Mount Moriah, Jerusalem, from the well of En Rogel, 1857
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” --Genesis 22:2
I love the Bible. Early in my life, because I didn’t really understand it and walking with the Lord was unimportant to me, the Bible seemed like a long, dry and boring book. But as my relationship with the Lord has deepened in intimacy and significance over the years, my appreciation for and my desire to learn the Scriptures has grown. Christians believe that the Bible is God’s way of speaking to us; it is His love letter addressed to all of us. (2 Timothy 3:16) This fact ought to motivate us to faithfully read and study it. But that doesn’t mean we always understand every part of it. To be honest, there are portions of the Scripture that I don’t even particularly like. One of them is the verse above.
One of the ritualistic aspects of Israelite religion that set it apart from the other peoples occupying the ancient Near East was that Yahweh, the Hebrew God, did not command His worshipers to practice child sacrifice. In Leviticus 20:2, the Mosaic law required that “Any Israelite or foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him.” So why would God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah? Abraham ultimately did not have to actually carry out the commandment—and there are indications that Abraham believed that the Lord would supply a sacrificial substitute for his son. (In Genesis 22:5, Abraham told his servants that both he and Isaac would return after the sacrifice was made.)
But still, imagine the emotional pain and devastation this father felt as he trudged toward that mountain in the company of his only son—the focus of his hopes and prayers for decades. The wording of God’s command to Abraham served to drive the dagger into the father’s heart more and more deeply and tragically: your son, your only son, the son you love, Isaac! Some Jewish rabbis later taught that the reason Sarah died in the first verse of the very next chapter of Genesis is that she succumbed to a heart attack when she heard about the sacrifice her husband was prepared to make. Regardless, the events on Mount Moriah the day that Abraham bound Isaac were mysterious and distressing. Yes, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son foreshadows the truth that God, the Father, sent God, the Son, into this world to redeem us through His act of sacrificial atonement on the Cross, a Cross located in close geographical proximity to Mount Moriah, where many Jews believe Solomon’s Temple was later built in Jerusalem (see the image above.) And yes, Abraham’s desire to obey God even at the point of devastating personal cost is a powerful, albeit uncomfortable, reminder of what a life dedicated to the Lord looks like. But that doesn’t mean that the story is any less troublesome.
Here is another one. In Deuteronomy 7:1-6, Moses told the Israelites, at the command of the Lord, to totally destroy the people they conquered as they entered the land promised to Abraham centuries before. They were to make no treaty with them and to show them no mercy. They were not to intermarry with these people and God wanted their religious altars completely demolished. Seems excessive, inhumane and brutal, right? Verse 6 sets this disturbing command in context. Moses reminded the Hebrew people that they were “holy,” set apart for the Lord. Why? Because they were better than these other people? No! But they were the people, chosen by God, through whom His redemptive plan would unfold. Jesus of Nazareth would be born in this land to people practicing the faith of their fathers. If the Israelites abandoned that faith or co-opted their commitment to the Lord through compromise or acculturation with the people around them, God’s rescue strategy could have been derailed. Indeed, God’s people did compromise, and still do, while His plan was not thwarted. But the Lord takes holiness deadly seriously. And so should we. It is our way of escape, what C.S. Lewis called a “severe mercy.”
What am I supposed to do with those passages in the Bible that I don’t understand and maybe don’t even like? First, we humbly acknowledge that we should not expect to comprehend all of what the Lord reveals to us. As the Lord declared through the prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways.” (Isaiah 55:8) Any God whom we could explain would be too small and impotent to create and transcend the world in which we live. Like Paul, I will glorify my Lord Who does immeasurably more than I can imagine. (Ephesians 3:20) Second, we should not ignore or re-interpret the plain meaning of any Scripture with which we have problems. We should wrestle with it honestly. By honestly, I mean that we should follow a principle for understanding Scripture that has guided readers of the Word for centuries. The simplest, most direct explanation for the meaning of a biblical passage is usually the correct one.
Tragically, in this day and age, a lot of us people of faith are practicing interpretive gymnastics to find Scriptural foundation for cultural practices and lifestyle choices we endorse. The Bible is relatively unambiguous when it comes to the subjects of marriage, divorce, gender, the treatment of children, gluttony, generosity to the poor, racial justice and a host of other topics. Truly, all of us are tempted to find justification in the Holy Book for what seems compassionate, convenient, inclusive, preferable or rational to us. But when we work really hard to twist or obscure the traditionally accepted, straightforward meaning of a biblical passage, we are playing God, not submitting to Him. Here is how I want to be inclusive—we are all sinners in need of a Savior. His Word lovingly shows us, not the easiest or most comfortable way to live, but the healthiest, most wholesome way to live. Ultimately, the Bible needs to interpret me more than I need to interpret the Bible. Paul told Timothy that God-breathed Scripture was meant to rebuke and correct us. (2 Timothy 3:16) If we always agreed with God’s Word and lived according to it obediently, there would be no need for reproof or correction.
Heavenly Father, I struggled with the writing of this blog because I am so prone to revise or ignore Your Word to suit my own preferences and sinful nature. As Paul told the Romans, if we are honest with ourselves, we know what is right, but we don’t do it. (Romans 7:18-19) Please help me! I confess that Your ways are inexplicable to me at times. That can be frustrating, but I am grateful for Your majesty and power. Show me as clearly as possible how to obey Your Word and give me the grace to do so even when that obedience is difficult, unpopular and costly. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.