Reflecting and Doing
Modern Western life means that pouring out wine or roasting grain are no longer symbols of giving what is precious to us. God has said a big no-no to giving him our children (although we may occasionally want to). So what would be the contemporary equivalent? What precious thing can we give to God as a demonstration of love?
Money? Time? Internet connection? (Ooh, that one bites!)
Money can be a bit of an easy cop-out, particularly if, like me, you give electronically, so you never even see it. Perhaps putting folding stuff in the church collection or in the RNLI box would make it more real for me.
Perhaps time is your precious thing. Dedicating time for prayer, for listening to a neighbour, or for making sandwiches for the local football team, any of those can be gifts to God – it doesn’t have to be church-related. If you are intending something as an act of worship, then God will accept it as such.
So – to reflect and do. What is my precious thing? How can I give that to God as an act of worship?
Now do it.
Yesterday, I sat and watched Pirates of the Caribbean with my middle daughter. I started off fretting about the wasted time – I had much to do and could usefully have spent the time writing (writing this, actually). But I didn’t. I gave the time as a gift to my daughter. I made a sacrifice of something precious – 136 minutes. (It sounds paltry now I say it, but it is 0.00045% of my half-a-million adult hours. Hmmn. That still sounds paltry.)
Giving something precious – that’s what this very famous passage is all about – but what a thing to ask! This is one of the OMG passages of the Bible. And I’m not being disrespectful there. This story really does leave us reeling – is that really the God I worship? What on earth was he thinking? It’s the Sunday School lesson nightmare!
I’m not going to spiritualise it all away, saying that Abraham knew what God was planning and it was a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice. Neither am I going to secularise it all away, saying that the writers of Genesis were recording a semi-mythological history as the Israelites saw it, and needed an origin story. Both of those approaches contain points of truth (it was written down hundreds of years after the purported date, and there are parallels with Jesus) but I’m not sure that’s where the importance lies.
Instead I’m going to take it at face value. God knows that this story is in the Bible, so presumably he’s OK with that, and we can learn something of God and his ways from it. So what do we learn? That God is capricious, manipulative bully who likes playing nasty tricks on broken-hearted old men? That could certainly be the conclusion as we read this, frankly, shocking story today, and notable atheists such as Steven Fry (bless his M&S socks) would readily concur.
However, let us try for a while to rid ourselves of 21st century western glasses, steamed up with centuries of assumptions and tradition. The Bible is a story of gradual revelation, of awakening, learning and growing. Even in the New Testament we can see people gradually getting the hang of things, so that later understanding seems at odds with earlier. For example, first Jesus told his disciples to stick to the Jews (Matt 10:6), but later, non-Jews were welcomed (Acts 10).
Genesis 22 is pretty near the beginning of the story, and God was just getting started on his dealings with people. In the ancient near east, ideas about gods were different from what we think today, and God had to deal with Abraham and his family in a way that they would understand. It’s just the start of the revelation about the One True God. We can’t expect fully-developed theology.
In that culture, gods were local, even to as little as to a town. We can see this when Naaman asked to take back two baskets of earth so that he could worship the God of Israel (note the name) when he went back to his land. Our understanding of God has widened his borders since then, but that does not mean we should look down on Naaman’s imperfect understanding. We’re all in that boat.
Local gods had to be placated to avoid disaster. The common way to do that was to offer something precious, and we see the same in people’s offerings to God. Cain and Abel were the first, and it was later mandated that first crops and first animals, even first sons, were to be given to God. (Ex 13:2) The firstborn son could be redeemed (an image from slavery, meaning ‘bought back’), and an animal given in place.
So with Abraham living where he did, when he did, giving a much-treasured child to the local god would not be at all weird. It would be regarded as super-pious by local standards. We even read in Judges 11 of one of the leaders of Israel sacrificing his daughter because of a vow. And not to a foreign god, to the God of Israel! (Now that guy really was stupid. Sorry, but he was.)
