15. Abraham Worships God in the Midst of the Canaanites

Ancient Altar in Mesopotamia similar to that which Abraham built to be a worshipper of God since he was the father of faith.
Ancient Altar

As mentioned in a previous post, 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 in 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.”

-Genesis 12:16

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. Genesis 12:6-7 states:

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 Genesis 12:8-9 state:

“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. 

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. Genesis 13:18 states

“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. Genesis 22:9 states:

“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. 

The Catholic Church as the New Temple and Altar

What happened to Abraham’s altar? After Abraham’s descendants came out of Egypt, God instructed Moses to build a Tabernacle, at tent, to be placed in the midst of the Israelites as the center of worship. The age of simple stone altars for Israel was over. When they finally displaced the Canaanites and settled in their new homeland, the Tabernacle functioned as the place of worship until God instructed King Solomon to build a permanent structure, a Temple, in the 10th century B.C. This structure stood until it was completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. because of Israel’s disobedience. It was rebuilt 70 years later and became known as the Second Temple. These historical events themselves represented the death and resurrection of Christ. The rebuilt temple, though, was far less grand then Solomon’s temple. Eventually it was completely refurbished by King Herod the Great. He made it into great and glorious structure that we are familiar with in the New Testament writings.

The problem with the Second Temple, unlike Solomon’s temple, was that God’s Glory did not return to it. God dwelt both within the Tabernacle and Solomon’s temple in the form of a Glory Cloud. This Glory Cloud departed just before the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians and never returned. But in reality, God’s Glory did return, not to inhabit stones and mortar, but to inhabit a human body as Jesus Christ, the true temple of God. The Old Testament Tabernacle and temple systems were, in reality, foreshadowings of Christ.

Because the Jews did not recognize their Savior, Jesus stated that the Kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to a nation that would bear its fruit.6 This occurred in 70 A.D when God destroyed the Temple, through the agency of the Romans, and scattered the Jewish nation. A remnant of Jewish Christians, with Peter at the helm, were commissioned by Jesus Christ to start what, would eventually become, the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church became God’s new temple of God. His intention all along was not to inhabit a lifeless building, but to dwell within his people.

Just as predicted in the Old Testament, after the coming of Christ, the Kingdom of God would spread throughout the whole word rather than be confined to a single nation. We see this fulfilled through the Catholic Church that, compared to any particular Protestant denomination, is indeed a worldwide church as it is present in almost every country. It is also the longest lived institution in the world.

The New Sacrifice on the Altar

Now that we have a new temple, the Catholic Church, where or what is the sacrifice? The sacrifice of course is Jesus Christ on the cross. Just like the Old Testament temple prefigured the Church, so too the animal sacrifices prefigured the the sacrifice of Christ. Once that sacrifice occurred, unlike the Old Testament animal sacrifices, it never had to be repeated.

Nevertheless, we memorialize His sacrifice daily throughout the world as we partake in Communion at Mass. Every Mass is a re-presenting of the sacrifice of Christ anew as a memorial and as a source of grace and power. It is more than a mere memorial though. for the bread and wine becomes, through transubstantiation, the literal body and blood of Christ that is offered up to God. At the Passover in the Old Testament, the Jews were required to not just sacrifice the lamb, but to consume it as well in order to make it efficacious. And this is exactly what Christ commanded us to do with the body and blood of His sacrifice, even declaring the eating of his body and the drinking of his blood as essential for eternal life.

“Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

-Gospel of St. John, 6:53

It is more than a memorial, it is a prerequisite for eternal life. The last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, looks forward to such a time as when the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass, that was prefigured by the Old Testament sacrificial system, would be celebrated throughout the world:

“For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.”

-Malachi 1:11

I will end with a commentary on this verse from the from the second century Church Father Irenaeus:

“The oblation of the Church, therefore, which the Lord gave instructions to be offered throughout the world, is accounted with God a pure sacrifice, and is acceptable to Him…And the Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, offering to Him, with giving of thanks, the things taken from His creation…that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup His blood.

-The writings of St Irenaeus, Book IV, Chapter XVIII, 1-4

What Abraham offered in anticipation, we partake of in fulfillment 4000 years later.

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Deo Gratias

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Footnotes:  

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. 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
  6. Matthew 21:43

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/

 

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