Thursday, May 31, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: The Sacrifice of the Beloved Son (Part 1 - A Theodicy)


At Genesis 22, we reach one of the most important Christological stories of the Old Testament, layered just as richly with hints of God's salvation through Jesus Christ as are the accounts of Noah's flood or the flight from Egypt. This story recounts how God asks Abraham to bring his beloved son Isaac up onto a mountain and to kill him there, sacrificing him as a burnt offering. Of course, that's not what happens in the end: God intervenes just before Abraham deals the fatal stroke, and a ram is substituted as the burnt offering in Isaac's place. For pathos and drama, there is no other story in the Old Testament that surpasses it.

The sacrifice of Isaac is usually taught as a tale about God testing Abraham's faithfulness. And it certainly is that--the story opens with the assertion "God tested Abraham" (v.1) and closes with the Angel of the Lord commending him for his faithful obedience (vv.15-18). But despite that clear, biblically founded interpretation, this story has always left students of the Bible with lingering questions, and sometimes with grave doubts concerning the character of God. After all, what sort of God would ask one of his followers to do such a thing as offer a child sacrifice? That's the sort of despicable, abhorrent behavior that characterizes the worship of demonic gods like Molech later in the biblical narrative, abominations which God himself passionately forswears. And while it's true that God's plan from the beginning was to save Isaac, Abraham is not clued in to that part of the drama. For all he knows, he actually is being asked by God to murder his beloved son, so it seems unnecessarily cruel to Abraham to put him through this kind of serious emotional trauma. 

Now, while Abraham knew God in a personal way, he certainly did not know God in the same intimate manner that we, who follow Christ and have the indwelling Holy Spirit, know God. Therefore, the doubts that pop up in our minds (such as, "This is simply not the sort of thing that the God revealed in Jesus Christ would ask someone to do") would not have occurred to Abraham. He did not have the same benefits of a fuller knowledge of God's character such as we have. He was still learning about this God, who had called to him out of the blue while he was living in Ur of the Chaldees, and what God asks of him here, while devastating, was perhaps not really something unheard of in the religious cultures around Abraham. So he, not yet fully knowing the infinite depth of this God's love, probably assumed that this command was sincere (indeed, Hebrews 11:17-19 assumes as much--that Abraham actually thought God would expect him to kill Isaac). And so his response is, indeed, an act of faithful obedience. Abraham himself is not some kind of monster for going along with this; he was simply a man of his time, seeking to obey the God that had personally called him, guided him, and shown him grace in countless ways up to this point. We don't know exactly what was in Abraham's mind at that moment, but it is certainly possible that, given the remarkable favor he had already received from God, he may have had a faithward inkling that there was some further grace yet to be played out in that situation. Hebrews 11:17-19 backs up this conjecture, by declaring the Abraham believed the promises of God having to do with Isaac to such an extent that he expected Isaac to be slain and then for God to raise him from the dead. I say all of this about Abraham's inner motivations in order to affirm his act of faith here, as Genesis itself does, because what I say next might seem to cast doubt on the merits of his act. The truth is, if someone in my church came to me and said that God had ordered them to kill their child, I would urge them, in the strongest possible terms, not to obey that command. (And then I would contact the police, as I am required to do by the laws of my state.) Why would I dissuade them? Because the command they heard cannot have come from the God that we know in Jesus Christ. It is simply not something that he would ask any believer to do.

And yet he does ask Abraham to do it. So what's going on here? How is it possible that God does something here that the God we know would never actually do? Well, this story represents a special case in the history of God's relationship with his people. In this story, God does, in fact, ask Abraham to do something that he will never (nor would ever) ask any of his followers to ever do again: kill his own child. (The only possible biblical parallel is the tragic story of Jephthah's daughter in the book of Judges, but that passage is best interpreted as a tragic shortcoming of Jephthah's wisdom and discernment, not of God's actual command.) The reason why God does this here, and nowhere else, is because he is setting up a scene, a play-acted drama, that will point directly to Jesus Christ, and the memory of this story will prepare the hearts of his people to understand the lengths God went to, out of love for us, to secure our salvation. Abraham has to play out a role that he didn't ask for and that he didn't want, simply because he was the forefather of God's chosen people, the only man through whom God could set up this scene to its desired effect. It may seem cruel to Abraham in that particular moment, but God allows him to suffer a short period of unknowing grief in order to make a much larger point, one that will carry down through the ages and prepare the people of Israel for the sacrifice of the Messiah: God was going to give up his only-begotten Son, the Beloved, to die as a sacrifice. Abraham, in this story, foreshadows the place of God the Father himself. So, yes, no doubt Abraham suffered terrible grief as he and Isaac walked up to the mountain of sacrifice. But it was a grief that God shared: the brokenhearted anguish of his beloved Son walking up the mountain with the wood on which he would be slain. And in the end, God in his mercy spares Abraham from experiencing the grief of actually losing his son. But two thousand years later, on perhaps that very same mountain, there was no one there to stop the death of God's Son. The Beloved was slain, and the heart of heaven grieved. In next week's post, we'll look at the specific symbols within this story of Genesis 22 that point unmistakably to Christ.

