This post is going to be even more theological than usual and will not likely seem to have any relevance to the non-religious reader, but if you are a non-religious reader, you don’t have to let this disclaimer scare you away. If you keep reading, maybe you’ll find some relevance in the end. Or maybe you can look on it as just an educational experience.
Genesis 22 tells the strange story of God telling Abraham to offer his son back to the God who’d miraculously given him to Abraham. It should be noted that God did not tell Abraham to kill Isaac but to offer him. However, the word in the Hebrew is the word for a burnt offering, and if we were in Abraham’s sandals, we would probably assume (as Abraham did) that God meant this to be a dead sacrifice (not the living sacrifice of Romans 12:1). The word used for burnt offering in the passage in the Hebrew is an interesting one. According to Bible Hub, this is one expanded definition of the word: “whole burnt-offering (that which goes up to heaven (on altar).”
This definition gives us the picture that a burnt offering meant a complete offering. Consumed. Nothing of the old and the dead left hanging around.
And yet, in the end of the story, Abraham and Isaac walk down off the mountain together. What happened in the interval? Did God change His mind? Was He just joking? “Psych, Abraham! Gotcha!”
Some years ago when I stumbled across the information that the archaeological dig in Ur revealed that the culture Abraham had once called his own considered human sacrifice a normal, everyday part of life, the Genesis 22 account took on an even more layered significance than the several layers I could already see in it. I started to see that God was beginning to reveal to the father of His nation in hints what He would declare plainly in black and white (or stone) several generations later. It was a distinction He needed to declare plainly to set Himself apart from the gods of the nations that would surround His nation when He brought them into a land of their own. Unlike these other gods, His worship must not include the slaying of sons and daughters in human sacrifice. The practice was utterly abhorrent to Him.
So why would He appear to command the practice to Abraham?
When God didn’t allow Abraham to kill the son He had told Abraham to offer, I believe He was graphically illustrating His future prohibition against human sacrifice. But at the same time, I believe He meant what He said when He told Abraham to offer Isaac: “Offer him. Offer him as a complete and a consumed and a nothing-left-of-the-dead-and-the-old kind of offering. Just don’t kill him.”
From certain statements of Abraham in Genesis 22, the author of Hebrews in 11:19 seems to have gleaned the divinely-inspired guess that Abraham was fully expecting a resurrection to take place. (The author of Hebrews is almost certainly pointing out the prophetic implications of the Genesis 22 account, but that prophetic-implication layer is not the point of this post, and I’d better not sidetrack onto it.)
Abraham knew what God had told him: he knew Isaac was the son of promise, and he knew God had told him to offer Isaac, so he came out at the conclusion of the necessity for a raising from the dead. “…from which he also received him in a figurative sense,” Hebrews 11:19 informs us.
The layer of this story that concerns me this post is the one that concerns all of us: the parallel that will touch all the lives of all those of us who have called Abraham’s God their own. Like the offering God called Abraham to perform, the burnt offering He calls every single one of us to perform is the burnt offering of… everything. Every one of His good and miraculous gifts, even the gifts of promise. Every single one of them must go up on the altar and figuratively go up in smoke. Complete and consumed and nothing of the old and the dead left hanging around. The good gifts He means for us to keep will undergo that resurrection in the figurative sense that the author of Hebrews spoke of.
But why? Was the God of Abraham the same kind of monster as the gods Abraham had left behind in Ur? Was He really not very different from the demanding and bloodthirsty tyrants He set Himself apart from when He brought Abraham’s descendants into Canaan? Maybe He didn’t ask for literal human sacrifice, but what was with His insistence on being Numero Uno? Why would He tell His followers, generations later, as one of those descendants of Abraham, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37)? Is God on some kind of ego trip?
The more I see of life, the more I think God requires first place in the lives of those who claim Him as their God a) because first place is His rightful place and b) because of a), our worship ends up monstrous and enslaving and destructive if we ignore a). The One True God must be our only God so that we don’t find ourselves destroying sons and daughters and fathers and mothers and wives and husbands and every other relationship and our very selves in our worship of our false gods.
We will worship. The human heart was made for it. And there are a couple of clear biblical principles that come into play here. The Bible teaches us that what we worship, we serve. And it goes on to demonstrate that serving anything other than the One True God quickly becomes slavery. Captivity. Destruction.
