The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Pagan Abraham, father of three religions (part 1)

with 2 comments

A sermon (and a worship gathering sequence— Proper 8 A), preached in June of ’05 at home at New Oaks Church in Washington, IA.

Monte: [God] brought [Abram] outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15 NRSV)

But how? And when? Ancients thought of time differently than we do – what did it even mean?  And why millions of descendants?

If you could have one thing from God, would you ask for millions of descendants? Is that what you were aching for as you came in this morning?

Abram’s world, 4,000 years ago, was almost incomprehensibly different from ours. The birth of Jesus, 2,000 years ago, in a world so different from our own, is only halfway back to Abram.

I wonder what God was really saying to Abram. I wonder how Abram understood it.

And now, after 40 centuries, I wonder how it could possibly speak to me?


[lights 100% and all spots]

[cue Meet With Me]
[cue Jehovah-Jireh] the Lord will provide
[cue Beautiful One] intimacy with God, directly to him
WHO? Prayer: Thanks be to God, that he has provided us with all we need for life and godliness.


Monte: And now for one of the strangest stories in all of Scripture: the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Genesis 22 (The Message)
1After all this, God tested Abraham. God said, “Abraham!”
“Yes?” answered Abraham. “I’m listening.”
2He said, “Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I’ll point out to you.”

3Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took two of his young servants and his son Isaac. He had split wood for the burnt offering. He set out for the place God had directed him. 4On the third day he looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5Abraham told his two young servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I are going over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.”

6Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and gave it to Isaac his son to carry. He carried the flint and the knife. The two of them went off together.
7Isaac said to Abraham his father, “Father?”
“Yes, my son.”
“We have flint and wood, but where’s the sheep for the burnt offering?”
8Abraham said, “Son, God will see to it that there’s a sheep for the burnt offering.” And they kept on walking together.

9They arrived at the place to which God had directed him. Abraham built an altar. He laid out the wood. Then he tied up Isaac and laid him on the wood. 10Abraham reached out and took the knife to kill his son.

11Just then an angel of GOD called to him out of Heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Yes, I’m listening.”
12“Don’t lay a hand on that boy! Don’t touch him! Now I know how fearlessly you fear God; you didn’t hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for me.”
13Abraham looked up. He saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

14Abraham named that place GOD-Yireh (GOD-Sees-to-It). That’s where we get the saying, “On the mountain of GOD, he sees to it.”

Monte: I have a problem with this story. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever preached on it. Here are some of the questions it brings to mind. Some are mine, some are from Leonard Sweet in the great book Out of the Question … into the Mystery.

1. What about Isaac? What did it do to him to have his father tie him up and prepare to slit his throat?

2. Would God command a father to kill his son?

3. How come God no longer talks to Abraham after this? In fact, he sends an angel to keep him from killing Isaac, and doesn’t speak to him directly like he has been.

4. Abraham and Isaac never speak again, as far as we know. Isaac never sees his father again, as far as we know, until he comes home to bury him. Has Isaac, in fear of his father and his father’s God, run off so they couldn’t do this to him again?

5. Why does Abraham call the place “the Lord will provide”? Why not “I will obey”? Why not “the Lord my Master”? Isn’t obedience the point?

6. Does God expect his people to commit immoral acts when they hear voices telling them to do so?

7. If God expected Abraham to do this to Isaac, is God really good?

I don’t understand it all yet. But this year, for the first time, I think I see some clues to it that fit what I know about God, and I want to share them with you. But I don’t think it will make sense without some description of Abram’s world.

Let’s go first to Abraham’s world. We sing, “Lord, you know where I’ve been, so light the fire in my heart again.” And where Abraham had been is very different from where you and I have been. Let me lean on this book by Thomas Cahill: The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.

[cue Sumer map]

Something like 5,000 years ago, written history – written language – began. It began in Sumer, Abram’s homeland, probably in the city of Uruk. And it probably began in a warehouse, for the purpose of keeping trade records in this first-ever city of humankind. After all, trade had made the city a possibility.

Agriculture had made trade a possibility – for someone figured out that you didn’t have to wait for the seasons to provide food. The Sumerians invented irrigation. A farmer could grow more food than he could eat. Not everyone had to farm.

Just before writing was invented there, a flood of technological creativity washed over Sumer on such a scale that so many breakthroughs would not be seen again until the 19th and 20th centuries of our day. Farming communities expanded. The wheel was invented. There were first-ever breakthroughs in wheeled transportation, sailing ships, metallurgy, architecture, the brick mold, the arch, the dome. Gigantic structures were possible. Their math enabled them to do square roots and cube roots. They excavated canals and had written prescriptions for medicines. Altogether, this amazing set of inventions made possible large numbers of people living together for the first time in human history.

By the time the first words were scratched out, Sumer’s twenty-five city-states dominated all Mesopotamia and had trade links as far away as Africa and India. Each city centered on a temple and ziggurat, or tower, dedicated to that city’s god. This one still survives:

[cue Ziggurat of Ur-Nammu]

And Sumerians despised nomads. Here’s a statement of prejudice I think we can take as typical:

[cue Sumerians despise Amorites]

[read it from screen]

Barely above animals – not like us more civilized folk. Remember that.

But climb with me up the temple stairs.

