My friend doesn’t believe in God anymore. He told me that he lost his faith because he just didn’t see any empirical support for it. He was faced with the choice to “believe” or to be honest. He chose the latter.
Like most unbelievers, my friend now criticizes the character of God as he is depicted in the Bible. How could a moral person claim allegiance to a supposed being that might call for genocide or child sacrifice at some point? Even if a person were to claim that God did all that in the past and he won’t command those things in our time, Christians do worship that selfsame being. Would we profess our admiration for an ethnic cleanser who stopped killing because he’d gotten the job done?
These are real concerns. Honest people like my friend can’t ignore them and prolonged exposure to them often leads to unbelief. Those who suppress these concerns without obtaining satisfying answers don’t really retain their faith either. They might continue to observe and adhere, but they aren’t convinced enough to forsake all for Christ. Still others attempt to manufacture answers almost out of thin air.
I just finished reading, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, by Brian Zahnd which takes up the thesis that the Old Testament misrepresents God as wrathful because that was the way ancient people understood godhood. According to Zahnd, the idea of God evolves through Moses and the prophets from a primitive, bloodthirsty, tribal deity to a benevolent teacher of wisdom and advocate for justice. The life, ministry (especially his Prodigal Son parable), death and resurrection of Christ as recorded in the gospels give the full and final revelation of God as “cosuffering love.” Through the lens of Jesus, all that we find noble and good in the Old Testament can be retained while all that looks morally reprehensible can be redacted. Problem solved. Or is it?
If God as benevolent love cannot abide violence, then how could he have allowed “holy writ” to slander him in such a way? If God is beholden to our modern concept of morality, then why didn’t he enlighten the ancients rather than accommodate to their egregious ideas and heinous practices? What would you have done if you were God? Surely, he’s at least as good, wise and powerful as you are?
Perhaps Zahnd would say, “Well, I’m not God and so I don’t get to critique his methods.”
I made a stupid decision five years ago for which I’m forever grateful – I committed to teach through Genesis. I was new to the pulpit and I know very little about the Old Testament, so yeah, made sense.
I still remember starring at the page with my head in my hands. Getting up and walking around the fellowship hall where my office is located. Listening to the audio version of the passage. Shouting at the ceiling, “This doesn’t mean anything!!!” diagramming, white boarding, staring some more, hugging myself while rocking back and forth…
Then, finally, I would pray, “God, I said I would teach on this because I believe that it does mean something. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, but I won’t try to make it say something it’s not. You have to show me what you want your people to know from this passage ’cause I have no clue.”
Have you ever stared at one of those hologram posters that were all the rage back in the 90’s? I’d stand there next to B. Dalton’s trying to get my eyes to strike whatever optical yoga pose would reveal the hidden image. Staring and struggling didn’t help. Then, as if by pure serendipity, the image would expand into the background and all would be revealed. That’s kind of what I would experience in my study of Genesis.
Chills would sweep over my arms and my hands would shoot toward heaven in worship. “You are the living God!” I would exclaim.
After a few moments on the mountain, I’d descend into the next valley as I would struggle to find a way to express the transcendent insights which I had just received.
I share this little autobiographical bit as a prelude to the following point:
The answer to our struggles with the idea of God cannot be found within ourselves; it must be found at the end of ourselves.
We need not (and in the case of the Zahnd book should not) read more books. The problem isn’t with the breadth of our knowledge but with the depth. We don’t need to expurgate Scripture; we need to excavate God’s truth from within it.
Let me give you an example of what I mean from a passage that most would find morally objectionable, Genesis 22:1-18. Go ahead and give it a read.
Now, let me ask you, do you read that to your small children at bedtime? If you’re like me, you fear that reading this story to them will give them the idea that while I love them, God might command me to ceremonially kill them with a knife and then burn up their little bodies on a hill somewhere. Hopefully, he’ll stop me before we get that far, but it’s all on the table. Goodnight, honey!
