Passover Reflections: The Lamb (i)

 

God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering

      Gen. 22:8

 

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 has not at least once sung these words from the Book of Revelation? Indeed, the Lamb is one of the central images in this visionary book, written about the end of the first century – we find it almost in every chapter (Rev. 5, 6, 7, 8,13,14 etc).  But it would also be right to say that this image is absolutely central for the whole of  Christian theology: the idea of the sinless Lamb sacrificed for the sins of the men has been one of the leitmotifs of Christianity throughout its history. Accordingly, one could expect the pages of the Gospels to be filled with imaginary of the Lamb,  but surprisingly enough, aside from the book of Revelation, we seldom find this word in the New Testament. We don’t find it in the epistles of Paul, the earliest NT writings, and throughout the Gospels the word “lamb” occurs only twice in the same chapter – in the Gospel of John, the latest of all Gospels, in the account of Jesus’  baptism , “beloved Son” of the Synoptic Gospels is replaced  by the “Lamb of God”: “Behold  the  Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” A little further on, John the Baptist repeats: ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’[2] So, we find this title in only one chapter outside of the book of Revelation – and in no other place!

The realization that the Lamb is not mentioned in the other Gospels and is absent from the other books of the New Testament as well, evokes many questions. Where does John take this image from? What did John the Baptist mean by these words? What meaning did the Israelites assign to his words?

 

This exclamation of John the Baptist in John 1:29 has posed a problem for many  NT scholars. Among the different interpretation of the “lambwhich have been proposed, the most plausible is that of the Passover lamb, but even here we have a serious objection: the Passover lamb had  not been considered an expiatory sacrifice. The sacrifice of the Paschal lamb was not seen as an atoning death, as a  vicarious  suffering.  How, then, should the expression “the Lamb of God” in the Gospel of John be explained?

 

The Akedah lamb

Before we explore extra-biblical sources, let us turn to the Tanach (Old Testament) in our search for answers.  I think  it will surprise you to discover that, even in Tanach, the Hebrew word for ‘lamb’ doesn’t appear many times. However, it is not difficult to recall where we first encounter this word! Of course, this happens in Genesis 22, in the Akedat Itzhak. 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] As with each component of the Akedah story, this conversation between Abraham and Isaac is of vital importance. While it has yet to unfold as a separate theme in the spiritual history of both our people and of  mankind as a whole – the word was pronounced, the  question was  asked, the introductory chord began to sound. Thus, the Lamb looking as though it had been slain,[4] from the Book of Revelation, starts here with Isaac’s innocent, trusting, almost naïve question: ‘Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

 

I believe many Christians are perfectly aware of this connection and parallel between Isaac and Jesus. What you are probably not aware of, is a Jewish haggadic tradition that states explicitly that there on Mount Moriah, Abraham offered up two sacrifices: he began with the sacrifice of his son and ended with the sacrifice of the ram. This tradition states that Isaac was slain, or burnt, and then rose from the dead. In midrash Bereshit Rabbah  R. Phineas said in R. Banai’s name: “He prayed: Sovereign of the Universe! Regard it as though I had sacrificed my son Isaac first and then this ram instead of him (in the stead, tahat, being understood as in the verse And Jotham his son reigned in his stead [5], where the meaning must be after him)”. Here Isaac is explicitly said to be the lamb of burnt offering:
אתה השה לעלה בני  – “You are the lamb, my son[6].

 

Different interpretations and foundations of the Aqedah tradition are presented in  different rabbinic sources. However, the important common point is that ‘the ashes of Isaac’ and ‘the blood of Isaac’s Aqedah’,  though contradictary to the plain meaning of the Scripture, are carefully preserved by this tradition – they are to serve forever as atonement and advocate of Israel in every generation. For instance,  we read in Mekilta de-Rabbi Ismael:  “And as he was about to destroy, the Lord beheld and He repented Him of the evil”[7]. What did He behold? “He beheld the blood of Isaac’s Aqedah”[8]  – and immediately His compassion conquers His anger and He redeems and delivers. This is exactly what Abraham  is asking for when he continues his prayer in Bereshit Rabbah: Even so may it be Thy will, O Lord our God, that when Isaac’s children are in trouble, Thou wilt remember that binding in their favour and be filled with compassion  with them!”[9]

