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Re-Reading Genesis 22: Faithful Servant, Faithful God

June 30th, 2017 No comments

I presented a version of this at the WGM field prayer meeting on 6/21.

Almost every Christian is familiar with the story in Genesis 22.  It’s known as the Akedah – “The Binding”, God’s Testing of Abraham or the Sacrifice of Isaac.  It is considered by a great majority of the Christian Church to be a pre-cursor of the Gospel message – a story of a loving father who was willing to sacrifice his only son (sound familiar)?  Personally, I encountered it for the first time in Sunday School when I was young.  Since then, I have read it several times in English, and perhaps more times in Hebrew.  As I was working through it again recently, it occurred to me that many people are, perhaps, missing a major point in the passage.

Until very recently, I found myself – perhaps just like many others – reading the story as Abraham’s remarks to Isaac as a kind of underhanded, subtle, perhaps even crafty dishonesty to Isaac. Isaac says “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”  Abraham responds with the very popular line, “God himself will provide a ram for the offering, my son.” I don’t think that anymore.

What is Abraham doing, here?  What is the writer trying to communicate to his hearers/for us today?

“The Sacrfice”. Image courtesy of LA Times

One day, as I read this passage, I noticed that there is absolutely no sense of struggle or emotion here.  The writer is very simplistic – very methodical and to-the-point: “Abraham got up early in the morning, saddled his donkey and split some wood for the offering…and he took the knife to slaughter his son.”

The ancient Hebrew writers didn’t have any qualms about expressing emotion.  We see some of that language in the Pentateuch.  We see a great deal of said language expressed in the Psalms, particularly in the lament psalms.  When we read those, we get a real sense of what the writer is feeling.  We connect with his humanity.  We identify with his suffering.

We see no trace of that kind of imagery in Genesis 22. Consequently, we need to dispense with this idea that the crux of the passage is some sort of great inward struggle with Abraham during his journey to the mountain.

I suggest that there is something greater going on, here: The central focus is not Abraham’s faithfulness in spite of great anguish.  The focus is on Abraham’s unwavering faithfulness, as well as God’s faithfulness to Abraham.

We see God’s faithfulness demonstrated repeatedly throughout Abraham’s story. The promise of a great nation in spite of humble beginnings.  The promise of a son in spite of old age. The protection of Ishmael even though he’s not the promised child. And, perhaps most strikingly, a holy God unilaterally enacting a covenant with a man that should be, by all accounts, a nomadic pagan.

Yes, I think Abraham was well aware of — and was counting on — God’s faithfulness to come through in a very stressful situation.

It is against the backdrop of Abraham’s and God’s faithfulness that I think this passage should be read. If we read the passage this way, we see that Abraham’s response to his son is not some sort of vague, crafty response to an annoying toddler (Isaac was more likely closer to seventeen, but that’s another post entirely).  Rather, it is a demonstration of Abraham’s unwavering faithfulness to a faithful God.

Stay tuned for part 2: What should Christians do with this?

 

 

What happened on Good Friday?

June 30th, 2017 No comments

Most Christians are no doubt familiar with what happened on Good Friday.  Naturally, this is the day that church tradition commemorates as Jesus’s death on the cross (though recent scholarship has called into question the precise date that this acually happened, but that’s a post for another year).  Church tradition also commemorates another event that happened on this day by way of the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth
And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord;
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin Mary
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was Crucified, dead and buried.
He descended into Hell…

Many churches have different variations of the last line, one of which is “He descended to the dead.” Likewise, many churches leave out this verse entirely. Personally, I believe it is best left in.  I believe that most churches who leave it out do so simply on the philosophical/metaphysical idea that they don’t like the idea of Jesus going down into hell.  But I wonder if those who leave this out really fully understand what’s going on here.

The Jews had a very different idea of the afterlife than what now has been adopted into Western thought.  There was no idea (prior to the death of Christ, at least) of hell. Instead, Jews believed that the souls of the dead went down to She’ol, which is typically rendered in modern translations as “the pit” or Sheol” itself. Sheol was, in Hebrew and Jewish tradition, the abode of the dead, somewhat akin to Homer’s idea of Hades, where all the dead went, regardless of one’s religious persuasion.  The idea is somewhat similar to the Greek abode of the dead, Hades, seen in Homer’s Iliad.

Traditionally, the early church viewed this event as the time where Jesus descended to the dead to preach  to those who had gone before him (especially, but not limited to, the patriarchs).  Paul writes that it is God’s desire for all to be saved, and this was one instance where he sought to accomplish this task.  In essence, Jesus preached the Gospel to the ones residing in Sheol, so that they might have a chance to accept the message and go to be with Him and God.

This idea is based on a couple of passages in 1 Peter:

1 Peter 4:1 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.  (1Pe 4:1-4 ESV)

 

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