This story from the Bible is often called the Binding of Isaac. In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Just before Abraham kills Isaac, however, an angel stops Abraham and tells him that it was all a test to see if he would obey God. Jews, Christians, and Muslims see this story as an outstanding example of perfect faith. What do you think?
1After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
Four thousand years ago, almost everyone everywhere in the world believed that there were many gods and goddesses. The belief in more than one god or goddess is called polytheism, a word which comes from the Greek words poly, meaning “many,” and theoi, which means “gods.” The people of both Egypt and Mesopotamia were polytheists. Almost all the gods and goddesses they worshipped were either forces of nature like thunder and fire or certain objects in nature like rivers and seas.
The people knew they depended on nature for their survival. If rain did not come to water their crops, they would die. If too much rain came and caused a flood, it might destroy their crops and their homes and perhaps even take their lives. Even small changes in weather, a summer that was just a little hotter or a winter that was just a little colder than usual, could cause major problems. To keep the forces of nature on their side, the people of the ancient world offered worship and sacrifices to them.
The people of Mesopotamia built their cities around temples dedicated to certain gods and developed elaborate rituals to worship these gods. They told myths about the things the gods had done. One of those myths, the Enuma Elish, tells the story of the creation of humans by the gods. According to that myth, the god Marduk created human beings to be the slaves of the gods. The gods were tired of doing all of the hard work of planting crops, taking care of them, and harvesting them. So they created people to do all of the work instead of them. This myth tells us a lot about what the Mesopotamians thought of themselves and their gods. They saw human life as very difficult and filled with hard work. Unlike the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians did not believe in immortality, so even after death there was no happiness. The Mesopotamians saw their gods as slave-masters. The gods took care of humans only if humans kept making the gods happy. If humans did not serve the gods or if they annoyed the gods, the gods might destroy them.
In about 1750 BC, however, a man named Abraham was born. Abraham was the first person to believe in a very different set of ideas about God and about humans. Abraham was a monotheist. This means he believed in only one God. According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Abraham was born in Ur, a city-state in Mesopotamia. From there, his family moved to Haran, a village in the northern part of Mesopotamia. It was at Haran that Abraham’s God appeared to him and told him to take his family and everything he owned and leave Mesopotamia.
Abraham’s God made a covenant, or special agreement, with him. If Abraham would move away from Mesopotamia and go to another place, called Canaan, God would give Abraham many children and grandchildren. His God told him that he would give Abraham as many grandchildren as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand in the desert. He would have so many grandchildren he would not be able to count all of them! Abraham was very happy about this. He was old and had no children. This was a problem because he was also very rich. If he died without children, his servants would be the ones to inherit all the things he owned. So, Abraham took his whole family, his servants, his animals, and all of the things he owned and moved to Canaan, a place very far away from his home.
Later, Abraham’s God rewarded Abraham by giving him a son. Abraham named his son Isaac. Isaac had a son named Jacob and Jacob later had 12 sons. These sons would later have many children of their own. Eventually, the descendants of Abraham numbered in the millions. Today, there are still millions of people who are the descendants of Abraham. He is considered the patriarch, or founder and father, of the Jewish people. His ideas and his special relationship with God are also important to Christians and Muslims. In total, about half of the people in the world belong to a religion that comes from Abraham and his ideas.
The way that Abraham thought about God, about the world, and about humans was unique for his time and had a major effect on the way we think about these things today. One of Abraham’s original ideas has already been mentioned. This is the idea of monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. Whereas other ancient people believed that there were many gods who represented different forces in nature, Abraham believed that there was only one God who had created all of nature.
This different view of God also made Abraham and his descendants view the world in a different way. Because other ancient people believed the world was filled with many different gods, they saw nature as chaotic. They believed, for example, that the sky god might fight against the earth god and cause thunder and lightning to strike the earth or not allow rain to fall to the ground. Maybe the fire god would go to war with the tree gods and burn them all down. If there is only one God who created all of nature and who controls it, however, then nature can be seen as good and orderly. If there is a flood or a forest fire, it is not because the gods are at war with each other but because the one God allowed it to happen for a good reason.