 

This striking similarity between the haggadic tradition of Aqedah and the Christian soteriology has long been observed. Much discussion has been carried out concerning the independence of the Jewish tradition. At some point, scholars managed to dispose of the common notion that Aqedah was basically a Christian innovation.. According to Gesa Vermes, “the two main targumic themes of the Aqedah story, namely Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed and the atoning virtue of action, were already traditional in the first century AD”.[10]  Some time between the middle of the second century BC and the beginning of the Christian era, a new doctrine had established itself: that the atonement for the sins of Israel resulted both from Isaac’s self-offering and from the spilling of his blood. Within this doctrine, the Binding of Isaac was thought to have played a unique role in the salvation of Israel and to have a redemptive effect on behalf of its people.

John 1:29 ceases to be a crux when inserted into this setting.  For a Jew in the first century, all lamb sacrifices were understood as a memorial of the Aqedah with its effects of deliverance, forgiveness of sin and messianic salvation. Not only was the Aqedah considered a true sacrifice, but because of the freewill consent of Isaac – a unique  feature that one doesn’t  find in other sacrifices – it became The Sacrifice, with its redemptive benefits lasting forever. Thus, the Christian image of the Lamb,  whose death and resurrection have atoning power and redemptive effect on behalf of the future generations, seems to be  indebted – or at least, deeply connected – to the Binding (Aqedah) of Isaac in Jewish tradition.[11]

[1] Rev. 5:12

[2] John 1:29,36

[3] Gen. 22:7

[4] Rev. 5:6

[5] 2 Kings 15:7

[6] Bereshit Rabbah, 56,4

[7] 1 Chron. 21:15

[8] Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, 90-95

[9] Bereshit Rabbah, 56,10

[10] Geza Vermes, Redemption and Genesis XXII, in: Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Leiden: 1961), p. 204

[11]A detailed discussion of the Christian image of the Lamb can be found in my book “If you are the Son of God”. Click here to get the book :http://readjuliablum.com

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. Beth

    Dear Julie, Just a little food food for thought. It must be remembered that there are many pictures, types and shadows of how God works and of salvation through His Only BegottenSon in the Old Testament (Tanak). And binding of Isaac is one of them. In fact, the Tanak is the Promise of the Massiah and the New Testament the Performance of that Promise. Thank you for sharing your insights into God’s Word. I look forward to your next subject.

  2. Evan

    Something that I find particularly fascinating is that the narrative of the Akedah conforms to the pattern of Passover as dictated in Exodus. The Passover lamb was to be picked out on the tenth day of the month, and then sacrificed on the fourteenth. In Exodus (12:41), Moses states that 430 years later, “on the same day,” the families of Israel left Egypt. Same day as what?? According to Paul in Galatians (3:17), the 430 years has something to do with “the promise,” which was the promise to Abraham, i.e., a seed, or descendant. Interestingly, four days before the Akedah, God identified Isaac as the sacrifice He wanted from Abraham. In other words, Isaac was possibly chosen on the tenth day of the month, with the Akedah occurring on the fourteenth. I personally think this is evidence that Passover is actually the anniversary of the Akedah. In other words, the Akedah and the crucifixion possibly might have occurred not only at the same place, but on the same day, as well. Exodus clearly indicates that Passover is the anniversary of something significant prior to the exodus from Egypt. But could it possibly go even deeper? What about that fateful day in the garden in Genesis 3? Wouldn’t that particular day be highly significant to God? Wouldn’t it stand to reason that He wouldn’t let it go? That perhaps He might even choose the anniversary of that day to balance the scales? I wonder if Passover isn’t actually the anniversary of the day Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. After all, that was the first time an animal (why wouldn’t it be a lamb, seeing as God always knew He’d use a lamb as a symbol for the substitute?) died as a substitute, or atonement (covering). And that was the day God promised the “seed of the woman” who would bruise the serpent’s head. Why not fulfill the prophecy the same day it was given? And what about the place? One legitimate rendering of the Hebrew seems to be that the garden was destroyed by fire. Same thing that happened to the Temple for the same reasons…twice. Is it possible that the land of Canaan was chosen and identified as the promised land precisely because that’s where the garden used to be? Would love to hear others’ thoughts…

