Sunday, July 31, 2011

Genesis 22:8 Jehovah Jireh: Does it really mean "the Lord will provide"?

The Hebrew root word from which Jireh stems is a very, very common verb that means "see". The HALOT lexicon, however, never lists "provide" as a possible nuance of Ra-'ah. HALOT specifically addresses Genesis 22:8 and suggests "choose/select" instead. This is to be understood as selection via the eyes. In English we might think of this as choosing a product off the self in a store by scanning over some things and then laying or fixing our eyes on one thing. In fact, even though the verb Ra-'ah occurs 1302 times, it is only translated into the English word "provide" in 4 places, and every one of these instances is listed in HALOT under the "choose/select" nuance.
While many commentators from Kiel & Delitzsch to Wenham to Hamilton to Naude assert "provide" as an alternate translation sense of Ra-'ah, I don't see the contextual evidence supporting this idea, not even in the Septuagint. Even the Aramaic targums use various words which mean "choose", "appoint", or "reveal". So far I can't even find who came up with the idea of "provide" as a possible definition of Ra-'ah.

"Choose" flows much better in the Genesis 22 narrative than "provide". Isaac asks where the sheep for the sacrifice is. Abraham answers that the Lord will "choose" for himself the sheep. Abraham's ambiguity not only adds to dramatic tension that has been dripping with every word in the previous verses, it segues into the vital lesson in the story. God picks for himself what is offered to him, and he does so at the place of its offering. God's choice of a sacrifice is not supposed to be comfortable, and that is the very point of the passage. God's choice is hard. It makes no sense. To explain or soften this tension is to render this story impotent. We bring the full measure of what God asks to him to sacrifice, but he is allowed to choose / substitute anything he deems a worthy exchange. Some commentators have wondered why Isaac and Abraham both expect a sheep, and instead God provides a ram. The alteration is perfectly understandable if the point of the passage is that God chooses the sacrifice. God can choose whatever he wants for a sacrifice.

Later laws governing sacrifices shed light on this subject. The ceremonial law is very specific about what kind of animal is to be offered for each of various kinds of sacrifices, even to its age, gender, and quality. Despite this specificity, an Israelite would not know which specific animal among many qualified animals would be offered until he purchased it at the temple. In other words, the saying, "On the mountain of the Lord it will be seen/chosen" had a very pragmatic sense for those in the sacrificial system.

The word play in the narrative is that at the moment the messenger of the Lord tells Abraham to stop, Abraham lifts his eyes and "sees" a ram caught by its horns in the nearby brush. The implication is that this ram is also "seen/chosen" by God as an acceptable substitute for Isaac.

Why is this lesson about God choosing an acceptable sacrifice at the last moment so important? Fear. If a person comes to God already knowing what he is offering, and already knowing it is a substitute for himself, that person considers himself safe. But an encounter with the Lord is never safe, and we are fools who think for a moment God might not demand our very lives. Without such anxiety there is no true gratitude for grace. Without such terror there is no awe, and where there is no awe there is no true worship. It is this reverence which produces restraint, integrity, and obedience. Thus obedience leads to sacrifice, but the trepidation required in sacrifice drives us toward obedience.

If I may get rabbinic for a moment, the lesson runs even deeper. The Jews did not understand this substitution as an escape for Isaac. The ram which was offered, was offered as if it were Isaac. And so the Rabbi's will refer to the "ashes of Isaac" as if he were burnt on that day, and appeal to God on the basis of these ashes. This is why the death of Jesus makes sense WITHIN Judaic thought, not despite it. Many Jews are uncomfortable with the Christian idea of God accepting the death of a human being as atonement for sin. If God chooses to die himself for me, he has the right and the prerogative to do so. Who are we to argue with God about his chosen vessel. On the mountain of the Lord, in Jerusalem, the sacrifice will be chosen that is acceptable to him. And so Jesus was.

All of us deserve death, God has selected a sacrifice to be offered as our representative. Jesus died not so we wouldn't have to die. Jesus' death was our death. The question is whether we choose to participate with him in it, and by so doing be covered by it. This is what water baptism comes to symbolize, our death with Christ. As Jesus himself said about his disciples, "take up your cross and follow me." The way Jesus fixes us, and gives us life, and makes us happy is by asking us to die with him, sometimes figuratively, and sometimes literally. This is what the Lord's supper symbolizes. Eating his body and drinking his blood is code for participating with him in his death. There is no salvation without identification with God's chosen sacrifice.

Genesis 22 is not about how wonderful God's provision is, it is about how dreadful and uncomfortable God's choice may be. Anything less than this is nothing more than shallow platitudes. Jehovah Jireh does not mean, "God provides" it means "God chooses".

No comments:

Post a Comment