Monday 31 October 2011

Big Daddy (Genesis 22)

Muslims, Jews and Christians look to him as the father of their faith. Their scriptures point to him as a man of God - the one who displayed true faith in God. All three claim to be descendants of this one man, children and heirs of the promises first given by God to this same one man. The Qur’an calls him Ibrahim. We know him better as Abraham.

Though, the bible first introduces Abraham with a different name - Abram. For six chapters from Genesis 11 through 16, he is always referred to as Abram - a name which meant “Father”. God changed his name in Chapter 17 to Abraham - “Father of many”, or as I like to call him, “Big Daddy”. God promised Abraham that he would receive tremendous blessing, but they weren’t for him alone. God’s promise of blessing would pass down to his children, and to his children’s children. It was a three-fold promise of (1) land (specifically, the land of Canaan), (2) blessing (he would be successful) and (3) innumerable descendants (hence the name, Big Daddy).

The irony was: Abraham had no kids. His wife, Sarah, was barren (Genesis 11:30) and both of them were very old. He was 75 years-old when God first called him in Genesis 12. It was only 25 years later, when Abraham was a hundred years-old that Isaac was born to him and Sarah. The name Isaac means “he laughs”. Sarah says “God has brought me laughter” (Genesis 21:6). This baby boy meant everything to his elderly parents. Isaac was their joy and laughter.

But now God was about to test Abraham with his son, his highest joy and his truest treasure.

The son whom you love

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
Genesis 22:1-2

Notice how God refers to Isaac. “Your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love”. What does God tell Abraham to do with this son whom he loves? “Offer him as a burnt offering.”

Abraham was a wealthy man by this point in his life. But nowhere in the bible does God test Abraham by asking him to give away his money. Neither was God telling Abraham to send his son away, the way he did with Ishmael and his mother Hagar just a few verses earlier in Genesis 21. No, God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The Hebrew word ‘Ola is the same word used when describing how Noah offered up animals on the altar after the flood in Genesis 8. It was a whole burnt offering - all of Isaac was to be offered up and nothing held back. His life, his body, his blood - sacrificed on an altar to God.

Abraham obeyed.

He cut the wood

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.
Genesis 22:3

Notice how the focus stays on Abraham. He rose up. He took the young men. He cut the wood. He arose and went.

This was something he had to do alone. He had servants with him but as far as we can tell from these verses, he did everything himself. He got up bright and early and started packing for the three day journey. He didn’t even let them chop the wood. Here was a hundred year-old man, a wealthy businessman with servants paid to wait on him hand and foot - here was Abraham packing the sandwiches, changing the engine oil, doing all the manual labour.

He had to do this. It was his son. Abraham had to do this alone.

It’s like the time when you first got into uni and your mum fusses over your luggage - to the point that she packs the entire suitcase for you. It’s almost like therapy for her: Shopping for the Bee Cheng Hiang bakwa, the ten million packs of curry powder you know you’ll never be able to use up, enough Bak Kut Teh spices to last till Jesus returns. Then goes in the ten jumpers, twenty pairs of underwear and every t-shirt you’ve ever owned since you were six - including the one with the big green “MILO” logo in front. And while you are tempted to say, “Mum, I don’t need all this!” You still let her do it. Because you’re lazy... I mean, because you love her. And you know that this is your mother’s way of saying, “I love you.”

I wonder if Abraham did all this, in part, to take his mind of the terrible situation ahead of him. Perhaps even, to delay it as long as he could. He chopped the wood. He got the donkey ready. But in the end, he obeyed God. He set off for the place God had told him.

The long walk

On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.
Genesis 22:4-6

It took three days to get to Moriah and verse 4 says at this point, “Abraham… saw the place from afar.” It is so interesting what he does next. It’s still far off. There’s still a fair bit of distance to cover. But what does Abraham do? He gets off the donkey. He leaves his servants behind. And he takes a long walk with his son.

He wanted these last moments to be just him and Isaac. It’s debatable how old Isaac was at this point in the story. He could talk and he was strong enough to carry wood. Yet later on he was weak enough that Abraham could bind him to the wood.

Verse 6 says he laid the wood on Isaac. He made him carry it. Now, the fact that they needed two servants and a donkey to get this far suggests that it was a lot of wood. I wonder, if again, this was Abraham making the most of the journey. Slowing down these last moments of their time together.

