Archives for posts with tag: faith

Genesis 22 is a fairly well-known story of Abraham’s faith in God being confirmed by his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Of course, God does not desire human sacrifice, so He provides a ram for Abraham to offer instead of his son. The moral of the story is obviously a willingness to be obedient to God, to put your trust in Him, even when it seems dangerous or absurd.

 

Many commentators correctly see a link between this story of Genesis 22 and the crucifixion of Jesus. God, like Abraham, was willing to offer up His Son for the salvation of the world. The legitimate question comes up: why would God do such a thing? Isn’t it cruel to sacrifice your son? And, by the way, isn’t it the son who suffers more than the father. The answer to these questions requires a contextual reading of the text.

 

In the ancient world, and perhaps most so in the Semitic world, the role of the firstborn son cannot be understated. Anyone who has spent time around people of Middle Eastern descent notices the great honor granted the firstborn son of the family. In the case of Isaac, although he was not what we Americans would classify as the firstborn to Abraham, for family purposes in the ancient Near East, Isaac was the firstborn, the only-begotten of Abraham from his wife, Sarah, and the heir to Abraham’s inheritance. Not only was the firstborn the heir, but the thinking in this time was that the firstborn especially (although, technically, not exclusively) continues the life of the parents. In other words, your life continues to exist through your progeny. To have no children, or for your children to die before re-producing, means your name and life is cut off for eternity (at this time, there was little or no idea like we have of life after death).

 

In this way of thinking, to allow your firstborn, only-begotten son to die means to essentially kill yourself. You are allowing your name, your inheritance, to die. You are being cut off the earth. You are making the sacrifice. So in Genesis 22, Abraham is himself making a great sacrifice. He spent 100 years childless, with no one to carry on the family name. Finally, God intervened and gave him a child, and now God asks Abraham to offer the child as a sacrifice. This would again put Abraham in the position of dying off with no inheritance, no name, no memory of him left on earth. Despite this, Abraham puts his trust in God, realizing the son he was given is not his own, but a gift from God. Abraham understands he is accountable to God for the child, and so obeys God’s seemingly outlandish command. Abraham is then rewarded and reinforced for his obedience and God reveals this scenario as a simple test of Abraham’s faith.

 

Incidentally, this way of thinking is also significant in the New Testament. That Jesus is underscored as God’s firstborn, only-begotten Son, dramatizes even more the crucifixion of Jesus. Before the victorious resurrection, it is as though God’s name, His inheritance, and the memory of Him is completely obliterated from the face of the earth.

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Genesis 16 begins a fascinating story of Abram (later re-named and hereafter referred to as Abraham) and his descendants.  In the previous chapter, God promised Abraham he would be given an heir, a son “who will come from [his] own body” (Gen 15:4).  In Chapter 16, Abraham and his wife Sarai (later re-named and hereafter referred to as Sarah) are said to be childless.  Consequently, they concoct a plan for Abraham to be able to bear a child.  As with basically all human ambitions and endeavors in the Bible, this plan goes awry. 

The first problem with Abraham and Sarah’s plan is clearly that they had lost trust in God’s promise.  Rather than waiting patiently for the promise to be fulfilled, or even praying to God for its completion, Abraham and Sarah devise their own scheme.  The second problem is Abraham and Sarah resorted to polygamy in an effort to force God’s promise in their own time.  I will briefly expound on each of these problems below.

Regarding trust in God, remember from chapter 15 that Abraham was deemed righteous for believing in God.  In the Hebrew and Greek, the words faith/trust/belief are summed up in one word and, therefore, could be translated any of these three ways in English.  So Abraham is straying from righteousness by doubting God, as shown by his effort to speed up or force God’s promise through his own devising.  Later in Genesis, we will see how everything works out much better when God fulfills His promise in His own time.  When Isaac, the son of promise, is given to Abraham, everything falls into place.

With respect to the issue of polygamy, or Sarah giving her maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham to bear him a child, we see the disastrous results.  Before I discuss this any further, I want to dispel a notion many people have about the Old Testament.  Many people assume polygamy was OK or accepted in Old Testament times, and to a degree they are correct–it was the normal practice in the ancient Near East during these times.  However, an important distinction needs to be made.  Although things like polygamy, prostitution, and concubinage were more acceptable in those times than ours, the Bible, if ever so slightly, challenges those norms.  I plan to discuss in depth later how monogamy is upheld as the ideal since the three prime examples from Genesis–Noah, Isaac, and Joseph–are all monogamous.

But, for now, back to the main point.  The polygamous (or, perhaps more properly, simply extra-marital) relationship between Abraham and Hagar complicated the household of Abraham.  As we should expect a woman to do, even after giving her consent, Sarah becomes jealous and angry towards Hagar since Hagar was able to bear a son for Abraham.  After confronting Abraham, Sarah is allowed to expel Hagar from the household.  Genesis is quick to point out that God will continue to take care of Hagar and her son, Ishmael (multiplying his descendants also), but clearly serious, irreparable damage has already been done to the household of Abraham and to the relationship between Abraham and Sarah.

