It started with a comment on my remix from Jennifer @ Getting Down with Jesus yesterday, reflecting on Abraham’s worshipful anticipation of the sacrifice of his son. She referred to the last part of Genesis 22:4-5:
On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (emphasis added)
And she said this:
Imagine the “worship” that would come before an expected sacrifice of beloved child. I don’t know if I could.
In response, I added:
. . . he traveled three days to get to the place where he would worship. For three days, not even sure of the destination. All the while pondering the sacrifice this worship would call for.
I don’t worship like that. Do you?
This has been nibbling away at some of the duller parts of my heart ever since.
If I were Abraham, I’d have had a mighty hard time telling the servants we were going off to “worship” and we’d be back shortly. I’d have told them something more like I’m going to do the most horrible, excruciating thing I’ve ever had to do. And “we” won’t be back. Just I’ll be back. Alone.
Going off to worship, my eye.
This thing that Abraham did, this was costly worship.
It was not easy and it was not convenient.
It certainly was not his preferred style.
And yet for worship’s sake; no, for the sake of the object of his worship, he traveled three days on foot, shouldering an unbearable load. He stood ready to give all he had.
Just so he could worship.
And I have to say it again. I don’t worship like that. Do you?
As I point my feet to step away from Jephthah, the thought of such a sacrifice still haunts me just a bit. Well, a lot. I’ve been thinking about Jephthah’s humble, courageous and obedient daughter. I’ve been thinking about what Mrs. Jephthah said when he got home that night. I’ve even been thinking about all the times I commit to something that is all wrongheaded but because I said I was going to do it I drive on relentlessly no matter who gets hurt.
But it keeps coming back to the sacrifice. And as Nancy observed, in this story we can see the reflection of another staggering sacrifice. I was reminded of two soul rending offerings — one that was, and one that almost was — and how they intertwined. I’ve looked at them before, and have cleaned up and blended a couple of posts on Abraham’s almost-sacrifice and the Father’s ultimate sacrifice from last August. (Understanding how we got to here might take reading the last few posts, starting with Honorable Mentions, Jephthah & His Merry Men, and A Deal is a Deal.)
“Some time later, God tested Abraham.”
With these words, the writer of Genesis begins Chapter 22. “Some time later” comes after God fulfilled a lifetime of promise to Abraham and Sarah, giving to an aged and childless couple the son who would launch the legacy of descendants as numerous as the specks of sand on the beach.
This Isaac was the key to a great nation.
He was the very first bright light in a sky full of stars too numerous to count.
And at the time, he was the only bright light.
Yet, God came to Abraham with intent to test. (Abraham knew nothing of a test. He knew only of his God asking for his obedience.)
God asked Abraham to extinguish his one bright light.
“Now I know how fearlessly you fear God; you did not hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for Me.” (Genesis 22:12b – The Message)
This account of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, of relinquishing his grip on the very fulfillment of God’s promise, just keeps on giving. I’d guess that if I went back and read this again a month from now I’d see something altogether new. Maybe I’ll do that. But today, look at it with me just once more.
Look at that half-verse we were talking about yesterday. Only look at it this time in The Message with me. The word selection stops me.
“Now I know how fearlessly you fear God.”
Abraham feared God fearlessly.
At first glance it hardly makes sense. But think about it a little more.
In taking Isaac with him to the mountain with the intent of giving him up as a sacrifice to the Lord, literally as a burnt offering, there was plenty for Abraham to fear. Oh, he had cause to be fearful.
There was the fear of losing his son, his only son, losing that which he must have valued most in all the world.
There was the fear of giving up his dream for good, of letting go of his legacy, of walking away from the promise God made to him that He would make of him a great nation and that he would have descendants too numerous to count. They were already old when he and Sarah had Isaac. Ending Isaac’s life would surely also end any hope of a dream fulfilled.
There was the fear of what Sarah was going to do to him when he got home and she found out what he’d done. Read back a little bit. The text doesn’t suggest that he consulted with Sarah before he left with Isaac for the mountain. She would have been given no opportunity to protest, no chance to even say goodbye to her son. This was Sarah’s only son too, the son whom she loved. Sarah would have his head.
There was the fear of what the neighbors would say, and what they would do. At best it would be “Crazy old Abraham. Killed his own son as a human sacrifice.” At worst, they may attempt to extract justice for such a deed.
There was the fear of wondering if he’d called it wrong. What if God didn’t really tell him to do this? What if he missed it? What if God were speaking completely figuratively? What if it were only Sarah’s new enchilada recipe that kept him up last night? What if God had told him no such thing? And then what if he went through with it? Then what?
