Questions about biblical texts

The Bible continues to change human history, and to challenge all who attempt to understand its truths.  It has been likened to a river so shallow that any can step into it but so deep that none ever explores it fully.  We will spend the rest of our lives studying its truths, yet never feel that we have come near to understanding fully its revelation.  We can examine scores of commentaries on the Scriptures, but their accumulated wisdom still leaves us hungry to know more.

The so-called difficult passages in the Bible have been especially interesting to commentators in recent years.  A number of excellent volumes have emerged, among them the "Hard Sayings of the Bible" series by InterVarsity Press; Robert H. Mounce, Answers to Questions About the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979); Larry Richards, Bible Difficulties Resolved (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1993); and Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).

This section of our study is not intended to replace these extensive resources, of course.  Rather, I will attempt brief answers to the most common questions I have been asked regarding passages in God's word. 

Were Adam and Eve real people?

We all know that Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden, so that the Fall is all her fault.  Except that Genesis nowhere states that the forbidden fruit was an apple.  In fact, unless climatic conditions were much different then in that region, apples would likely not have grown in the area.  And Adam was with Eve in the Garden, and ate the fruit as well.  What else do we know that we don't?

Were they symbols?

Some people, anxious to bridge the perceived chasm between science and faith, are quick to suggest that Adam and Eve were not real persons at all.  Perhaps they were mythical figures, symbols for humanity in general.  When Robert Frost writes of two roads diverging in a yellow wood, I don't need to know where the wood is located, because I understand that he's using poetic language.  Maybe the same is true with the first humans.

The Hebrew word adam simply means "man."  Nowhere does Genesis say that God or anyone else gave him the proper name Adam; you can translate the Hebrew as "man" everywhere "Adam" appears and be correct.  The New International Version follows most translations in rendering Genesis 1:20, "for Adam no suitable helper was found."  But there's no change in the Hebrew from earlier references to him as "the man" (cf. 1:27, 2:7, 15, 18).

Similarly, "Eve" doesn't make her appearance by name in the NIV until Genesis 3:20; previously she is "woman" (2:21, 23, etc.).  Her name probably means "living," pointing to her status as the first mother of humanity.  So perhaps "Adam" and "Eve" are symbols for "man" and "life."

This wouldn't be the last time Scripture uses symbolic language to make its point.  Jesus called himself the "true vine" and his Father the "gardener" (Jn 15:1), but no one thinks he is describing botanical truth.  Earlier he described himself as "the gate for the sheep" (Jn 10:7), and his disciples knew he was not speaking as a carpenter.

Could it be that the writer of Genesis used "man" and "life" to make larger symbolic statements about humanity?  Perhaps their temptation narrative is meant to describe such experience as we all face it.  Perhaps the later narratives which describe the Tower of Babel and Noah's flood, equally troubling to some who wish to reconcile Genesis with current scientific knowledge, are equally symbolic in nature.

How does the rest of the Bible see them?

The first question to ask in interpreting any piece of literature is to ask what its author intended to say.  If the text is clearly poetic or symbolic in nature, we can know that the writer wants us to avoid literalistic interpretation.  If the text is clearly historical and narrative in nature, giving places and dates and events, we can know that the writer wants us to treat the literature as factual rather than symbolic.

There is poetry to be found in the Genesis records of Adam and Eve.  Note the man's ecstatic reaction to the creation of woman (Gen 1:23), and God's condemnation of the snake's deception and the couple's sin (Gen 3:14-19).  But the rest of the text is written in straightforward, historical narrative.  Nothing here causes us to believe that the writer intended us to view his writing as mythical or symbolic.

Now let's consider how Adam is regarded in the New Testament.  In Romans 5, Paul wishes to explain how sin entered the human race.  He begins: "sin entered the world through the one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned" (v. 12).  As a result, "death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses" (v. 14).  Then he compares the "trespass of the one man" to the life given "through the one man, Jesus Christ" (v. 17).  Clearly Paul treats Adam and his sin as factual events in history.

In 1 Corinthians he expands the argument: "since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Cor 15:21-22).  He treats Christ and Adam in equivalent ways—either they are both historical figures, or neither is.  Later the apostle reminds Timothy, "Adam was formed first, then Eve" (1 Tim 2:13).