What we do know is they talked. Big Daddy and his son, his only son, the son whom he loved most in the entire world. They walked and they talked, as a father with his son.

God will provide

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
Genesis 22:7-8

One of the reasons why I chose this passage today is because of a conversation I had recently with my friend, Wallace, who told me that as a father of two children of his own, he admired Abraham for his example as a father: He always spoke about God. One thing Abraham always did was build altars to God. Now, I need to be clear that this was well before the time of Moses - there was no tabernacle, no priests, no God-prescribed place of worship - and also that Abraham didn’t simply build altars willy-nilly. Rather, these were firstly memorials to God’s appearances to Abraham. When God first appeared to Abraham in Chapter 12, he built an altar. God speaks to him again in Canaan, so he builds another altar at Mamre (Genesis 13). These altars were places where God blessed Abraham and where Abraham, in turn, worshipped God and thanked God.

So here in verse 7, Isaac his son turns to Abraham and asks his father about worship. They are going to worship God on the mountain and they are carrying with them wood and fire (or perhaps rather, tinder for the fire) and he says, “Where is the lamb?” This is Isaac’s first worship; his first altar. But he knows that an important part of worship is missing. A lamb has to be killed and sacrificed.

Abraham answers this very important question by teaching his son about God. God will provide. In fact, look again at verse 8 and you will see that his answer is very strongly focussed on God. God will provide “for himself”, Abraham says. Now I know that some will look at Abraham’s answer and go, “Hmm, this guy isn’t being honest. He is covering up the fact the Isaac is going to be the one sacrificed on the altar.”

But it’s worth asking: Why does Genesis record this conversation at all? I mean, why not record instead what Isaac said when Abraham tied him to the altar: “Noooooo!” That’s the dialogue all of us would be more interested to read about.

Rather, what we have here is a moment spent between a father and son, and what it looks like for a son to trust his father, as his father to trust in God. Isaac is obviously smart enough to figure out there’s something wrong with the picture: where’s the lamb? But he trusts his father. And Abraham responds to that trust by teaching Isaac of his personal trust in God. God himself will provide.

That is what my friend Wallace was talking about. He was concerned not just that he trusted God in times of difficulty and doubt, but that his own kids learned to do the same. Here we see, it’s not just about dragging your rebellious teenagers and dumping them in Sunday School. It’s the drive to church - your own eagerness to worship God. It’s when you yourself are being tested by God. It’s your personal struggles being worked out with God in full view of those you love - your kids, your family, your friends - and pointing to the one who is trustworthy: God. He himself will provide. He has promised. I trust him, so can you.

And notice again how verse 8 repeats the phrase “So they went both of them together”. Abraham’s journey with God was now Isaac’s. His faith was now his son’s.

The sacrifice

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Genesis 22:9-12

Jewish scholars refer to this passage as the “Aqedah”, a word which means, “binding”, referring to the binding of Isaac on the altar. The Qur’an records the events in this chapter without mentioning the name of the son whom God told Abraham to sacrifice. Muslim scholars contend that it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was bound to the altar. Both emphasise the role played by the son. It was the son of Abraham who displayed true faith and was willing to be sacrificed on the altar of God, as if Isaac were saying to his father, “Do it, Dad. Go ahead!”

But the bible does not record a single word spoken by Isaac.

Earlier on it did. When they were walking together as father and son. But not here. Here the focus is squarely on Abraham. As verse 1 indicates, this was God’s test of Abraham alone. Abraham built the altar. He laid the wood. He bound Isaac on top of the wood. Verse 10: “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.”

“Abraham, Abraham!”

You could almost hear the urgency in God’s voice. “The angel of the LORD called... from heaven”. This was a direct message, hand-delivered, first class, straight from heaven. “Whoa, Abraham!” The message was to release Isaac. Notice how God refers to Abraham’s son, “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

If we are honest, some of us are asking ourselves at this point of the story, “Isn’t this cruel?” Now? Now you know that Abraham fears God? What kind of God would do this? What kind of person would do this?

But you see, the story doesn’t end here. God wasn’t simply daring Abraham in a game of chicken - to see who would dodge first. If so, this would be a cruel game: this would be a story of a creator toying with his creation simply for his amusement. That would be so if the story ended with Abraham simply letting Isaac go and God saying all this was just a ruse.

