The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Introduction

God tests Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his son. Abraham in faith goes ahead but God intervenes to provide a ram for sacrifice instead.
Genesis 22.

Everyone in the western world has heard of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It is iconic. Even people who didn’t hear the story in Sunday school as a child have heard the story somewhere along the way in their lives. The story is a commonly referenced in literature and art, and often with negative connotations in our modern world.

Dare I say that most people have a shallow understanding of the story – even Christians? I would include myself in that category for most of my life, though I had the fortune of hearing the story and considering it for the first time, not in Sunday school, but in a college World Religion class.

The “fortune” of hearing the story for the first time in the context of an academic environment is that that I approached it first intellectually with an open mind. I approached it critically – not as in being critical of it, but as in being thoughtful about it.

Those discussions have stuck with me. We learned about the Mesopotamian world in which the story arose, including the theory that monotheism was born in that time and region (not necessarily of Hebrew origin).

I have since spent many hours thinking and writing about those things I first learned in that class about the Ancient Near Eastern world in which Abraham would have lived. I have learned other things as well, such as the apparently universal practice of child sacrifice to the gods that dominated the religious thought in that culture.

The story of Abraham and Isaac must be read in that context to understand how it fits in. We learn through the story that the God of Abraham was radically different from the gods of the Ancient Near East culture in which Abraham lived.

In Abraham’s world, every people group and community had their own gods. While each community of people had their own gods, and each god was different from the next, one thing those gods all had in common: they were unpredictable, arbitrary and capricious.

Everyone Abraham knew assumed that the gods had to be appeased, and appeasing the gods often meant sacrificing your own children to them if necessary. Abraham would not have recoiled in moral horror at the thought that God was insisting he sacrifice his son. As difficult as it might be, you didn’t argue with the gods.

We tend to focus only on Abraham’s faith, as if that is the sum and substance of the story. Faith is the Sunday school lesson, but it’s only a shallow understanding if we see nothing else in the story. Faith is merely the beginning of understanding:

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

Hebrews 11:6

Without Abraham’s faith in God, he would not have learned that God was different than other gods. Abraham’s faith was the key to learning that God was different, and Abraham’s discovery of the unique character of God is the real gem of this story – that He is not unpredictable, arbitrary and capricious like the other gods.

Abraham was a man of faith. He believed God exists, and he believed that his God was the God of gods. He believed that God could be approached; God could be trusted; and God rewards those who seek Him. Abraham was a man who sought to draw near to God, but that is only the beginning.

In the story, we see that Abraham expected God to be like the other gods he knew, but we also see that Abraham sensed something different about God. God used Abraham’s cultural understanding of the gods to show Abraham that He was different.

God is not arbitrary and capricious. He has plans for His creation. He desires to bless His creation. He desires relationship with His creation, and we (like Abraham) can engage God in that purpose by faith – by trust in God’s benevolence and good intentions toward us.

This understanding of the story will become more evident as we dig deeper in the next article: The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Here I Am. While the Sunday School version is all about Abraham’s faith, and the secular, cynical version fixates of the savage notion that a god might demand child sacrifice, the real gem of the story is that God is not like the other gods Abraham knew.


Keeping God’s Commands By Loving Him


“If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” (Deuteronomy 30:16)

This is the way the English Standard Version translates Deuteronomy 30:16, the verse of the day today in a Bible I use. I highlight the phrase that jumped out at me today, the one I have been contemplating since I read it this morning.

When I went looking for some deeper meaning, I found the other translations take it in a slightly different direction:

“For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws….” (NIV)
“I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments….” (NASB)
“I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments….” (NKJV)

Only one the English Standard Version instructs us to obey the commandments of God “by loving the Lord….”.  Most of the time I believe we think about loving God by obeying His commands – not obeying God’s commands by loving Him. It’s a subtle difference, but it piqued my curiosity further.

I also discovered that the Hebrew word for love in this verse is “aheb”, which means (not surprisingly) “to love”. But it dawned me as I looked at the other verses in which that word is used that it seems to mean to love with affection. Abraham loved Isaac (Gen. 22:2); Isaac loved Rebekah (Gen. 24:67); Isaac loved Esau (Gen. 25:28)(more than Jacob); Rebekah loved Jacob(Gen. 25:28) (more than Esau); Isaac loved the “savory meat” that Esau provided (Gen. 27:4); and Jacob loved Rachel (more than Rachel’s sisters that his father-in-law insist he marry first) (Gen. 28:18).

Clearly, all of these uses of the word for love used in the commandment in Deuteronomy to love God imply a kind of personal affection, even to the exclusion of affection for other things (or people). Thus, we are commanded to have affection for God and to walk in His ways and keep His commandments: or, as the ESV translates, to obey God’s commands by loving Him (with affection).

The real light bulb moment today, though, wasn’t in the breaking down of this verse, but in its juxtaposition with my daily Bible reading, which is taking me currently through Numbers (after having left the detailed instructions about the Tent of Meeting in Leviticus). So many rules for the priestly duties of the Levites in connection with the Tent of Meeting and Ark of the Testimony and the altar where endless sacrifices were to be offered up have me wanting to get through these passages quickly!

