Today we’ll examine Abraham and the ram in the thicket. I will warn you: you’re either going to cheer this post as the breath of God or call for my head on a pike. I’m likely to offend an awful lot of people, but He is thundering this one in my ears so all I can say is sorry and I Love you.
Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19, and Matthew 19:17 all recount a statement by Jesus that gets only cursory glances from most readers. He says (paraphrasing here) “Why do you call me good? There is but one who is good, and that is God.” Let me ask you: is Jesus saying He isn’t good? It would certainly seem to be the case, had we not His words (spoken twice) in John 10: “I am the good shepherd.” What do you suppose He meant, then? Ponder it; we’ll come back to it.
At the ripe age of 100 God blessed Abraham and Sarah with their son Isaac. Consider that. For over a decade God had told him he would be the father of many nations. He even renamed him from Abram — “exalted father” which I imagine was an odd name to have as a child — to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude”. We can’t really appreciate that in America where our names mean nothing to us, but this one should ring through to you. God spoke to him and changed his name in order to tell him he would father many nations, but here he was nearly cracking triple digits and no kid. Finally Sarah, awash in her shame and guilt that the whole thing was her fault, tells him to knock up her handmaid. Didn’t THAT have to be an uncomfortable conversation? Guys, has your wife ever asked you if you thought her friend was attractive? This is a whole other level.
But finally, after 10 decades of waiting, when he and his wife had long since given up any hope of conceiving, Abram gets the child, Isaac, who starts to prove he really will be Abraham someday. This was not a guy immune from fear. Twice he’d told people Sarah was his sister to avoid getting killed over her. He was stressed over the destruction of Soddom and Gemorrah because he was worried about God’s ability to spill innocent blood. He followed God mostly out of fear initially, and in this he was not so much different than Job. Or any of the rest of us for that matter; don’t we all begin the true walk towards you, Father, with fear? Knowing for certain that being proved real You are now ready to smite us for our previous rejection and rebellion?
Abram followed God, but where he saw blanks in the plan he filled them in himself rather than trusting God had his back or asking what to do. How many of us identify with that? When God tells us to do something but doesn’t give us the paint-by-numbers version we decide to do what we think is best to fill in His desires, to control our outcomes. Because deep down we’re not sure that He really had a plan that detailed, that He cares about the methods and measures of our days. We are simple fleas, we think, and while He is gracious enough to talk to us, He doesn’t really care. I once was lost but now am found, but not found found. More like spotted from across the playground. He isn’t really watching; we could get kidnapped at any moment, so we need to be protecting ourselves, right? Too close to home? Yeah, for me, too.
Imagine the turmoil in Abraham over this child. Nevermind the conflict about his illegitimate child with his wife’s maid, nevermind the stresses of rearing a child when decades of age scream from every joint. Think about the internal struggles: what if this is my only child? What if I die before he can stand on his own? What if I mess up and he dies? Will God be with him? Is God with me? He must have had deep torment above what an average parent feels. Joy, yes, but stress and worry — two things Abraham displays a fair amount of the entire time we’re reading of him. Oh, to be able to go back and comfort him, to let him know how great, how awesome, how gloriously Loving our Lord is!
Then, in Genesis 22, the Spirit allows us a slight bit of struggle with the biblical writers by giving us the phrase “God did tempt Abraham.” Your preferred translation may render it “God tested Abraham’s faith.” That’s a really poor choice of words for the idea either way. If you combine them with the Our Father prayer in which Jesus tells us to request that God lead us not into temptation it gives readers the distinct message that God = Satan, that it is God who pokes at you and tries to make you fail. That isn’t at all what is meant in either of these cases, but I think between this story and Job there are millions through history who have had their initial view of God as executioner validated because a cursory glance doesn’t service here. I use this metaphor a lot, but this verse, and indeed the whole story, is more coconut than apple: it requires study and consideration.
Remember that the Old Testament, the Law, was not really available to commoners. Even if you could read, you were not touching those scrolls unless you were king. You learned the verses through teachers, your interpretation came first from the Levites, and then later from Sadducees and Pharisees. They could navigate you around the more puzzling linguistic choices. Even in the early days of Christianity there was a reliance on teachers; the letters of Paul were not widely circulated among church leaders for almost a hundred years. Our easy access to the Bible in modern times is an amazing blessing, but it also a kind of trap if we do not consume responsibly. We cannot read a verse in isolation and create a study of value; if I choose to evaluate your personal value based upon only your driving habits I may come to an entirely wrong view of who you are. Everything in the book requires both context and consideration, this is why the Bible tells you to meditate on it: mulling it over provides, if not the answer, at least the open question that leads to the answer. Better always if you have a teacher to guide you through it.
