I started on a journey exploring the story of Abraham and Isaac deeper and with more nuance in my previous article, The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Introduction. The story of God’s seeming demand to Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham being seemingly willing to do it, is quite misunderstood, especially without reference to the Ancient Near East context.
Child sacrifice was ubiquitous among the religions with which Abraham was familiar. Abraham would have thought the demand for the sacrifice of Isaac unsurprising among the arbitrary and capricious gods in the Ancient Near East world he knew.
The story is of the first 11 chapters of Genesis and of Abraham is a revelation that the God of Abraham is different than all the other Ancient Near Eastern gods. In the subsequent article, The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Here I am!, we explore the interpersonal dynamics of Abraham and Isaac that set the stage for much greater revelation of which God is.
Through Abraham’s dutiful and faithful obedience to the demand he feared would be required of him, God demonstrated His character in a way that was indelibly etched into the experience and psyche of Abraham and Isaac. They would learn that God does not make the same kinds of demands as the other gods: God would provide the sacrifice Abraham feared that God required of him.
In Abraham, Faith and a Hope Deferred, I may seem to take a sideways turn off the path of revelation of God’s character to Abraham, but I will finish the story in this article and get to that point.
The ground we covered in that last article included a blessing by God to Abraham, but the experience of God’s momentary blessing was dampened by the cold reality of God’s yet unfulfilled promise.
In Genesis 15, Abraham sought more assurance from God that the land he lived as a stranger would really become the land of his descendants and, more fundamentally, that he would actually have descendants. Many years had passed, and Abraham was still childless.
In response, God asked Abraham to set up a covenant with five animals of specific types to be slaughtered, cut in half and placed opposite each other on either side of a depression. The blood of those animals drained into the depression creating a blood path. This, Abraham knew, was the stage for entering a covenant with God.
These types of covenants were familiar to ancient Middle Easterners. I understand that similar covenant rituals are practiced today by Bedouins.
Abraham would have known the drill. As the lesser party to the covenant, he would go first, signifying that God should do to him (stomp on a pool of his blood) if Abraham didn’t keep his part of the bargain. With the lesser party committed to the covenant, the greater party would seal the deal, and go last, walking through the blood path.
Only Abraham doesn’t initiate the covenant by walking through the blood path. He waits so long that he must drive the birds of prey away from the rotting carcasses. Then Abraham falls into a fitful and dark sleep.
Why did Abraham hesitate? Maybe he realized the significance of what God was setting up – a covenant between a fallible person and the Almighty God! Abraham was not likely worried so much about the commitment God would be making to him, but about the commitment Abraham would be making to God!
So, Abraham, perhaps, feared to enter in to the covenant. He falls into a restless sleep, and God comes to Abraham in his sleep. The “assurance” Abraham receives in his dreams is far from satisfying: God says the promise to Abraham’s descendants would not be finalized for 400 years!
Abraham would be long dead and gone.
This is where we pick up the story. This is where we get the next revelation of the kind of God the God of Abraham is. If we aren’t tracking with the story, we won’t appreciate what happens next:
“When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land….”Genesis 15:17-18
Abraham didn’t initiate the covenant by going through the blood path. God went through the blood path for both of them! God made the covenant with Abraham by performing both sides of the covenant.
Abraham didn’t perform his part of the covenant, likely because he was not confident in his ability to keep his part of the bargain, but God didn’t require it from Abraham. God did it!
I promised in the previous article to explain why Abraham was confident that God would provide when Isaac asked him where the lamb was for the sacrifice. The simple Sunday school answer is that Abraham had faith. That is the right answer, but the reason Abraham had that faith might be lost on most readers (including me until now).
Abraham came right up to the edge of making a covenant with God, a covenant that he surely couldn’t keep, and he knew it. In the crushing realization of his inability to enter into a covenant with a Holy God, Abraham fell into a dark, fitful sleep.
Abraham would not dare to enter a covenant he was not confident he could fulfill. Abraham desperately wanted assurance from God as his years were waning, but, he knew he could not make an imprudent covenant with a Holy God to gain that assurance.
Abraham despaired, falling asleep in defeat. Then, God demonstrated that God, Himself, would fulfill the covenant. He would perform both sides of the bargain. This was the assurance of God’s promise that God gave to Abraham.
The fact that God would make a such a covenant in which He exacted nothing from Abraham meant that Abraham could trust God implicitly. When Abraham walked up the mountain with Isaac, wood for the sacrificial pyre and a knife, Abraham would have recalled the covenant God made previously, pledging both sides of the bargain.
Abraham knew he could trust God. Abraham had confidence God would provide, because God had already demonstrated His character in the blood path covenant.
We know the rest of the story. Abraham’s confidence and trust was rewarded by the “offering” from God of the ram caught in the thicket.
In these stories, God revealed Himself to and through Abraham. He demonstrated Himself to be completely different than the arbitrary, capricious and cruel gods of Abraham’s Ancient Near East neighbors. These stories also set the stage for God’s ultimate act of redemption and reward for faith.
Just as God pledged both sides of the covenant with the blood path, and just as God provided the sacrifice for Abraham, God entered into humanity by becoming a man, making himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant and humbled Himself (Phil. 2:6-8) to provide the sacrifice necessary to free us from our bondage to sin and death.
The death of Jesus on the cross is the ultimate sacrifice – God taking on flesh and laying that life down for our sake. God satisfied the demands of justice. God provided payment for the penalty of sin.
God promises us eternal life, and He sealed that promise (that covenant) with His own blood shed by Jesus, who was God in the flesh. God kept both sides of the ultimate bargain: requiring justice for unrighteousness and sacrificing Himself for our unrighteousness – a bargain we could never keep on our own.
Desiring mercy, God provided the sacrifice to satisfy justice to free us from the consequences of our fallen nature and sinful selves. God demonstrated love in laying down the life He took up in the flesh for our sake. He showed us, as He showed Abraham, that we can trust him and entrust ourselves to Him with confidence that He desires our blessing and will keep His promises to us.