4. Egyptian time, e.g.: http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/question.php?number=594
Abram lived in the Ur of the Chaldees, which is in modern day Iraq. He was a very
wealthy man living in an advanced civilisation and quite old, when God spoke to him
and told him to leave his home and family and start walking. Did God speak with an
impression, an audible voice or did he appear in a physical body, perhaps as an angel.
We are not told, but however it was done it was forceful enough to make an old man
and his childless wife abandon everything and take his entire worldly possessions
to go off to an unknown destination. I am not going to relate the whole story, which
you can read in Genesis 12 onwards, but just pick out a few important highlights
which are relevant even today.
God changed his name to Abraham, with the addition of ‘ha’ in the middle. This sounds
like an out-breath and is one of the names of God. So God was putting His Name on
Abraham. He promised that He would make him into a great nation, even though he and
his wife Sarah were childless. He promised him a son, in spite of their great age.
Unfortunately, they did not get it quite right and Sarah encouraged Abraham to sleep
with her young Egyptian maid, named Hagar. Hagar did have a son, named Ishmael.
However, this was not what God had planned, and Sarah had to wait several more years
before she had a son, who was called Isaac (which means ‘Laughter’!). Ishmael however
used to mock Isaac to the extent that Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away. (Gen 21:9)
Generations later the descendents of Ishmael gave rise to most of the Arab world
as we know it today. So the Arabs are in fact descendents of Abraham.
By this time Abraham, in his travels had reached a land called Canaan, bordering
on the Mediterranean Sea. On a high mountain, God said to him, ‘Look around as far
as you can see. I am giving you this land for you and your descendents’. No conditions,
no strings, just a gift and a promise.
During this time, God also introduced Abraham to the concept of sacrifice, a theme
that pervades the whole Bible, in several different ways.
In those days, a covenant between two parties was made in this way. An animal would
be slaughtered and the two bloody halves separated on the ground. The two parties,
reciting the terms of the covenant would then take turns walking between the pieces
in a figure of eight. The terms were that if the covenant was broken, they defaulter
would become like the poor dead animal. They would then cook and eat the animal in
a celebratory meal.
In order to seal the land covenant, Abraham and God performed this ritual. God tells
Abraham to prepare the sacrifice, but when it is Abraham’s turn to walk through,
God puts him into a deep sleep during which God communicates with him. God recites
the terms of the covenant, and tells him what is going to happen to his family over
the next few hundred years and then a smoking furnace and a burning lamp pass between
the two halves of the sacrifice. This represents God’s presence, but Abraham in his
condition is not able to take the walk. In other words, God takes on both sides of
the covenant. He does not allow Abraham to be held responsible for his side. It is
in fact an unconditional covenant. That is to say, it is impossible for Abraham to
break his side of it. There is nothing to break.
During the deep sleep, God told Abraham that his family would become slaves in Egypt
for 400 years after which they would be freed and subsequently possess the land of
Canaan or Israel as we know it today. ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a
stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict
them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge:
and afterward shall they come out with great substance. The LORD made a covenant
with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt
unto the great river, the river Euphrates’ (Gen 15:13,18).
So, over 4000 years ago, that large area of land including modern Israel, Jordan,
Lebanon, Syria and much of Iraq as far south as Egypt was given by an unconditional
covenant by God to Abraham and his descendents.
There was a small sacrifice that God required of Abraham to seal the covenant. ‘This
is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee;
Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh
of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.’ Gen
Thus, the practice of circumcision was instituted by God for all of Abraham’s descendents,
which today includes both Jews and Arabs. We shall see later that God took this seal
of circumcision very seriously and nearly killed those Israelites who did not keep
it (Exodus 4:24, Joshua 5:2). It is not easy to understand why that particular cut
was made, since the cutting or marking of human flesh is expressly forbidden by God.
