Abraham’s Sacrifice

by Guercino (1657)
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham, in obedience to God’s request, set out to go to the land of Moriah where he would offer his son as a burnt offering. Abraham took his son, two of his servants, a donkey, and the wood for the offering and traveled to Mount Moriah.

On the way to the mountain where the sacrifice would take place, Isaac asked his father: “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7). Abraham, probably moved by his son’s question, probably agonizing over what he was about to do, responded to his son’s question with words that showed his faith and trust in God. Abraham said: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8).

When Abraham arrived at the place where the sacrifice would take place, he built an altar, arranged the wood on top of the altar, tied up his son, and placed him on top of the wood. As Abraham took the knife and prepared to sacrifice his son, the Angel of the LORD appeared to him and told him not to sacrifice Isaac. Then, “Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Genesis 22:13).

A few days ago, a good friend of mine asked me if there was any significance on the shift from a lamb in verses 7 and 8 to a ram in verse 13. An explanation for this shift is found in how animals were used in the sacrificial system of ancient Israel.

The Hebrew word that both Abraham and Isaac used for the animal to be sacrificed was the śeh, a word that refers to a small animal in the herd. The word śeh is generally translated “small cattle” and it refers to the young of the sheep (a lamb) or the young of the goats (a kid). In the book of Leviticus, the śeh, the small livestock, was a clean animal and suitable for sacrifice. The śeh was customarily used when the worshiper desired to offer an animal sacrifice.

The regulations for the celebration of the Passover in Exodus 12 helps to clarify the meaning of the word. In preparation for the celebration of the Passover, Moses told the people to take a lamb for each family. Then he said: “Your lamb (Hebrew śeh) shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats” (Exodus 12:5). Thus, the animal that Abraham mentioned, the śeh was a young lamb.

On the other hand, the ram, Hebrew ´ayil, was often one of the animals used in the sacrificial system of Israel. Rams were sacrificed as burnt-offerings, as thank-offerings, and as trespass-offerings. When rams were offered as sacrifice, they were considered of higher value than sheep and lambs (Micah 6:7).

A ram was sacrificed when God made a covenant with Abraham. A ram was sacrificed when the altar of the tabernacle was dedicated. A ram was sacrificed on the Day of Atonement as a burn offering.

Since both animals were offered as sacrifices, I do not think there was any important significance on the change of animals from “lamb” or “sheep” to “ram” in Genesis 22. A ram is a mature sheep and both animals were accepted for sacrifices.

When Abraham answered Isaac’s question, Abraham believed that God would provide a śeh “a small animal” for the sacrifice. Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:8). When Abraham said these words, he did not know what kind of animal God would provide; he only believed that God would provide the animal for the sacrifice instead of his son.

So, instead of providing a young lamb, a śeh, God provided a full-grown ram, an ´ayil, for the sacrifice. Thus, one can say that God provided much more than Abraham expected God would provide.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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14 Responses to Abraham’s Sacrifice

  1. Dieter says:

    Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. – Exodus 12:5 (NASB)
    I wonder whether God wanted to maintain a parallel between the Passover lamb of Exodus and Messiah. It would seem like “the lamb of God” and “the lamb who was slain” sounds a lot more gentle and humble than “the ram of God” and “the ram who was slain.”

    When I was looking into this question, I was rocked on my heels by the verses quoted here, when I stumbled across this website:


    Or could this be a polemic against human sacrifice?


    • Dieter,

      That parallel between the Passover lamb of the Exodus and the death of Christ on the cross is to be found in the idea of liberation. The Passover was a time of celebration while the Day of Atonement was a day of mourning and confession.

      Thank you for the link. I will read the post later.

      Claude Mariottini


  2. Vanu says:

    Love the reminder that God’s provision is more than we expect.


    • Vanu,

      It is nice hearing from you again. I hope you are being blessed in your place of ministry. You are right, God’s provision is always available to his people and God always provides in abundance.

      Claude Mariottini


  3. Pingback: Abraham’s Sacrifice | All Thought Captive To Christ

  4. Heather says:

    Very helpful article. I have been stuck in my reading of the Old Testament trying to understand the significance of sacrificing a ram vs. a lamb. This article helped me understand the bigger picture of what was required and why. Thank you for taking the time to post this article.


    • Heather,

      You are welcome. I am happy to know that the post was helpful to you.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini


    • Jeffrey Frankel says:

      I find it strange that any father either today or three thousand years ago would willingly take his son and prepare to sacrifice him. Clearly Abraham was not a “mensch”. A thousand years later Moses said, “Thou shalt not kill.” He made it clear he thought Abraham was wrong to even think of killing his son.


      • Jeffrey,

        No father today would sacrifice a son. Our moral values have progressed, but it was not so in the long past. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ancient Aztec in Mexico sacrificed hundreds of children to their gods. In Carthage, archeologists found 20,000 urns containing the ashes of sacrificed children. For them, it was not killing; it was an offering to their gods.

        Society today has been influenced by the teaching of Christianity. It is for this reason that we consider child sacrifice an act of murder.

        Claude Mariottini


  5. Ogundele Ezekiel says:

    I was blessed by your explanations on the ram and lamb issue. God’s grace will not leave you.



    I am all for this. I believe so much in the Old Testament, and practice it’s Laws.


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