Sacrifice

The promise had finally been fulfilled. God came through on His covenant! With Genesis 21, Abraham and Sarah joyfully welcomed their son into the world. Their son was named Isaac – laughter. Abraham and Sarah had once laughed in disbelief at God’s promise. Now, God required that they name their son Laughter, almost as if to flip the whole thing around and say, “Joke’s on you!” Their laughter of disbelief had been turned into laughter of joy.

But Abraham isn’t laughing for joy when we get to Genesis 22. In verse 2, we find perhaps the most terrifying words in all of scripture: “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” (NLT). We often look at this story and we think, “What a test of faith!” But is that all that’s going on here? Certainly, God wanted to see Abraham demonstrate his complete trust, but I think God was also reaching for something much, much deeper as well. We must remember that Abraham had come out of a culture of idolatry in which child sacrifice was not uncommon. When God called for Isaac’s sacrifice, we can image that Abraham would have believed that his God Yahweh, much like the gods of the surrounding nations, was calling in the family’s debt of ransom. “Perhaps Yahweh isn’t that much different than all the other gods after all,” Abraham might have thought.

But I absolutely love the point that author and speaker Ty Gibson brings out in his book A God Named Desire. Ty pinpoints the radical paradigm shift that God wanted to take his faithful friend through:

God was on a mission to destroy the false image of Himself so prevalent in Abraham’s day (and in our own day as well, though in the more subtle form of merit-based approaches to salvation) in order to replace it with the true knowledge of His character. This Yahweh God, who had newly introduced Himself to Abraham as distinct from the gods of his upbringing in the Babylonian worship cult, was on a quest to extract from Abraham’s thinking… every vestige of the salvation by works theology with which he had been educated. (p. 111)

Therefore, God would use Abraham to play out the most dramatic object lesson in all of biblical history:

Master psychologist that He is, God required of Abraham what the guilty and deceived human hearts inclines us all to believe God might ultimately require of us. Then, at Abraham’s most committed point, God intervened. He shattered the ugly image and constructed within Abraham’s heart an entirely new image – of a God who would Himself suffer and die for human redemption. (p. 113)

Lifting his eyes in a daze, Abraham finally saw the answer to God’s test. A ram stood caught in the nearby thicket – a divine sacrificial substitution! Through his experience, Abraham learned that God, rather than being a demanding deity who required sacrifice from us, was, instead, a God of unfathomable love who would provide Himself as the sacrifice. “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’” (v. 14). And on the mountain of the LORD, it was provided – fully, completely, forever. We learn in Scripture that Mount Moriah turned out to be future site of the temple. Over 2000 years later, just outside those temple walls – in what, I believe, was that exact same spot as Abraham’s sacrifice – Jesus Christ would hang from a cross and scream with His dying breath, “It is finished!” Paid in full! The sacrifice was provided!

Genesis 17: Identity

Some twenty-five years have now passed since God first promised Abram a son. In chapter 16, we saw how Abram and Sarai decided God needed a little help to make this promise happen, so they took things into their own hands. We all know the rest of the story… And so, with this context in mind, we come to Genesis 17: “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect‘” (vs. 1, KJV). Whoa! God is laying some pretty hefty demands on Abram, don’t you think? What are we to make of this seemingly-impossible command? First of all, let’s notice that God first says something about Himself before saying anything about Abram: “I am Almighty God.” This is our first encounter of the Hebrew name El Shaddai. This is a truly fascinating linguistic term and there are a couple of different things that could be going on here. El Shaddai could mean “God Who Is All-Sufficient” or “The Breasted One,” portraying the picture of the tender, nurturing love of a nursing mother. Either way, both ideas are actually inseparably linked. The God who is all-sufficient for us, after all, must also be the God who tenderly nurtures our growth with unfailing love.

So we see that before asking Abram to do anything, God first introduces Himself by making a statement about His identity and character. After all, we can only truly follow God’s commands when we really understand who God is! We then get to the command “be thou perfect.” Sounds pretty intimidating, doesn’t it? Can any of us ever claim to live totally “perfect” lives? But fascinatingly enough, the Hebrew word here for perfect, tamiym, literally means to be “whole” or “complete.” We actually find the same idea in the New Testament. The Greek word teleios is often translated “perfect,” as in the case of Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” However, the term can equally mean “mature” or “brought to its end goal or purpose.” To be teleios, therefore, is for us to reach forward and continue on the trajectory towards our ultimate goal and end purpose, even though we aren’t there yet! In other words, to embrace the identity that God has destined for us! As Ephesians 4:13 puts it, “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God [understanding His true character and knowing who He really is], to a perfect [teleios] man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

Now, back to Abram… Do you see what’s going on in the big picture here? God isn’t telling Abram, “Be absolutely sinless or else!” Rather, God is saying: “I am the God Who Is All-Sufficient, the One who sustains, nurtures, and makes complete; therefore, walk before me and be complete – embrace the fullness of your identity in Me. Become who I made you to be!” And what does God do next? He gives Abram the new name of Abraham. God gives Abram a brand new identity! Abram’s old name “noble father” had smacked of painful irony for nearly the entire century of Abram’s life. With his new name of “father of many multitudes,” Abraham could know that God was about to make something new and wonderful happen!

In verses 9-14, God then tells Abraham to do something that may seem very strange. God instates the sign of circumcision. Why would God put in place such a radical and painful symbol of commitment to Him? Let’s think back for a moment on what has just transpired in Genesis 16. Abram and Sarai have just made a big mistake by taking things into their own hands. Abram believed that he could make God’s promises happen by the power of his own flesh, by his own reproductive capabilities. But God wanted to radically recalibrate Abram’s perspective. So God establishes circumcision as the “sign of the covenant.” Circumcision represents a cutting away of the works of the flesh which we put our confidence and trust in. Symbolically, it is cutting off that which gives a man potency. The sign of circumcision represented ripping away human strength and ability, leaving us 100%, completely, totally, absolutely dependent on God alone!

Can we now see how Genesis 17 all fits together for our lives today? God approaches us with a beautiful promise of a brand-new identity in Him, a new way to understand ourselves and live life in relationship our Father! But this idea of new identity cannot be fully embraced until we realize and accept our complete dependence on Him. We must fully commit ourselves to El Shaddai – the One who sustains, the One who nurtures, the One who completes.