    1. Julia Blum

      Wow, Evan, somehow I missed you comment and read it only now! It is so deep and there are so many amazing parallels! The ideas that “Passover is actually the anniversary of the Akedah” and that “the Akedah and the crucifixion occurred not only at the same place, but on the same day”, are incredible profound. But to go even deeper and to connect it with Genesis 3 , is mind boggling! Thank you so much! I have a question, though: what do you mean when you say that “Exodus clearly indicates that Passover is the anniversary of something significant prior to the exodus from Egypt”? Where does it clearly indicate?

  3. Hans Käser

    Since a long time I’m reading this blog with great interest, but had never so far participated personally. One reason may be because of my English, which is not my favourite language of communication…
    But Genesis 22 is now for me a too important issue as to keep in silence:
    To my understanding Genesis 22 in evangelic tradition has not received the attention it really needs to have – specially in connection with Genesis 12:1-3 and from there for the whole purpose (mission) of Got for and with humanity. For my understanding in Genesis 12 the question arises: On what base God is establishing this new relationship with Abraham (and with men in general) – after the exclusion of the close fellowship between God and men in Genesis (presence of God amongst his people). Did God just reconsidering his decision (or even regret it) like humans may do? To my understanding Genesis 22 is the clear answer: God himself has to and will provide. To my understanding Genesis 22 is exactly the opposite of the (human) sacrifice. Even this ‘best sacrifice’ we as humans could bring is never going to be the adequate condition for a new real fellowship between God and the rebellious humans (unable and unwilling to love God as he has to be loved in response to his love). god himself has to provide and will provide this condition without ‘help’ from men. (This is all the more meaningful for me living as a Swiss missionary since 21 years in Peru where human sacrifices are a religious practice even today! – and I presume that it was a common practice in the surrounding world of Abraham…? But in Genesis 22 God says a clear NO to that human way of trying to get God’s favour again).
    Is it correct, that in Genesis 3 times appears the reality of God being the provider?:
    – in the word ‘Morija’ (v2)
    – in Abrahams answer to his son (v8) and
    – in the name Abraham gives to the place at the end (v14)
    God himself, and without human help*, provides the condition for the new relationship first announced in Genesis 12 – and finding its last fulfilment in ‘the new heavens and the new world’.
    * that’s why to my understanding the disciples ‘had to’ abandon Jesus, when it came to his death on the cross – because it had to be without any doubt that God and God alone is the provider here.
    And its only on the base of this provision from God through the Messiah that we can and we really can(!) become participants of God and His purposes.

    1. Julia Blum

      Welcome to these pages Hans! So glad you decided to write! Thank you for your very profound comment, I totally agree: Genesis 22 is of enormous significance, indeed (in fact, my next post will be all about Aqedat Itzhak, Genesis 22 – I will publish it tomorrow). The connections you mention are all very significant, but I found one thought especially striking: “the disciples ‘had to’ abandon Jesus, when it came to his death on the cross – because it had to be without any doubt that God and God alone is the provider here”. Wow! To me, it echoes the book of Genesis when God causes a deep sleep to fall upon a man (Adam in Gen. 2, Abram in Gen. 15)- because He wants to make sure the man understands His sovereignty.

  4. PremkumarSamuel

    Apostle Paul says Christ our Paschal lamb has been sacrificed. Genesis also records that the lamb at mount Moriah was caught with its head in the thicket of thorns another type of the crown of thorns.
    John also records the time of Jesus death at 3.P.M. the time when the lambs were slaughtered for pass over.
    Azazel lamb of leviticus 16 also comes to mind .
    looking forward for your great insights
    thanks and regards

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Samuel. Always glad to hear from you.

