A powerful allegory that I am currently reading is called Hind’s Feet on High Places. The story focuses on a character named Much-Afraid who has been invited by the Shepherd (Jesus) to journey with him to the High Places where she will receive her greatest heart’s desire which is to be loved. In anticipation of this, the Shepherd himself places the seed of love in her heart. The only problem is that her feet are deformed and would make the journey very difficult. Even still, she trusts the Shepherd to lead her and she sets off on this great journey that is filled with unexpected challenges. For one, her companions to help her when the way gets rough are Sorrow and Suffering, and there is even a point on her journey where she finds that the path she is taking actually veers away from the High Places and into the desert. At every point where the way seems impossible and she surrenders her will to the Shepherd, she builds an altar and collects a stone. Finally, after many twists and turns, she arrives at the place just before the High Places to find that her biggest sacrifice is still before her.
This allegory is meant in many ways to imitate the sacrificial offering of Isaac by Abraham, which is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable texts in the Bible. In order to understand this scene more thoroughly, we need to look into the past of Abraham. When Abraham first encounters God, he is asked to leave his home and go to a place that God will later show him. Abraham obeys and journeys far from home at the request of God. Later on, God reveals a great vision for Abraham’s future and for his descendants. The problem? Abraham doesn’t have any children and his wife is rapidly approaching a time where pregnancy is not even feasible anymore. But despite this, Abraham chooses to believe that God can do what He says He will. Finally, after some time and this particular promise not being fulfilled (about ten years), Sarah decides to help God out and suggests Abraham have a child with her maidservant, Hagar. You can imagine how well that went! Hagar does conceive and bears a son, Ishmael, but God confirms that he is not to be the promised child through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Finally, Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac in her nineties—a picture of life out of death. God waits until there is no possible option other than God’s intervening hand to accomplish His purpose.
A few years later, friction between Hagar and her son and Sarah comes to a head, and Hagar and Ishmael are sent off (but only once God assures Abraham that He himself will take care of them). Abraham is heartbroken to see his son gone, but I bet he is hoping the future would now be a peaceful one.
And then Genesis 22 happens.
“After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 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.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. “
I can imagine Abraham might have been a bit incredulous. After all, hadn’t he done all that God had asked him? Couldn’t he now just enjoy the blessing God had given him? God is asking him to give up the very thing that all of God’s promises hang on: a future filled with as many descendants as there are stars. Abraham couldn’t even hope that Ishmael might be the missing piece because he too is gone. Abraham only has two choices—reject God’s plan or trust Him to still keep His word somehow. What’s so beautiful about the above picture is how quickly Abraham responds. His amazing faith is so apparent in this passage–he doesn’t hesitate to go but makes plans early the next morning to do what God has asked.
“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.” 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. 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?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.”
It is here that the first occurrence of the word translated as “worship” is used in the Bible. It clearly doesn’t mean an emotional encounter with God during a song—it is primarily related to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice that which is most precious to him. When many people visualize this scene, it’s hard for them to see this as anything other than combative and horrible, but Paul Copan in his book Is God a Moral Monster? points out something we wouldn’t readily observe without looking the original text:
…even the hard command to Abraham is cushioned by God’s tenderness. God’s directive is unusual: “Please take your son”—or as another scholar translates it, “Take, I beg of you, your only son.” God is remarkably gentle as he gives a difficult order. This type of divine command (as a plea) is rare. Old Testament commentator Gordon Wenham sees here a “hint that the Lord appreciates the costliness of what he is asking.” God understands the magnitude of this difficult task. In fact, one commentator states that God is not demanding here; thus, if Abraham couldn’t see God’s broader purposes and so couldn’t bring himself to do this, he wouldn’t “incur any guilt” in declining God’s pleasure.
It’s beautiful to note that this wasn’t a demand from a cold, distant God, but it’s a request from Abraham’s intimate friend who knows that what He is asking is difficult beyond measure. There is a sense where God is willing even to back down if Abraham can’t handle it. But Abraham’s faith in God is greater than his fear, and he doesn’t take the escape route. Abraham obediently follows through with all that God has asked, until at the last moment, God intervenes.
“But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 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.” 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. 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. “
We see that God never intends Abraham to sacrifice his son; instead he had to sacrifice the idea of his son, the promise that he felt was his. His faith isn’t in the existence of God (there was never a doubt), but in the goodness of God, even when it seemed ridiculous to do so. The result is a deeper understanding of God’s providential care. It wasn’t what Abraham could have imagined, but it was what was needed, and Abraham’s reward is swift and clear:
“And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 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, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
For those of us who are believers today, we get to bear the fruit of Abraham’s faith in the form of his descendant, Jesus, through whom all the world is blessed. There is no way that Abraham could have even guessed at how tremendous his progeny would be, but he didn’t need the plan, only the command.
For many of you reading this blog right now, there may be a hope or dream that God is asking you to lay on the altar—something He is telling you to surrender to Him. It may seem impossible. It may seem that the pain will be too much. I’m sure you’ve even said, “God would never ask me to do this.”
And now, like Abraham, you too have a choice.
Will you give it to Him? Will you let Him provide in a miraculous way? Will you demonstrate your love for Him by not holding back what is most precious to you?
This is not something someone else can choose for you, and I’m sure God can and will work around whatever choice you make. But it is an opportunity to embrace a God-sized task and see a God-sized result because you can trust that He loves you and can redeem it, no matter how impossible.
At the end of Hind’s Feet on High Places, Much-Afraid must make the ultimate sacrifice—she must give up the seed of love that has been growing in her heart. This seed has been her hope of love which is what she desires above all things. She must choose between the promise and the promise-giver.
Still there was silence, a silence as of the grave, for indeed she was in the grave of her own hopes and still without the promised hinds’ feet, still outside the High Places with even the promise to be laid down on the altar. This was the place to which the long, heartbreaking journey had led her. Yet just once more before she laid it down on the altar, Much-Afraid repeated the glorious promise which had been the cause of her starting for the High Places. “The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet and he will make me to walk upon mine High Places. To the chief singer on my stringed instruments” (Hab. 3:19). The priest put forth a hand of steel, right into her heart. There was a sound of rending and tearing, and the human love, with all its myriad rootlets and fibers, came forth. He held it for a moment and then said, “Yes, it was ripe for removal, the time had come. There is not a rootlet torn or missing.” When he had said this he cast it down on the altar and spread his hands above it. There came a flash of fire which seemed to rend the altar; after that, nothing but ashes remained, either of the love itself, which had been so deeply planted in her heart, or of the suffering and sorrow which had been her companions on that long, strange journey. A sense of utter, overwhelming rest and peace engulfed Much-Afraid. At last, the offering had been made and there was nothing left to be done. When the priest had unbound her she leaned forward over the ashes on the altar and said with complete thanksgiving, “It is finished.” Then, utterly exhausted, she fell asleep.
When she awakes, her lame feet have been healed, her companions have been transformed into Joy and Peace, and her stones of surrender are turned into jewels. She learns that the flower that was pulled from her heart was not the flower the Shepherd had planted, but was her own hope of love that left inside would have killed the real flower of love.
We too look forward to a future transformation that will take our moments of surrender, our greatest struggles, and darkest nights and transfigure them into a crown of splendor and hope. This is the faith of Abraham—to trust our Shepherd with everything that is precious to us knowing one day we will receive it back whole and perfect. It can be our faith too!