Tuesday, July 04, 2006

It Counts as Righteousness (Genesis 16-17,21-22)

Having taken on God’s vision, Abram has Ishmael by his wife’s slave Hagar (an Egyptian and descendent of Ham – I can’t say I’m terribly fond of this little theme). There is soon friction between Hagar and Sarai, resulting in Hagar and her son running away. Later on, when they are permanently expelled, it looks like Ishmael will die of thirst. But God is faithful to them for the sake of their relation to Abram – even though Ishmael is not the child of the promise, God’s blessing spills over.

God renames Abram to Abraham, promises to miraculously give him a son by his barren wife, and outlines circumcision as the covenantal sign. It’s a weird symbol, perhaps, but fitting for the nature of the blessing. All the men of his tribe must have this sign on their penises: reminding them that they carry the covenant to the next generation in order to build a great nation with whom God will bless the world. I guess sex and children used to be associated with each other back then – strange, isn’t it?

Isaac is born, and then God pulls a really hard one on him. He says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…” What a horrible thing to ask! What a terrible time to live in, where Abraham doesn’t even seem surprised that this is an unusual thing for a god to ask! I love my son, and I wouldn’t do this for anything, particularly for such a cruel god who would demand this.

I say this with 4000 years of hindsight. What did Abraham know of God? Only that God had promised a son in his old age, given it, promised that a mighty nation would come from him, and had inexplicably asked for his son’s life back. Abraham trusts God, and offers the sacrifice.

This is huge. This is an absolute triumph for humanity and a turning point in the Genesis story. The suspicion of God that permeated the ancient world – that God is greedily withholding blessing from us – is overcome, and replaced with simple trust. The fall involved man pursuing a good thing out of suspicion of God’s trustworthiness. This redemption involves man surrendering a good thing out of trust in God.

Abraham has passed the test, and God is ecstatic! He quickly wrenches the knife from Abraham’s hand and gives him a lamb to sacrifice in place of his son. God gushes with praise:
By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.
Here is man truly bearing the image of his creator. Such love, such trust, and such obedience. In Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac we see the prototype of redemption.
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Yeah,” says God, “I think we can work with this one.”

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