(Painting: "Abraham Sacrificing Isaac," by Gerhardt Wilhelm von Reutern, 1849)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Evangeliad (4:33-38)


Section 4:33-38 (corresponding to Matt. 3:14-17; Luke 3:21-22)

But then John saw that Christ's mind had been set
To undergo baptism like all the rest;
John hindered him, saying, "You come to me?
When I have need to be baptized by thee?"

And then Jesus answered, "Let it be so:
Righteousness shows us the way we should go.
Here in this moment are all things fulfilled,
As the Servant of God submits to His will."

So as all the people were being baptized,
Jesus was too, before all their eyes.
When from the water he rose up again,
The heavens were opened and shone down on him.

And over the water God's Spirit flew,
Hov'ring in blessing o'er a world born new.
In bodily form it came down on Christ,
Lighting on him like a dove from the skies.

And then sounded forth a voice from above:
"This is my Son, the one whom I love!
He is the Servant in whom I am pleased!"
And after it said this, then the voice ceased.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Photo of the Week











He was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him.

- 2 Corinthians 13:4

Monday, May 28, 2018

Quote of the Week


"It is better to deserve respect and not have it, than to have it and not deserve it. God respects you. That is the most important thing. [...] Let the people of the world think what they will of you. God thinks well of you."

- Thomas Watson, Puritan author of The Art of Divine Contentment

(Painting: "Portrait of Paul Mounet," by Loius-Maurice Boutet de Monvel, c.1875)

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Jesu, Deliverer! come Thou to me:
Soothe Thou my voyaging over life's sea!
Thou, when the storm of death roars, sweeping by,
Whisper, O Truth of Truth!--'Peace! It is I!'

- from an Eastern Orthodox hymn, translated by J. M. Neale

(Painting: "Christ Walking on the Water," by Julius Sergius von Klever, c.1880)