It seems clear that Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, considered Adam and Eve to be real figures of history.  For that reason, I see them the same way.


What difference does it make whether they were actual or symbols?  I have seen no list of truths fundamental to the faith which makes the historicity of Adam and Eve a crucial litmus test for genuine salvation.  When I baptize new believers I do not ask what they believe about Adam and Eve, but about Jesus.  So where is the larger relevance of the issue?  It is found at two points.

First, we should interpret Scripture as it interprets itself.  If Paul sees Adam and Eve as historical, his inspired opinion should guide mine.  We are not free to treat the Bible as a work of modern art, projecting our own thoughts onto its canvas.  Those who believe that Adam and Eve were symbols should give us biblical reasons for their position.

Second, we should interpret science through Scripture, not the reverse.  Current opinion regarding the age and origin of man must not determine how we read the Bible.  We'll say more on this subject when we get to science and faith questions.

Here's one more reason why I think Adam was real: I see him in me.  I have his eyes for forbidden fruit, his ability to blame others for my sins.  Does he live in your mirror as well?

Where did Cain get his wife?

Can God make a rock so big he can't move it?  Can he make two mountains without making a valley in between?  Computer programmers have a shorthand statement for such questions: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out).  God is not obligated to do that which is logically contradictory, like making a square circle or a red number seven.  Such "category mistakes" are not his fault but ours.

"Where did Cain get his wife?" can seem like more of the same, like asking "How much does green weigh?"  It's a question first-graders like to ask to stump their teachers and parents.  But it's actually a much better question than its critics think.

Raising Cain

We know where Cain came from: "Adam lay with his wife, Eve; and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain" (Gen 4:1).  His name in Hebrew meant "acquired" or "brought forth."  Later she gave birth to his younger brother "Abel"; his name meant "breath," "temporary," or "meaningless," foreshadowing what would come of his life.

After he murdered his brother, "Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch" (Gen 4:17).  To Enoch was born Irad, who became the father of Mehujael, who became the father of Methushael, who became the father of Lamech (v. 18).  No wives are named anywhere.  Finally Lamech marries two women who are named: Adah and Zillah (v. 19).

Still later, Adam and Eve had a third child, a boy named Seth (Gen 4:25).  Adam lived 800 years after Seth's birth and "had other sons and daughters" (v. 4).

Now, where did Cain get the wife who bore Enoch?  For that matter, where did Enoch get his wife?  And his daughter-in-law?  And his grand-daughter-in-law?

It is said that we are successful if we can choose our problems in life.  Such sentiment is often equally true of biblical interpretation.  Here we have two options to consider.  Each has an up side and a down side.

Cain married his sister

Option one: Adam and Eve bore daughters in addition to their sons, one of whom became Cain's wife.  Nowhere does Genesis say that they bore only Cain and Abel before later creating Seth.

It was customary in Jewish genealogical records to list only the men, unless a woman's name was unusually important to the story (as with Lamech's bigamy).  While this part of the Genesis record precedes Abraham and Judaism by many generations, the book was written and preserved by Jewish scholars and scribes.  Thus their bias against including women in birth records would not be surprising here.

Here's the down side: Cain married his sister.  While such a relationship would of course be problematic later, it was a necessity at this early point in human history.  And so God protected mankind from the genetic problems such inbreeding can cause today.  Nothing in the Genesis record makes this option impossible or even unlikely.

God created Cain's wife

Option two: God made more people after he made Adam and Eve.  Either he made Cain's wife as he made Adam's, or he made her parents or ancestors.  Nowhere does Genesis or the rest of Scripture state that God made only Adam and Eve.

In defense of this thesis, note Cain's protest when judged by God for murdering his brother: "I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me" (Gen 4:14).  In response, "The Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him" (v. 15; sidebar note: the "mark of Cain" was not related to race).  If Cain and his parents were the only humans alive on the planet at this time, why was he so afraid of others?

Perhaps his fear indicates the existence of large numbers of other people (or, alternately, he is afraid of future consequences when mankind grows more populous).  If many people were living at the time, perhaps they were the offspring of another parental couple or couples (or, alternately, perhaps they were more of Adam and Eve's unnamed children).