And God’s reaction to this? A Massive NO! ‘You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.’ (Deut 12:31). There would be no need to spell out that child-sacrifice was a big no-no, if the Israelites had not thought it was OK.
This passage of Abraham and Isaac is not showing that God wanted a child-sacrifice and then changed his mind at the last minute. The whole point of the story is to make it very clear that God does NOT want child-sacrifice, contrary to what Israel thought. But it seems they kept on doing it, because centuries later, just before Judah was overrun by the Babylonians, God relates the wrongs that had brought them to that crisis. ‘They … sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded – nor did it enter my mind – that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.’ (Jer 32:35).
So having cleared up the child-sacrifice thing, we need to think about the testing, or ‘tempting’ as the AV has it.
‘Tempting’ is not a very helpful translation anymore. Words change their meaning, and ‘tempting’ now implies trying to make someone do something wrong, which God does not do (Jas 1:13). Instead testing or proving are better. Proving, which means ‘demonstrating as true’, has its origins in finding out if something is up to standard. Eg, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, and ‘proving’ alcohol to find out its strength (100% proof meant ‘it passed the test, so needs to be taxed’).
So God was testing Abraham. He wanted to find out if Abraham’s faith was up to standard (and in v 12, he found out). We might look at that and say, ‘that’s not fair’, or ‘that was mean’, but we need to remember who we’re talking to. If I make a bracelet and later decide to take it apart and make a different bracelet from the beads, I would not expect the beads to object.
Testing and trials are not popular. They are not comfortable or easy, so we don’t like them. But they are part of life and it might help to think of them more like auditions or exams than the games of some capricious deity. If I want to win Britain’s Got Talent, I have to go through the audition. It gives me an opportunity to show that I’m up to standard, a chance to prove myself. If I want to drive a car, I have to prove that my driving is up to standard. A driving test isn’t nice, but it gives me a chance to show what I can do.
So tests are not pleasant, but they are normal and they are helpful. How did Abraham’s test help? It forced him to think seriously about where his faith lay. In the past he had taken matters into his own hands – Pharaoh, Hagar and Ishmael, Abimelch, etc. Now God, the giver of the impossible, had demanded the impossible back. Whom would he trust?
Abraham cannot see any way around God’s command but, over the three days of the journey, when I’d guess he was thinking of little else, he comes to a wonderful conclusion. ‘God will provide.’
That is all. No explanation. No details. No trying to make it happen. Just a statement of faith and that’s all.
In Hebrews 11 we read that ‘Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.’ Perhaps that was what Abraham was thinking, or perhaps he thought that God would make a sheep cross their path on the way, or something else. Whatever it was, Abraham trusted that God knew what he was doing, even if he, Abraham, didn’t.
And that is usually where I find myself. So maybe it’s not a bad lesson after all.
‘In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ 1 Pet 1:6-7
What are your trials?
Genesis 22:1-14 New Living Translation
Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called.
“Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.”
“Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.”
The next morning Abraham got up early. He saddled his donkey and took two of his servants with him, along with his son, Isaac. Then he chopped wood for a fire for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day of their journey, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants. “The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back.”
So Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them walked on together, Isaac turned to Abraham and said, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“We have the fire and the wood,” the boy said, “but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
“God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham answered. And they both walked on together.
When they arrived at the place where God had told him to go, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. At that moment the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Yes,” Abraham replied. “Here I am!”
“Don’t lay a hand on the boy!” the angel said. “Do not hurt him in any way, for now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son.”
Then Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So he took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in place of his son. Abraham named the place Yahweh-Yireh (which means “the Lord will provide”). To this day, people still use that name as a proverb: “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Armstrong, Karen, A History of Jerusalem (Harper Collins)
Bruggemann, Walter, Genesis, Interpretation (John Knox Press, 1982).
Kidner, Derek, Genesis, Tydale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP 1967).
von Rad, Gerhard, Genesis, Old Testament Library (Jenkins 1963)