In addition to these different views of God and nature Abraham and his descendants also had a unique view of human beings. You have already read that the Mesopotamians believed that humans had been made by the gods to be slaves. Abraham, on the other hand, believed that God had made human beings to be his children. According to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, God created humans “in his image” (Genesis 1:27). This means that all humans, no matter if they are rich or poor, men or women, strong or weak, were created to be like God – to think, to love, and to be creative. The result of this idea is that Abraham and his descendants believed all human beings were special and that each human being is valuable. As we will see later, in the Bible there is a lot of focus on taking care of people that are poor and weak and on the idea that all human beings deserve to be treated well no matter who they are.
Abraham’s unique ideas were shocking at the time. Most ancient people would have laughed at the idea that there is only one God or the idea that this God cares about a poor person as much as he cares about a rich person. The ideas about God, nature, and human beings that began with Abraham took some time to become popular, but when they did they forever changed the world.
1. Where was Abraham from originally?
2. Where did God tell Abraham to move?
3. Why do you think God told Abraham to move away from the place where he was born and go somewhere else? Explain in a paragraph. (Hint: Think about how different Abraham’s beliefs were from other people at his time.)
Covenant – a special agreement between two people in which each person promises to do something for the other
Monotheism – the belief that there is only one God
Patriarch – founder and father of a group
Polytheism – the belief that there is more than one god; from the Greek poly (many) and theoi (gods)
Hello, everyone, David Withun here for Pious Fabrication, as always. And in this video we will be continuing our series on the history of Christianity. In the last video in this series, I discussed the world-changing ideas about a single God and his relationship to man and the cosmos that shook the worldview of ancient people. In this video, I will be continuing that discussion by speaking about the prophets of ancient Israel.
The great work accomplished by the prophets was to amplify and expand the message we explored in the previous video. Just as Abraham’s God had, as we discussed in that video, revealed himself as bigger and bigger throughout Abraham’s life, he continued to do so in the life of his descendants. It was the prophets of Israel who would be among the first to recognize that Abraham’s God was not merely the God of Abraham and those descended from him, but the God of all people everywhere at all times. They reached this conclusion at a key juncture in the history of Abraham’s descendants. Following a relatively short period of unity and self-rule, Israel fell into civil war and divided into two kingdoms. Divided and weakened, Israel was conquered in succession by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and, finally, after a very short restoration of self-rule, the Romans. Emerging out of these centuries of tumult was a new self-understanding and a wider view of the world, which is reflected in the thought of the prophets who appeared during this period proclaiming messages from God.
According to the prophets, God had subjected Israel to war and devastation at the hands of other nations because of Israel’s immorality. The Israelites had failed to remain faithful to God and to care for the weakest members of society – widows, orphans, and the poor. The calamities to which they were subjected were the result of these moral failings. We can see here the continuation of the earlier concern for morality in biblical thought.
The prophets also taught that God was not only the God of the Israelites, although they certainly had a special place in his plan. Instead, God was coming to be seen as the God all people. Part of this realization may have stemmed from the new Israelite contact with the Persians, a people whose religion, Zoroastrianism, bears some striking similarities with Judaism. We’ll explore that subject, however, in the next video in this series.
Importantly, the prophets saw God as in control of history. Many ancient peoples disappeared when they were conquered by foreign powers. Their native religions either faded away in the face of the beliefs and practices of the dominant power or were assumed into those of the dominant power. The Jews, however, not only continued to exist but were in fact strengthened through their contact with oppressive foreign powers. Their strength derived in large part from their belief that God is in control of all of history.
It is, in fact, this Jewish belief about history that makes this video series possible in the first place as it planted the seeds for the modern idea of history as a spectrum of events. The ancient pagan peoples whose gods were the forces of nature tended to see things in cycles, rhythms, and patterns. As a result, looking at their historical records is often messy and confusing. It was the Jews, however, who introduced the linear concept of time we have today. And they introduced this because of their belief that God intervenes periodically in the events of history. In other words, the pagan gods did the same thing over and over in a cycle, like nature does. The God of the Israelites, though, acted in history in a unique way: he intervened in human events as he saw fit rather than according to a regular cycle and he did something one time, not over and over in a rhythm. Thus history was born.
In the next video in this series, as I mentioned, we will be discussing Zoroastrianism, a fascinating religion which began at nearly the same time that Judaism began and not very far from where Judaism flourished and which held some beliefs that are amazingly similar to those of the Jews. When Judaism and Zoroastrianism came into contact for the first time, about 500 years before Christ, each almost certainly exerted an influence on the other. Zoroastrianism will also play an important role in later Christian history as we continue this series. Until then, I thank you very much for watching, and I look forward to reading, hearing, and seeing your comments.
