Context is everything. Over the course of this series, we’ve been exploring some stories in the Bible that often pose awkward questions, or that make us feel uncomfortable or even distressed. However, when we have dug a bit deeper in to the contexts in which these stories were being told to their first hearers, I hope you’ve been able to appreciate that the point of the story may be very different to what we first thought.
We’ve been discovering the crimson thread of God’s mercy weaving its way through some of the most awkward and unexpected places in the beginning of the Bible. Here’s a very brief recap of some things we’ve been exploring in Genesis:
• God promised Abram numerous decedents & ownership of the land of Canaan. • God’s promises to Abram are solidified with a command for him to change his name to Abraham, meaning “Father of multitudes or nations”. • Abraham’s wife Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to a son called Isaac. He was the promised child, a daily reminder that nothing is impossible to God and that God is faithful.
Things seem to be going rather well at this stage but it’s not very long before the story takes a dramatic turn and becomes very awkward. Let’s read the story in chapter 22 of the book of Genesis.
God speaks to Abraham saying something that seems completely at odds with what he had said to him before. We’re told right away by the author of Genesis that this is a test but Abraham wasn’t told that. He had to choose how to respond based on nothing but the fact that God had always kept his promises and been faithful to him in the past. God had made a covenant with Abraham and sworn an oath to pay the full price in his own blood if either of them broke the terms of this covenant. Abraham still believed God was still going to be faithful to his word.
Faith doesn’t mean you never have questions or even some doubt. Abraham clearly believed in the goodness of God but must have struggled to see how his present course of action was a part of God’s plan. You may well struggle with this story and wonder how God could ever ask someone to undergo such a test. However, as I said earlier, context is everything.
This story was written thousands of years ago in the Ancient Near East where violence, child sacrifice and unpredictable and chaotic events were what many people accepted as a normal part of worshipping the gods in the region. False god’s like Molech were worshipped in fear by those who believed they demanded the sacrifice of babies by fire. This story is meant to get the reader to ask, “Is the God of Abraham and Isaac really just like all the other gods that were worshiped in the region at the time? Can he really be trusted or is he simply to be feared?”
It’s also meant to challenge us by the incredible example of faith in action displayed by Abraham. Firstly, he obeys. He takes his son, his only son, the son he loves dearly, and he goes where God told him to go to do what God told him to do. What parent in their right mind would obey such a command without a rock-solid faith that God could be trusted? Secondly, Abraham tells his servants to wait with the donkey until he and Isaac return from worshipping God. He says, “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Thirdly, when Isaac questions him, asking, “‘The fire and wood are here…but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’, Abraham’s response was simply, ‘God himself will provide the lamb”. Abraham believed that God, who had given Isaac to him once, could easily make provision for Isaac to be given back to him again now.
This faith strengthens Abraham right to the end of the story when God dramatically intervenes and provides a substitutionary sacrifice, fulfilling his covenant with Abraham and setting himself apart from all of the false gods worshipped in the region. In literary terms, this scene is known as a dramatic ironic reversal because the people who read it at the time would not have expected this ending. What would have shocked them about this story was not God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his son. They lived in a culture where child sacrifice was a regular occurrence so what would have shocked them is a God who would provide a substitutionary sacrifice himself in order to continually show mercy to those who had faith in his promises.
This is a story that’s meant to show a stark distinction between the faithful and merciful God Abraham encountered and all the other false gods people feared in the region. It shows that even with all the awkwardness of life in an evil world, God is not to be mistaken for some demanding, fear-inducing overlord who has to be appeased in order to avoid his sudden and unpredictable wrath. Instead, our God is merciful and faithful to his promises, a self-sacrificing provider and the one who pays the cost of our sins himself. This is our God, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God whose son, his one and only son, who he loved, sacrificed himself on a cross on our behalf in order to prove God’s faithfulness to his covenant of mercy towards those who have faith in him.
If we read stories like this one through modern western eyes rather than through Ancient Near Eastern eyes, we can easily misunderstand what it was originally meant to communicate about God. We need to learn how to interpret the Bible in it’s context in order to avoid misunderstanding God. He is not like any other and so it is vital that we pay close attention when reading awkward stories like this in case we miss the point they’re trying to make about who he really is. After all, the same God who made the covenant with Abraham and substituted his own sacrifice for that of Isaac, ultimately fulfilled his self-sacrificial promises towards us in Jesus.
Questions for reflection and discussion in small groups
Can you think of a time when you’ve been tempted to give up on God or the Bible because of something you just couldn’t understand at the time?
Can you think of a story in the Bible that you know is easy to misunderstand unless you know the context?
Jesus death on our behalf is proof that God is merciful, willing to pay the full price for our sins and to redeem us from death and give us life again. If that’s who he is, what can’t you trust him with?
What problem are you facing that makes you doubt his goodness or faithfulness?
What unspeakable challenge lies ahead of you that seems to make it impossible for God to be faithful and good?
What dramatic ironic reversal might lie ahead for you in the future if you are willing to trust God at his word and believe he still good when things look so bad?
- What next step might you take in order to grow in your faith? (For opportunities and ideas, check out our NextSteps webpage and ask God to show you the best way forward on your faith journey.
Explore: If you’re not sure about faith in a God of mercy but are willing to explore more, Try Alpha. Sign up today.
Connect: If you believe in God’s mercy but aren’t sure how to be certain about his will or when he’s speaking to you, read “[Experiencing God]( https://www.amazon.co.uk/Experiencing-God-Knowing-Doing-Will/dp/0805447539)” by Henry Blackaby.
Partner: If you want others to know the extent of God’s mercy to us in Jesus, partner with us by inviting people to church this Easter or to alpha. Tell them that it’s okay to have doubts, questions and concerns and still explore faith as part of this community.
Lead: If you’re willing to walk in the footsteps of our self-sacrificing God, read A.W Tozer’s “[The Crucified Life]( https://www.amazon.co.uk/Crucified-Life-Deeper-Christian-Experience/dp/0764216155)” as you consider where God might be calling you to sacrifice for the sake of others.