Here's the down side: God made people besides Adam and Eve whose stories are left out of the biblical record.  Where did they live after the expulsion from Eden?  Did they commit their own "original sin," since they were not descended from Adam?  Why does the Bible nowhere mention them?


The down side of option #2 makes it unlikely to me, so I'll go with the first option.  With this additional note of relevance: Jesus' birth and life were exceptionally inclusive of all humanity.  While Genesis records no women by name in the early line of human history, Jesus' genealogy lists four notorious exceptions to this rule: Tamar the temptress, Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the foreigner, and the adulterous mother of Solomon (cf. Mt. 1:1-18).  Women may not have been named in the creation of humanity, but they are included in the story of its redemption.

When people write the history of this generation, it is possible that no one will include your name or mine.  But don't worry—the Lord of the universe knows who you are.  And his record is the only one that matters.

Who were the "sons of God and daughters of men"?

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, "It's not the parts of the Bible I don't understand which bother me—it's the parts I do understand."  We understand what he meant, even if he never said it.  The Bible tells us all we need to know, but seldom all we want to know. 

Occasionally a biblical passage text tells us all we need to know, and more than we want to know.  As we investigate one of the most perplexing texts in Scripture, we'll find that it is actually one of the most urgent, practical, and relevant passages in God's word.

Sons and daughters of whom?

The passage begins with one of the more confusing sentences in all the Bible: "When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose" (Gen 6:1-2).  Who were these "sons of God" and "daughters of men"?

Some interpreters believe that the "sons of God" were angels, since Job 1:6 and Psalm 29:1 use this title for them.  But Jesus told us that angels "neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Mk 12:25).  Some believe the "sons of God" were kings, since people in the ancient Near East often associated their royal figures with divinity.  However, the Bible never does.  An interesting approach suggests that the "sons of God" were descendants of Seth, the godly child of Adam and Eve, and the "daughters of men" were descendants of the evil Cain.  In this view, what happened here was intermarriage across tribal and spiritual lines.  But the author of Genesis could easily have made this clear, and didn't.

I think the clues we need are found in the text immediately surrounding our passage.  Scripture intends to be clear, and was very clear to its original audience.  So we must ask ourselves, what did they understand these words to mean?  Genesis 2 says that God formed man from the ground, and woman from man (vs. 7, 23).  So calling men the "sons of God" and women the "daughters of men" was simply repeating what the readers of Genesis already knew, and what the rest of the Bible teaches as well.

The Bible refers to men as "sons of God" in nine different places (cf. Dt 14:1, 32:5, Ps 73:15, Is 43:6-7, Hos 1:10, 11:1, Lk 3:38, 1 Jn 3:1-2, 10).  The text here seems simply to refer to men and women.  And nothing in these verses ties these "sons of God and daughters of men" specifically to the flood which follows.  They were simply populating the earth as God had commanded them (Gen 1:28).

Who were the Nephilim?

Now we come to another confusing reference: "The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them.  They were the heroes of old, men of renown" (v. 4).

Their name means "to fall."  Some see them as evil figures and interpret their name as "fallen ones."  Others see them as heroic warriors and see their name as "falling on" others in strength and victory.  They are among the children produced by the "sons of God and daughters of men," but nothing in the text ties them specifically to the coming Flood.  They are simply figures in the biblical narrative.

So we have "sons of God and daughters of men," probably men and women who are marrying and having children.  Among them were mighty warriors and heroes in the ancient Near East.  Perhaps you're wondering how any of this could be urgent, practical, and relevant, how it could apply to our lives today.  Let's read on.

What's on your mind?

As our text proceeds, we move quickly from confusion to clarity, from ancient history to life experience today.  Verse 5 comes home: "The Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time."

God reads our minds and knows our thoughts.  He knows how sinful they can be.  He knows that we don't put our thoughts into action because of legal restraints and fear of being caught.  But he knows what we would do if we could.  Think about your thoughts for a moment, and you'll see what God sees every moment of every day.

Such sin "grieves" the Lord and fills his heart with pain (v. 6).  He is holy and cannot countenance or condone our sin.  He must bring it to judgment, as he did with the Flood.