And they have me asking, why? I know… they foreshadow the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Lev. 9:22; Heb. 9:22) The writer of Hebrews tells us Christ has appeared, now, as the ultimate high priest, entering once for all into the holy places, securing for us eternal redemption. (Heb. 9:11-13) All the sacrifices commanded by God in Leviticus, Numbers and so on were just copies of heavenly things: “For Christ has entered, not into the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God in our behalf.” (Heb. 9:24)

All the many sacrifices offered by the Levites at God’s commands as God’s chosen people wandered in the wilderness, carrying with them the Tent of Meeting and all of its accouterments, were just copies of the one sacrifice, “once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9:26)

As I read through these passages in the Old Testament, I find myself asking, “Why?” as if I were one of them, not knowing anything about the plans of God that were devised before the foundation of the world. What were they thinking as they did these things?

Continue reading “Keeping God’s Commands By Loving Him”

Thoughts About Cain and Abel

The difference perspective makes

Henri Vidal’s Statue of Cain – gardens Tuileries, Paris, France

“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.'” (Genesis 4:3-7 ESV)

I have written about this passage before. (See When Sin Crouches at the Door) In fact, it seems that every time I read the story of Cain and Abel it gives me pause. I always wonder: “How would I react?” “Would I be more like Cain or more like Abel?”

The truth is that I would like to fancy myself like Abel, offering a better sacrifice, one in which God would be pleased, but I have doubts about that. Would God really accept my sacrifice? More pointedly, would I really be willing to offer the kind of sacrifice God would regard? If I am being honest, I have to wonder.

I am bit surer that I wouldn’t get angry like Cain did, and I certainly wouldn’t take it out on Abel, right?

Do I protest too much?

I picture myself in my comfortable 21st Century world feeling fairly smugly that I wouldn’t be like that, but I’m not so sure I should be confident about that. The circumstances were much different then.

Cain didn’t have a world full of people to which to compare himself. He couldn’t have said, “At least I am not as bad as so and so.” He wouldn’t have had centuries of wisdom at his fingertips in the way of sermons, books, fables with morals and the Bible. Cain didn’t have the Bible or any moral compass but his own conscience and experience, such as it was.

When I first read this passage (again), I read it to say that God didn’t regard Cain’s offering, and so I thought it wasn’t that God didn’t regard Cain. But then I read it again and realized I was wrong:

“And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”

It was personal for Cain. God didn’t regard him. What did he do wrong? What is the lesson in the story for us?

As I pointed out in the previous blog post on the subject, the clues are in the text. Abel offered more than Cain did – the best of his flock. The implication is that Cain didn’t offer the best, the “first fruits” of his produce.

It wasn’t necessarily that Cain did something wrong; rather he didn’t do it right. He didn’t offer as much a Abel did. Abel offered a better sacrifice, and God took notice of him because of it.

Abel went above and beyond in his offering to God. Maybe Abel’s offering was more heartfelt. Maybe Abel was more thankful to God. We don’t know.

Cain might have felt that Abel was just “sucking up” to God. Abel was making him look bad, as if it was a competition for God’s attention. Maybe Cain thought, “I’m not going to suck up to God like that!” Right? Don’t we think like that sometimes?

Of course, that is pride talking.

Would Abel have been inclined to think the same way if the shoe was on the other foot? If God regarded Cain’s sacrifice, and not Abel’s, would Abel have responded the same way? We don’t know. We can’t really say.

Did Abel just get lucky? Did he just “happen” to offer a better sacrifice? Did he really know what he did “right”? Again, we don’t know.

It seems to me that Cain didn’t know what he did wrong. He might have made some assumptions, but his assumptions were apparently not very good.

Maybe Cain did know why God regarded Abel and his sacrifice, but he wasn’t willing to offer that much. If Cain knew what the difference was between his sacrifice and Abel’s sacrifice, he really had no excuse, but we don’t know.

Maybe he thought God was being arbitrary. Maybe he thought Abel had an unfair advantage. Maybe he thought God just liked Abel better for no good reason – or at least that is what he told himself.

In the text, though, we see that God tried to console and counsel Cain. He offered advice and hope. He warned Cain of the danger of letting the sin crouching at the door get the best of him.

If there is one thing I take away from this story, it is this: regardless of what we are going through, and that we have done or haven’t done, the best answer is always to go back to God. My own perspective on my circumstances is limited and flawed. God knows what is best for us, and He has the best intentions towards us. We need to trust Him.

If Cain had listened to God, he could have provided a sacrifice the next time that God would regard, and life would be good.

If Cain had trusted God and listened to His advice, I don’t think Cain would have been angry enough to murder his brother. If Cain had taken his anger to God, he wouldn’t have taken his anger out on Abel.