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 3


The great keep of Arrens, with the citadel rising in its center, dominated their view as they walked through the gates. They walked single file—Joe, Sim, and Lady—beneath the great gray stones of the archway and on into the grassy courtyard beyond. The guards didn’t even see them come in; every eye was watching some kind of commotion at the far end of the courtyard. The children stopped, unsure what to do: a great crowd was gathered there, surging up against the inner gates of the keep, shouting and waving banners. And all along the edge of the crowd were soldiers, using the long sides of their spears to push and harass the commoners gathered there.
“Is that where Uncle and Auntie were going?” asked Sim, wide-eyed with concern.
Joe didn’t even know what to say. They just kept watching as, little by little, the soldiers corralled the shouting crowd away from the inner gates and out of the courtyard by a small, iron-wrought door. Soon there was no one left. Joe thought he had caught a glimpse of his uncle’s head in the middle of the crowd, but he couldn’t be sure.
He grabbed the arm of a young servant who was jogging past, and pointed to where the crowd had vanished.
“Excuse me, friend, can you tell me where the soldiers just took all those people?”
The servant nodded. “Yes, lad. Those folks were protesting against the Steward. He ordered to have them all locked away into the prison-house.”
“What?” Lady whispered hoarsely, her eyes suddenly bright with tears. “They sent them off to jail? Just for that?”
The servant nodded again, then turned to go back to his errand. Sim put an arm around Lady to console her, but he was frightened too.
“Who’s going to take care of us now?” he asked softly. “What should we do?”
Joe fought to clear his mind of what he had just seen, to try to figure out the next step.
“We have to keep going,” he said. “All of this is just one big mistake. Prince Hal is alive, and once we get that message to the leaders, then the Steward won’t be able to take over after all. Uncle and Auntie will be released. We just have to do what we came here to do.”
He led them across the courtyard, up to the locked inner gates where the crowd had been protesting just a few moments before. He rattled the bars and called out for a guard to open the doors. The face of a middle-aged soldier appeared in the window-gap.
“Go away, kids,” he growled. “This isn’t a safe place today.”
“But we have a message that the First Consul needs to hear.”
“I’m sure you do, son. Why don’t you go home and write him a letter? He’s a very busy man, and he can’t entertain visitors right now.”
Joe wasn’t intending to give away too much of their shocking news to the guard, but Sim had no similar restraints.
“But Prince Hal is alive! My brother saw him leaving the city last night; he talked to him! The Consul needs to know!”
The guard raised a skeptical eyebrow, but it was clear from the look in his eyes that they had seized his attention.
“All right, then.” The metal pins of the lock clicked as he turned the key, then he swung the door open. “Come on in. Just sit right there, yes, over on that bench next to the wall. I’ll have to go talk to a few people. Don’t move; just stay there. I’ll be back soon to tell you if someone can speak with you.”
They obediently went over to a low bench in the shadow of the great wall, and there they sat down. Sharing their bench, on the far end, was an old knight. His armor was dull and rusty in places, and there were wrinkles around his eyes and a field of salt-and-pepper stubble across his jaw. He seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, so the children didn’t bother him.
They sat there for what felt like a very long time, but Joe told himself that it was probably only a few minutes. Their minds raced with the images they had seen out in the courtyard, of the crowd being shoved down through the prison door. What would they do for food now, if their uncle and aunt were locked in jail? The chickens would only last them so long, and no one but Uncle had a job that brought in any money.
Joe was jolted out of these thoughts by the sight of two men walking stiffly across the yard toward them. Each one had a majestic, dignified bearing. One was dressed in rich robes of flowing green cloth, and the other in a dark cloak fringed in gold. These were not guards or soldiers or servants; they were clearly dignitaries.
“Are you the children who spoke to the guard?” asked the dark-cloaked man in a stern voice.
“Yes,” Joe said quietly.
The man regarded him with a look of arch suspicion, then squared back his shoulders and cleared his throat.
“I am Presten, the reigning Steward of Arrens, and this is First Consul Dama. I heard that you thought you saw Prince Halbrinnon leaving the city last night. Rest assured, children, that it could not have been him. It’s important that you understand that, because if you were to go about spreading the story of what you thought you saw, it might cause a great deal of unnecessary trouble in the city. You wouldn’t want people getting hurt because of a mistake you had made, would you?”
“No,” Joe answered meekly. “But I’m pretty sure—”
“Stop,” the Steward said firmly. “Stop it right now. I know for a fact that you didn’t see him. Why? Because I saw him with my own eyes just a few hours ago—dead, lying in his bed exactly where he had lain down last night. So you’re wrong, children. Do you understand?”
All three nodded, though none of them believed him. There was an edge of angry desperation in his voice, the sort of dark bluster that children are keen at picking up on, and it made them mistrust him instantly. But there was power and danger in his voice, and they dared not contradict him.
“You will not repeat this story to anyone else, now,” the Steward continued, “or I will have to send some of my guards after you. Have I made myself clear?”
“Yes,” said Joe again.
“Good.” The Steward turned to the Consul. “Have them sent away.”
Dama nodded, his face expressionless. “I’ll see to it right now.”
The Steward was evidently satisfied with this, and he turned on his heel and stalked back into the keep. When he had disappeared around the corner, the Consul met Joe’s gaze.
“I’m afraid he’s right, son. If you spread this story around, it would cause a lot of unnecessary trouble and pain. Best to just go along with what’s happened. I know it’s a sad thing to lose the Prince, but sometimes all we can do is make the best of the tragedy that’s happened to us. We can’t really change it, after all.”
Joe nodded glumly. “I really did see him, though,” he muttered.
Sim seized on his brother’s quiet defiance and took it as an invitation to confront the Consul directly.
“Did you actually see the prince’s body, Mister Dama?” he asked. “Or did Steward Presten just tell you his story about finding it?”
Dama’s brow darkened. “The body’s gone, I’m afraid. The steward’s men have already cremated it in preparation for a royal burial.”
“But did you see it with your own eyes?” Sim pressed. “Do you know it was him?”
Dama clenched his jaw and then leaned down so as to be eye-level with the children. “The Steward was right. Pursue this no further, or else he will have to send the guards after you. Understood?”
Sim gave a reluctant frown and nodded. Then Dama gave them one last glare, which had a show of sternness about it. But it overlay an unmistakable expression of fear and confusion that flashed across his face. It was nevertheless clear that, whatever his doubts, he was committed to carrying out the Steward’s orders. As he walked away, the three children stood up from the bench.
“I guess that’s the end of it, then,” said Joe in a resigned voice. “Let’s go back home.”
“But Uncle and Auntie were just thrown in jail,” Lady whimpered. “We don’t have anyone to go back to.”
“Where else can we go?” said Sim. “It’s the only place we have.”
They had just started walking back toward the inner set of gates when they heard a voice call out.
“He was leaving the city, did you say?”
Joe turned and looked at the old knight on the end of the bench. The man’s grizzled face was alight with keen interest now.
“The Prince,” the knight prodded. “You said he was leaving the city?”
“Yes,” said Joe. “I’m sure of it.”
“You saw his face? You recognized it?”
“Yes.”
“Where was he going?”
“I don’t know. He said he was leaving by way of the Shepherd’s Gate. He didn’t want to make a disturbance.”
“The Shepherd’s Gate. That runs out to the western road.”
The children looked at the old knight for a long moment, waiting for him to speak again. Instead he stood up, checked the edge on his sword-blade, and hefted his shield.
“Well?” he asked them with an inquiring glance.
“Well what?” said Joe.
“Are you coming with me?”
“Where are you going?” asked Sim.
“To find the Prince, of course!” the knight gave them a bold, reckless smile. “I don’t trust that old Steward any more than you do. And you just said you’ve got no one waiting for you at home. So let’s go find our Prince! It’s better than staying here.”
Joe looked at Sim, and Sim looked back at him wordlessly for a long moment. Then both boys looked at Lady, and saw the fire of adventure burning in her bright blue eyes. With a slow smile, Joe looked back up at the old knight.
“Lead the way. We’re with you.”