But now the good news dawns on the black horizon: "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (v. 8).  He "found" it—he didn't earn it.  He found "favor"—the Hebrew word means "to bend or stoop," and describes the condescending and unmerited favor of a superior for an inferior.  This is the Old Testament's primary word for grace; this text is its first use in all of Scripture.  Through Noah, God extended this favor to the rest of mankind, as Noah warned the race of the coming judgment and Flood.  Finally God had to judge humanity, after mankind refused his grace and salvation.  But only after he had given them every chance to be saved.


We are all in this passage, each of us a "son of God" or "daughter of men."  No matter how much "renown" we have earned in the eyes of others, each of us is guilty of sinful thoughts and hearts before the only Judge of the universe.  We have only this day to accept his offer of saving grace.  One day he will come for us, or we will go to him.  I cannot promise that judgment will come today.  But I cannot promise that it will not.

Can you?

Was Noah's Ark real?

A woman once told me, "If you can prove God loves me, I'll trust him."  I asked her if she could prove that her husband loved her, that his words were true and his actions sincere.  She admitted she could not.

As with all relationships, faith in God requires commitment which transcends the evidence.  If you wait until you can prove you should be married, you'll never see a wedding altar.  If you must prove that you'll be a good father or mother before you have children, you'll never paint a nursery.

Noah is the supreme example in Scripture of faith which became sight.  If we'll learn from his example, we'll see his God.

Starting at 500 years of age

Nothing is known of Noah's early days.  He first appears in Scripture when he is 500 years old (Gen 5:32).  If we think him an old man, we should meet his grandfather, Methuselah.  This patriarch lived 969 years (Gen 5:25-27), longer than any other person in the Bible.  In fact, he died in the year of the flood: he was 187 years old when Lamech was born; Lamech was 182 years of age when Noah was born; and Noah was 600 years old when the flood came (Gen 7:11).  You can do the math.  It may be that Methuselah died in the flood.

How did they live such long lives in those days?  It is possible that the word translated "year" meant a different period of time.  Perhaps the numbers used were symbolic in nature.  But the most likely option is that these men and women actually lived such life spans, well into the time of Abraham (cf. Gen 6:3, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years").  It would seem that God either needed or chose to populate the earth through such long lives.

Noah's name apparently means "rest."  It came true for him and his Ark, but not for the rest of humankind.

Finding the favor of God

God was grieved over the sin of humanity (Gen 6:5-7).  However, "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (v. 8).  "Favor" translates the Hebrew word chen, meaning to bend or stoop; it shows the act of a superior man stooping down to an inferior one.  This word is the perfect picture of what God did for Noah and what he does for us today, extending his undeserved grace and favor.

God wanted to do this for all of mankind, but they would not accept his mercy.  As we will soon see, they rejected every opportunity for salvation.  On the other hand, Noah positioned himself to receive such grace.  He was "a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God" (v. 9).  His righteousness did not earn God's favor, but it put Noah in position to receive what God wanted to give.  Noah was by no means perfect—remember his drunkenness in Genesis 9.  But he responded to God's grace, for himself and his family.

And so God called Noah to build an ark which would preserve his family and the rest of God's creation.  Its dimensions would be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, 45 feet high, creating a displacement of 14,000 tons.  The ark possessed a carrying capacity of 522 standard railroad cars: 188 for 45,000 animals (17,600 species), three trains of 104 cars each for food, family, and room to move about.  Building this ark took Noah 100 years (he was 500 years old at the beginning, and 600 at the end).  Then "the Lord shut him in" (7:16), another picture of divine grace.

Now the rains came, falling for 40 days and 40 nights (7:12).  They covered the mountains to a depth of 20 feet (7:20), flooding the earth for 150 days (7:24).  Five months after the flood began, the Ark came to rest "on the mountains of Ararat" (8:4).  Eight months after the flood began, the tops of the mountains became visible (8:5).  A year and 10 days after the flood began, the earth was completely dry (8:14).

And God made a new covenant with Noah and with all humanity.  He would never again destroy the earth by a flood (9:11, although 2 Pt 3:10 says the world will one day end by fire).  In this covenant, God prohibited idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, robbery, and eating the flesh of a living animal.  Then he gave the world the rainbow (9:13-17), as the sign of this covenant and promise that no rains will ever destroy the world again.  The Lord proved that he has the power to end life, and to preserve it.

