis for Israel’s salvation from Egypt. The Lamb looking as though it had been slain,[9] from the book of Revelation, is perceived as the symbol, promise, and basis for the salvation of the whole earth.  The New Testament accounts of Christ’s death allude to the preparation of the Passover Lamb in such a clear way that we have absolutely no doubt that the evangelists were consciously presenting Christ and his death as their Passover sacrifice.

The piercing of Christ’s side in John 19:34 recalls the Mishnah prescription to “slit the heart and let out its blood”. The Gospel of John gives the death of Jesus as occurring precisely at the time of the slaughtering of the Passover sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple.  Verse 36 in John 19: “Not a bone of him shall be broken,” is a very clear Passover reference[10]. However, the logic of these words was understandable only against the background of the Jewish Passover, and the only readers of this verse who would grasp it, were the Jewish followers of Jesus. But for the gentile believers, all these details of the original Jewish Passover didn’t mean anything and became just part of the religious code of the new Christian theology.

We can sum up our discussion now. Most scholars agree that “the association of the Aqedah with Passover was established well before the beginning of the Christian era”[11]; therefore, when a first-century Jew referred to someone as a “Lamb,” he implicitly applied to this person an entire collection of implications, connected both with the Aqedah sacrifice and with the Exodus: the saving virtue of the Passover Lamb proceeded from the merits of the very first lamb, bound on Mount Moriah. But as the new Jewish belief started to become a gentile religion, the process of cutting off this “lamb” tradition from its original meaning began. While, for the first Jewish believers, the whole comparison to a Passover lamb was meaningful only because of the already existing image of the Passover sacrifice and its connection to Aqedat Itzhak, for gentile Christians, the image of “the lamb” would bear no other meaning except for the Christ. When John the Baptist said Behold the Lamb of God, this would have been full of a certain meaning for the Israelis present there. However, all this symbolism of the Passover Lamb which was completely obvious for Jewish believers, was just as clearly absent for a believer who came to Jesus from a non-Jewish context.  “The Lamb” of John the Baptist referred to the Paschal Lamb of Passover sacrifice, with its atoning power based on the first and exclusive sacrifice—the sacrifice of Isaac. Yet, the significance of this original allusion disappeared completely for generations of Christian readers. Even though the image of the Lamb, whose death and resurrection have atoning power and redemptive effect on behalf of future generations, is deeply indebted to the Binding of Isaac in Jewish tradition, this image, as it was developed in later Christianity, would hardly recognize its Jewish ancestors.

Aqedat Itzhak and Israel  

You might find this post unexpected, my dear readers. You are probably wondering: why in the world is she writing about Aqedat Itzhak now when this horrible war is going on? What is the connection? I can tell you what the connection is by quoting the book I wrote 20 years ago: “Each Rosh Hashanah, each Jewish New Year, this portion “Akedah” about the binding of Isaac is read – and this scene, this ascent up the mountain and all that happened there, is like a miniature of our history: the history of the ages, and the history of each year.”[12] The history of this year in particular, I would add today. “Consider: this is a path down which the father leads his son, a path on which the son starts as just a son but which he finds ends at the altar. A path on which, in walking down it, the son becomes the lamb, with none other than the father himself leading him to be sacrificed. The one who up until now was simply a beloved son is transformed on this path into the lamb to be offered up by the father. With a heart reeling from the agony, the father leads the son-lamb to his slaughter; and Isaac submissively follows his father, all the time wondering where the lamb for the burnt offering was, and not realizing that he was to become the lamb.  This is the mystery and secret of the Father’s plan, the Father’s love, and the Father’s election.”[13] Those who follow my blog may remember the words I wrote in September about shofar (which also reminds us of Aqedat Itzhak, because it’s made of a ram’s horn): its sound represents the cry of the heart that has no words, but still longs to reach Heaven! It is this wordless cry that we hope that the Lord will hear…


[1] Rev. 5:12

[2] John 1:29,36

[3] Gen 22:7

[4] Rev. 5:6

[5] Bereshit Rabbah, 56.4

[6] Geza Vermes, Redemption and Genesis XXII, in: Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Leiden: 1961), pp 193-227; p.211

[7] The Hebrew name for Exodus

[8] Passover

[9] Rev. 5:6

[10] See Ex.12:46

[11]Geza Vermes, Redemption and Genesis XXII, p.215

[12] Julia Blum, If you be the Son of God, Come Down from the Cross, New Wine Press, 2006, p. 31

[13] Julia Blum, If you be the Son of God, Come Down from the Cross, New Wine Press, 2006, p. 29.

As always,  I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding our wonderful courses  (

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Gladys Fox

    I too was overwhelmed with what Julia wrote. She is an amazing teacher.
    I wanted to learn more and searched and found that there are other theories as well. One is that it was Abraham that was sacrificed by his father who was a pagan and worshipped idols and believed in human sacrifice
    I would highly recommend Julia as a teacher as she is a great teacher. Sadly I can only learn from her blogs because I don’t have the money to take her courses. I’m 81 years old any have too many hospital bills to pay. Still even at my age I’m learning

  2. Gladys Fox

    Thank you dear Julia,
    Your lesson always gives me much to think about and much to learn. Somehow I find it difficult to believe that God would allow Abraham to kill Isaac. If Isaac were bound that seems to me as murder. Would God then turn around and command that ” Thou shall not murder ” and through out the
    Torah God repeatedly denounced human sacrifices.
    I want to believe that God was teaching Abraham that He (God) didn’t need something to die for it to be a sacrifice as the pagan gods wanted. We later find that God asks that all first born of both animals and humans be dedicated to Him. This means to me that the first born has a greater responsibility to the family to guard them and teach the younger siblings the way of the Lord

  3. Jackie James

    Wow, that was an eye opener. I am currently considering the course the Institute is offering on the Book Of Revelations. As a Christian, I believe in the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is important to me that courses I take honor my faith. Your blog post seems to imply to me that the Jewish tradition equates Isaac’s sacrifice to that of Jesus as the Lamb of God. Reading your blog is the first time I read that Isaac was actually slain and rose again. Admittedly I am probably your quintessential gentile Christian and thought the Old Testament was the same as the Torah. I just read your blog so I’m still kind of reeling. I would be interested in a dialog and maybe more information about the mission of the Institute.
    Sincerely Yours,
    Jackie James