That’s the plot-line of the Old Testament. Told on repeat. God’s people fell away from worshipping Him as the One True God and tried replacing His worship first with the worship of His good gifts. The first step was the worship of what God had made, the good gifts that came from His hand: the sun, moon, and stars, etc. The second step was the worship of the works of their own hands. The third step was slavery and destruction. Sometimes a first-hand sacrificing of their own sons and daughters. Sometimes a second-hand sacrificing of their loved ones: the captivity and destruction of those sons and daughters by the people surrounding them whose monster-gods they had chosen instead of their own. The fourth step was repentance, and the fifth was God’s rescue. And then, “…second verse, same as the first, little bit louder, little bit worse.”
Isaac, that good gift from God’s hands, was never meant to assume God’s rightful place in Abraham’s life. God needed Abraham to understand that truth. With God in His rightful place and Isaac in his and Abraham in his, everything was in its proper place. Their relationships could flourish.
Haven’t you seen it? I know I have. I’ve seen parents destroy their kids by turning them into little gods. And those idols turn around to destroy their worshippers. If Abraham had refused to obey God’s command to offer Isaac, disaster would surely have followed in his relationship with Isaac. What Abraham needed to do in a physical way, all of us who are followers of the One True God of Abraham must do in a figurative-yet-literal way with all of God’s good gifts.
This is my political/cultural blog, and oddly, the idea for this post on Abraham and Isaac started with some political observations. I’ve been noticing that politics is the new religion of the masses. How’s that been working out for us so far?
Many people on the right have started pointing out the similarities between (I don’t know what name to use) the hard left–the extremist/fundamentalist progressives–and cults. I’ll sometimes hear the term tossed around, “the cult of wokeness.” And it fits pretty well.
But I’m seeing some of the same tendencies on the right, as well. Just in the opposite direction. But the same error. Idolatry.
I’m writing this post for Christians mostly as the only ones so far to whom it will make any sense. A lot of us find ourselves aligning more with the politically right because we see so much of where the left is going wrong. And I’ve admitted that I’m willing to wear the label “conservative” mainly because I tend to focus on what’s going wrong on the left side of the aisle. Other Christians find the messages on the left of compassion and a concern for injustice and oppression resonating harder with them, and so they politically side more with the left, turning a blind eye to the points of non-agreement.
Regardless, whatever else we call ourselves, we should first and foremost call ourselves followers of the One True God. We are not primarily conservatives or liberals, left or right, Americans or Canadians. We are first and foremost God’s. That’s the label that counts. That allegiance must be our first allegiance.
Even Truth and Righteousness (with a capital T and a capital R) can become idols. I’ve seen it in Christian circles. These are very good gifts from God’s hand, these traits of His character, but even they can even be elevated to that place in our lives that should be reserved for God alone. And when this happens, Truth (however true it may still be in and of itself) and Righteous deeds (however right they may still be in and of themselves) can and will turn monstrous and destructive and enslaving. God Himself must be elevated to that first place in our lives, and then the truth and righteousness that flows from Him and His character is ours to enjoy. We just have to get the order right.
Not only on this issue, but in several other areas, I’ve been spotting some areas of captivity in my life lately. Knowing the biblical principles described earlier, I knew to look for the areas of idolatry that were causing the captivity. Where had I been putting my will and desires above God’s, refusing to accept His will and desires for me? I found the places. The cure is mostly a matter of recognizing the disease.
It is frustrating to discover that we’ll be fighting idols (even the ones that were good gifts before we made them into idols) all the days of our lives, even as followers of the One True God. We see it over and over in the Old Testament histories. Even the good and godly kings who knew and worshipped the One True God of Israel in an overall kind of way, who smashed down the main idols they saw, often let the more subtle and hidden “high places” of idolatry slide. None of us get to be perfect in this life, so we all carry around little pockets of idolatry that will need constant noticing and combatting if we’re to live as free as we possibly can. The New Testament calls this tendency of ours “the flesh.” And it’s a fight to the death with the flesh. All our days, we’ll be constantly wrestling those idols up onto altars to offer them as burnt offerings. Those which are good gifts from God’s hand that He intends us to keep will find a resurrection. But the act of offering them back to God will have the effect of keeping them from enslaving us.
Idolatry (usually self-worship) is always the first sin and the sin even Christians need to be constantly on the look-out for. I thought I might as well blog about the place where I’ve been seeing it generally lately as a warning to us (myself included) to watch out for it and get our priorities straight in regards to our politics. I don’t want to fall into captivity and destruction, and I don’t like to see anyone else in that state, so I just thought I’d mention it.