  5. Ashley

    Julia, on a slightly different note;
    In Genesis 22 v7 & 8 we read
    “7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
    8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: …. ….”
    There are two ways to read Abraham’s reply and both, I think, are valid.
    If we add the word “for”, it clarifies the too possible answers: “And Abraham said, My son, God will provide FOR himself a lamb for a burnt offering” OR “And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself FOR a lamb for a burnt offering”.
    The first answers Isaac’s question directly, but the second choice has greater depth; God indeed provided HIMSELF (through Jesus) as a Lamb for a sacrifice.
    In John 8:56, we read (of Jesus lecturing the Pharisees) “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.” Was this episode in Genesis 23 what Jesus was talking of?
    It’s an interesting thought anyway.

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, Ashley, some think that Jesus was talking of this episode in Genesis 22 (when the Angel of the Lord spoke to Abraham). I personally have a different opinion, but I agree, it’s an interesting thought indeed.

  6. Jennifer

    Looking up … reminds me of the Psalm 121 “I lift my eyes unto the hills where does my help come from”, which is both a statement and a question. As we lift our gaze from our circumstances to the LORD our deliverer, and focus on the reality of the spiritual over the natural, faith rises and we receive from His hands, our deliverance.

  7. Joel

    1 Cor 5:7 Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast — as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. NIV

    Every time the Lord supper or communion is offered It would be nice to see this connection. Many times the church today does not even

    Ex 12:1-11 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire — head, legs and inner parts. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover. NIV

    These verses are part of the conversation and the importance of this is the heart of the Christian faith, to escape the final condemnation on the Last Day. Only if we are covered in the blood of the Lamb of God will we be made Holy Through His blood. It is the eternal covenant.

    Heb 13:11-1411 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. NIV

    Heb 13:20-21May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen NIV

  8. Henrietta Wisbey

    Dear Julia
    Some connecting thoughts that spring to mind:
    Gen.22:7 records for us the conversation between Isaac and Abraham viz. Isaac says to Abraham,” Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering.
    Then verse 13 tells us Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns.
    The word BEHOLD always has the effect of arresting me. It causes me to redirect my gaze, my focus to the saving purpose; sometimes for the immediate future but maybe for the more distant.

    John records for us the words of the baptist who exclaims; “Behold the Lamb of God! Jn.1:29,36

    Then in Revelation 15:3 we are privileged to have a glance into heaven where we read They sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.

    Lots of beholding!!
    I think I may be forever Beholding ??
    I do so appreciate your wonderful writings.
    Henrietta

    1. Julia Blum

      Dear Henrietta, so wonderful to see you back on these pages. All your “connecting thoughts” are always absolutely amazing: this “Behold” renders a very simple word in Hebrew, and I’ve never given this word much attention and kind of “overlooked” it – but with all these connections, is sounds so profound in English, I am just amazed! Thank you so much for pointing it out!

    2. dorothy Healy

      Dear Henrietta,
      This expression, ‘behold’, has also arrested my attention – which I think is its purpose. But also the expression “He lifted his eyes and saw …” I understand to point to a prophetic vision beyond the present circumstances of the individual. This is particularly clear in this case. “Abraham called this place “’The LORD Will Provide’. And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided’” (Genesis 22:14).

    3. vilaire matheus

      wow! perfect comment, excellent and deep thought! but we still can go deeper. Not only the scenarios of Abraham and John, The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world in Revelation is no other than the lamb killed in the Garden of Eden, predicting the coming Messiah, Jesus, the Christ of God. The skin was used to make covering for Adam and Eve; but what were the bones, the flesh and the blood used for? The bible is silent in the book of Genesis until the sacrificial system was set by Moses under the instructions of GOD himself. As a matter of fact, if someone does not understand or neglect that sacrificial system and its implication in the salvation of human kind, John and Abraham’s scenarios mean nothing. For, the Temple sacrificial system, Isaac or Abraham and John (Revelation) scenarios are all referring to Genesis ch. 3 vs 15 & vs 21