So what does it mean, “God did tempt Abraham”? Well, God is Love, so what does He always do? That’s a good question; thanks for asking it! To answer it I’m going to diverge a bit.
In the book of Esther have you ever noticed God is not mentioned one time? Only such book in the Bible, but it’s also the one that speaks more about Him to me than any other. In the story one of Xerxes’ buddies, Haman, gets seriously upset that Esther’s dad, Mordecai, refused to bow to him. Not just a little miffed; it really sticks with the dude. He goes to his family and friends to complain about it and they, true to form of friends, get him so lathered up that he goes to the king to ask permission to kill all those rebellious Jews. Xerxes basically shrugs and says “sure.” Mordecai then goes to plead with Esther to talk to her husband about it. She replies that he would kill her for approaching without being called. He presses, so she does it. Xerxes grants her request and the Jews are saved.
It’s a simple story, but consider the implications: Xerxes was in the midst of suppressing a rebellion from Babylon at the time. The Jews came into the Persian Kingdom by way of Babylon, so you can imagine he wasn’t a fan. In fact, Esther had hidden her lineage from him for just that reason. She was more than right to fear for her life there; her dad was asking her to out herself as a Jew to a Jew-hating king who had a policy of killing any who came into his presence uninvited. If your spouse convinced you to go ask your boss for a raise and he had a history of killing people who asked for raises would you do it? This was no small feat for her. But had she not done it, or not succeeded, Haman would have wiped out the Jews. End of the line, Holy Land. Kaput. No remainder of the Law, no Jesus, just game over. They are a people constantly one decision away from utter destruction; and isn’t that the truth of all of us?
But there was a more critical ramification here. Xerxes reversed completely his position on Jews. So much so that his son and successor, Artaxerxes, sent both Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. The Temple that would become the center of Israel right through to the point that Jesus came to find people whoring inside the walls of it. The Temple in which the curtain separating the riff-raff from the Holiest of Holies ripped from top to bottom when Jesus died. None of that possible had Esther ruled it too dangerous. Esther was given a choice that had incredible weight and repercussion, but that wasn’t clear to her or to Mordecai. It was a simple request to go speak to her husband that was put before her by her dad. Mordecai made this request knowing he was putting his daughter in danger. The book could very well have read “God did tempt Mordecai” or “Mordecai son of Jair, Lovest thou Me more than these?” Why doesn’t it?
Every word of Scripture is for our education and growth. We were meant to see the pattern from beginning to end, to see that every situation was the same, but the phrasing different, the viewpoint changed. David could have killed Saul. Peter could have confessed Jesus and been dragged to death beside Him. Adam could have refused his wife, Eve could have refused the serpent. Solomon could have kept it in his pants (robes?), David could have averted his eyes from the bathing girl. Samson could have kept his mouth shut and kept his hair. Moses could have given up hope. Paul could have dismissed the experience in the road as an illusion brought on by bumping his head when he fell off his horse. Nehemiah could have mourned in isolation. Jesus could have accepted Satan’s offer in the desert. The Bible writer could have said God is Holy instead of God is Love. I could go on for days: in every story and in every life there are these watershed choices that we are completely unaware of the weight of that have far-reaching implications. Big things happen in small moments, as they say.
So what is it the God who is Love always does? He offers us choice. “Follow me or follow him” He says. Listen to your spirit or listen to your body. You are free to go either way, and both ways have consequences. So what does it mean that “God did tempt Abraham”? It means God gave him a choice. We all know, of course, what that choice was: sacrifice your beloved son Isaac. “Give Me your favorite toy.” Does that seem harsh to you? I submit that we look at and interpret this story wrong.
Abraham had proven for over a hundred years that he had no strong attachments to the physical. He didn’t have a hundred wives, he didn’t spend his days maniacally laughing over the size of his wealth. He had the things he cared about: his friend God, his children, and his wife. All else he traded away like it was nothing because to him it was nothing. One could even argue that Sarah was of muted value because as I mentioned he DID trade her away a couple times. So it was Isaac. “Abram son of Terah, Lovest thou Me more than these?” What if he hadn’t just gone with it? What if, as with Soddom, he’d tried to bargain with God? We don’t know, because he didn’t, but I think it’s important to ponder. This could just be the story of another of Abraham’s poor decisions and the ability of God to turn it around. Consider it. The Bible is not the ideal of what archetypes should say or do; it’s the historical record of what people did.
