Counterfeit Gods 1

Keller.jpgTim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC, is perhaps the most balanced pastor, theologian, cultural critic and evangelist in the American scene today. His newest book, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters
, is no exception to his approach. The book addresses what its subtitle says: the counterfeit gods of money, sex and power, and he does this through the biblical idea of idolatry. It is timely, it is pastoral, it is theological, and it is profoundly missional. I am looking forward to reading this book.

Keller has become a preacher’s preacher and a pastor’s pastor.

After an opening salvo that sketches the big picture, Keller dips into the Abraham offering Isaac scene to describe what is at hand in our world today:

Abraham, like so many, wanted something deeply: a son.
Abraham’s son is promised so Abraham can become a nation and bless the nations.
God gave Abraham what he wanted, and getting what you most want is not always best.
Furthermore, after giving the son God — and here Keller has to fill in some lines of what was going on in Abraham’s head with some psychology — tested Abraham’s love for God: Does he love God even more than this promised son who alone could be his heir?
So Abraham, in an act of trusting God, takes Isaac to the brink of sacrifice and God steps in to provide for Abraham — God provides a substitute.
What do you think of seeing this story as a display of surrendering our deepest wants to God? What can we learn from this approach to the story?

Keller skillfully interweaves what we want most — our Isaacs, our deepest desires, things that become our idols, our counterfeit gods — with the central obligation that God wants us to love God most. In the same interweaving, God provides a substitute to accomplish his designs for the world. The firstborn child in the ancient Near East was often forfeit, or given in sacrifice, in order to atone for the family. So two things happen in this test: Abraham is tested and God’s means of provision is revealed.
God provides that sacrifice: God not only led Abraham to see that loving God was most important, God provided a sacrificial ram instead of his son and (I don’t see this in Keller) thereby replaced the ancient Near Eastern tragic religious belief of child sacrifice with animal sacrifice — and then Keller’s emphasis is that this sacrifice of a ram indicated in advance the substitutionary sacrifice of God’s Son who would break out of the cycle of death in the resurrection. The promise to bless the nations through the birth of a son, Isaac, becomes an event where the true Son who will bless the world is revealed.
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  • RJS

    This story about Abraham and Isaac is interesting – but I wonder how much of the emphasis should be on surrender to God and how much on subverting ANE practices and and changing views of persons and powers – including the practice of child sacrifice.
    Is the emphasis here really that God demands surrender of deepest wants?

  • Scot McKnight

    RJS, he reads this point from the famous line “take your son, your only son, the son of your love.” In other words, he reads the entire theme through that lens, but along with that is the longing for a child ever since the promise … in other words, while there is some psychology in what he finds here, I do think the near-sacrifice of Isaac (called aqedah) is at the human level for Abraham the sacrifice of what was very dear to his heart and the “ticket” to the fulfillment of God’s promises to him.

  • RJS

    Well – this story is at the root of one of the common criticisms of the faith in our day and age. How could a God who demands child sacrifice actually be the God of Love as we claim?
    I’ve heard many sermons on this passage, and they have generally emphasized one of two things – God is a jealous God and will demand destruction of anything we might love more than him, including people as posessions – or on only a slightly different tack: God demands total sacrifice and submission. I wonder though, if we are misinterpreting the content of this story in emphasizing these features.
    (This isn’t to say that God doesn’t demand total surrender or the forsaking of all “idols” or counterfeit gods – I think he does.)

  • Your Name

    I am intrigued by RJS’s take on the most common interpretations of the passage. What interpretation would RJS add as a possibility?

  • Laura

    I heard Tim Keller speak at The Leadership Summit at Willow Creek. He is one of the nation’s leading voices on reaching 20-somethings. His book on The Prodigal God is fantastic, too. He spoke on the story of the Prodigal Son, looking at the story through the older brother’s eyes. I think very highly of him.

  • Rob

    I recently watched Rob Bell’s Gods Aren’t Angry DVD. He talks about this story. His take, and one which I tend to agree with, is that God never intended the sacrifice, but instead the story is a polemic against the ANE practices of child sacrifice. (sort of what RJS is saying). He also said that the mention of “love” in this passage is the first mention in the OT. I’ll have to investigate that. In essence, what Rob is saying is the story is the beginnings of a new way, one where sacrifices are not needed to the please the gods (which is what the ANE culture, including Abram, believed). This finds it ultimate fulfillment in Christ. We don’t offer God anything for our redemption, He has made the offer for us.

  • Bob

    The NT writers explained this story through the lens of resurrection. Maybe Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac because in his heart he believed God could and would raise him back to life. In other words this is a story of faith being lived out.