Dealing with troubling passages like this can be difficult, but the answer will never be to minimize it or avoid it. I’ve found that the answer comes from peering deeply into it with the assumption that I don’t know everything and God has something to teach me. I wonder if I might lead you through that process?
Here is the passage with the word, “God” highlighted with a dark cloud, the idea of sacrifice highlighted with a sheep, the word, “Lord” highlighted with a rainbow, and the concept of promise or blessing highlighted with sticker signifying an official seal:
For those like my friend who want to see empirical data, I submit that this passage can be qualitatively analyzed much like a social scientist would do with interview transcripts. The word translated, “God,” occurs exclusively in the first part of the passage along with mention of sacrifice. The word translated, “Lord,” occurs exclusively in the final part of the passage in close association with promises of blessings. The middle of the narrative is transitional with “The Angel of the Lord” depicted as speaking about “God” in third person and as well as in first person, “Now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me…”
Would you agree that it is at least highly probable that this passage was constructed this way on purpose?
Could we agree that the author most likely intended that the word for “God” be associated with sacrifice and that the word for “the Lord” be associated with blessing?
Is it possible or even likely that the author of this passage meant to contrast and unite the concept of God with the personality of the Lord?
“But that’s polytheism!” you say.
I know, right?
But we don’t need to lean on four thousand years of monotheistic tradition to reject that idea. We only need to look at the center of this section of Scripture.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son. ” -The Messenger of the LORD from Genesis 22:12
The Messenger of the LORD speaks about God in third person and then identifies himself as the one who ordered the sacrifice and to whom Abraham would have offered it. So, the Messenger of the LORD is God who also commends Abraham for proving his fear of God.
When this same being commissioned Moses to free Israel from Egyptian slavery, Moses inquired about his name and received this response:
“Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers —the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob —has sent me to you.’ “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.” Exodus 3:15
“The Lord” refers to a unique personality just as “Nathan” refers to one.
“God” refers to an order of being just as “man” does.
Suppose I encounter a race of green, three-eyed alien toys who live in a claw machine as a random example. What if they have developed a religion around the presence of the claw and have assigned purpose to the claw’s actions. Obviously, they would be mistaken, but that wouldn’t mean that the movements of the claw were entirely random or that nothing existed outside of their box. A belief that the claw moved with purpose and in an existence outside of the box would be entirely warranted though incomplete. Really, they need to know two things:
- What is the ultimate source/cause of their circumstances?
- What is the character of that ultimate source?
In other words, they need to know the nature of humans and the personality of the specific human controlling the claw in that moment.
I can already hear the skeptics taking my illustration to the next step, “The God of Genesis 22 is Sid!”
Hmm, let’s think about that for a moment.
God tested Abraham to find out if he feared God by putting him through three days of pure emotional agony apparently for no reason.
And yet, I believe there was a reason. What does it mean to be “God”? What is he in his essence?
Judeo Christian tradition holds that he is the eternal, uncaused first cause of all other reality, that he is incomparable and incomprehensible, all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present – that is, “holy.”
Theologically speaking, this is really the only kind of “god” there could ever be. After all, a contingent, relatively-larger-than-humans being who required worship would just be a narcissistic alien or cosmic bully.
God as he is presented in the Bible is the center and ground of all reality. The pure gravity of his essence compels worship from all creation and any element of creation which resists this gravity causes a destructive rip in the very fabric of all that is. This gravity, when rightly perceived in the human heart is the fear of God.
This isn’t a fear of what he’ll do to us but rather a profound resignation of all else as trivial in his presence. Abraham didn’t set out for the mountain because he was afraid God would kill him if he didn’t. He was a man at the end of his life preparing to destroy his greatest joy and the vessel of his legacy. That’s not self-preservation; it’s something else. It’s a living, breathing acknowledgement of God’s holiness. It can’t be theoretical. It must be an “offering.”