Hello, everyone! David Withun for Pious Fabrications, as always, and in this video we will be really kicking off our new series on the history of Christianity. Specifically, in this video, I’ll be discussing the ancient Hebrews and some of their unique ideas about God and about people that have shaped the Christian worldview and continue to shape the way we view the world today.
When studying ancient polytheistic religions, commonly called “pagan” as shorthand, one really gets a sense of just how different the ancient worldview was. For most ancient peoples, including those in the Ancient Near East such as the Sumerians and Babylonians, as well as those elsewhere, the gods were generally viewed as indifferent and amoral. Of course, this makes sense when we consider that most of their gods were personifications of natural forces. Imagine living thousands of years ago, before all of the modern luxuries and scientific knowledge we so often take for granted today. The world is a big place and you know only a small portion of it. Even the portion of the world you know is often subject to forces you can’t comprehend or control – forces like heat and cold, light and dark, storms, earthquakes, floods. The world is terrifyingly unpredictable. It often seems it is at war with itself – perhaps certain parts of it are even at war with you personally. This is the world people lived in 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia. As a result, they came to see the various forces of nature as gods who vied with one another for power, prestige, and pleasure. In their relations with humans, the gods were often cruel and arbitrary and almost always indifferent to human suffering. For these people, religion – the set of rituals and doctrines concerning supernatural forces – was largely the means by which one either secured the favor of at least one of these gods – in a world like this, it’s good to have a powerful friend – or, more frequently, religion was simply the means by which you tried to just keep the gods off your back so they wouldn’t harm you.
The religion that would become Judaism arose out of this context in its earliest form and introduced a novel way of viewing God that would have major ramifications for views of other humans and of the world in general. One of the greatest novelties was the idea of monotheism, that there is a single God who governs the entire cosmos rather than, as in polytheism, a plethora of gods who are the various forces within the cosmos. We can see the development of this idea, which took a very long time to develop in its fullest form, in the life of Abraham as told in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. When the story begins, Abraham is a male in the ancient Near East – he has a household and his household has a god who functions, basically, as a good luck charm. When Abraham needs some super-human help, he turns to his god, offers a sacrifice, and makes a wish. This is, in a nutshell, the way people at this time viewed the gods. Abraham’s God, though, is different – he starts making crazy demands like that Abraham abandon his ancestral homeland and set off into the desert and the unknown and danger and that Abraham kill his only son – his heir in whom Abraham had placed all his hopes for a continuation of his family – then he stops the execution at the last minute, he shows that his power extends to more than that of other gods — he destroys whole cities like Sodom and Gomorrah, and, even more bizarre, he destroys them not because of some arbitrary whim or to establish his own dominance or because they didn’t offer the right sacrifices, but because they behave immorally by not being hospitable to strangers. This God is unlike the other gods of the Ancient Near East – he’s downright crazy. He demands absolute obedience, claims absolute power, and behaves in startlingly unexpected ways.
The view of God that is emerging here ultimately culminates in the ideas of the prophets which we’ll discuss in the next video. What is important to remember right now is that something remarkable is happening in Hebrew thought even at this early stage. God is coming to be viewed as a unitary power who stands apart from and above the world. As a result, the world is becoming, in a sense, more comprehensible. It is no longer filled with mysterious, cruel, and whimsical gods – it is a system under the governance and watchful eye of a single, all-powerful, all-good God. God is also coming to be viewed as someone who personally and lovingly created human beings as the pinnacle of his creation and who is intimately concerned with human conduct – and especially with how humans treat other humans. As a result, the way people view other people is changing; the ideas of the individual, of a concern for the weaker members of society, and of the intrinsic value of a person are being born.
In the next video, we will follow these ideas as they continued to progress and expand in the history of Abraham’s descendants. Until then, I thank you very much for watching and I look forward to reading, hearing, and seeing your comments.
I featured a few of these in my video on the Advent of Monotheism and have not been able to stop staring at them since. Rembrandt’s paintings, I think, capture and convey the incredible grandeur, terror, and wonder evoked by the biblical stories better than almost any other artist whose work I have seen.
|Sacrifice of Isaac (1635)|
|Moses with the Tables of the Law (1659)|
|Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630)|
|Saint Peter in Prison (1631)|
|The Raising of Lazarus (1630-32)|
|Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (1626)|