We often don’t get what we think we deserve. Maybe (sometimes) we don’t get what we actually do deserve, but that cuts both ways. We might not get the positive consequences we “deserve”, but we also might not get the negative consequences we deserve. When we “get away with” something, do we rue the fact that we didn’t suffer the consequences? I think not!

Life isn’t fair. Not in this world. Still, God works all things together for the good – not just our good, but the good of all people and all creation (eventually anyway). That is His promise to us. We just need to hang in there. We need to stick by God’s side.

Where else would we turn anyway?

In the end, God actually loves us. We could live in a world in which the creator didn’t love His creation. What an amazing thing that we live in a world in which God loves us! We know this from the fact that God emptied Himself to become one of us. And He didn’t just become one of us, He allowed Himself to be sacrificed in human flesh for us. He endured our pain, and He bore our sin. We can trust a God like that.

It helps to realize, too, that this world isn’t all there is, though we often lose site of that. Jesus has prepared rooms for all of us who call him Lord and Savior. We can’t even imagine what God has in store for us. It will make all the “good” things in this life pale in comparison. We have no reason to be a Cain and every reason to be an Abel.

Perhaps, the difference is nothing more than perspective. Maybe Abel had the right perspective about himself and God, while Cain’s perspective was too limited. Maybe Abel was willing to give his best to God because he trusted Him, he believed God and believed God loved him. Abel was thankful for what he had, knowing that all of it came from God in the end.

Who Was Jesus

The fundamental question isn’t: why did God kill Jesus? The fundamental question is: who was Jesus?


People discussed and debated who was Jesus during his life, and people continue to ask the question today: who was Jesus? It’s really pretty remarkable that people are still asking that question today if you think about it. Jesus didn’t write anything. He didn’t create a lasting work of art. He didn’t conquer anyone.

Yet, people are still talking about Jesus today. Jesus is worshiped by some as God. He is revered my every major religion as a prophet or wise, spiritual man. He is even respected by the irreligious as a moral and good man. Though he didn’t pen a single word as far as we know, more books have been written about him than any man who lived.

So, it makes sense to ask: who was Jesus? It’s not an irrelevant question, even today, so many years after is life and very public and widely attested death.

The Internet skeptics who question whether the man, Jesus, ever lived are simply living in denial. Not even most atheists doubt that the man known as Jesus of Nazareth, the man who was crucified on a cross, was an actual man who lived in the first century. A more serious and compelling question is: who was Jesus?

So, let me get right to the point. The following statement from Paul, the once hater and persecutor of Christians who became a follower, highlights why this question is still relevant today:

“For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. …. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.” Romans 3:25-26

How we respond to this statement is a litmus test of sorts. It raises the ultimate question – who was Jesus – in a way that gets right to the heart of the matter. We can’t read that statement, if we truly understand it, without worshiping and loving such a God or recoiling in horror, indignation and revulsion.

One of the most biting critiques of the Bible and the story of Jesus is that God killed him. God demanded a sacrifice, and Jesus was it. If God is God, He orchestrated the death of Jesus to sate His own demands for justice, homage and retribution.

People like Richard Dawkins make this accusation of “the Christian God”. They say that even if God exists, they would never follow such a vindictive, spiteful God like that.

Lay aside the propriety of created beings standing in moral judgment of the Creator of the universe. If the Creator of the universe was a spiteful, vindictive mean-spirited Being, what could we do about it? And what would our moral indignation have to do with anything?

But of course, the Richard Dawkins types don’t believe in God. What they do believe is at the heart of this blog piece. They believe that Jesus was a just a man. He wasn’t divine. He was no different than you and me.

If Jesus was just a man, the Christian view that Jesus was sacrificed and killed to satisfy God’s sense of justice – or vindictiveness, or spite or evil desire to inflict pain – is something that seems despicably bad. As moral beings, we can see that such a thing would be wrong. It’s twisted. We know better. It doesn’t feel right.

But the fundamental question isn’t: why did God kill Jesus (or have him killed)? The fundamental question is: who was Jesus? We have to answer this question before we can make any sense of the latter question.

Continue reading “Who Was Jesus”

Repentance from Dead Works

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, … and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance

depostphotos Image ID: 5379147 Copyright: Iurii

These are some of the most terrifying words in the New Testament:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:4-6)

For anyone but the hardest core Calvinist, these words are enough to make one shudder. No one wants to fall away. But we often do what we know we shouldn’t. The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak. Though we may be born again, the old man lurks incessantly beneath the service and around every corner. The struggle is real.

Most people, however, (me included) tend to read these words out of context. As an isolated statement, we might be strongly tempted to believe these words speak to sin, especially those nagging, habitual, ingrained sins that we have a hard time overcoming. We feel as if, one day, we will sin one too many times and will have fallen away – completely lost and irredeemable!

But the context speaks to something different than the direction our mind is prone to go.

The statement in Hebrews 6 quoted above is prefaced with the following introduction:

“Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God ….” (Hebrews 6:1)

What is the “elementary doctrine of Christ”? What are these “dead works” from which we must repent? This is the key to keep from “falling away”.

Continue reading “Repentance from Dead Works”