We live “under the sun”, as the writer of Ecclesiastes describes our existence, filled with existential angst. We live year by year, month by month, week by week, day by day, and moment by moment. The inertia of our lives is focused on the here and now, with our dying always looming in the near distance like a great mountain range rising up to the clouds we cannot conquer.
Our perspective is limited. It is finite. We stand at any given time on a small planet in a small solar system in one of billions of galaxies that exist in a universe. We stand “under the sun”, and our perspective, therefore, limited.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
That verse from Isaiah is a way of saying that God has a different perspective than we do. God has a purpose, and he invites us to consider the difference between His perspective and ours. He desires for us to seek to understand His perspective and to align with His purpose.
When Jesus says my yoke is easy and my burden is light, I believe he was encouraging us, at least in part, to understand and to adopt his perspective and his purpose. Our momentary lives include existential angst, dread, suffering and pain, but God has a purpose and a plan for us that is greater than what we see and experience under the sun, and it is liberating!
I see three concrete examples in scripture of the difference between God’s perspective and purpose and ours. (I am sure there are many more.) As God invites us to consider that His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways, I think it is appropriate to consider and meditate on these three examples.
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:
I have briefly explored the idea of good risks and bad risks in relation to the corona virus threat we have been facing over the last year. Using that as a springboard, I will explored the idea of tempting death, something, which we can’t avoid, regardless of how carefully we live. Now, I want to talk about the good risk of jumping from the ultimate precipice.
Some people gravitate toward risky behavior like a moth to the flame, and others impulsively withdraw into bubbles of protection for fear of sickness, injury and ultimately death. As one who gravitated naturally a little closer to the flames than the bubble, I lived a somewhat reckless youth. The precipice of physical danger, however, brought me to a more metaphysical precipice. The reckless attempt to find fulfillment in corporal, temporal things, led me far enough down that path to rule them out as the missing thing I really wanted.
As I read the Gospels for the first time in a college class, I recognized the truth in the statement that we should not lay up for ourselves treasures on earth. I could see that earthly treasures promised no lasting fulfillment. I had tested their capacity for fulfillment and found them wanting. I could see far enough down that road to know it contained a dead end.
Those experiences, eventually, led me to another precipice – a spiritual one. If God is real, I was on the outside looking in. I couldn’t see “in”. God stood behind a curtain to me, shrouded in mystery that I couldn’t penetrate.
I didn’t realize, then, that would find what I was seeking behind that curtain, but I was propositioned one day with the task of explaining God why He should let me in to His heaven…. That question brought me to the brink of that spiritual precipice.
His heaven… I realized in that moment that heaven (whatever heaven might be) was God’s place. He didn’t have to let me in. I was treading on His turf there, if indeed God existed, and He was under no compulsion to let me enter.
And why should He?
The answer that came from my mouth rang hollow in my heart. “I am trying to do better.” Better is a pretty relative term, but was my effort good enough? Was my effort even the best I could do? …. I knew it wasn’t.
If my best wasn’t enough, I was sunk, and I “knew” in my heart that it wasn’t enough. I knew in my heart I hadn’t even given my best.
When my questioner offered (finally) that heaven is a gift that God gives us, and we can’t earn it, I was dumbfounded.
My entire life was about earning something – earning attention, earning respect, earning grades, earning my own self-acceptance – and I was always falling short. I couldn’t even live up to my own expectations of myself. I wasn’t who I thought I should be!
My recklessness for seeking attention and acceptance and achievement turned to recklessness (for a time) in my abandonment to drinking, doing drugs and risky living. I saw that I was incapable of living up to my own dreams, so I abandoned those dreams for a time to the numbness of a narcotic stupor. Yet, I couldn’t escape the longing, and it only deepened the gap to realization of it.
I had turned back from the inevitable dead-end of a self-induced stupor to a purposeful seeking, but that which I sought I couldn’t exactly define. It wasn’t in me, but it seemed attainable. It was elusive, but I could almost taste it.