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: God Hangs Out with Abraham


The story of Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction, along with Lot's escape, is the main concern of Genesis 18-19 (in which the first chapter contains God's dialogue with Abraham regarding the fate of those cities). There are some obvious parallels with the Christian Gospel, such as the destruction brought on as a penalty of sin. Lot's escape shows the grace of God, rescuing from wrath those who respond to the offer of redemption and who follow Christ out of sin and into a new life.

But Genesis 18 also contains an interesting theophany--that is, an appearance of God. As we've mentioned several times already in this series, it is always worth reading the text very carefully, because sometimes the action stated is not actually the same as what we are picturing in our heads. Whenever I read this story as a young man, I tended to gloss over the obvious physicality of the presence of God. Rather, I pictured Abraham's dialogue with God as constituting a man debating with a disembodied voice. But, no, this story is very clear that God has actually shown up in physical form, and Abraham can see him and talk to him. Once again, this sort of appearance has often been taken in the Christian tradition to signify a pre-Incarnation appearance of the Son of God, who is the self-expression of the Father towards mankind, "the image of the invisible God."

Here's the scene: Genesis 18 opens by saying that the LORD (that is, Yahweh) appeared to Abraham at Mamre. It then immediately goes on to describe how this appearance manifested itself: "Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby." At this point, the reader might be justly confused. Are the three men separate from the Lord who just appeared, or is the Lord one of them, or is he somehow all of them? The text doesn't say. Abraham greets them as "lords," which could be taken as a reference either to human or divine beings, so no help there. But as the story goes on, it becomes clear that at least one of these three is God himself. Abraham offers them his best hospitality, and while they are eating, one of them mentions, in an offhand way, the immanent fulfillment of God's promise to bring a natural heir to Abraham. Sarah overhears this and laughs, and the man who spoke before now speaks again, and is clearly identified as God himself: "Then the LORD said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh?'"

After they eat together, Abraham and these three visitors get up and walk toward a place where they can look down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and the LORD reveals to Abraham what he is about to do. In the process of this movement, however, it becomes clear that of these three visitors, only one bears the title and character of "the LORD" (that is, Yahweh), while the other two are referred to as "the men" or "the messengers/angels" (see v.22, 19:1). These two go on down toward Sodom, while the third visitor, still clearly identified as "the LORD" (v.22), stays back with Abraham. It's clear that God's presence is not just a disembodied spiritual reality, but a person, since "Abraham remained standing before the LORD" (and there's even a strong textual variant of this verse that has the Lord standing before Abraham rather than the other way around). So while Abraham and God are debating about the number of righteous people in Sodom vis-a-vis the fate of that town, God is actually standing right there beside him. This is backed up in the final scene of that chapter, v.33: "When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left."

As already mentioned, this is taken as a Christophany--an appearance of Christ before the incarnation. It also inspired one of the most famous pieces of Christian art ever created, the medieval Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev's Old Testament Trinity (pictured above), which portrays the three visitors at Abraham's table and infers that they are the members of the Trinity. Now, while the story itself only directly implies that one of the three visitors is divine (thus making the other two angels in all probability), the artistic tradition has taken the liberty of representing the oneness of the Trinity by making all three visitors appear as members of the Godhead. This story, then, has become a visual centerpiece for the faith of many millions of Christians throughout history, portraying the unity, character, and purpose of God two thousand years before Christ himself came.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Evangeliad (4:28-32)


Section 4:28-32 (corresponding to Matt. 3:13; Luke 3:23; John 1:29-31)

Then down came Jesus, at thirty years old,
Down to the water at Joshua's ford.
He came to see John and there be baptized
In Jordan's valley, 'neath wilderness skies. 

And John saw him coming to the riverside;
He uplifted his voice, then loudly he cried:
"The Lamb of our God, who on himself takes
The sins of the world, and dies for our sakes!

The one that I told you about, this is he!--
He comes after me, but preceded me.
The time for his revealing is nigh;
As for why I baptize: he, he is why!" 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Photo of the Week

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

- John 1:5

Monday, May 21, 2018

Quote of the Week




"The church is the one thing that saves a man from the degrading servitude of being a child of his own time."

- G. K. Chesterton

(Painting: "Interior of St. Paul's Antwerp," by David Roberts, 1859)

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Christ Jesus, we beg you by your loneliness, not that you may spare us affliction, but that you may not abandon us in it. When we encounter affliction, teach us to see you in it as our sole comforter. Let affliction strengthen our faith, fortify our hope, and purify our love. Grant us the grace to see how we can use our affliction to your glory, and to desire no other comforter but you, our Savior, Strengthener, and Friend. Amen.