And there was of course the fear of looking into his son’s eyes, his trusting but confused eyes as he lay bound on the altar, his father’s hand poised with a knife to slay him. He faced the fear of the excruciating pain that would accompany looking back into his son’s desperate, pleading eyes, the eyes of one fully dependent on him in the moment of realization of what could only appear to Isaac as utter betrayal.
Fears within. Fears without. Abraham had much cause for fear.
Yet he fearlessly turned his attention from the fears within and without and acted instead on his fear of God.
Abraham had plenty of things to be scared of. God wasn’t one of them. This fear of God didn’t reflect a scariness about God. It was a response of awe and reverence, of honor and respect.
And that fear of God was sufficient to make him fearless in the face of so many terribly scary things. He let his fear of God lead. He let his fear of God go before him. And his fear of God was so great that those scary things, those very fearsome prospects diminished in God’s shadow. He became fearless in his fear of God. In his pursuit of the things of God. In his brokenhearted submission to the hand of God.
What scares me today? Will I let my fear of God lead? Will I fearlessly fear God?
“Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12b)
I observed yesterday that when God asked Abraham to give Isaac back — to give up his son, his only son, his son whom he loved — that He knew what He was asking. He knew how it would feel for Abraham. God had a deep and abiding understanding of what that was going to be like.
God had a Son. An only Son. A Son Whom He loved. And though it was many, many years yet to come, He would place His only Son, Whom He loved, on the altar too. He would provide a Lamb, His only Son, at the right time for the most painful and most significant sacrifice the world has yet known.
I don’t believe for a second that during this moment with Abraham God wasn’t thinking about that. That as He asked the unthinkable of Abraham that He didn’t have a complete and full awareness of what it was like for Abraham, though He had not yet given His Son, His only Son, His Son Whom He loved. I believe that always in God’s mind there was an awareness of the impending grief of the sacrifice He’d yet to fully make. And He knew exquisitely what Abraham would be feeling when faced with that impending grief of his sacrifice of his son.
God knew. It wasn’t an accident. God doesn’t do that. When He told Abraham to make the sacrifice, He told him in the way He did on purpose. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love” and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. He didn’t have to say all that. He could have just said “Sacrifice your son. Sacrifice Isaac.” It would have been clear enough. But God knew. He understood. In ways we just can’t get. He called Isaac Abraham’s son, his only son, his son whom he loved. He knew what He was saying.
Similarly then, I don’t believe for a second that there wasn’t something very profound in the words He’d use later to commend Abraham for his faith and obedience. A phrase He’d use twice before the encounter had ended. He commended Abraham for fearing Him by saying, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son.” You have not withheld your son from Me. That was how God knew and confirmed that Abraham feared Him.
“You have not withheld from me your son, your only son” confirms something for me, too. And for you. Change the words up just slightly, because I’m not going to say this as from God to Abraham. I’m going to say it as from me to God.
“Now I know that You love me, because You have not withheld from me Your Son, Your only Son.”
God did not withhold His Son from me. Nor from you. He gave Him up, freely, painfully. He could have withheld Him. He could have said no. He did not. He did not withhold His Son, His only Son, Whom He loves.
Because Abraham did not withhold his son, God knew that Abraham feared Him. Because God did not withhold His Son, I can know that He loves me.
This speaks ahead to what Paul would write in the fifth chapter of Romans: “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The enormous sacrifice demonstrates His love.
Abraham did not withhold his son, his only son, his son whom he loved.
In so doing, Abraham showed his fear of God. His profound trust in God. His desperate dependence on God.
God didn’t withhold His Son, His only Son, His Son Whom He loved.
In so doing, God showed His love for us.
He has not withheld His Son from us.
So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:14)
You ever read some of these Biblical accounts and think, “Oh my goodness, how bizarre”? I ask, a lot, “God, why did you do stuff like that?” Sometimes I have a little trouble getting it to come home where I live. There’s a very familiar story that strikes me as just that bizarre. But yet, the truth of it does come home if we let it.
Remember that mess that Abram and Sarai made back in Genesis 16? If we rejoin them later, after God has renamed them Abraham and Sarah, we find that despite everything, despite their impatience and their own self-sufficient attempts to force His promise into being, we find that God did ultimately bring this couple a son. They called him Isaac (an excellent name) because of the promise and because through Isaac, God brought them the laughter that Sarah could now admit to.
God kept His promise, gave them their son, and the nation building had really begun. After another episode with Hagar and Sarah we won’t get into today, it appeared that all was well.
