In college, my friends and I had a saying:
You cannot begin to change until you know the opposite of what you are.
It was a reminder that the only path to real growth was to see the truth about yourself and then understand the way(s) in which God was different from that. Sometime in my mid-thirties I realized that most of what I knew about success, character – pretty much everything in the realm of good and evil – I learned by example of what not to do or who I did not want to be like. It was then that I began to understand experientially what our college saying meant in terms of the power of contrast to teach.
Time, experience, and study have expanded my understanding of the Bible as well, showing me that the bulk of the stories it contains are pictures of who and what God is, painted most often by revealing what he is not. This particular learning tool can prove quite effective with human minds struggling to comprehend a silent and invisible God. But nuance is too often ignored under a strictly literal view of the text.
For example, countless sermons have been preached on Genesis 22, the story of Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac. Most people, commentaries, preachers, and Christians believe that God was testing Abraham’s faith when he told him to take Isaac up on a mountain and offer his only son as a sacrifice. They believe that God provided a ram for himself that represented God one day sacrificing Jesus to appease his own wrath. But is that really what this story was designed to teach? Does God really test peoples’ faith in such horrific ways? Is this same God so offended by sin that he requires a human blood sacrifice to be appeased? Sounds an awful lot like the Canaanite gods to me.
Most (if not all) cultures contemporary to Abraham practiced blood sacrifice to appease the anger of their god(s). In fact, some sort of blood sacrifice has been practiced for centuries in almost all cultures ever to exist. Here’s a decent site on the history of blood sacrifices around the world (I found the conclusions page fascinating). So when God told Abraham to kill Isaac, he was not telling him anything new. Sacrificing children (even the first-born) to the god(s) was commonplace in those days. In fact, everyone was doing it. To Abraham it would have been business as usual for any god to demand the kind of worship that required the ultimate sacrifice of human blood.
But while the story began ordinarily enough, the end revealed something radically new. Just as the knife made its way to Isaac’s heart, a voice stopped Abraham. A ram had been caught in a nearby thicket and the voice instructed Abraham to sacrifice it rather than his son. God showed Abraham that he was in fact unlike the gods of the surrounding nations.
Lesson #1: God does not require human blood to be appeased.
If you believe that the revelation of God’s nature to mankind has been given throughout history progressively, then this little nugget would have rocked the ancients’ overall understanding of deities in general and the God of Israel in particular. But this was just a stepping-stone to a broader understanding of what made the God of Israel different. Fast forward to the establishment of the temple cult under Moses’ leadership. Here God distinguished himself from other gods by commanding one animal sacrifice each year to bring justice for the entire nation.
Lesson #2: God does not require unlimited animal sacrifices.
The last straw can be found ringing in the voices of the prophets. They called the nation of Israel to put a stop to ritual sacrifices altogether. According to them, the God of Israel had no need for blood at all.
Lesson #3: God does not require blood because God does not need to be appeased.
Despite this final clear message from the prophets at the close of the Old Testament, the Christian church continues to teach that Jesus was the ultimate blood sacrifice for sins. They even go so far as to say that God himself put Jesus to death as our substitute. Which brings me to why I am writing this post today.
In 2011 I wrote a post called Walking Through the Pieces. It went on to become my all-time most-read page, clocking in at a whopping 10,209 views as of January 6, 2020. No other post of mine has come anywhere near this number. Looking at the vast amount of interest in this topic has prompted me to keep digging into the story, and
I have finally come to the conclusion that Genesis 15 is yet another look at what God is not like.
In the cultures contemporary to Abram, people made agreements this way: they cut animals in two and spread the pieces apart, leaving a path between them. Both parties walked between the pieces while stating the terms of the covenant. Walking the path symbolized a vow and a curse in one: I promise to do thus and so, and may this happen to me if I do not keep my end of the bargain. The practice was quite common and would have been second nature to Abram. Problem is, Abram was asleep when his covenant with God was ‘cut’. He did not walk through the pieces of the animals at all.
Throughout the Old Testament it was God’s practice to reveal himself over and against the surrounding gods and cultures of the day. In Genesis 15 we find a God who does not bargain with mankind. When God says he will do something, he does it, independent of any belief or behavior on man’s part. The lesson here is clear: God does what is right without requiring anything in return. He is a God of blessing not cursing, a God of grace not law. Too bad Sonny did not understand that all he need do was ask.
Today, most Evangelicals will tell you that salvation is part of a covenant with God called the gospel (good news). They use Abram’s initial belief in the promise of an heir to teach that man’s part of the bargain is to believe that Jesus’ death paid God back for our sins because God requires blood. Whoever refuses to hold up man’s end of the covenant (by believing) will be treated like those slaughtered animals – except they will suffer an eternity in hell (at the hand of God, no less)!
Even I was captured by this interpretation of the narrative when I assumed that Jesus’ broken body was the fulfillment of God’s part of the covenant on our behalf – that God himself slaughtered Jesus to pay for our sins.
But what if that interpretation of the gospel story is completely erroneous? What if the church is as wrong about God as good ol’ Sonny? What if Jesus’ death itself is a picture of what God is not like?
What if the real point of the story is Jesus’ life – a picture of how we were made to live, spiritually free from guilt and shame – not the story of what will happen to us after we die?
What if the gospel has absolutely nothing to do with a bloodthirsty God?
What if Rome sacrificed Jesus on the altar of their power because his message of spiritual freedom was a threat to them and the religious order of the day? What if it had nothing whatever to do with God’s supposed anger towards mankind?
What if the story of Jesus dying on a cross was never about salvation, because we don’t need salvation, because the prophets told true: GOD DOES NOT REQUIRE BLOOD OR NEED TO BE APPEASED?
What if the story of Jesus’ death is a picture of what God is not like?
The literal interpretation of the Bible has served for hundreds of years to perpetrate division, hatred, and war – our modern forms of ritual sacrifice – all in the name of religion. It is time for the world to be turned upside down once again. It is time to challenge the powers that be with the nuance of a Biblical narrative that reveals a God more loving and full of grace than any of us have ever dared imagine or hope for. A God who blesses no matter what, loves no matter what, and requires nothing in return – not even belief that he exists. A God who needs no blood to be appeased, but stands in opposition to the angry, bloodthirsty ‘gods’ invented by violent men, designed to control people using fear, guilt, and shame.
True change can happen once we know the opposite of what we are. God grant that we be given the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the courage to face the truth.
Thanks so much for reading.