There were many voices in those days. It was a confusing, spacious time of noise and increase in the region, a great seeking of the rhythms and ways of the gods that, in turn, the people might be blessed with fertility and plenty.
The mighty temple stood like a massive lopsided pyramid at the center of the great Chaldean city of Ur. They say it began as the great tower to which all of humanity flocked in wonder and awe, working together to build it to the heavens, to be as the gods. The aged fathers still speak of that great time of confusion, under the mad king Nimrod, when families and communities were separated by the confusion, unable to speak or understand one another, flung to the ends of the earth in chaos and fear, a true Babel.
The great rivers plodded southward through the land, meandering in broad, lazy pathways, turning what should have been a desert into a land of goodness. Legend was that this place was once the garden of the Great God, that of all places on earth, He had chosen this plain between Tigris and Euphrates to nestle His creation.
But times and seasons change. War drums played, armies marched and leaders hungry for power sat in their towers of jewels, aspiring to the place of the gods and demanding worship. Though stability of government reigned, there was no end of fear of the gods. Commerce was strong, but so was slavery. Security was found only in power and power was becoming centralized in ways that helped the few and threatened the many.
It was in this age that tragedy found the family of Terah in Ur. His oldest son, Haran, died too young, his loving father and young son, Lot, by his side. The pain and memories were too much for Terah, and the commercial and political situations in Ur too tenuous, so took his family and departed Ur.
To the west, Terah moved his family, seeking the mysterious land of Canaan, that land of peace-loving warrior giants whose ancestors were the spawn of angels. Whispers on the wind said the gods of the land of Canaan were harsh, demanding even the sacrifice of one’s firstborn to appease their wrath, but the sacrifice was worth it. Rumors abounded about this spacious, fertile place of gigantic harvests – grapes as large as a man’s head and never-ending rivers of milk and wine. It was to this land of fearsome gods and massive abundance that Terah intended his family. After all, his firstborn was already sacrificed.
But the journey was hard and Terah was old. They stopped and homesteaded a settlement together just north of the great sands of Arabia in Assyria. Terah named the city he founded after his dead son, Haran. It was in Haran, that Terah departed this world to the eternal valley of the gods. And it was here that his living oldest son, Abram, intended to stay with his wife, Sarai, his younger brother and his family and his now adopted son – though truly his nephew – Lot, the heir of the deceased Haran.
But things were to change for Abram. Terah’s original intent to plant his family in Canaan was to become a reality.
Abram, a merchant shepherd by trade and loyal follower of the gods, was alone one day when God spoke to him. “Abram, go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This was new: a God who speaks. All his life, Abram had seen the gods represented, and had learned of his father their prescribed expectation, what was required to please them that blessing might come and protection be had. But to be personally engaged by a god, to have personal communication, to be verbally blessed…never. Wood, dirt, stone and metal cannot speak. But this God spoke.
Now, mind you, hearing voices in ancient times is not unlike hearing voices in this modern day. People would have raised an eyebrow at Abram and offered a sincere roll of the eyes. Gods were everywhere, but they were made of wood, stone and metal, worshipped in elaborate ziggurats served by priests and priestesses who did their supposed bidding. There they sat, wide-eyed and open-handed, skinny or fat, large-breasted and curved of hip, tall or short. Offerings were made, rituals were performed, the gods were given their due.
But they did not communicate. Wood, stone and metal cannot speak. The evil behind the idols was very much alive, but the gods themselves were not.
Furthermore, the voice of this God was worth following. Going where? The voice of God would say. How would Abram know when he arrived? The voice of God would speak. What to do when he got there? Again, the voice of God was enough.
Idols demand senseless sacrifice, but this Great Speaking God was offering blessing. A world-changing people who would forever stand as the people of this communicative-God, the children of Abraham. Was it fantastical? Sure. Might Abram have ben considered half-nuts? Probably. But there was a Voice, and there was listening, and there was relationship, and there was faith. Most of all, there was faith. There was no Bible, there was no Jewish people, there was no backstory. No one knew that creation, the flood and Babel were all connected in some mystical metanarrative.
There was just the voice of God. And there was faith.
This was the beginning of the wonderful story of the people of God. YHWH inserted Himself into the story of humanity with goodness and grace, in direct opposition to gods of the world who served as cold statues of oppression and fear. His voice had called the world into being, and now His voice was creating a people for Himself, holding them in His covenant of love and blessing.
This God offered grace in the place of Abram’s failures.
This God made a one-sided covenant of grace and blessing rather than requiring Abram to hold up his end of the bargain.
This God turned a dry desert into a place of plenty for the sake of his son.
This God saved the treasured nephew of Abraham from the miserable destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
This God spoke to His son Abraham, inserting Himself again and again into the fabric of the tapestry of His people.
In the greatest cultural upheaval of all, God spoke again, but was it just Abraham or was this not slightly out of character for Him? Now He called for the sacrifice of Abraham’s firstborn. You and I think of this as barbarism and tyranny, but allow it to be what it is. Think about it in the historical context in which it exists.
The gods called for the death of children all the time. It’s how they worked, how their government operated. They started offering everything, but at some point, they would demand everything, even the sacrifice of that which you most loved: your child, the generation coming behind you. The destruction of you as a people.
To Abraham, and everyone else observing, the thought was, “Wow, this God of Abraham is different.” Now this God of Abraham was calling for sacrifice of the firstborn. The thought now shifts to, “Huh…guess Abraham’s God isn’t so different after all. Nice bait and switch.”
If you know the story, though, you can see God’s masterful orchestration of this act of spiritual warfare against these horrid, damnable gods. The story plays itself out in beautiful illustration.
Father tells the servants they are both coming back.
Son takes the wood for the fire on his back.
Father and son climb the mountain.
Son asks father where the sacrifice is.
Father says God will provide the sacrifice.
Son hopes the sacrifice is not him.
Father builds the altar, grabs the son and ties him up.
Son realizes he is indeed the sacrifice.
Father and son together think maybe this God isn’t so different.
Son is taken to his place on the altar.
Father is determined to live by faith in the speaking-God.
Son closes his eyes in terror.
Father raises the knife.
Ram is slain.
Son is saved.
Faith is justified, and
The voice of God saves!
With great fanfare and deep wonder, this speaking-God demonstrates that He is not at all like the other gods. They demand the blood of the children of their subjects. This God offers His own Child in sacrifice for them all. Those silent gods offer pain and oppression while this speaking-God offers grace and atonement that is free.
The voice of God continues to speak. He is calling to you. He is calling to His Church. His people have received His deepest love through His greatest sacrifice, but their hearts have returned to the silent, lifeless gods. They are again sacrificing their children in manipulation and fear.
Let the one who has an ear to hear,
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.