All was well, that is, until (I can hear the Spongebob voiceover in the goofy pseudo-French accent saying this) “Some time later…”
In the first verse of Genesis 22, we hear that “Some time later God tested Abraham.” And we already know the outcome. Even referring to it as “testing Abraham” tells us the outcome. But Abraham didn’t have the benefit of 20-20 hindsight like we do. He had to do the whole painful ordeal walking by faith. And faith alone.
Isaac was the fulfillment of one of the hugest promises ever made. He was the first star in that sky full of stars too numerous to count. He was the key to this nation that God was to make of Abraham.
So what was God possibly thinking when He asked Abraham to give him back?
You probably know the story. One day God told Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” He says right out that He knows this is Abraham’s only son, his son that he loves. He knows how huge this is, what He’s asking Abraham to do. Your only son, whom you love. God had a Son, an only Son, One that He loved deeply. God knew what this was going to feel like. But He asks him all the same.
God, who seemed to take forever to Abraham in fulfilling the promise, in giving him Isaac, now asks him to give him back. As parents we give God our kids, we intentionally acknowledge that they belong to God, that they are a gift, and we trust Him to care for them. But God asks Abraham to do more. To give Isaac back in a horrible, painful way.
This same Abraham, who earlier went along with Sarai’s impatient plan to circumvent God’s work in order to build this nation themselves, now fully submits. He quietly does the hardest thing God would ever ask him to do. He takes Isaac with him to sacrifice on the mountain.
As they walk, Isaac finally asks the question. The one Abraham didn’t want to answer. “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Where is the lamb?
You can’t see it in the text, but Abraham gasped a little for air. He clenched against the tears that started to form. The kind that are forming in my eyes as I think about what it would be like giving up my own Isaac, or my Josiah. Only those tears stung Abraham’s eyes much worse, because he was doing it, not imagining it. Abraham steadied himself. He gripped the knife tightly in his hand, kept willing his feet to move on forward, and gave the only answer he could bear to give: “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”
God Himself will provide the lamb.
Remember, Abraham didn’t know how this would end. He believed God would have him follow through. God will provide the lamb. He knows God gave him Isaac. He believes Isaac is now the lamb God would provide.
And they walked on.
I said before that this one does come home. Do you have trouble sometimes believing God fulfills what He’s promised? That He is slow about it, teases you with it? I do sometimes, to be honest. I wonder if He’ll do what I believe He’s said He’ll do. There are those times when He asks us to give the promise back. He asks us if we trust Him enough to be faithful.
Just like He asked Abraham. He asks me. Do you trust your Daddy?
He promised. In His time, long after Abraham thought He would or should, He delivered. And then He asked for it back.
So you know how it ends. Abraham gets as far as tying Isaac and placing him on the altar. I can’t begin to imagine how that was for either of them. How wrenching. For the son to trust his father enough to allow him to place him on an altar (the text says nothing of Isaac struggling against his father). For the son to trust his Father enough to give what he prizes the most just because He asked (the text says nothing of Abraham struggling against his Father).
Knife raised to end Isaac’s life, to let the dream die, to end any hope of the promise to be fulfilled, Abraham hears the words of rescue. “Abraham, Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy.” God provided a ram, one stuck nearby in a thicket. There would be no need to follow through. But God observes, “you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Long after, it was said of this place that “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
God asked Abraham to trust Him enough to not only fulfill the promise, but to give it back. To fully trust his Father.
On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.
I have to go to the mountain of the Lord to prove it sometimes. To see that He’s really going to provide.
“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps then I can build a family through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said.” (Genesis 16:1-2)
I really love the Old Testament. Would you permit to to take one more crack at Genesis 16?
Now, I’ve said a couple of times already that this whole mess started because Abram and Sarai decided not to trust God, not to wait on Him, not to take Him at His word. Instead, they took matters into their own hands. To recap very briefly (read the last two entries for more), God had previously promised to make Abram a great nation — descendants that would outnumber the stars. He’s an old man, and so far he and his wife remain childless.
The dream looks like it’s vanished.
At the end of their rope, they try to force the promise into being. They take control, they grit their teeth and they try to make it happen on their own.
So Sarai gives Abram her maidservant as his wife; he sleeps with her and she conceives a son. And from then on, it’s all about the train wreck.
Three parts of these two short verses are most troubling:
The Lord has kept me from having children.
God made a promise to Abram — his descendants would be many. Had He yet failed Abram? Or Sarai for that matter? It’s not in the record. He has not failed them.
Yet Sarai’s impatience consumes her. And here she not only accuses God of not keeping His promise, but also of actively preventing the promise from becoming reality.
God, she says, You promised it, and then You prevented it.
Perhaps I can build a family through her.
Impatient with God, believing He promised and then reneged, she concludes it’s up to her to make this happen. If God is not to come through, then I’ll just take care of it.
