By Catherine A. Deddo
"Just Do It 2: Abraham"
Over and over I talk with Christians who think of their relationship with God primarily in terms of obedience. What Christianity is at its core, they think, is doing the things that God demands. They will usually say that they know God has “saved” them, He has forgiven their sins and justified them. But they live as if their growing in maturity, their sanctification is up to them, is a potential they have to actualize.
I am continuing to think with you about this question. What is it that God wants or expects from us? Did God want obedience from the people in the Old Testament, and then when they blew it, He had to send His Son to save them because they hadn’t succeeded in being obedient enough? In my last entry I looked at the story of Adam and Eve. Often we focus in on God’s command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to confirm our belief that obedience is the bottom line. But what we saw is that the bottom line for God was for Adam and Eve to know Him, His good and giving character and to count on Him to be who He was revealing Himself to be. Yes, obedience is included in that, but it is as certain kind of obedience, namely, one that is a response of trust and confidence in God to be who He tells us He is. And that is a very different kind of relationship to God than one of just doing what God wants.
So now let’s consider Abraham. We think of God telling Abraham to take Isaac “‘your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon on of the mountains of which I shall show you’” (Gen. 22:2). “Well, there you go” you tell me. God is a God of commands, and He is always concerned that we obey Him. “Just do it, Abraham!” And if we only look at these few verses I can see how we can be tempted to think this. The narrator tells us that God is “testing” Abraham. And when God stops Abraham’s hand, He tells Abraham that He now knows that Abraham fears God. Well, what is really happening here? Is God mean and exacting in demanding Abraham give up his beloved son just because that’s what he wants? That's what he demands? I don't think so. This becomes clearer if we ask the question: How does God motivate Abraham?
Well, the first thing we need to see is that when God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, He has already been dealing with Abraham for 30 years or more. It was 25 years from the time that God called Abraham from his home in Ur (and a moon worshipper!) to the time when Isaac was born. And Isaac is old enough to carry the wood for the offering when this event occurs (Gen. 22:6).
Let’s look at the interactions between God and Abraham during these 30+ years. Let’s start with their first encounter. God comes to Abram and says, “‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.’” Notice that most of what God says here is about Himself and what He will do for Abram. He will show Abraham the land he will be given. He will make him, not a nation, but a great nation. He will bless him, and ultimately Abram with be a part of ALL the families of the earth being blessed! So yes, Abraham does leave. But note well, Abraham’s obedience is in response to this amazing promise and to this God who makes the promises. That's why he does what he does. He trusts in God's work, His promise, and his own hope of being a blessing.
God actually has many interactions with Abram over the years. When Abram lies twice about Sarah being his wife to save his own skin, God intervenes to have Sarah restored to him. He reminds them of His promise to give the land and for the many descendants several times. Let’s look at one of these times of reassurance. After Abram has rescued Lot, God comes to Abram and says, “‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great’” (Gen. 15:1). What wonderful words! No command here, just revealing to Abram more of Who He is and what He is doing in Abram’s life. Abram responds by questioning God’s faithfulness to fulfill His promise of descendants. And what does God do? He assures Abram again that he will have a son, and then He has him go outside and tells him to try and number the stars because ‘So shall your descendants be’” (Gen. 15:5). How gentle and caring God is here. Abraham’s response? “And he believed the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6). God reveals more and more of His character and purposes to Abram and, in so doing, draws out of Abram a response of trust.
Right after this event, God establishes a covenant with Abram and tells Him more of what will happen to Abram’s descendents. Then Sarah (still Sarai at this point) gives Abram Hager so that he can have descendants. How does God deal with this? He cares for Hager and for her son Ishmael and establishes a relationship with her (ch. 16). He doesn’t reject her or Abram because of Sarai’s distrust of God and His promise.
After 24 years, God again states His promise to Abram. This time He includes the fact that the covenant that He has established with Abram will continue with Abram’s descendants because God will continue His relationship with them; He will establish ‘an everlasting covenant to be God to you and to your descendants after you’” (17:7).
And it goes on. It is not possible, here, to include all of the times God interacts with Abram, but I will briefly mention a few more. God renames both Abram and Sarai. He tells Abram He will bless Sarah, and He reassures her when she laughs at the idea of her becoming a mother in her old age. God tells Abraham what He plans to do to Sodom and Gomorrah. Now what is fascinating in this story is that Abraham feels the freedom to go back and forth with God on whether he will destroy Sodom if there are even a few righteous there. Look at how Abraham’s relationship with this God has grown over the years!
I just want to take a moment here to mention how truly astonishing and radical this God must have been for Abraham. When God first came to him, Abraham was not looking for a god. He lived in a culture that already had their gods, and most likely, he worshiped the moon goddess of Ur and possibly others. And what did this worship consist of? Their understanding of the gods is that they were all arbitrary and for the most part disinterested in humanity. They were as likely to do harm as good, maybe more likely. Worship was the rituals they went through to appease these gods—either in hopes of getting some blessing, or just to avoid the harm they might do to them. But here was a god who came to Abram, interested in Abram, in knowing him and in Abram knowing Him. Over these years Abram learns that this God is unlike all the other gods. This God is actively, intensely interested and involved in Abraham’s life and affairs. He is faithful and remains consistent in His character and purposes. He tells Abraham that he will bless others through Abraham, and Abraham sees this already being true over and over again—in Lot, Hagar and Ishmael, and Sarah.
It is at his point, after all these years of a growing relationship, that God comes to Abraham and tells him to go to the mountain He will show him and to sacrifice Isaac. If God was mainly interested in Abraham’s obedience, why did He take all this time with Abraham, teaching him over and over about His amazingly good and faithful character? As I said earlier, we are tempted to interpret this story in the light of the words “tested” and “fear”. OK, but how are we to understand them?
I believe that we need to understand this story, and these words, in the light of all that has come before. After all, this is what Abraham did. When God came to him this time, Abraham understood him to be the same God he had been coming to know all these years. It wasn’t just a blank God who was speaking—but his God, his faithful and good God, who had taken care of him and blessed him through so many trials over the years. The God he had dared to question over the fate of Sodom. We need to understand that Abraham was not just hearing the words, but knowing the One who spoke them. This is the only fair way to deal with this story. If we ignore all that has gone before, than we are misinterpreting what we read. We are taking it out of context.
How does Abraham view this? Well, we may not be able to know completely, but I think we have a good hint. When Isaac asks his father where the lamb for the offering is, Abraham replies, “‘God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son’” (22:8). Abraham knows that God can be counted on to be true to His character—as He has proven to be faithful over and over again. God wants Abraham to know Him well enough that he is able to count on Him more and more to truly be his God. Abraham obeys God out of this trust. If this is who God is, if He is the One who has unfailingly been with Abraham all these years, who has loved and blessed him and those related to him, then of course he can do as he is commanded. Why wouldn’t he? God has not changed, and He will again prove Himself to be the wonderful God He has revealed Himself to be. Rather than mere obedience, God had, and wanted real relationship with Abraham, and that is what He wants with us.