Again, these complications resulted from Abraham and Sarah forcing their own timing on God’s will.  As Genesis (and, God willing, this blog) unfolds, we will learn the proper response Abraham and Sarah should have had towards God’s promise.  Of course, these stories are related to us not to recount mere factual events, but to instruct us in the way we should behave towards God (1 Corinthians 10:11).  With that in mind, we are reminded by Genesis 16 to be patient in waiting for God to fulfill His promises and to refrain from forcing our own will on situations.

I am back from vacation and the Parish Life Conference, so I hope to keep this blog more regularly updated.  Today I will return to the book of Genesis, chapter 15.

Chapter 15 offers a pivotal moment in the Bible, primarily because in verse 6 Abram (later re-named and subsequently referred to here as Abraham) is “accounted righteous” by God.  Whether we like it or not, in a very real way this one verse has shaped the past 2,000 years of history.  The reason I make such a bold statement is simple: this verse is the cornerstone of the defense/apologia of the Christian movement as seen most explicitly in Acts, Romans, and Galatians.  And, of course, we know that history has been changed because of Christianity.

According to the teachings of Jesus Christ, as thoroughly outlined especially by St Paul of Tarsus, being accounted righteous by God is independent of being perfectly obedient to the Mosaic Law.  I believe it is important for Christians to understand that the teachings of Jesus and Paul–that righteousness is found apart from the Mosaic Law–is not a “new” concept, but one found in the Old Testament.  Put differently, in defending the teaching of Christ, Paul did not invent a new argument or concept, but simply referred back to Scripture to make his case.

In Paul’s time, as in our own, we are tempted to think (even if we profess something different with our mouths) we are righteous because we follow certain rules (insert the rules of a specific religion or denomination).  With religious Jews, it is easy to fall into the trap of righteousness by following the Mosaic Law.  However, as Paul correctly points out, Abraham is deemed righteous by God BEFORE the Mosaic Law even exists.  Therefore, if one is accounted righteous before the Law is given, then righteousness does not come through the Law.  Instead, as Genesis 15:6 indicates, it comes through belief in God.

Now it is important to keep in mind that the word translated “believe” in Genesis 15:6 is more than an intellectual ascent or a simple confession of faith.  Rather, biblical belief in God means you put your trust in God.  I often compare this to kids and their “belief” in gravity.  Give a 3-year old kid a balloon and take him outside.  Watch him let go of the balloon and cry when the balloon flies away.  The child has such a strong trust in gravity he believes whatever goes up will always come down.  The 3-year old in this example has a biblical “belief” in gravity–he behaves according to something unseen based on a trust in that principle.

Ultimately, putting this kind of faith, trust, or belief in God is what leads to us being accounted righteous.  It is our authentic admission that we are insufficient before God, and our recognition that only He can correct that, which leads us to holiness.  Certainly, if we have that sincere faith, action should follow; we should behave in a certain way.  As St James pointed out in his epistle, if our behavior does not match the confession of our lips then it proves we do not have a biblical belief in God, but only the kind of intellectual belief I mentioned previously–and one shared even by the demons (James 2:18-19)!  Yet, we should never permit ourselves to think our actions make us holy.  It is only God who can deem us holy, and only when we are willing to admit our deficiencies and inadequacies. 

Today’s post, in many respects, is a continuation of yesterday’s post.  Today, however, I will focus on Noah and his obedience to God.

Noah’s Obedience
Noah is introduced as having “found grace” with the Lord (Genesis 6:8). I’m sure this subject will come up again in more depth, but for now let me simply point out that the grace of God comes first–not last. In other words, the grace of God is given to us in advance. The question for us is not if we will receive the grace of God, but what we will do with it

Noah is presented in the flood story as the anti-Adam: “Thus Noah did; according to all that God commanded him, so he did” (Geneis 6:22). Whereas Adam disobeyed the simple commandment of God to refrain from eating of one of the trees, Noah obeyed perfectly all the things God commanded him.  Noah, whose names means ‘rest,’ symbolizes the rest we will receive in the end if we are obedient to God.

As I mentioned yesterday, we are tempted to think of God in abstract terms. We are tempted to think of faith, religion, and God in creedal terms, or in intellectual statements of faith. I “believe” in God in my head–I think or believe He exists. These creedal/intellectual notions of God manifest themselves uniquely in different denominations. We Orthodox and Roman Catholics tend to think of our faith as confessing the Nicene Creed. Evangelicals have their own “creeds,” like the “Sinner’s Prayer.”

Yet, true faith is not in confessing a creed or saying a prayer, but living a way of life. Specifically, true faith is living like Noah, obeying what God commands us to do. As James says in his epistle: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).