I will fulfill God’s promise myself. I can build my family without God. I am in control.
I am on my own.
Abram agreed to what Sarai said.
Sarai suggests this monumentally foolish course of action, but Abram goes along with it. He agrees to what she said. This is the part where Abram is supposed to sit her down and set her straight.
He had every reason and every right to stop her.
But he did nothing.
Well, he did something. But this is a family friendly site.
The thing is, Abram knew God to be faithful. And if Sarai forgot, he had to remind her. He knew God, he’d left his home to follow Him. He talked with God. God showed him the very stars his legacy would rival.
God revealed His plan, His promise, His heart to Abram.
But instead of remembering that, he followed Sarai’s impatience and unbelief.
And that’s when that train wreck happened.
Who’s the God you know?
The One I know doesn’t promise and then prevent it. He doesn’t ask us to force His promise to play out on our own. He doesn’t want us to forget His faithfulness and instead follow doubt straight off the edge of a cliff.
He asks me to put my faith in Him.
He asks me to leave Him in control.
And He asks me to resist efforts to be dragged into doubt.
Believe. Surrender. Stand up.
That’s what He’s asking of me.
He does the promising. He does the fulfilling.
He’ll do the heavy lifting.
Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.’ ’Your servant is in your hands,’ Abram said. ‘Do with her whatever you think best.’ Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.” (Genesis 16:5-6)
I think we like to look at Bible characters as consummate heroes and villains. There are no ordinary folks for us in Scripture. They all appear larger than life.
And when we look at our heroes, we see all their extraordinary feats and sometimes overlook their humanness.
Moses led God’s people out of oppression and slavery in Egypt, parted the Red Sea, got water out of rocks, and saw God’s glory on Sinai. (After he killed a guy and buried him in the sand.)
Jacob was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, one who physically wrestled with God. (But he lied to his dad to swipe the birthright from his brother.)
Joseph remained faithful to God despite being sold into slavery by his own brothers and imprisoned on false charges, ultimately becoming a most powerful figure in Egypt and saving his people during the famine. (And my, did he have a bit of an ego problem at the start.)
David, giant slayer and man after God’s own heart, was the finest king Israel knew and the author of heart rending Psalms. (Somewhere along the way he seduced another man’s wife and then killed him to cover it up.)
Peter stepped out of the boat to walk on water and meet Jesus on the sea in a show of unmatched faith among the disciples. (And then denied even knowing Jesus, three times yet.)
These guys were really just like us.
They loved God. They served God. They gave Him everything they had.
And boy, at times, did they ever mess it up.
Look at Abram, later called Abraham. We got a little peek at him yesterday. This is the same Abraham who really did become the great nation God promised. The same Abraham who, in complete dependent obedience to God actually laid his son on the altar and was prepared to sacrifice him.
Abraham is one of our heroes.
But he messed it up just like us.
Go back to yesterday’s story for a minute. We were looking at the predicament he and Sarai (his wife) got themselves into with Hagar the maidservant. Remember that God had promised to make Abram into a great nation — more descendants than the stars in the sky. And when they grew impatient waiting for God to come through, Sarai told him to sleep with her servant.
After all, if he was to have all these descendants, somebody had better be getting pregnant.
There’s a lot wrong with this story, and I think I have at least one more day coming out of it. But look at this part today. Look how everybody handles it when this awful plan starts to play out.
When Hagar the maidservant does become pregnant, she begins to despise Sarai. It becomes a pretty hateful relationship. Now, knowing Sarai, I think it’s a safe bet that there was something else going on to fuel this hatred than the text lets on. But that’s just a hunch.
Sarai goes back to Abram and lays it at his feet: You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.
Where have we heard this before?
The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.
The serpent deceived me, and I ate.
Sarai does the same thing. Abram, you did it. You are responsible. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregant, she despises me.
Sarai essentially says, I told you to sleep with her, and you did. And now she’s pregnant, which was the whole point. But it’s not working out. Now she hates me.
This is all your fault.
Everything goes exactly according to plan. Sarai’s plan.
They get the exact intended result. Hagar is pregnant with Abram’s child. But somehow, they forgot about how this might impact Hagar. They forgot about some big picture implications of this dumb idea. They forgot that God had His own plan and they just went around it.
And now, when that part goes wrong, and makes it difficult for Sarai, it’s somebody else’s fault.
How very much like me. I circumvent God’s plan and it blows up in my face. I’m always shocked when that happens. And I need somebody else to blame.
Even though this was totally my idea, I’ll blame the guy who carried out my plan.
Sounds reasonable enough.