- Bernadette of Lourdes, adapted by Michael Counsell

(Painting: "My Soul is Sorrowful unto Death," by James Tissot, c.1890)

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 2


Joe woke with a start. Sunlight was streaming through the slats of the wooden window-blinds, and his aunt was bustling back and forth near the stove. The warm smell of oatmeal filled the air, and in the distance over the city the lonely wail of a trumpet broke the silence of the morning with its somber notes. Joe rose and rubbed his eyes. Sim and Lady were already sitting up, looking around the room with weary gazes.
“Why’s that trumpet playing?” asked Sim.
“I don’t know,” Joe answered, and he peeked through the blinds to look up at the citadel, awash in the morning light. The long purple banner of Prince Halbrinnon, which had been flying the night before, was now gone.
“It’s one of the soldiers in the keep,” their aunt explained. “He’s playing the grieving-song. One of the officials must have died last night.”
Just then the front door swung open and the children’s uncle walked in. His face was pale, his eyes drawn wide with shock.
“I can’t believe it,” he groaned as he collapsed into a chair. “They’re saying that Prince Halbrinnon is dead.”
“No!” gasped the aunt.
“Yes, it’s true. The word on the street is that he was discovered dead in his bed this morning. No one knows why. The officials are saying that he had a weak heart, and in his excitement over taking the throne, it failed him.”
“What? No! No, no, no—it can’t be!” the aunt moaned, her eyes suddenly bright with tears. “No, that can’t be true. And—and you know what? It can’t have been his heart! No, I’ll bet that old steward poisoned him!”
“That’s the worst part,” said the uncle, talking freely to his wife without a second thought for the children, who were all listening with rapt attention. “Steward Presten has declared a country-wide state of emergency, and they say that he has taken control of the government, at least until the Great King can be contacted.”
Joe, Sim, and Lady digested all this information silently. They were no strangers to their uncle and aunt’s discussions about the city’s politics. One thing they had learned, above all else, was that Steward Presten, who had long been out of favor with the royal house, was not someone to be trusted.
“But what about First Consul Dama?” asked the aunt. “Shouldn’t he be in charge at a time like this?”
“That’s just it—I think the consul has given in to the steward’s influence. If anyone ever had a weak heart, it would be Dama, not Prince Halbrinnon! No, I just can’t believe it! How could something like this happen?”
The aunt shook her head, and the children saw tears tracing long trails down her cheeks. “It doesn’t seem possible. This will change everything, won’t it? Nothing, nothing will be the same again! All the hope we ever had was set on Prince Hal.”
The uncle stood up again, his jaw clenched. “I won’t take it. I can’t change what happened to the Prince, but I can stand together with the good men who will be protesting against Steward Presten’s takeover.”
The aunt put down her spoon and locked her gaze on him. “If you go, I’m going too. I am all for the royal house, and I will not bow to another!”
They seemed to remember suddenly the three children who were watching them with wide eyes. They looked over at Joe, Sim, and Lady.
“What about the children, dear?” asked the uncle softly.
“Joe, love,” the aunt said, locking gazes with the oldest boy. “We’ll be going out for the morning. You take care of the others, now—get them their breakfast and see that the chores are done. We’re going down to the keep for a bit, but we’ll be back soon. If you need any help with anything, just knock on the door of kind old Mr. Willard across the street, all right?”
Joe nodded obediently, and then they were gone. With a sigh, he scratched his head and turned to look at his brother and sister.
“Well, I guess it’s just us for a few hours. Who’s hungry for some oatmeal?”
The other two nodded, and Joe set about ladling the hot, sticky meal into a set of wooden bowls. As he was setting them out on the table, though, his eye caught something in the center. It lay partially hidden under a parchment on the table, but its bright gleam was unmistakable.
“A coin,” he murmured, picking it up. “Uncle must have dropped it.”
Sim looked over his shoulder. “Hey, that’s not just any coin. That’s one of the new ones, right? I’ve never seen it before. Didn’t Uncle say that they had just put out a new batch of coins with Prince Hal’s face on them?”
Sim was right; the inscription along the edge bore the name of Halbrinnon and the other side showed the seal of the royal house. But Joe was frozen in place, gripped by the image on the face of the coin. He had seen a picture of Prince Hal only once before, on a parchment-painting that had been hanging in a marketplace shop. But now that he saw it again, he realized with astonishment that he recognized that face. He didn’t just recognize it from the painting in the shop; no, he had seen that face with his own eyes. This was the face of the man he had met in the street last night.
“Joe, what’s wrong?” asked Lady. “Why are you just standing there?”
But Joe’s mind was whirring too fast for him to answer. If it was Prince Hal that he had seen in the street, and if he had been leaving the city by the Shepherd’s Gate like he said, then how could he have been found dead in his bed this morning?
Joe slipped the coin in his pocket and turned to face Sim and Lady. His face was a picture of determination.
“Let’s eat quickly, now. We have to go down to the keep, too.”
“Why?” asked Sim. “Auntie told us to stay here.”
“Because Prince Hal is still alive, and someone needs to know it.”