The removal of the foreskin, which of course results in the shedding of blood, is
a sign that the person is permanently exposed and vulnerable to God in their most
secret place. It is the place that defines manhood and man’s greatest achievement
– procreation in his own image. It is also a sacrifice in the place of deepest intimacy
and intercourse. Later in the New Testament, the same expression is used with reference
to circumcision of the heart. (Rom 2:29 and Col 2:11) Not physically of course, but
symbolically expressing vulnerability of the person to God in their innermost being.
The only other form of permissible body-marking was the piercing of the ear lobe.
This was a covenant of slavery. It was a voluntary act by which a slave willingly
bound himself and his family to his or her master. The slave was taken to a doorpost
and an awl pushed through the ear lobe, which resulted in shedding of blood, leaving
a permanent and visible mark. (Deut 15:15 – 17) In many cases, it was probably enhanced
by an earring. It was a statement to the world that they belonged to this master
alone and would never be slave to anyone else. In contrast with circumcision, which
is a private matter, ear-piercing is very public and visible for all to see.
To summarise where we are at the moment: there are two fundamental principles that
are a recurring theme throughout the Bible. When God makes covenants and promises,
He keeps them. He often seals them with a sacrifice that involves the shedding of
blood. Even today, when we draw up a contract or covenant, red wax is sometimes used
and a seal pressed into it to seal the covenant. The red wax is a symbol of blood.
The reason for labouring these two principles is that God took 2000 years to ram
these points home to and through Israel, whereas we are often quick to think we understand
it in a short time. Some think faith is a simple matter, which at one level it is.
We can receive God’s gifts and promises with child-like trust. But there is a hidden
depth, like and iceberg, that can never be fully fathomed. God made promises thousands
of years ago, some of which were conditional, some of which were unconditional. They
were sealed with a sacrifice. We have been considering the veracity of the Bible
with a view to understanding those promises and what they might mean to us both now
and in the future. Some of the promises that God made have not yet been fulfilled.
As we consider the fulfilment of past promises, we begin to gain confidence that
God can be trusted to complete those that have yet to be fulfilled.
As we continue with this investigation, we will see that each of the situations considered
is a type or shadow of the most important event in the history of mankind, the ultimate
sacrifice of God’s own son, Jesus. This death, in which Jesus was nailed to a wooden
cross, was God’s final sacrifice to seal His covenant with mankind for all time.
We will look at the covenant and the sacrifice in greater detail later in the book,
but we draw attention to it at this point, as it will constantly be referenced it
as we continue with the discussion.
Back to Abraham. He certainly believed in the promise and covenant God made, but
his faith failed in being able to have the child through Sarah, who was approaching
her centenary. By having a child through Hagar who was an Egyptian, Abraham had introduced
a lot of confusion into the promise, which God had to clarify later on. The promise
was to the descendents of Sarah, not Hagar. ‘And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear
thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant
with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him’ (Gen 17:19)
There is a very strange incident is worth discussing in the life of Abraham. When
Isaac had grown up, God instructed Abraham to take him to a certain mountain and
sacrifice him. Obediently, Abraham saddles his ass and taking Isaac and a couple
of servants, off they go to Mount Moriah to perform the dreadful act. It is hard
to imagine how Sarah would respond to this. ‘Just popping out to sacrifice our son
Isaac…’. Having received the promised son at 100 years of age, he is just about to
kill him. Amazingly, on the bleak mountain top, Isaac actually helps Abraham build
that altar and collect the wood, casually asking, ‘By the way Dad, where are we going
to find a sacrifice up here?’ Abraham’s elusive reply ‘God will provide the sacrifice’
was either a deception or a statement of faith. Isaac appears to willingly allow
himself to be bound and placed on the altar, but may have been traumatised for the
rest of his life. As Abraham’s hand is poised above Isaac to plunge in the knife,
an angel suddenly appears and stops him dead in his tracks with the words ‘Lay not
thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that
thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in
a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for
a burnt offering in the stead of his son’. (Gen 22:12,13). The ram takes the place
of Isaac who is symbolically raised from the dead. This again is an example of substitutionary
atonement, part of the process of teaching and preparing mankind to understand and
receive salvation through sacrifice.