And then Abram goes along with it, again. He doesn’t acknowledge that they blew it. He doesn’t step up to take responsibility for their choice. He doesn’t call Sarai out like he should have in the first place. He just tells her, Your servant is in your hands. Do what you think best.
Abram, come on. What Sarai “thinks best” doesn’t seem to be best. She thought this plan was a good idea from the get-go. She cooked it up. Do what you think best?
He washes his hands of the whole thing. Sarai’s idea, Sarai’s maid.
She’ll have to fix it.
Responsibility. Stepping up.
We don’t like to do it.
We’re all going to blow it. Sometimes all day long. But what do I do with that? Do I go back to God and acknowledge it, do I agree with Him that I’ve messed it up? Do I go to the people affected, the people I hurt, and ask for forgiveness, try to make it right?
Or do I, even in the face of absolutely contrary facts that everybody else in the world but me can see, find a way to put it on somebody else?
The great thing is that when Hagar has run off and encounters the angel of the Lord in the desert, the angel instructs her to be the grown up, even if Sarai and Abram won’t. While Hagar may be handling this all wrong, at the end of the day she’s the one that’s been wronged. And yet the angel tells her to go back, and submit to Sarai.
Be responsible. Step up, do the right thing.
You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.
Your servant is in your hands.
The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit.
The serpent deceived me.
I could add a few of my own.
“She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’ That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.” (Genesis 16:13-14)
Here’s an interesting story. Way back in the early chapters of Genesis we meet a couple, Abram and Sarai. When the writer introduces Sarai, he tells us just two things about her: she was Abram’s wife, and she was barren.
She was married and without children.
These are two very important things to know about Sarai. Especially since one day when God was talking to Abram, her husband, He said he was going to make him into a great nation. His wife could not have children, but somehow God promised to create this great legacy, this great nation.
How does that work?
They were getting on in years (he was already 75), and this was getting to be more unrealistic by the day.
Another day God and Abram visited. Abram confided his growing distress that he had no heir. His inheritance appeared destined for one of his servants instead of his own child.
God said no, that’s really not how it is. He assured him he would have his own heir, one from his own body. And then God took Abram outside, had him look up and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars — if indeed you can count them. … So shall your offspring be.”
And Abram, a man of unparallelled faith, believed God.
He would have an heir.
But then, in Genesis 16, things took an unexpected turn. Sarai, without children, remember, decided it must be up to her to make happen.
She took matters into her own hands.
Thinking perhaps then they could get started building this family of theirs, she sent Abram off to sleep with her maidservant. The servant, Hagar, became pregnant, and then all kinds of conflict started to bubble below the surface of this dysfunctional little love triangle.
Hagar, carrying her master’s child, despised Sarai.
Sarai got fed up, and blamed Abram.
She blamed Abram?
The guy she sent off to sleep with the servant in the first place?
Sarai got exactly what she wanted, and now wanted nothing to do with it. So she mistreated her servant, and her servant ran away.
Background out of the way, let’s get to Hagar. On the lam, she stops to rest at a spring in the desert. An an angel of the Lord speaks to her.
“Where have you come from, and where are you going?” the angel asks.
Hagar replies, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”
The angel reassures her, telling Hagar that she will have descendants too numerous to count. And he speaks some prophetic words about her soon to be born son, whom she is to name Ishmael.
But the angel instructs her to return and submit to Sarai.
Go back, and be obedient. You’re a servant.
This has been a long road to get to the heart of this for me today. But when we pick this up in verse 13, Hagar gives God a name.
She gives God a name.
Who among us has done that?
What kind of amazing encounter do you have with the living God that ends with you giving Him a name?
She says that she has now seen “the One who sees me.”
He sees me.
How incredible is that? God saw Hagar in her great despair in the desert.
And He sees me in my condition, whatever it happens to be. He sees me in my pain, He sees me in my despair, He sees me in my rejoicing. He sees me.
Who I really am. How I really feel. Unfiltered. Unhindered. Unobstructed.
He sees me.
I love to read Ted Dekker. He has a way of weaving stories that absolutely capture my heart. In one story, a man and a woman are talking about the man’s relationship with the Father. He’s been up all night with God, and in the morning, the woman inquires about this experience.
Rebecca: So what have you been doing all night, really?
Caleb: Staring into the eyes of God.
Rebecca: And what was he doing?
Caleb’s answer is nothing short of stunning.
Caleb: Staring back into my eyes.*
God sees me. Good, bad, ugly. He sees it all.
And He doesn’t look away.
He stares back into my eyes.
*From A Man Called Blessed, Ted Dekker and Bill Bright, WestBow Press, a Division of Thomas Nelson, Inc. Copyright 2002