The story of the ark and flood is so remarkable that some discount it as myth.  But the text is written as historical narrative, with no hint that it intends to be seen as symbolic.  And other ancient documents also tell of a universal flood, as we would expect if such an event did indeed affect the entire human race.  If God made the universe, he certainly possesses the power to perform the miracle this story describes.

Noah obviously believed in such a God of power.  It is likely that he built his ark against the coming flood when no one had ever seen rain; God initially watered the earth from streams or mists which "came up from the earth" (Gen 2:6), so that "rain" is not mentioned until Gen. 7:4.  He spent 100 years at the task, with no record that anyone helped him.  And no one else even believed him: he was a "preacher of righteousness" to the world, but none accepted his offer of salvation (2 Pt. 5:2).  He persevered, and received the grace God intends for all.


Today we "find favor in the eyes of the Lord" exactly as Noah did.  We obey his word as we know it, positioning ourselves to receive the grace he intends for us all.  And he offers us a place in the ark of his salvation, protection from the coming flood of justice and judgment, and eternity in a new land filled with promise and peace.  The choice is ours.

Does God still love the Jews?

I will never forget my visit to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.  Each moment of those hours has haunted me for years.  The pile of shoes which is all that remains of thousands of cremation victims; images of living skeletons and sunken eyes; Nazi tattoos on arms and souls.

If the Jews were truly God's "chosen people," how could such atrocity befall them?  Why did he "choose" them?  Does he still love them?

Did God choose the Jews?

Today the world Jewish population numbers about 13 million.  About six million live in the United States; 4.5 million live in Israel; the remainder are scattered across the world.  Most are "Ashkenazim," descendants of Jewish communities in central and Eastern Europe.  Others are "Sephardim," descendants of Jews from Spain, Portugal, other Mediterranean countries, and the Middle East.

The Jewish people trace their beginnings to Abraham (ca. 2000-1800 B.C.), a nomadic shepherd living in what is now southeastern Iraq.  God called him to leave his homeland for a "promised land" (Gen 12:1-2), with this result: "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (v. 3).  Through their nation, God would one day bring the promised Messiah (the "chosen one") whose sacrifice would make possible the salvation of the human race.  And so the Lord chose the Jews as his conduit of blessing to the nations.

Along the way, the Jewish nation had every reason to wonder if they were really his chosen people, if God truly loved them.  They experienced 430 years in Egyptian slavery, 40 years of wilderness wandering, and seven years of bloodshed and suffering as they conquered their Holy Land.  Then civil war divided the nation permanently.  Assyrian conquest destroyed their ten northern tribes.  Babylonian conquest enslaved their two southern tribes.  Then came oppression by the Greeks and finally enslavement by the Romans.

By the New Testament era, it seemed that God had abandoned the Jewish people.  They had every reason to wonder if he still loved them.  They are not the last.

Does God choose us?

Here is the central fact we must remember: though the Jews rejected the Messiah, he has not rejected them.  The Apostle Paul said, "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles come in" (Ro 11:25b).  The "hardening" here is spiritual, that hardening of the arteries of the soul which comes from refusing the gospel.

Because the Jews rejected Christ, his followers turned to the Gentiles.  His church took the gospel to the Gentile world.  With this result: the "full number of the Gentiles," meaning the entire Gentile world, could "come in" to God's kingdom.

So God used the Jewish refusal of Christ, but Christ has not refused them.  "And so all Israel will be saved," Paul continues (v. 26a).  "All Israel" here does not mean that every Jew will be saved apart from Christ—Paul spoke in Romans 9:2 of his "great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart" over the lostness of his Jewish nation.  The apostle meant that the entire race of the Jews would have opportunity to come to salvation, just as the Gentiles now have that privilege.

How?  Through the Gentiles, God offers salvation to the Jews.  Paul said it this way: "I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them" (Ro 11:13-14).  The apostle hoped that the Jews would see the Gentiles coming to salvation, become jealous, and come to Christ as a result.  Then God could fulfill his covenant to "take away their sins" (v. 27).

Here's the point: despite all they have endured, all the failures and slaveries and pain they have faced, "they are loved" (v. 28).  Verse 29 promises that God's "gifts" (the word means his "grace") and call are "irrevocable"—he will never take them back or regret them.  One day he hopes to "have mercy on them all" (v. 32).

And what God promised to the Jews, he promised to the Gentiles as well.  Galatians 3 announces this incredible fact: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (vs. 28-29).