But he does go along. He leads Isaac and a couple servants to the mountain, sets up a spot for the boys to wait as he and Isaac go up. Isaac is of unknown age, but old enough to a) carry wood, b) carry out a sacrifice to God with his dad, and c) be observant enough to notice they lacked a sacrifice. Maybe a tween? He’s hiking this mountain with his dad, who is clearly going through something, and he has all this wood on his back. His dad has a knife and a torch, so Isaac knows this is a setup to bind, kill, and cook something for God. We get a bland report of him asking his dad where the lamb was, but we all know there was fear in that question; he wasn’t stupid. Human sacrifice was rampant among the heathens of the day and you just know children taunted each other with that. Abraham casually responds that the Lord will provide a sacrifice. Again you don’t get to hear the strain, the worry, the quiver that caught in his throat as he said it. But also the hope. He was struggling with himself. Did I misread? Was I supposed to tell God “no”? Please, Lord, don’t let me be lying to my son here. Don’t we all empathize? Haven’t we all felt a call to do something that seems crazy so the whole time we’re just trying our best to hold together and we question ourselves at every step, every chastisement, every challenge.
We like to read these stories of characters as fables, but they were people. Flesh-and-blood people. If you read anthropology studies (what, just me?) you’ll come to understand they were not so different from us. Neurotic tendencies were just as common. Stress presented the same ways. Every step up that mountain was exactly as painful, as torturous, to Abraham as it would be to you or me. As they build the pyre Isaac has to be crying. It doesn’t say it, but that boy sees the pain in his father. At 110+ you are pretty expressive. Isaac notes the lack of sacrifice and he knows it’s him, even if he’s not ready to admit it to himself. He had to be crying. But Abraham does build it, and now Isaac’s the one praying that the Lord bring a lamb soon. Have you ever felt the fear and pain of knowing your dad was coming to spank you? Multiply that. Have you ever been the parent, feeling the uncertainty, sorrow, and guilt that you are about to spank your child? Again, multiply that. These gentlemen had nothing on their minds save the fact that they did not want the weight of what they knew was coming to actually fall upon them. We always fear the impending stress. We read Philippians 4 saying that we ought “be worried about nothing” or Jesus’ challenge that we’ve never gained one inch to our height by worrying and we can’t really connect to it. We don’t know the mechanism of it. We really identify, though, with Christ saying “take this cup from me.”
We get the stripped-down version of what happens next: “Abraham bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar.” Sure. That’s not burying the lead at all. I can’t help but recall the story of little Casey Gerald kneeling in a church in 1999 waiting for Jesus to come. Isaac knows his dad could overpower him, and psychologically he can’t really process what is going on, so he lets it happen. He’s terrified and pleading with his dad not to do this. “Father, I Love you.” Abraham transitions from grief to duty; any soldier knows what it is for that switch to flip when emotion would otherwise break us down. He is constantly repeating a short prayer in his head: “God don’t make me do this. God don’t make me do this.” Every whimpered request from Isaac interrupts him and fear-induced rage flares in Abraham. Just shut up and let me pray us out of this. And then it’s done. Everything ready. Both crying, neither really aware of it. Abraham lifts the knife, hands shaking wildly. Neither knows if he can carry out this sacrifice. Then intercession. Wait upon the Lord, indeed.
The voice of God has never been sweeter than in that moment: “Abraham, Abraham… lay not thine hand upon the lad.” Their hearts collapse into grief, gratitude, and the rush of averted fate. Can you picture that? We see such tension-breaking in movies and TV, but can you imagine the relief in both of these boys? Such is it always with the passing of a test. For Isaac, wonder that he was not dead, gratitude that his father didn’t go through with it. For Abraham, the salvation of his child, the sealing of his contract with God, the awe of realization that he would have gone through with it.
Abraham lifts up his eyes and there is a ram caught in a ticket by the horns. The ram’s day ends about how it started as Abraham pulls him from the thicket and makes of him a burnt offering. We get a new name for God here: Jehovah Jireh, the God who Provides. Not only is the story painful and emotionally exhausting, but it also makes it really easy to slip into the view of God as the aggressor; to say that He cruelly orchestrated this terror and that it likely haunted Isaac’s psyche well into adulthood. Pastors and preachers make it marginally better by likening this story to Jonah’s gourd vine; they claim Abraham obeyed because Isaac was his gourd vine and, unlike Jonah, he understood that Isaac was property of God alone. But what does that say of God? That He will always force us to give up the thing we want most? That He derives His pleasure from seeing us suffer? That we deserve anything He would do no matter how painful?
Those are the wrong views, the death-worshipping views. They neglect the basic fact that God is Love. I said before that we look at this story wrong, so allow me to explain. Our Father gives us choices, but in every one it is always the one choice: life or death. Saint or sinner. Father or serpent. But that choice is too simple; it can’t be answered honestly. So instead, like a Meyers-Briggs test, He asks you a trillion questions customized to you that describe the true answer to the question. When each of us stands before His throne we will look back and see what our answer was. Much as the Bible describes for us God without actually describing Him, your answers to Him show a picture of your commitment to Him without actually saying it. So He asks for these decisions, and every one is wrapped around you and your heart and your desires.