No, Abraham came with his son to build an altar to worship God. And as Isaac had implied earlier, the worship of God involved sacrifice; the life and blood of a living animal. But it was God, not Abraham, who would provide the sacrifice on the altar.

And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
Genesis 22:13-14

Scholars debate the meaning of the name of this mountain. Abraham calls it “The LORD will provide”, YHWH-Yireh. But it could easily be translated as “The LORD sees”; and verse 14: “On the mount of the LORD he will be seen.”

Abraham lifts his eyes and sees a ram. God had provided this animal as a sacrifice instead of Isaac - as a substitute - “instead of his son”. We know from 2 Chronicles 3 that this mountain of Moriah (Genesis 22:2) would later be the site where the temple was built by Solomon. This was God’s mountain, where God was seen, and where God provided the sacrifice for worship and a substitute for our sin. “Abraham took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.”

God provided a substitute. An animal died instead of - and in place of - Isaac.

Because you have done this

And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.
Genesis 22:15-19

So God repeats his promise to Abraham of immense blessing and innumerable descendants. Also through his kids, “all the nations of the earth” will be blessed. Why? “Because you obeyed my voice” (verse 18).

And then something very curious happens in verse 19. Abraham returned to the servants. Singular: as in, Abraham alone, not Abraham and Isaac. In case you think I’m nitpicking, Jewish scholars are so puzzled by this statement that they suggest Isaac really was killed at the altar, and that God had physically raised him from the dead. Now, these are Jewish - not Christian - scholars contending for this view, so I’m not trying to read my own personal view into the text that isn’t there.

In fact, I hold the opposite view. The New Testament goes against this idea of Isaac dying on the altar. Hebrews 11 says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17a,19). It is saying that Abraham had every confidence that even if Isaac was killed, God could simply raise him again to life. But it also says, “figuratively... he did receive him back.” Meaning: Isaac didn’t die.

Instead a substitute died in the place of Isaac. Christians believe that substitute was Jesus.

Abraham saw my day and rejoiced

Now I could turn to passages like Matthew Chapter 1 that emphasis Jesus as the true “son of Abraham”, tracing back his ancestry back generation by generation through King David, all the way to Father Abraham. Or I could turn to Romans 4 where Paul insists that Christians are the true heirs of the promise to Abraham by faith in Jesus Christ alone.

But one of the most puzzling passages, and I think, the coolest text connecting Jesus and Abraham is found in John Chapter 8. Right near the end of the Chapter, Jesus says to a crowd of Jews these words:

Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad." So the Jews said to him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am."
John 8:56-58

At this, the Jews picked up stones to throw at Jesus. He had said something deeply offensive, not against Abraham, but against God. Jesus was claiming to be God when we said “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” “I am” was the translation of God’s name (found in Exodus 3:14).

But just before that, Jesus says, “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.” What was that about? What was is that Abraham longed to see, that filled him with so much joy.

We know the answer to that question, don’t we? It was his son. “Isaac” means “joy” and “laughter”: His son, his only son. The son whom he loved.

And Jesus says, “He saw it.” What was it that Abraham looked up on the mountain - and behold - he saw? The substitute for the son whom he loved. And Jesus adds, “He rejoiced.”

Thousands of years later, another son would walk up a mountain in Moriah, called Golgotha. He would carry the wood on his shoulders. He was obedient to God’s word. He was submissive to his Father.

Only he would walk alone.

There was no substitute to take his place. No word from heaven to stop the execution. No words of comfort to reassure him. On this mountain, God’s son - his only son, the son whom he loved - was sacrificed for us. There on the cross, he took our place.

For God so loved the world that he gave - his only Son - that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
Romans 8:32

What did Abraham see? Or rather, what do you see when you look at the cross?

Love? Sacrifice? A substitute? All true and all precious.

Jesus says, “He saw my day and rejoiced.” Jesus was his truest joy. His highest treasure. His greatest love.

This is the good news of the gospel. God has given us his son, freely, that he might take our punishment, our sin and our death as our substitute; and by trusting in Jesus we might receive true and eternal life, forgiveness and reconciliation, love from God our Heavenly Father.

And Jesus as our truest and highest joy.

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