Heavenly napalm, geriatric parenting, and human sacrifice: Abraham’s story

[This year, my wife and I are reading the Covenant History books of the Old Testament during Lent. We started a bit early because, well, they’re really long.]

What struck me about Abraham (the subject of our second day of reading) is how different his story is from those that precede it. The first five “accounts” in Genesis follow each other in rapid succession.

Starting with Abraham, the focus narrows. The pace slows. The first few pages of Genesis breeze through primordial humanity, while the next several pages focus on just one man.

Up to this point, things haven’t gone well for the human race. With a remarkable lack of fanfare, God launches a new project that will hinge on one family. It’s a pretty bold move, since at the time, this family is in danger of extinction. (Abraham and his wife are childless.)

The account of Abraham starts by connecting him to primordial humanity. He’s introduced as a descendent of Noah’s son Shem. Like his predecessors, Abraham is a restless wanderer. It was Abraham’s father Terah who first set out for Canaan, with family in tow. Then Terah died, leaving them stranded.

From Cain to Babel, Genesis depicts the human race as scattered. Wandering. Lost. This is how God finds Abraham. But God starts something altogether new with him.

More previews of coming attractions

As with Adam and Eve, the writers/editors of Genesis connect Abraham’s story to Israel. For example, after arriving in Canaan, a famine sends Abraham & co. packing for Egypt. Which is exactly how Abraham’s descendants will end up in Egypt a few generations later.

While there, Abraham’s wife catches Pharaoh’s eye. To save his own skin, Abraham passes her off as his sister. As a result, Abraham gets the royal treatment — and grows rich off Pharaoh (until Pharaoh realizes he’s been had). Thus Abraham plunders the Egyptians, so to speak, before being driven out — much like his descendants 400 years later.

Or how about when Lot and his mysterious guests sit down to a meal of bread made without yeast before making a hurried escape from Sodom? Can you say “Passover”?

[Side note: As long as we’re talking about Sodom, let’s clarify something. This story has nothing to do with being gay. The men of Sodom didn’t pound on Lot’s door because they had the hots for other men. Their desire to rape Lot’s guests wasn’t motivated by sexual orientation. This was about humiliating a couple of outsiders. It was a way of asserting their dominance. That’s what got Sodom fried to a crisp, not having a suspiciously keen sense of fashion. If you want a “biblical” lesson on sexuality, you’ll have to look for one elsewhere.]

Covenant dance

What makes Abraham stand out is the covenant God establishes with him. Sometimes it’s been characterized as an “unconditional covenant.” But this doesn’t do justice to the whole story, which at times feels a bit like a faltering dance between two partners still trying to make out one another’s character.

The covenant figures into the story at least five times:

  • The first comes near the beginning. God tells Abraham to “go… to the land I will show you.” In return, God promises to make Abraham into a great nation and to bless the whole world through him. There’s nothing unconditional about this covenant. For it to go into effect, Abraham must “go.”
  • God reiterates his covenant after Abraham and Lot part ways in Canaan, with Lot taking the best land for himself. God, in effect, nullifies Lot’s choice, promising to give Abraham everything he can see. God says this land will belong to Abraham’s offspring “forever.” Some Christians make this the basis of a particular political posture vis-à-vis the modern nation of Israel. (Which is to miss how the New Testament radically redefines what it means to be “Abraham’s offspring.” But that’s for another post. And yes, I just wrote “vis-à-vis.”)
  • Later, Abraham reminds God of the not-so-trivial fact that he still doesn’t have an heir. In response, God restates his promises to Abraham, at which point Abraham “believed the Lord, and [God] credited it to him as righteousness.” (Paul makes much of this when arguing for justification by faith.) What’s interesting is how in the next breath, Abraham asks God for proof that he’ll keep his promise. At which point, God walks through a gauntlet of animal carcasses, which many believe was his way of saying, “May what happened to these animals happen to me if I don’t keep my promises to you.” God also promises that Abraham’s inheritance will stretch to the Euphrates. (The boundaries of the land promised to Abraham are somewhat fluid in the text, but Israel’s actual territory never extended as far as this.)
  • When Abraham is 99 years old (and still without an heir), God reiterates the covenant once more. Here again, there’s nothing “unconditional” about it. God uses a classic “if-then” formula: “[If you] walk before me faithfully… then I will make my covenant between me and you.” As a sign of adherence to the covenant, Abraham and the male members of his household are circumcised.

On the one hand, Genesis depicts God breaking into history. He is not some distant deity; he’s actively engaged in human affairs. On the other hand, Abraham is no chess piece. He has a meaningful part to play in the unfolding drama.

God’s covenant is still an act of grace; he didn’t have to do anything for Abraham. But the covenant only goes into effect because Abraham responds. “All nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

About that test…

One last thing to cap off an already long post. Abraham’s story contains one of the most troubling scenes in the whole Bible. After finally coming through on the promise of an heir, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son.

The Sacrifice of Isaac (Caravaggio)

Years later, the writer of Hebrews argued that Abraham obeyed because he “reasoned that God could even raise the dead.” While the text in Genesis doesn’t explicitly say this, Abraham does act as if he thinks Isaac will be coming back down the mountain with him. He tells his servants, “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” When Isaac inquires about the absence of a lamb, Abraham says, “God himself will provide the lamb.”

Somehow I don’t think Abraham was lying to his servants or his son. I think Abraham genuinely believed God was going to come through with something. After all, this was the same God who had said, in effect, “May it be to me as these slaughtered animals if I don’t keep my promise to you.”

In the end, the test reveals as much about God’s character as it does Abraham’s. Plenty of ancient cultures practiced ritual human sacrifice. A divine demand for human blood wouldn’t come as a surprise to an ancient Near Easterner like Abraham. What was unusual was Abraham’s apparent belief that his God wouldn’t really do something like this — a belief that was ultimately vindicated. Even more remarkable was the fact that human sacrifice would be banned from Israelite worship altogether.

This God was not like other gods. I think that’s what Abraham’s test reveals, disturbing as it may be.

This is a God who brings life instead of chaos and death. Centuries later, Jesus showed him to be a God who would rather sacrifice himself than see any of his people die.

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