  • A timely meditation as the Abraham stories begin this week in the Torah reading cycle (this week it Lech Lecha, Gen 12-17).
    The interesting thing, I learned from John Walton, is that throughout the Abraham stories are threats to the covenant promise (Sarah taken by a foreign king, Abraham may be killed saving Lot, etc.). But the ultimate threat to the covenant promise come from God himself. If God takes away Isaac, whom Abraham has waited an incredible 25 years for, the promise of God will be bankrupt.
    It is an amazing story. I would avoid being too certain we understand all of God’s reasons for asking this of Abraham. I think God cannot be psychoanalyzed. But that God wanted to see Abraham’s devotion in action is the clear meaning of the text. God tested him, it says. It may or may not be a polemic against human sacrifice. More important in the unfolding story is the covenant and the nature of Abraham’s election. Note (Calvinists, I am sorry) that Abraham was not elected randomly or without merit. Which of us would have been willing to follow God even if all the promises were taken away?
    Derek Leman

  • Andy W.

    How does scaring the ***** out of people ever produce faithful, surrendering love? It may produce obedience, but love? Isn’t that a pagan notion of God? I think the story of Abraham is exactly the opposite of this! In an ANE culture where child sacrifice to appease the god’s was common, God showed Abraham something entirely different. The story is not “well, you showed faith this time Abraham, but watch out or next time things will be different”. No, the story is the unfolding revelation of the Hesed love of God. It was GODS’s faithfulness in revealing who HE is (in stark contrast to the pagan gods of the ANE world). Isn’t that the story?

  • Derek #8, good comment.
    The threat-to-fulfillment motif is not necessarily at odds with Keller’s application of the story. I believe Keller is right on to speak in terms of idolatry of the heart, so to say.
    Some pastors are guilty of short-changing OT stories as if the story had a single, simple point and the point happens to be this or that modern application. I tend to be overly nervous about making such applications as Keller makes here but leaving the story on the page with no take-away is not a triumph, either. I believe it would be fair to the story to bring it out as a true-life story with as much context and feeling as possible and to sharpen it’s point to the modern listener as the question “would you obey and trust like this?” Which is essentially what it seems Keller does. The problem is when pastors want to jump straight to that application without letting the story live first.

  • I read something similar to Keller’s approach years ago by A. W. Tozer. Tozer’s point was: God’s did not want Abraham’s son; he wanted Abraham’s heart. Abraham passed the test. I don’t think it is wrong to get Christian formation energies from the story. I don’t think this approach devalues or replaces the transformation of ANE views on child sacrifice.

  • Diane

    Interesting thread. I agree the story works on multiple levels–as a strike against child sacrifice and as a story of trust for two.
    I have been trying to contact you!

  • Paul

    I heard a sermon on this recently, and a side note was brought up. What do you think Isaac was thinking when they were walking home afterwards? More specifically, what do you imagine was Isaac’s impression of his father Abraham’s faith after this event?

  • beckyr

    I’m trying to remember Madeleine L’Engle’s thrust about Abraham here. It’s something like it was a test and Abraham failed because instead of believing in God’s love he went to sacrifice Isaac and God supplied the lamb (or was it a goat)for Abraham to use as a sacrifice to atone for his sin of not trusting in God’s love.

  • RJS

    I agree with the concept of idolatry of the heart – the first commandment is to love God with our entire being.
    I am not convinced that this story is an application of that concept with Abraham rewarded for his faithfulness. It seems to me that the meaning is much deeper than this – with a message about the nature of God taking the front stage.

  • Sarah
  • Larry

    What do you think Isaac was thinking when they were walking home afterwards?
    The text makes no mention of them walking home together. In fact this incident is the last time that you see Isaac and Abraham together. It may be that Isaac didn’t want to have anything to do with Abraham after this happened, and can you blame him?

  • Pat

    I have always interpreted this story as God’s testing Abraham’s desire for his son over his relationship with God and have been amazed at those who question why God would do this as though God were some kind of ogre. I think how one interprets this verse speaks to how one approaches and appropriates God. Often in these discussions the question also arises about why Abraham would follow through and what must have been going through Isaac’s mind. I also find that some people struggle with this type of obedience that would require that would give everything or the thing most precious to us.

  • Pat

    I think one other thing that affects our interpretation of this passage (and all others) is that we often look through 21st century Western eyes.

  • RJS

    I don’t think that the struggle is with the idea that we must surrender to God that which is most precious – and that we are called to follow sacrificially.
    The struggle is with the fact that (1) Isaac is also a human created in the image of God and a part of God’s covenant and (2) the sacrifice of another person to show obedience to God is not my sacrifice to give.
    This is in essence why I struggle with looking at the meaning strictly through the eyes of Abraham’s submission to God. It seems that the message is much deeper than this, and deals with our view of God’s relationship with and demands on his creatures.