The Jewish people rejected the Messiah, but he did not reject them.  Now you have failed the Father; you have sometimes refused his truth; we have all sinned and fallen short of his glory (Ro 3:23).  We have rejected God's word and will, but he has not rejected us.  No matter what you've done or where you've done it, he loves you still.  This is exactly what his word promises every one of us, with no exceptions, today.


Now God wants us to accept his unconditional grace and love.  Are you trying to earn God's mercy?  Punishing yourself for your failures?  Confessing sins to God which he has already forgiven and forgotten?  Laboring in guilt you won't release?  Allowing the past to poison the present?

There are many Old Testament Christians today—people who are saved by grace but live by works, keeping the Law, making sacrifices, living in religious duty and obligation and ritual, hoping to earn what Jesus died to give.  Are you among them?

Why did God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

The week after my first son was born, I was scheduled to preach on Genesis 22 and the story of Abraham's offering of Isaac.  I had to change the sermon.  As I told the congregation, I thought I didn't understand this story before.  Now I knew I didn't.

Perhaps this text has bothered you as well.  God's requirement seems so unfair, so unlike a Father of love.  And Abraham's faith seems so far beyond human ability.  As we'll learn, both appearances are deceiving.

What did God ask of Abraham?

The passage opens with a very confusing statement: "Some time later God tested Abraham.  He said to him, 'Abraham!'  'Here I am,' he replied" (Gen 22:1).  The Hebrew word nawsaw means to test and prove something, to show that it is so.  It does not mean to tempt to do wrong, but to test so that we can do right.  God is going to give Abraham a faith test, one he will pass with flying colors.

Here it is: "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about" (v. 2).  Remember that Abraham had waited 25 years for this son.  When he was born God had promised his father, "it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned" (Gen 21:12).  And now God told this elderly man, more than 110 years old, to sacrifice him to God.

"Go the region of Moriah," to Mt. Moriah.  This is the single most significant mountain in the world today.  Where Abraham offered Isaac, David later offered sacrifice to God on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Sam 24:17-19).  And so Solomon, David's son, built his Temple here and made this rock at the top of the mountain the Holy of Holies (2 Chr 3:1).

Today this rock is enshrined in the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim structure completed in AD 691.  It is the holiest spot on earth to the Jews, and third holiest to the Muslims.  They both want it.  And the Middle East conflict which rages today comes down to it.

But long before all of that, a conflict raged in the heart of an old man.  He was to "sacrifice" his son here, to slit his throat and burn his body.  To give up his beloved child, his heir and legacy and future, everything that mattered to him.  To give it all to God.

And he passed the test.  He and Isaac got up early the next morning and traveled by foot more than 40 miles over three days.  He climbed up this mountain with him, and laid his bound son on this altar, knife high in the air.  How did he do it?

By faith in God.  He trusted his Lord, not just with his religion but with his life.  Not just with what he could spare, but with his best.  He knew that whatever he gave to God, God would bless.  Hebrews 11:19 says, "Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death."  He knew that if God wanted him to sacrifice this son, God could raise him back to life.  God could still keep his promises and make him his heir.  God could do whatever God wants to do.

We see this faith in Abraham's promise to his servants: "We will worship and then we will come back to you" (v. 5).  And they did.  We see it in his promise to Isaac: "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (v. 8).  And he did, giving Abraham the ram which replaced his son on the altar of worship.

Abraham trusted God with his best, and God did more with it than Abraham ever could.  He made this one child the father of the Hebrew people.  Through his descendants God brought his own Son, who died on his own sacrificial wood as our sin offering to God.

And now because of what God did through Isaac, Abraham's seed, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal 3:28-29).  Through Abraham's child we are all God's children.  All because he gave his best to God, and God blessed it and is using it still today.

What does God ask of us?

Now the Lord is calling us to do what Abraham did.  He wants us to let him control our lives—every part of them.  To put our families, and friends, and finances, and futures on his altar.  To put ourselves where Abraham put his son.  To give our lives to God.

Romans 12:1-2 is the New Testament commentary on our text.  Hear these familiar words in a new way, through Eugene Peterson's translation, The Message: "Here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.  Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.  Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.  Instead, fix your attention on God.  You'll be changed from the inside out.  Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.  Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you."

