For Advent (the weeks leading up to Christmas), our family always reads a selection of Bible stories from the beginning of the Old Testament up to the birth of Jesus.
One passage is always difficult—The near child sacrifice of Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac. I mean… what a terrible story. How are you supposed to tell this story in a child-friendly way? And, what kind of God is this?
This Advent… with refugees arriving in Canada from Syria, I saw this story in a new light—The light of Abraham as the original Syrian or Iraqi refugee.
As I explained to my children, Abraham was not a Christian. He was not Jewish; he was several hundred years before the Law was given to Moses. Abraham was not even technically an Israelite. Israel was the name his grandson Jacob took (literally meaning “wrestling with God”).
Abraham was the son of a man likely from present day Syria or Iraq, who according to Jewish tradition was a polytheist and idol maker. As a child, Abraham would have moved south during his younger years to Haran with his family, a town in present day Turkey. From there he would have left his clan and moved south with his wife/half-sister Sarah.
There is actually some interesting research and opinion about what religion or faith Abraham actually was. Not surprisingly, this is complicated by the theological convictions of those who study and teach about it.
All the same, there’s good reason to assume that the social and religious culture around Abraham was very polytheistic, very family or clan oriented, and very place-bound, e.g. having territorial or tribal gods. This was more or less true of both the land where he came from and the land he was called to immigrate to.
On a positive note, according to the testimony of Scripture, Abraham’s own conception of God was—or at least became—very direct, relational, and singular (monotheistic).
And this is my main point. Abraham serves as a hinge, a point at which he defies the predominant religious culture and opens up a new conception of God. He is pre-Jewish (no established Law yet, nor priesthood, rituals, etc.), but he is also post-something else, something he seems to be deliberately leaving.
In short, he and his children “wrestled with God.” He was spiritually shaped by a very personal relationship with God and reflecting on this God’s character. But this must have been very lonely at the same time. It was a greater shift than we might think and it radically changed the course of religion in the Near East.
Thousands (in fact, millions) of Syrian and Iraqi refugees are following in Abraham’s footsteps today… displaced in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Like, Abraham, this was only a first stop, they will likely head to a third and even more foreign location eventually (parts of Europe, Canada, etc.).
Abraham’s own displacement shouldn’t be considered outside its religious context. He was moving away from some radically extreme views of God and towards a new and unique view that he would pioneer.
In short, he took his family on a great quest of theodicy. What’s theodicy? It’s basically the contemplation of what God is like and why bad things exist. It’s wrestling with God and who he really is.
A passage from Exodus (several hundred years after Abraham) gives some interesting commentary:
God also said to Moses, “I am the Lord. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty (Hebrew, El Shaddai, likely literally Almighty God), but by my name the LORD (Yahweh, or the Jewish name for God) I did not make myself fully known to them.” Exodus 6:2-3
According to Scripture, God’s people had a growing sense of who he was and what he was like.
In general, Mesopotamian and later Canaanite gods were very human and fickle. The focus of worship was more on power and control than the moral character of the gods. Sin was something that offended the god in question (i.e. made him mad) and punishment came in the way of misfortune or sickness. Although, you could change his mind with maybe, say… a good sacrifice.
So in that troubling scene when Abraham goes to sacrifice his treasured son Isaac, he is acting more out of this religious context than with the God who was revealing himself to Abraham. It still might baffle us that God would put him to the test in this way. But it is clearly that—a test of who he thought God to be.
When God halts the sacrifice and provides a ram stuck in the thicket, he is doing more than rewarding Abraham’s faith. He is confirming a conclusion that Abraham has made about who he is. So much that God even offers him a new name out of this occasion, “the God who provides.”
He had no Bible, no Law, no Moses to lead him—He had only an intimate relationship with God and who he revealed himself to be.
As I’ve said, this definition of God… the God who provides, who values us, who goes beyond our sins or mistakes… radically challenged the normative ideas of who God was and what he was like. The continuing saga of Abraham confirms this. In the new land, he continually fights to establish and protect this image of God, even from family. He had no Bible, no Law, no Moses to lead him—He had only an intimate relationship with God and who he revealed himself to be.
What then today?
The great challenge of being human is still that we tend to arrange God around who we are and what we are like. In later times, God’s people began to arrange him around their land and their Jewish aristocracy (roughly the Old Testament books of Isaiah through Malachi).
The consistent complaint of these prophets was the people’s sense of entitlement and lack of moral and ethical commitment. They cried out: “all your God requires is that you love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly before you God.”
Jesus focused his ministry not on the Gospel (or literally Good News) of Salvation, but also the Gospel of the Kingdom (literally, a present kingdom of God). In real terms this means not being saved out of this world, but being sent into it. And when we are sent into the world, with the whole character of God, we are following the footsteps of Abraham!
The crisis of who God is and what he is like is very alive today. It is real among Muslim extremist groups, and it is real in the Christian church. Factions of both tend to develop doctrines and eschatology (views of the future) that function to justify their actions and morality. Whether it is actively attacking your enemy, or passively ignoring your neighbor or refugees—humanity will find a way to make God fit.
So we must stand in the tradition of Abraham, the tradition of faith and the tradition of faithfulness. This tradition calls us to always question the way things are and weighs seriously the nature of God, even when it puts us at odds with our own people. At times… especially when it calls us to that.
Photo Credits: Children in a sandstorm in Harran, modern day Turkey, original photo by zeynepk on flikr, found here, via creative commons.