This is a very significant incident, because it is a shadow of a sacrifice that took
place, 2000 years later, on that same mountain when another son completed the transaction
with his head bound with thorns. Jesus the Son of God was sacrificed in that same
location, by that time called Calvary, sealing God’s covenant with mankind for all
time. He was nailed to a wooden cross with a crown of thorns on his head and was
called the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. A male lamb is the same
as a young ram.
God later re-established the covenant regarding the land to Abraham’s son Isaac.
‘Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee,
and unto thy seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which
I sware unto Abraham thy father.’ (Gen 26:3,4)
God gave the same promise again to Isaac’s son Jacob, saying: ‘I am the LORD God
of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee
will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth,
and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and
to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be
blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou
goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until
I have done that which I have spoken to thee of’. (Gen 28:13-15)
So the promise of the land, known as the Land Covenant, was reiterated later to Abraham’s
son Isaac and then to his son Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. God made it
clear that it was to this particular family the promise was being made. Abraham and
Isaac had other children to whom the promise did not apply.
Jacob had 12 sons who became known as the 12 tribes of Israel, who eventually inherited
the land as God promised Abraham. This is the subject of the next chapter.
We have seen the central and unavoidable place that God had given to sacrifice and
it is a subject that we do not like to think about. When I read about Abraham prepared
to sacrifice Isaac it fills me with horror. He was spared the ultimate step and yet
that is the step that God eventually took, 2000 years later to prove his commitment
to mankind. There is a strange incident in my own experience that I will relate here,
which I confess I do not fully understand.
My wife and I have 6 children, all now grown up, mostly married with children of
their own. All of them are fully committed followers of Jesus Christ. As is quite
usual, a couple of them were rebellious during their teenage years and had seemingly
gone down a path of worldly ways, which for me was very grieving. However, in a miraculous
way, they came through it relatively unscathed. Shortly afterwards, the family was
totally together and we took a holiday in a hilly region of Yorkshire. We had planned
on taking a camping holiday somewhere completely different, but the evening before
we left we were with a friend who happened to have a vacancy in their holiday home
in Yorkshire and offered us the keys and use of their house instead. On the first
day we went exploring the area and as evening approached we decided to climb a hill
from which to watch the sun set. As we climbed this random hill and approached the
summit walking along a fairly wide track, a tractor appeared out of nowhere on which
was seated a man. He said ‘This is not the way – that is the way’, pointing to a
stone wall over which we obediently climbed on to a narrow and bramble covered track.
So instead of now easily rambling along a wide path, we had to pick our way with
some difficulty until we reached the summit. Suddenly we were in a wide ploughed
field with no further sign of the path and the only thing nearby was a haystack about
4 feet high. However, as this was as far as we planned to go, we climbed on to the
straw platform to watch the sun go down. We prayed together and thanked God for our
family and the joy of his beautiful creation. It was a precious, bonding and unforgettable
moment as the whole family sat united in a way that we could not have done even a
few weeks previously. As we carefully picked our way back down the hill to find the
car in the ensuing darkness of nightfall, my son said, ‘That was very special’.
Next morning I got up early to read my Bible and opened to Romans chapter 12, ‘I
beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies
a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your
mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.’
(Romans 12:1,2). I admit I broke down and wept as I realised what we had done. As
we sat on that mountain top on a haystack it had been an altar of sacrifice. This
precious family that God had given me was not mine, but His. The tears were not sadness,
but joy and deep emotion that God had chosen to rescue my family and had chosen us
for special purpose, enough to reveal himself to us, almost in a similar way He had
to Abraham. We are not required to make the sacrifice. Jesus did that for us on Mount
Calvary, but if we want to know His good and perfect will, then we submit ourselves
to him as a living sacrifice. The way was not to be the broad road of the world,
but a narrow and difficult path. So much of the experience had a supernatural atmosphere
about it, from the man on the tractor, the narrow path, the random single haystack
and even the kind offer of the holiday home. Since then my family has increased further
by marriage and grandchildren and they are all loving and serving the Lord.