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Genesis 17: Circumcision, Blood, and Promise on the Eighth Day


As if God hadn't already asked Abraham to do a whole bunch of weird, crazy things (like moving to the other side of the known world and setting up a gruesome field of animal carcasses), the next act in God's relationship with him was intensely strange. He told Abraham, and all his male heirs in perpetuity, to express their fealty to the divine covenant by slicing the foreskin off of their genitals. (But remarkably, this is still not the wildest thing God will ask Abraham to do, as the story of Isaac's sacrifice in ch. 22 will demonstrate.) Male circumcision is not an uncommon ritual, as it appears in cultures all over the world, many of which had no direct connection to this biblical imperative. The story suggests, however, that it was not a normative practice in Abraham's own culture, and thus this story begs the question of why this particular rite, with all its messiness and indignity, is the one that God chooses as the definitive marker of the covenant-relationship.

Before we get into the possible meaning behind this ritual, let's first notice that this is not a story about God simply speaking his instruction to Abraham as a disembodied voice. No, this is a story in which God clearly shows up in a visible appearance in order to talk to Abraham (see verses 1, 3, and 22 of Genesis 17). As we've already mentioned, the early Christians saw in these visible appearances of the invisible, unknowable God a clear indication of the work of the Son of God, who is and always has been the Logos, the self-expression of the Father, and "the image of the invisible God." 

Now back to the question at hand: why circumcision? It goes without saying why this ritual strikes many as distasteful, so why does God elect this particular means as his chosen symbol? Why, when there were so many other noble, elegant possibilities, would he choose this gritty, pain-ridden, embarrassing act, which has nothing of dignity about it? 

There are a few possible answers. One direct connection should jump off the page immediately, given the way circumcision was described in the foregoing question. It just so happens that God's plan to save the world, his ultimate expression of his eternal covenant with mankind, would be accomplished through a gritty, pain-ridden, embarrassing act, which had nothing of dignity about it. The death of Christ on the cross was bloody, shameful, and shocking. It did not suit our sense of tastefulness or elegance. And yet that was the thing God used to remake the world and claim his people forever as his own: in a word, the blood and shame of the cross led to the final "circumcision of the heart" which the ancient prophets had foreseen. The indignity of circumcision thus seems to be a good fit as a possible foreshadowing of the cross, and a further potential connection might be seen in the fact that this ritual is enacted upon the generative member of the male body. After all, it is through the biological succession from Abraham that the promise will be fulfilled. Indeed, the main promise with which Genesis 17 is concerned is the promise of a baby: in this case Isaac (the child of promise who is himself a foreshadowing of Christ). With this fact in view, it is no surprise that the biological reality of procreation, which was the means by which Abraham's family would lead to Mary and her miraculous conception, would be highlighted in the manner of the definitive covenant-act.

There's another connection to Christ here, too. God instructs Abraham that this ritual of circumcision should be performed on male babies on the eighth day. There are likely practical and medical reasons for this period of waiting; practicing surgery on newborns was not necessarily the safest thing to do. But the fact that that period of waiting was eight days was immediately seized on by the early church. Eight, as we have seen in previous studies, is the number that indicates the New Creation (for more, read my earlier article on the meaning of God's Sabbath-Rest in Genesis 2). Just as seven is the number of completeness, of the fullness of a week, eight is the day of Jesus' resurrection, the beginning of a new week of creation which commences with the re-creation of the human heart through the salvific work of Christ. Indeed, the early church father Augustine said (in reference to circumcision in Genesis 17), "What else does the eighth day mean than Christ, who rose again when the week was completed?" So the fact that the sign of the covenant was to come on the eighth day is important: it definitely points the way straight to Jesus, and to the fact that his bloody and undignified act would be the one that would usher in the promise of New Creation and of the eternal covenant of the gospel of grace. 

There's one final connection to make. It's not implied in Genesis 17, but the New Testament makes a clear tie between circumcision and baptism (which is one of the reasons why paedobaptist denominations baptize infants, just as circumcision was practiced on infants). Colossians 2:11-12 says, "In [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism..." This passage not only connects circumcision with baptism, but draws out another meaning of that bloody ritual. Just as circumcision entails the "putting off" of part of the old form of the body, so also our regeneration by grace includes the putting off of an old existence and the beginning of a new one, ushered in through the blood of Christ. Circumcision, then, is a ritual of regeneration, of the change that comes from putting off the "old man" and being transformed into something new. In this sense, it is the exact parallel of baptism, which also symbolizes the dying of the old man, his burial in the immersion of the waters, and then our rising again to new life in Christ. 