[cue Sumerian temple]

Cahill writes: …let us approach the sacred precincts of the Moon. We climb the last steps to the entrance, passing sculptured serpents with glowing eyes of lapis lazuli. We pass the pillared façade of the vestibule and enter the inner courtyard, where we cen see dimly, through a series of archways, the distant image of the Moon god, flickering in the lights of hundreds of votive flames. The walls of the courtyard are decorated … with precise geometric patterns … At last we enter the sanctuary of Nanna-Sin, Moon god of the Sumerians, whose impassive statue now looms above us, rigid and enormous-eyed, its polychrome pupils emptily burning. Behind the statue a monumental moon is frescoed on the wall, surrounded by a slithering snake. Within the orb of the moon a gigantic black spider spreads its spindly legs. As our nostrils take in the pungent clouds of incense, our ears detect a hissing sound: around the feet of Nanna-Sin, pythons, brightly marked with black and orange… coil and uncoil their scaly bodies in slow motion. We are distracted from Sin’s unyielding visage by a buzz of movement just in front of us, where on a modest waist-high altar … surrounded by a swarm of flies, the largest python is devouring the fetus of a donkey, whose blood runs down in rivulets along neatly scooped-out gutters to collection bowls at the altar’s base. Involuntarily, we take a step backwards, as the smell of warm blood and entrails combines with the suffocating incense. Gasping for air, we retreat to the courtyard.

But tonight is the night of the full moon; and as darkness quickly falls and the moon rises … we hear the sounds of hundreds of priestesses, chanting dully and playing primitive pipes and drums. Dressed in elaborate ceremonial garb, the gather solemnly around the terrace on which the temple is built, looking upward to the stepped pyramid beyond … which rises almost … to the sky itself. At the highest platform of this ziggurat … is a small but glowing altar of lapis lazuli, carved fantastically with snakes and giant spiders, to which an adolescent boy has been bound on his back. …

And there I will stop, except to tell you that the central focus of this worship is the rape and possible human sacrifice of this boy by the priestesses.

And that is Abram’s world. It is the world of the fertility cult – the worship of fertility gods that are supposedly pleased by a mixture of sex and death that humans must act out to keep the gods from becoming offended. It is a world of cycles of moon and sun, male and female, of no beginning or ending, but simply constant turning of the wheel of life. The gods control it all – humans are only their servants, and the death of humans is of no great consequence. There is no real past, no real future. There is little individuality – humans are only to be used.

[cue earth] And that is not only Abram’s world – the fertility cult is the basis of every prehistoric religion in every corner of the globe. It is found in the male and female serpents of Neolithic China and the central American civilization called Calchaqui. It is found in pre-Columbian Mexico, and in Ice Age Europe and in the Bushmen of Africa. It plagues the Israelites centuries later when they grow weary of YHWH and return to fertility rites. It is still around in NT world when rioters shout down Paul with “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” and in the twin temples of Corinth, one of male prostitutes, one of female. And our great-great-great-great grandparents in Europe were obliged to attempt to please the gods by mating with strangers or animals or even the soil itself each spring. It’s the world we came from, too.

Cahill again:

“If we had lived in the second millennium B.C., the millennium of [Abram], and could have canvassed all the nations of the earth, what would they have said of [Abram’s] journey? In most of Africa and Europe, where prehistoric animism was the norm and artists were still carving and painting on stone the heavenly symbols of the Great Wheel of Life and Death, they would have laughed at Avram’s madness and pointed to the heavens, where the life of earth had been plotted from all eternity. His wife is barren as winter, they would say; a man cannot escape his fate. The Egyptians would have shaken their heads in disbelief. “There is none born wise,” they would say… The early Greeks [would say] Do not overreach … come to resignation. In India, he would have been told that time is black, irrational, and merciless. Do not set yourself the task of accomplishing something in time, which is only the dominion of suffering. In China, … sages whose thoughts would influence the I Ching would caution that there is no purpose in journeys or in any kind of earthly striving. … The ancestors of the Maya in America would point to their circular calendars, which like those of the Chinese repeat the pattern of years in unvarying succession, and would explain that everything that has been comes around again and that each man’s fate is fixed. On every continent, in every society, Avram would have been given the same advice … do not journey, but sit.”

That is Abram’s world. Now remember: How did they feel toward nomads? The affluent despise nomads – and God tells Abram to become one. And how about fertility? That world worshiped fertility – and God singles out an infertile couple for his blessing. And how about past and future? Only endless circles of life and death: and God says Abram’s descendants – his future posterity – will be as numberless as stars, and all nations will be blessed by them.

Why does Abram go journeying with this strange new God? Perhaps its because he’s heard a voice that’s so different, so attractive. Think of it: Unlike the unknowable gods, this God has sought him. Unlike the gods of the endless wheel of life, this God talks about a future. Unlike the gods who use human beings for their own desires, this God is concerned with what Abram wants. Unlike the gods that destroy human lives, this one wants to bless all peoples everywhere. Unlike the gods who are barely satisfied by degrading rituals, this God wants Abram to become his friend. Who wouldn’t go?

God is beginning the reclamation of planet earth – all of it – and he is doing it by intentionally beginning a relationship with one man. Earth will never be the same.

I’ll finish this next week. Hang onto this. For you have to see what it is that God is attempting in order to see what he might be doing in the near-sacrifice of Isaac.

[musicians] Growing a relationship with God – I want you to see that this theme is not something New Oaks thought up. Some of you grew up singing this old song, like I did – and when I awakened to the presence of God, what it said amazed me.

[cue In the Garden]
[cue As The Deer]
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Service order outline:
(05.06.26 Proper A8 Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42)
Meet With Me
Beautiful One
Genesis 22:1-14
In the Garden
As The Deer
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Monte Asbury

Written by Monte

June 26, 2008 at 3:47 pm

2 Responses

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  1. It’s a story with deep insightful meaning. It is not obedience that this story tells us, rather it’s a righteous ending within blind faith. That true faith in something is always just, or it is no faith at all.


    January 28, 2010 at 3:25 pm

  2. Looking forward to the next installment.
    The bible is difficult.


    July 30, 2008 at 11:11 pm

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