As mentioned in a previous blog, after Abraham’s father Terah died in Haran, God renewed His call to Abraham to go to the land of Canaan. At that point, the text in Genesis 12:5 says:
“He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan and they arrived there.”
Sometime after reaching the land of Canaan, there was a famine in the land. Abraham went down to Egypt with his clan, and when he emerged from Egypt, the text (Genesis 12 and 13) says that Pharaoh gave Abraham many more possessions on the account of his wife Sarai:
“And for Sarai’s sake, he dealt well with Abram, giving him sheep, oxen, male donkeys, and male and female slaves…. So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.”
God’s blessing was already apparent in Abraham’s life, for even as a wandering nomad, he was becoming extremely wealthy. God had increased his prosperity greatly since leaving Ur. After coming out of Egypt, Abraham wandered from place to place until he settled near Bethel (which means “house of God”). This is the same place where Abraham had earlier pitched his tent when he first came into Canaan from Haran. He had literally come full circle after returning from Egypt. He even came back to an altar that he had originally built, as seen here in Genesis 13:
“He journeyed on by stages from the Negev as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai to the place where he had made an altar at first; and there Abram called on the name of the LORD.”
Abraham’s Four Altars
Overall, it is recorded that Abraham built four alters.1
Abraham’s First Altar: Abraham build his first altar after he arrived in Canaan from Haran.
“When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he build an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.”
This altar corresponds to Abraham’s obedience in leaving Haran. Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham “obeyed when he was called, that he set out not knowing where he was going.”
Abraham’s Second Altar: Abraham then relocated to a place between Bethel and Ai, pitched his tent, and then built an altar.2
“From there he moved on to the hill county on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built and altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD. And Abraham journeyed on by stages toward the Negev.
-Genesis 12: 8-9
This is the altar that he returned to after coming back from Egypt. This altar corresponds to Abraham’s pilgrimage in a foreign land. Hebrews 11 tells us “by faith Abraham stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents.”
Abraham’s Third Altar: After this point, there was friction between the herdsmen of Lot and those of Abraham. Abraham thought it would be a good idea to separate to avoid strife. As the patriarch of the family, he could have chosen his grazing land first, but instead he gave Lot the first choice. Lot decided to move closer to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham then moved to a quiet place where he could commune with God away from the allurements of the world.
“So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the LORD.”
This altar corresponds to Abraham’s separation from the world.3 Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” In other words, Abraham was looking forward to a heavenly city.
Abraham’s Fourth Altar: This altar occurs much later in Abraham’s life when he is called upon to sacrifice his son Isaac.
“When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.”
This altar corresponds to Abraham’s sacrifice.4 Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham reasoned that God could bring Isaac back from the dead.
Abraham centered his life around worship and not his earthly prosperity.
God called Abraham out of Ur so he could worship Him properly. We are saved in order to worship God. If our worship of God is correct, then everything else will be correctly oriented in our lives.
Like Abraham, we are called to obedience. Obedience means living a life as sojourners and pilgrims in the world. As St. Peter says in his epistle, “As sojourners and pilgrims in the world, abstain from fleshly lusts.” This implies a separation from the world, not so much physically, but mentally and spiritually. We are not to treat this world as our permanent home, but we are to look forward to the world to come.
And finally, God calls us to sacrifice. In the Old Testament, animal sacrifice not only pointed to Christ, but also signified the worshipper’s entire commitment to God.
As in Abraham’s day, proper worship of God facilitates a deep and intimate connection with Him. That is why proper worship is so important. This communion in worship occurs in the context of covenantal relationship as I discussed in my previous blog. Worship, if done properly, will then be a testimony to an unbelieving world, shining the light of truth in the darkness.
In the above passage that talked about Abraham building his first altar, it said that “the Canaanites were in the land.” This is a testimony to the fact that as Abraham worshipped, he became a witness to those around him living in darkness. Suddenly in the darkness of the Canaanite religion came a bright light from God, manifesting itself through the worship of Abraham. In a postmodern world where we have lost the concept of objective truth, it may be that people will be drawn back to God through the beauty of worship done correctly.
“And this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrifice of the altar (Eucharist), known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God.5
-St. Augustine, City of God
How would putting worship as a focal point of culture revitalize the modern West? Or would it? Please leave your comment below. Thank you!
- Boushra, Dr. Mikhael, “Altars in the Life of Abraham,” part 1 of 2, Precious Seed International, 2004, https://www.preciousseed.org/article_detail.cfm?articleID=81
- Boushra, Dr. Mikhael, “Altars in the Life of Abraham,” part 2 of 2, Precious Seed International, 2004, https://www.preciousseed.org/article_detail.cfm?articleID=172
- Augustine, Saint, The City of God, Book X, translated by Marcus Dods, The Modern Library, New York, 1993; For and enlightening paper on the topic of the Eucharist as sacrifice, please see a paper by Gaylin R. Schmeling entitled “The Lord’s Supper in Augustine and Chemnitz, A Comparison of Two Father of the Church,” 1993, http://www.blts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/GRS-Augustine-Chemnitz.pdf
Bibliography and Sources:
Augustine, Saint, The City of God, translated by Marcus Dods, The Modern Library, New York, 1993
Balentine, Samuel E., editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology: Two-Volume Set, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2015
Bottero, Jean, Author and Lavender, Teresa, Translator, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia 1st Edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004
Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 1998
Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 2009
Jacobsen, Thorkild. “Mesopotamian religion”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 9 Nov. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mesopotamian-religion.
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018
For an interesting article on how the beauty of worship can bring people to the faith: https://www.hprweb.com/2015/01/pope-benedict-xvis-theology-of-beauty-and-the-new-evangelization/