God’s provision follows an economy that we can see developing in Genesis and throughout scripture. It begins after Cain’s murder of Abel. Adam enters into his wife. She bears a son, Seth, and Eve explains his name: “‘For God,’ said she, ‘hath appointed me another seed in stead of Abel, whom Cain slew’” (4:25 AV). The son is not restored, but instead replaced.
When Abraham lifts his eyes and sees the ram caught in the nearby thicket, he offers the animal “instead of his son” (22:13). Although we can see in the background a general commandment to offer the firstborn son to God (Exod. 22:29), in the immediate context, the specific commandment to sacrifice Isaac has no explicit purpose other than to try Abraham.
The import of the sacrifice of substituted ram remains obscure. Isaac’s life is at stake, but the countercommand, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him” (Gen. 22:12), comes before and not after the sacrifice of the substitute. No clear link is established between sacrifice, substitution, and the covenant promise of life. The son is simply restored by an act of God, and then the substitute appears, and the sacrifice is offered.
Although the use of goat’s blood by Joseph’s brothers to deceive Jacob foreshadows a unity of sacrifice and substitution in the divine gift of new life, it is only in the Passover lamb that this unity becomes the crucial instrument for forward movement into the future promised to Abraham. The punitive death of the firstborn passes over the households that sacrifice the substituted lamb. The Israelite sons live because the lamb dies, and this differs from the scene on Mount Moriah. Isaac is saved by divine decree, and then a substitute is offered; the Israelite sons are saved from death by the substitute.
What is important about the subsequent history of Israel and the New Testament is the way in which the beloved son and the ram/lamb merge together. In Isaiah’s vision, the descendants of Abraham become sacrificial victims. Personified in the Suffering Servant depicted in Isaiah, Israel “was despised and rejected by men” (Isa. 53:3). She “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (53:4) as she went forward into exile “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (53:7). But Israel does not suffer in vain. She shall be raised from her political death to become a light to all the nations; in new life Israel shall be the redemptive center for the divine plan for all humanity (60:3).
In the New Testament, Jesus stands in the place of Israel. He is both the substituted lamb of sacrifice and the beloved son of the promise. His death provides “the new and living way” into the inner sanctuary of the house of God (Heb. 10:20). The son dies as the substitute so that all might be saved from death.