  • BenB

    I have a couple of thoughts on the subject,
    In response to what Keller is doing with the story:
    I’m not sure that I think it’s the meaning readily at hand in the story, nor is it even necessarily there. However, it becomes a TRUE meaning, which can be found in the story. It is more of a “reader-centered” hermeneutic – a new and more postmodern trend in scholarship. We find that in the story, even though it wasn’t necessarily intended by the author. It is true to our life and struggle with love and devotion to God. Great work by Keller, and I think it is an adequate and even powerful way to read the story in our contemporary context.
    I don’t know if that meaning is there. It would be somewhat nice if it were, but in the story nothing is ever said in favor of or against child sacrifice. In Judges one of the judges sacrifices his daughter, and again nothing is ever said for or against such actions in the text. Later Rabinic writings certainly criticize him for making a rash vow. However, the text never says anything about it.
    I think the point of the entire Abraham cycle is one of Abraham’s trust in God to provide for and hold up His end of the promise. Abraham fails to have faith in God to provide over and over again. Finally God gives him the ultimate test – and somehow he passes that one. It shows a growing in Abraham to trust God and His promises.
    It also does say something about God – that He is faithful to hold up His end of the covenant.

  • RJS,
    About Abraham’s response being a focus of the story (Gen 22:1-19):
    v.1 God tested Abraham
    v. 7 Isaac asks where is the sacrifice?
    v. 8 Abraham answers that God will provide
    v. 10 Abraham takes the knife
    v. 12 God says “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
    vv. 13-14 God provides
    Abraham says “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”
    Hebrews 11 adds some thinking by Abraham (that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead) and casts the story from Abraham’s perspective, the view of faith.
    So Gen 22:1-19 starts by declaring Abraham was to be tested, then shows Abraham’s response, then has God himself giving Abraham an A on the test. It would be hard for me to see how the passage is not about Abraham’s faithful response when God begins “I will test you” and concludes “Now I know…”
    Yet at another layer, it also seems to me that there is a messianic picture here: God will provide a substitute. Per Hebrews 11, Isaac effectively was raised from the dead. The foreshadowed substitute literally raised from the dead.
    You said you see a message about the nature of God taking front stage in the story. I am curious to hear more about that – what about the nature of God is revealed and how does this focus arise from the story (and the Hebrews 11 comentary)?
    BTW, do you see a chiasm in the story’s structure? If so, how much emphasis do you place on the chiasm in interpreting the story?

  • Keller is one of my favorite people to hear and read, but I think Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio, makes short work of this interpretation when he asks us to imagine how we would respond to someone who followed such a sermon. If I preach, from Genesis 22, that God wants us to sacrifice what we most desire and, the next day one of my parishioners announces with great joy that he has killed his son after listening to my powerful sermon, how should I respond?

  • Ted

    I know he is not popular around these parts but when Mark Driscoll preached this passage he pointed out that Isaac was not a little boy who was oblivious to what was going on, as we often think he is when reading the story.
    It is possible that Isaac was in his late teens to early twenties in which case he would have been stronger than his dad and the one who allowed his Father to hover above him and nearly kill him. It does the story a disservice to not think that Isacc was more aware of what was going on than we realize he probably was.

  • SamB

    I remember reading this story when I was a boy and asking, “What kind of God would ask a father to kill his own son, his only son?” Over a quarter of a century later, the answer came to me, “One who did offer his only son in love for a beautiful and horrible world.” This helped me. However as RJS alludes to at the beginning, this is a troubling passage, capable of leading to the creation of a monster god, one I met time and time again in the land said to be haunted by Jesus. It is this horrific visage that has made it so hard to believe that God could truly love someone like me. I have been helped some by a teaching that suggested if we viewed this story in the time it was writen, we could see that it was not regressive, but progressive in that it pulls that whole culture forward from the monster gods to one who would provide a lamb in love instead.

  • Sue

    I would like to know exactly what it means to “surrender our desire(s) to God.” How do we know if we’ve done that or not? Does “surrendering our desires” mean that we try to not have those desires? That we no longer pray for what we desire? And related to that, how do we know if our desire is one that we have sacrificed to God and that God has given back?
    Some of this talk about surrendering desire sounds more Buddhist than Christian. (In Buddhism desire is at the root of all suffering.) Doesn’t Christianity teach that our desires are not wrong, but that they must be ordered? Is there a difference between an ordered desire and a surrendered desire?
    And how does “surrendering our desire” fit in with things like vocation, where your desires or the things that give you joy give you a clue as to the work God has called you to?
    Can someone help me out with this?

  • Matt

    What if in surrendering what is most dear to us, God reveals Himself more fully? In this case, God reveals to Abe that he is NOT like other ANE gods. If Genesis is a book of beginnings, Abe and rest of the patriarchs are “beginning” to know what the God who called Abe is really like, and thankfully the God of A, I & J is drastically different than Chemosh et al.

  • RJS

    MatthewS (#22)
    Good points – I don’t have time right now to really dig deeper into this, although I would like to. I think that the point of a story in scripture though – and esp. in Genesis – can go beyond the story line and there may be a level that needs context to be understood in a complete sense.
    So the straightforward context is God demands Isaac, Abraham obeys, God provides a substitute. Perhaps the true significance is that Abraham is willing to sacrifice even his “only” son, his dearest possession, if God demands – but I think that there is more to it than this.
    It seems likely that the purpose is more a subversion of Abraham’s culture and thinking – and by extension all of Israel’s. The episode establishes something critical about the nature of God and His interaction with His people, an interaction and relationship very different from anything Abraham would have expected.