I stood at a new precipice that day, when I realized that a God who created the earth controlled whether I might enter His heaven. At the prospect that He offered it freely to me, if I would take it, I jumped.
(I have been to other precipices since that day for which the jump wasn’t as easy, maybe because I wasn’t as reckless, maybe because I took the jump more seriously, counting the cost more completely.)
I had jumped from other precipices, physical ones, in my life in attempts to find the right combination of thrill and daring that would make me feel better about myself, earn the respect or (at least) the attention of my peers and help me fit in to the world I wanted to live in and the person I thought I wanted to be. Those jumps had not brought me any closer to anything that was really satisfying, but that metaphysical jump I took when faced with the prospect of a God who “owned” heaven changed my life.
I accepted the offer. I “accepted” Jesus as my Lord and Savior (not knowing nearly well enough what that really meant). Fortunately, God took me at my word (little, though, that I knew what I was doing).
When I started this piece, I was reading The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith by Sy Garte. He was a third-generation atheist, born to Russian immigrants who are members of the Communist party. He studied science and became a scientist. Along the way, the science that he was learning led him to question the philosophical naturalism and materialism that he had assumed was reality all his life.
I will end be telling the story of the precipice to which Sy Garte came. The landscape of this precipice looked different than the one to which I came many years earlier, but the decision to jump was no less momentous.
Abraham and Sarah were childless for 25 years after God gave Abraham promises that He would give Abraham a land for his descendants who would be numerous and that God would bless all the nations through them. On the basis of those promises, Abraham left his ancestral home and journeyed to “a land God would show him”.
Through those 25 years, Abraham and Sarah continued to live their lives. The moved many times over those years, in and out of the land of Canaan, which is the land God promised to them.
Abraham wavered at times. At one point, when God visited Abraham, Abraham questioned God, saying, “[Y]ou have given me no offspring….”, and telling God (as if He didn’t know), “[T]he heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.” (Gen. 15:2-3)
God God didn’t waiver, though. He renewed the promise, saying, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son [out of your loins] shall be your heir.” (Gen. 15:4)
Years went by. Abraham and Sarah had been in Canaan for 10 years already (Gen. 16:3), and Abraham was 86 years old. (Gen. 16:16), Sarah got impatient and offered her Egyptian servant, Hagar to Abraham, they conceived, and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. (Gen. 16:1-4)
We find out that this wasn’t God’s plan either, but He let 13 more years go by before letting Abraham know. Abraham was 99 years old when God visited again!
God said again, “I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you” (Gen. 17:6); and, “The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you.” (Gen.17:8)
How would Abraham have taken that?
God had made this same promise since Abraham stood in Haran imagining the land God was promising him and the descendants he would have, but that was 25 years ago! Abraham was now 99, and Sara was 90. The likelihood that the two of them would have a child together was slim to none.
Thirteen years prior, Abraham had a son. His name was Ishmael. Surely, Abraham thought by that point that Ishmael was the fulfillment of God’s promise, but it wasn’t so.
After almost 25 years, God finally gave Abraham some missing details:
“As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (Gen. 17:15-16)
Abraham’s response isn’t surprising:
“If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” (Gen. 17:18)
Abraham had not only come to accept that Ishmael was the fulfillment of God’s promise; Abraham had embraced it. Abraham undoubtedly loved Ishmael, despite his abrasiveness. Thus, his response to God’s new direction was, “What about Ishmael?!”
Why did God wait 25 years from the time He first promised to fill the land with Abraham’s descendants to give Abraham all the details? Why did God let Abraham sleep with Sarah’s servant and have another son first? Why did God wait 13 more years before letting Abraham in on the additional details?
I’m not sure I know the answers. It was obviously God’s plan, though, to fulfill the promise to Abraham through Sarah, his half-sister, the daughter of Abraham’s father, Terah. God also wasn’t done with using the line of Terah in this story.