But even God can use only what we trust to him.  No doctor can treat a patient who is unwilling to be helped.  God is still looking for those with the faith of Abraham.


"Take your everyday, ordinary life—and place it before God as an offering"—this is the call of God.  Who is Isaac to you?

Why did God tell the Jews to kill the Canaanites?

The book of Joshua presents most readers with a troubling question: how can a God of love command his followers to destroy an entire nation of people?  The Canaanites had lived in their land for centuries before Joshua and his people came to claim it for themselves.  While some in Canaan fought against God's people and were destroyed as a result (cf. the battle of Ai, 8:14ff), others did not attempt armed aggression against Israel.  The people of Jericho, for instance, retreated inside their city walls and mounted no attack against the Jews.  Nonetheless, following divine orders, the Israeli soldiers "destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys" (6:21).

The God of Joshua also required a similar kind of wrathful judgment against his own people when they sinned.  Following the battle of Jericho, a soldier named Achan took in plunder "a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels" (7:21).  He did so in direct disobedience to the divine command that "All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury" (6.19).

For this sin, the Israeli army was defeated in the first battle of Ai.  When Achan admitted his disobedience, he and his family were taken to the Valley of Achor where they were stoned to death and then burned (7:25).

Such vengeance sounds very little like the God who is love (1 Jn 4:8), the One who would send his own Son to die on a cross in place of our disobedient race.  How are we to reconcile the first Joshua with the Second?  Four facts may help us.

Facts to remember

First, the Promised Land belonged to God before the Canaanites established temporary residency there.  It had always been his plan to give this land to the descendants of Abraham: "In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here" (Gen 15:16a).  The Lord did not take from the Canaanites that which was "theirs"—he reclaimed that which was his according to his foreordained purposes.

Second, the Canaanites lived in wicked rebellion against the will and purposes of God.  The Lord had predicted that Abraham's descendants would claim the land when "the sin of the Amorites" reached its "full measure" (Gen 15:16b).  This "full measure" of sin was attained by the Canaanites in the generation leading to the Jewish conquest.

Moses warned his people about these sins they would encounter upon entering the Promised Land: "Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead" (Deut 18:10-11).  He stated that anyone who practices such sins is "detestable to the Lord," and explained that "because of these detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you" (v. 12).  Those who were conquered by Joshua and his armies were not innocent victims, but wicked sinners who received the judgment their transgressions had warranted.

Third, the blood retribution practiced by ancient tribal culture required the Jewish armies to destroy not only the soldiers of their enemies, but their families as well.  So long as one member of a family remained, that person was bound by cultural law to attempt retribution against the enemies of his people.  Such unrest and hostility would have persisted throughout the nation's history, with no possibility of peace in the land.  What appears to be genocide was actually the way wars were typically prosecuted.

Fourth, in these formative early years of Israel's history it was imperative that the people be kept from the influence of sinners without or within their nation.  The holy God who gave them their land would uproot them from it if they rebelled against him (Deut 28:63-68).  This warning came to pass centuries later at the hands of Assyria and then Babylon, and ultimately in the national destruction wrought by Rome in the first century of the Christian era.

And so God had to bring severe judgment against Achan, lest he and his family spread the cancer of their disobedience within the nation.  He ordered his people to destroy all they found within Canaanite civilization, lest it continue to tempt them to disobedience and eventual destruction.  We find similar severity during the formative years of the Christian movement in God's judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Ac 5:1-11).


God does not change.  But his purposes are fulfilled in different ways at different times in redemptive history.  Justice required retribution against the sinful Canaanite civilization.  And his salvation plan required a purified nation through whom he could bring the Messiah of all mankind.  When Christ came, Joshua's leadership of conflict and conquest was fulfilled.

Now we are taught to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Mt 5:44).  Not because God has changed, for such love proves that we are "sons of your Father in heaven" (v. 45).  Rather, because such love expresses his grace toward us and all mankind.

Was it fair that Israel destroyed the residents of Canaan?  If God were fair, none of us could see his perfect heaven.  We are all spiritual Canaanites, saved from eternal wrath only by the love of our Creator.  Think back to your last sin.  Admit that this one transgression warrants the judgment and condemnation of a holy God.  And thank God that he is not fair.