God didn’t pull the dilemma of sacrificing Isaac randomly out of some Wheel-O-Punishments. Abraham feared deeply that this child would be taken from him. He trusted God, but he was afraid God wasn’t so committed to this kid. He was afraid to confront that he Loved Isaac more than he Loved God. Have you ever caught your child with a tool or a cookie or something else that they were very fond of and when you saw them and they saw you they hid it as if to keep you from taking it away? This was that same instinct and it lives in all of us. It is a mixture of shame that you are so attached, fear of loss, and defiance to protect it. It is our carnal nature wrapped up with a nice little bow. God tempted Abraham to what? Kill his kid? Don’t be ridiculous. No, He tempted Abraham to admit he Loved his child more than his Lord. When Christ asked “do you Love Me more than these others?” that was the same temptation. When God asked Adam “Where are you?” it was the same temptation. Want a more practical example?
Every time you say “I Love you” to someone you are making that exact temptation. Have your attention now? Maybe it’s flying under the radar, so let me be obvious: when you tell a person you Love them you are not simply making a statement; you are requesting a response, you are giving them a choice to return your statement of Love or deny you. So this whole exchange was with God and Abraham. God watched Abraham turn from seeing Isaac as a gift to making of him an idol in his heart. When it became clear he had crossed a threshold He asked for the boy. The internal struggle of this ordeal was not Abraham coming to grips with losing his child, but coming to grips that he’d become too attached. He was breaking an addiction, a stronghold.
God doesn’t ask us questions to seek information, but to elicit understanding. The Greek philosophers show us that knowledge without wisdom is vain. Solomon shows us that wisdom without understanding is overwhelming. Psalm 24:3 says that a house is built with wisdom, but it is established with understanding. Understanding is the precious light that guides our steps. Knowledge tells you where you might walk, wisdom tells you the safest path, but it is understanding that allows you to walk that path. Abraham knew that he Loved his son, he was wise enough to know that Love was getting in the way of he and God, and the Lord’s push allowed him to understand how to fix it. I asked you to think about Jesus’ charge that He was not good. What was that? It was His invitation to understand the trinity. He was stating a fact of the Law, that only God is good, and allowing you to draw the conclusion that He was God. He is showing His true nature and asking if we understand it.
Our Father Loves us. He IS Love. Every choice we are asked to make is actually God saying “I Love you” to prompt a response. Every time it will call to mind a thing that you maybe Love more than Him, a thing that sits between you and Him. It is your decision to return His profession of Love or reject it. You are always free to say no, or even not answer. Unlike a rejected human, He will still Love you. He’ll just wait a bit and ask again. For all the days of your life He will ask you. You can cling to death tighter. You can reject His Love more. You can block out His voice so the death-worship is easier. But still He’ll be there asking. Hell is not His punishment; it is His final agreement to leave you alone as you’ve asked Him to.
I won’t lie; I understand how poor Pastor Bell got on the track to say that Hell doesn’t exist. It’s easy to say that because God is Love He will forgive us through anything and take us in. It’s true, but there’s a counter to that which must be accounted for: our free will. At the end of our days when all those decisions are collated it cannot be assumed the answer was “I Love you, too, Father”. If it isn’t, if the answer was that we were not committed to Him, that we did not Love Him, then He will give us our freedom from His presence. The story of Abraham and Isaac is only horrific if you are looking at it with Abraham as the parent and see parenting as the truest, purist Love. It’s not, and he wasn’t. The Lord is the parent in this story. His Love is the purest, truest Love. When you understand that it puts the world into perspective. Abraham was not the innocent being asked to forfeit joy to a jealous and petty tyrant. He was a lost man being given a hand to guide him back to the Kingdom.
Because our God is Love, our Lord is merciful, our Lamb is worthy, and our Kingdom is beautiful beyond any measure of joy.
Father, thank You for this understanding. I have allowed myself to get lost over the couple weeks I’ve been writing this. I’ve gotten angry and downtrodden. I’ve heard not the question You asked, but an accusation I presume I have coming to me. Thank You for showing me, in my closing, that my perspective has gotten warped. I do Love You, Lord. I wander off really easily to watch the little lion on his stage. I don’t know why that is, but I’d much rather sit by the tree with You. I know Your peace, Your Love, but still I go play in the mud. Maybe this lesson will stick. If I can let you remind me that every challenge, every time it seems “God did tempt Shawn” I can remember what exactly that means, and simply say “I Love You, too.” It’s an awkward prayer, I know, but I pray it for me and for all who read this. In the name of Your Word, and my brother, Jesus, I pray. Amen.