Abraham, by Sufjan Stevens, ends with these words:
Put off on your son
Take instead the ram
Until Jesus comes
Abraham lived around 2000 B.C.E. in Mesopotamia. (Answersingenesis) Child sacrifice was common practice in that time in that area of the world to appease the gods that people thought existed. It would not have been a foreign concept to Abraham for God to ask him to sacrifice his son. That practice was part of the life and culture of the time in which Abraham lived.
The request, however, would have been particularly difficult for Abraham to honor. God had promised him a son. God promised that Abraham’s child would populate the earth as the stars in the sky. Abraham was already old and past normal child rearing age when God made these promises.
The request by God for Abraham to sacrifice his son would have hit Abraham hard. It would have made no sense. It flew in the face of the promises Abraham thought God made to him.
The story of Abraham is lauded as a story of faith. Abraham believed God when God told him he would have a child and his descendants would populate the earth even though Abraham was too old to begin having children. The real test of faith was not the promise that Abraham would have a child, however; the real test of faith came when God told Abraham to sacrifice that child he was promised.
It may seem barbaric to us today that God would ask Abraham to kill his son. But is it much different than the millions of babies that are killed today by abortion every year in the US? We are not so much different really.
The real impact of the story is the faith and devotion Abraham showed to God in the face of a seemingly capricious request that ran counter to the promises Abraham thought God made to him. This faith is upheld as the model of faith in the rest of Scripture.
Abraham responded to God and trusted Him without question.
The significance of the story could easily by lost on us in this day of skepticism. Child sacrifice, and human sacrifice generally, was done to appease capricious gods that we no longer fear or even believe in. It was done to satisfy the gods’ blood lust so their whims would not be taken out on the rest of the people. This is a foreign concept to us today, but the story of Abraham marks a significant departure from the cultural, religious norm of the time.
The sacrifice that God sought from Abraham was not for His own appeasement. The story of Abraham is not about appeasing God but entering into a relationship with God. What God required of Abraham was not the sacrifice of Abraham’s son, but the sacrifice of Abraham’s reliance on himself and his own understanding. It was the sacrifice of listening and responding to the voice of God.
God also used the common practice of child sacrifice to show Abraham something else. The story of Abraham introduces the idea of sacrifice for atonement – the sacrifice of something valuable for the payment of another’s debt.
God showed Abraham an alternative to his son. God showed Abraham a ram caught in the bushes that Abraham gladly offered in sacrifice to God in place of his son. The story also foreshadows the future.
The paradigm shift from sacrifice for appeasement that was practiced in Abraham’s day to sacrifice for atonement became a theme that runs throughout biblical history. That idea goes back to Abraham. It separates the one true God from the capricious gods that people can only hope to appease.
Sacrifice of animals for atonement from sin (separation from God) became the common practice of Abraham’s descendants. Child sacrifice was not practiced by the descendants of Abraham (except when they deviated from God’s law and fell back to the cultural pagan practices of their neighbors). Sacrifice for atonement became a way of establishing and maintaining relationship with God. The God of Abraham revealed Himself not as a capricious God, but as a God desiring relationship.
In the light of the New Testament, we see the sacrifice of the ram and the ongoing sacrificial system of atonement that God set up with Abraham’s descendants as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus. Though God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son, God intended to provide Abraham an alternative (the ram). Though God instructed the Israelite people to engage in the practice of ritual sacrifice of animals, God intended an alternative, a better sacrifice to be provided once for all (Jesus).
The sacrifice God requested of Abraham and that God instructed the Israelite people to engage in was instructive and revelatory. It set the stage for what God ultimately intended to do. We see in Jesus the fulfillment of what God intended from the beginning – a sacrifice for atonement provided by God Himself!
God’s relationship and dealing with Abraham and Abraham’s descendants laid the groundwork and provided the context for understanding what God was going to do in Jesus. A critical piece of that understanding was that atonement was necessary to bridge the gap between God and man. Unlike the pagans who sacrificed children to appease capricious and bloodthirsty gods, Abraham and the Israelites were introduced to a God who was just and merciful and desired a relationship with people.
God had to connect with Abraham in the context and culture in which he lived. Throughout the years that God revealed Himself to Abraham’s descendants, God was conditioning a people for what He intended to reveal to them and the world.
Even so, the people did not clearly understand what God was doing. They did not necessarily see and understand the paradigm shift. The history of the descendants of Abraham is a history of people continually failing to keep the promises and practices that God asked of them. They were continually turning back to the worship of other gods. They did not understand that God sought relationship from them. They also lost sight of the original promise: God’s promise was to bless all the nations of the world through Abraham and his descendants.
The provision of an alternative to the sacrifice of Abraham’s son, Isaac, pointed toward the provision of an alternative for the sacrifice of all mankind in God’s own Son, Jesus. God provided the alternative for Abraham, and God provides the alternative for us. By providing Jesus, the perfect sacrifice, there is no need for sacrifice from us. We accept the sacrifice God provides in the same way Abraham accepted the ram as an alternative to the sacrifice of his son, with gratitude and thanksgiving.
As with Abraham, the real sacrifice God requires of us is the sacrifice of ourselves. He wants our relationship. He wants us to turn from going our own way to listen and respond to him. God provided the atonement that bridges the gap and allows us to have that relationship. There is nothing we can do to appease God, and God does not want to be appeased. God wants us and relationship with us.
The pagans knew their place in the world, the utter separateness between them and the creative force of the world and the fearful sense of a being so much greater than us that might as soon squash us as let us live. That creative force it turns out, however, loves us and desires relationship with us. The fearfulness and awesomeness of God is not that He is bloodthirsty and capricious. Abraham among his contemporaries sensed that the creative force of the world was not capricious, but loving, just and merciful. That understanding allowed God to work through Abraham.
We trace this theme back to Genesis with Adam and Eve. God created Adam and Eve in His own image – suggesting that God is relational within Himself. Unlike the rest of creation which is what it is, God made man with the ability for self-determination built in. Unlike the rest of creation, we have creative capacity; we have self-consciousness; we sense and understand beauty and ugliness; we have the unique ability to love. We call this unique ability for self-determination free will, without which love is simply not possible.
Love is the purposeful and intentional showing of respect and devotion to another. Love is not a reflex action or instinct. Love is not born out of sacrifice and appeasement. The sacrifice God planned to demonstrate to the world was not our sacrifice, but His sacrifice.
Love is a choice. Love is not compelled from us. God’s provision of a sacrifice at great cost to Himself gives us a choice that we can exercise that is free from compulsion, free from our own effort. This love is not forced upon us; it is provided for us, leaving us in the position of being able to choose to embrace what God has provided and to embrace God, Himself, as our own determination. In other words, we are free to love God.
We should not mistake this offer of self-sacrifice as an indication that God is anything other than the Creator of the Universe, the same God at whose voice the nation of Israel trembled at the Mount Sinai, the same God who rebuked Job and his friends for thinking they could understand the vastness of His glory and might. He is no tame lion! But He loves us, and we can love Him!