Why must it be an offering? Can’t God see the condition of the human heart and detect reverent fear there? I don’t think so. It seems to me that the condition of the heart is more dynamic than static. Solomon said, that the heart is the wellspring of life¹ and Jesus said that actions flow from the heart², it’s true. But Jesus also said,
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. -Matthew 6:20-21
We do what’s in our hearts, but our hearts also become what we do. It would seem that there is no such thing as an action that a person would take. We’re told that God knows the future like we know the past. As you look back from this vista on the landscape of your past, how many “would do’s” can you pick out as real and significant items?
I don’t believe that God knew how much Abraham feared him until he offered Isaac because Abraham didn’t know how much he feared God until that moment.
Actions speak louder than words. When the two contradict, it’s the actions that are telling the truth. No, Abraham could not have given God an IOU on Isaac. God could not have simply told Abraham, “I could command you to sacrifice your son because I’m God, but I know that would put you through a lot of turmoil and I know what your heart is like anyway.” These scenarios leave God’s holiness in the realm of ideals and we live in flesh.
Here is Lesson One of Scripture in general and of this passage in specific:
God is holy and his holiness calls for ultimate sacrifice.
If we agree that the Bible is the story of God restoring his relationship with humanity, then we must begin with God revealing himself in his essence as holy. How could we possibly know anyone if we misunderstood their essential nature? We take this for granted because the rest of our relationships are with beings who share our essential nature. For God to reach us, we must first know that he’s not like us. He’s so far from being like us that we’re left with an adjective that defies real definition – “holy.” Nothing else that we say about God will bring us to a relationship with him until we apprehend with every fiber of our being that he is holy. We know that has happened when we actively fear God. It is the”beginning of knowledge”³ after all.
Abraham passed the test when he demonstrated his unqualified reverence for God. And yet, Isaac did not die on that day.
The ancients understood what it meant to worship a god and so they sacrificed their children in the fire. But our God isn’t like those gods. Our God is the Lord. In our time, we’re shocked and appalled at the idea of a God calling for child sacrifice or commanding genocide. In the Bronze Age, they could not fathom a god who wouldn’t at least on occasion call for those things. The revolutionary revelation of the Bible from the very beginning is that the Lord our God loves us. In fact he loves all people even the Canaanites to whom he gave an additional 400 years for repentance before sending Israel to wipe them out.
Here is Lesson Two:
The Lord is love and wants to bless humanity.
By now, I’m sure you see the dilemma:
We can’t understand God’s nature as holy apart from an actual sacrifice being made.
The Lord in his character is love and wants to bless us.
As Abraham rode on those horns up the side of the mountain that day, the tension squeezed the only solution there could ever be from his archaic mind:
“God will provide for himself a lamb.”
I’ve taken you with me through “primary research” on this text because I want you to see evidence that whoever wrote Genesis wanted us to face this dilemma with Abraham. That they wanted us to conclude with Abraham that only by a substitutionary sacrifice could we hope to know God as the supreme being who also loves us.
If that was the author’s intention, what might account for this level of theological sophistication so early in the canon? It’s one thing for Christians to find types and predictions in passages which the author may not have intended to point to Jesus (e.g. Isaiah 7:14). It’s quite another to find an elegantly constructed narrative which channels us to the cross of Christ not only as a grand gesture but as a theological imperative.
For those who’ve struggled to come to terms with the violence in the Old Testament, I plead with you not to take easy answers proposed by authors like Brian Zahnd who would presume to chisel away aspects of the holy God which they can’t reconcile with his loving character. God knew that our tendency would be to minimize his holiness in light of his love. That’s why the majority of Scripture is devoted to establishing his holiness and to inspiring reverent fear. We dare not skip or forget Lesson One for the sake of grasping Lesson Two. If we do, we will miss both lessons. These tandem truths must forever remained fastened together at right angles for us to perceive our God, the revealed mystery.
The glorious message isn’t that Love is god. That’s the kind of thing we’d make up. The eternal gospel that saves must be this:
God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:8b-10 NIV