To put it plainly, circumcision without Jesus and without the gospel of grace would just be a weird, awkward, Bronze Age custom without much depth to its symbolism. But considered in light of Jesus' bloody, undignified sacrifice, which transforms us from an old existence into a new reality and which ratifies forever the eternal covenant of grace for us, circumcision becomes a potent, dramatic window into the salvation-plan of God.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Evangeliad (4:24-27)




And all who were there conjectured within;
Looking at John, they wondered of him:
Could this be the One they were all waiting for--
Messiah foretold by the word of the Lord?

But John heard the murmurs, and gave this reply:
"The One who is coming is stronger than I!
So great is he, so unworthy am I,
His sandal-straps I can't touch or untie.

Elijah at Carmel is all that I am,
Drenching in water the hearts of this land;
But he will baptize you with heavenly flame,
Spirit and fire poured out in his name!

That fire is like the harvest's last blaze,
Kindled so that we may follow his ways;
The winnowing-fork he holds in his hand,
To thresh out our hearts, our people, our land.

The purified grain he will gather and bless,
But the chaff of the fields will burn without rest."
This was the preaching of John the Baptizer,
Bringing the water to prepare for the fire.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Photo of the Week






Oh, wake, glad heart, awake, awake! And seek thy risen Lord: / Joy in his resurrection take, and comfort in his word. / And let thy life through all its ways one long thanksgiving be; / Its theme of joy, its song of praise: 'Christ died and rose for me.'

- Verses 5 & 6 of the 19th-century hymn "Awake, Glad Soul," by John Samuel Bewley Monsell

Monday, May 14, 2018

Quote of the Week

"Surely all good works please God equally. Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him; Elijah loved quiet and God was with him; David was humble and God was with him. So whatever you find you are drawn to in following God's will, do it and let your heart be at peace."

- An early Christian hermit, in response to a question as to what good work the seeker should be doing (from Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

(Painting: "Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers (Thebaid)," by Fra Angelico, 1420)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Lord, teach us to understand that your Son died to save us, not from suffering, but from ourselves. He died that we might live--but live as he lives, by dying as he died who died to himself. Amen.

- George Macdonald

(Painting: "Crucifixion (Pianto delle Marie)" by Giovanni Lanfranco, 17th cent.)

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 1


There was something strange in the wind that night. Joe could feel it in his bones. He lay straight and still in his bed, listening. Everyone else in the house was asleep. Sim, his brother, had drifted off first, finding rest almost as soon as his head came to rest on the pillow. Lady, their little sister, was sleeping too. From the next room came the gentle snoring of their uncle and aunt. But Joe was awake.
His sleepless eyes wandered over the shadows that filled their little house. The table and stools looked normal enough, but the darkness made the old wood stove, with its cavernous black mouth, look positively monstrous. Joe sighed, sat up on his straw mattress, and rubbed his hands over his face.
Just then he heard a rustling outside, followed by the quiet clucking of the chickens, as if they too had woken to an unsettling sound. Standing quietly, Joe crept over to the front door and opened it. The little yard outside looked exactly as it should be—the chickens were in their coop, the tools put away, and the dirt courtyard still swept free of footprints, just as his aunt had left it.
But the gate was open. It squeaked softly as the breeze rocked it back and forth on its hinges. Joe yawned and stepped out into the cool night air, taking a moment to look up at the moon and then over to the castle towers before he walked to the gate. The great citadel of Arrens reflected the moonlight so clearly that it almost looked white. And there on the highest peak flew the long purple banner of the royal family, playing lightly on the night wind.
Joe smiled as he took hold of the gate. That banner on the citadel was a reminder of good things: the prince regent, Halbrinnon, had now taken up residence in his capital city, and soon there would be the festival of his coronation as king. And what a joy that would be! He could already imagine the scenes of revelry, with the city full of trumpets and flags, knights in bright armor, children singing in the streets, and the new king throwing open the doors of the keep to welcome the citizens to his kingly banquet.
Joe had hold of the gate now, and was about to close it, when he noticed the night mists that filled the streets of the city. Stepping out from his yard, he marveled to see his little alley as he had never seen it before: blanketed in a flowing river of fog, about as high as his knees. The mist swirled around him as he walked, and it shone in the moonlight like a stream of purest milk. He smiled and bent down to run his fingers through the fog.
Suddenly, something bumped up hard against him from behind, and he tumbled down to the ground. Before he could even turn his head to see what had happened, he heard a voice speaking to him.
“Oh! Sorry, lad. Please accept my apologies. I was hurrying along, and simply did not see you there. Are you quite all right?”
Joe looked up and saw a tall man in a dark cloak standing over him, his hand extended in an offer of help. Joe would normally have been wary of a stranger in the street at night, but this man had warmth and quiet strength underlying his every word.
“Yes, yes, I’m all right,” said Joe, letting the man pull him back up on his feet.
“I’m glad to hear that,” said the man. “I was on my way down to the Shepherd’s Gate to leave the city, and in my hurry, I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
Joe studied the man as he spoke. He had the hood of his cloak up, so it was hard to get a good sense of his features in the dimness of the moonlight, but Joe had the distinct impression of having seen that face somewhere before.
“Why the Shepherd Gate?” asked Joe. “I’ve heard that most travelers use the main West Gate—it’s a larger road, and safer at night. I can give you directions if you like.”
The man smiled. “Thank you, son, that’s very kind. But no, I have to use the Shepherd’s Gate. I’m trying to slip out quietly, so as not to disturb the city in the middle of the night, and I think there might be fewer prying eyes there. But thank you all the same.”
The man gave a nod of his head and a little wave of his hand, and then he was off again, walking down into the darkness of the street. Joe watched him go, his gaze following the slow wave and curl of the mist behind the man’s cloak. When he had disappeared from sight, Joe yawned again. A whisper of weariness crept over his mind, and so he went back into his yard, latched the gate, and then ducked inside and fell gratefully onto the warm comforts of his bed.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: Ishmael, Isaac, and the Angel of the Lord


In Genesis 16, the story of Abraham takes a sharp turn: Sarah decides to make her own arrangements to provide the family a son and heir, and so persuades Abraham to conceive a child with Hagar, a slave. The result of this plan is the birth of a son to Abraham and Hagar, Ishmael. This was a rather poor plan, because not only does Sarah end up feeling jealous at the end, but it soon becomes clear that this was not God's intended plan for providing an heir to Abraham, which would later come through the miraculous birth of Isaac to Sarah in her old age. These two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac--the son born of practical necessity on the one hand, and the other the child of promise, fulfilling the plan of God--were taken by early Christians as a foreshadowing of the two covenants. Ishmael and his mother Hagar represented the Old Covenant with the Law of Moses, the arrangement built out of practical necessity to prepare God's people for what was coming; and Isaac and his mother Sarah represented the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, the true and final fulfillment of all God's promises. And it wasn't just the early church fathers who held this view (though one couldn't be faulted for thinking so, because they certainly loved their allegorical interpretations); no, this reading of Scripture is built right into the New Testament itself, with the Apostle Paul saying in Galatians 4:24-28, "These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai...this is Hagar.... But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.... Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise."

But there's another important connection to Christ in Genesis 16. Despite the whole messy affair of this misconceived plan, God shows tremendous sympathy to the victims of it, Hagar and Ishmael. After the pregnant Hagar runs away from Sarah's abusive behavior, she encounters a messenger of God out in the desert. This is usually portrayed as an angel, because the text in English reads, "The angel of the Lord found Hagar." But we must remember that in Hebrew, the word for "angel" (malak) is simply the word "messenger" (so, for instance, the prophet Malachi's name could be read as "my angel" but is more likely to mean "my messenger"). So when we see "angel" written in our Bibles, we need not immediately jump to the image of a white-robed, clean-cut guy sporting swan wings. There may be other interpretive options. 

In this passage, as in many others in the early books of the Old Testament, this "angel" appears to have a very specific and special identity. He is referred to as "the Angel of the Lord," and in most of the stories where he appears (which we will examine in this series of studies), he often ends up being referred to simply as "God" or "the Lord" by the end of the scene. In the story of Hagar's meeting with the Angel of the Lord, he commands her to return and gives her an encouraging prophecy about her son's destiny. The narrative is very clear at the outset that it is "the Angel of the Lord" who speaks to Hagar. But let's look now at the end of the story, which clearly identifies this character simply as "Lord" and "God." Verse 13 says, "She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: 'You are the God who sees me,' for she said, 'I have now seen the one who sees me.'" The story very clearly indicates that "the Angel of the Lord," the character who spoke to Hagar and whom Hagar saw, is not just any ordinary angel, but is, in some sense, God himself. Indeed, when the verse refers to "the Lord who spoke to her," it uses the Hebrew word for the personal name of God, Yahweh.

Now, if this were the only instance of this odd occurrence, we might write it off as just a peculiar spot of interpretation. But this same sequence happens repeatedly throughout the first seven books of the Bible (with a few further references even beyond those): the Angel of the Lord shows up, and by the end of the scene is being accorded the status of God himself. Because of this common pattern, Christian interpreters have often seen "the Angel of the Lord" as a pre-incarnation appearance of Christ, the Son of God. Indeed, Christ is "the Messenger of God," the fully-divine Logos which God the Father is eternally speaking forth as his self-expression toward his creation. The Son of God did not merely act as the Father's messenger once, during his incarnation; it has been his role from the beginning; and he appeared at many crucial moments in the history of his covenant-people to prepare their hearts for his "Great Entrance" (to borrow a phrase from the ancient Christian liturgy) in his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth.

(Painting: "Hagar and the Angel," by Carel Fabritius, c.1645)