In the British museum along with rank upon rank of (stolen) artifacts sits a small gilded statue from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur. It was uncovered in 1928 by a Pennsylvanian archaeologist named Leonard Woolley. Woolley, the son of an Anglican curate, knew that the city of Ur is Abraham’s home town, so in Abraham’s honor, Woolley titled the statue “The Ram in a Thicket.”
It was from Ur that got called Abraham in Genesis 12, asking him to leave his homeland, his kindred, his father‘s house, and go on a journey—to leave his past behind and approach an unknown future based on the word of this random god.
It’s an ironic journey because on his own Abraham has no future. He’s approaching death, a childless death at that, when he is promised descendants, an heir, a son, despite the fact that he is old and his wife is barren. What’s more, this god promises to bless their heir, and make of them a great nation to bless all the nations of the world.
It was a promise too good for Abraham to pass up. And so, Abraham and Sarah embarked on this Journey to become this god’s people.
When Leonard Woolley discovered the “Ram in a Thicket” statue he carefully used wax to remold it as he excavated it. It had been crushed under the weight of centuries of dirt, but this was to be expected. Woolley was excavating a grave. The statue was placed in the grave on purpose, but Woolley then discovered something he did not expect. This was not an ordinary grave, it was a mass grave.
Abraham’s journey had twists and turns, ups and downs. Abraham‘s trust in this journeying god is tested until, in time, his promise comes true. It takes on the flesh as, laughably, old Abraham and his barren wife Sarah conceive and bear a son. They name him Isaac.
The whole story seems to be coming to a happy resolution until this god starts to speak again.
“Abraham” he says. And Abraham, trusting in this now familiar voice replies, “Here am I.”
Then there comes a new calling. “Abraham, take your son, your only son, your beloved, and bring him to Moriah, to the place where I will show you, and on that mountain offer him to me as a burnt offering and sacrifice.“
Sorry what? What kind of god is this? Is this not the same god who started this journey in the first place? The god who has kept showing up along the way making promises? Is this not El-shaddai, God Almighty? Elroi, the God who sees the afflicted? Ishma-El, the God who hears the cries of children?
What kind of God asks someone to leave their past behind and then sacrifice all hope of a future by taking the life of their only beloved child? What kind of God is this?
This is Abraham’s kind of God.
The ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur was a culture that worshiped many gods, especially the moon God Nanna, and part of their worship included human sacrifice. Multiple ancient cultures worshipped gods who demand such sacrifice, including the sacrifice of the firstborn. This is how you prove your worth to these gods, your loyalty, by sacrificing what is most precious to you as payment for their protection.
That statue, the Ram in the Thicket? It was dug out of what’s known as the Great Death Pit of Ur, a ceremonial mass grave related to the worship of Nanna, the moon God.
Abraham is doing what he assumes any god-fearing Mesopotamian is supposed to do as he rises up, early in the morning, saddles his donkey, and chops the wood for the altar fire.
Then he calls Isaac, his son, and loads him up with the wood on which his life will soon be offered. Then, with a torch in one hand and a blade in the other, Abraham leads them on the march up the mountain.
“Father“ Isaac says.
“Here am I,” his father replies.
“Father, we have the wood and the fire, but what about the lamb to be slaughtered?“
It’s a loaded question.
Abraham replies, “The Lord will provide the lamb to be offered, my son.” and the two of them walk along together.
The name Abraham uses here, translated as “the Lord” is another name for god, El-ohim, which is a plural name. Later it’s a name used to refer to the God of Israel but for Abraham it means something more like “the gods,” El-ohim.
The best guess of the archaeologists is that the great death pit was an offering to “the gods” for the sake of one particular person. The pit was filled with scores of remains, but among them there was one set apart. All of them were dressed in gilded garb, but one of them was adorned more than the rest. They believe she may have been a beloved priestess, the daughter of the king, and that when she died, scores more were sacrificed with her.
Isaac too is the first born of a patriarch, the father of a whole nation. He’s the first of scores of people, sons and daughters, descendants that would number the stars. This beloved son represents all of those promised ones as he walks to his death by his father’s side. He’s not just some kid, he’s the future.
It’s the salvation of the world that is at stake as they reach the top of the hill, and Isaac is bound and laid onto the wood he had to carry himself. He is silent like a sheep led to slaughter. Finally Abraham lights the fire, takes the blade, raises his hand, but then suddenly,
“Here am I,” he replies.
“Do not lay a hand on that boy.”
Abraham looks up in shock and sees what the Lord has done. He sees a ram provided by the Lord, a ram in a thicket to be laid down instead of Isaac. And so, in profound joy he unbinds his son, his only son, his beloved, and as he does Abraham gives this god a new name which means the LORD Provides.
But there’s something about this name. The other names for God, El-shaddai, El-roi, Ishma-el, their common root “El,” is a general word for god, with a lower case g.
Abraham doesn’t use that word. He uses a name. He uses God’s proper, personal name, a name so holy that it’s tradition to avoid saying it too often. Abraham calls this god Yaweh, his God, with a capital G.
And he’s right. His son has been saved by this God, not the god Elohim, not just one of the usual gods. This god is different. Other gods take, require, exact. This is Yahweh, Yahweh Yireh, this God Provides.
It is this name that God gives to Moses from the burning bush saying “I Am Your God, the God who hears, and sees, and speaks, the God of Abraham, and his son Isaac, and his son Jacob.
It is this God who frees the children of Abraham bound in Egypt, this God who provides them water and bread in the wilderness, this God who leads them to a land of milk and honey, who spoke to them through the prophets, who says “I am the Lord your God, and I can’t stand your sacrifices and burnt offerings. I desire mercy not sacrifice.”
It is this God who in the fullness of time was made flesh, a son of Abraham born from the nothing of a virgin womb, to journey among Abraham’s children as one of Abraham’s children, even to the point of death.
When his time had come, he came to this same mountain carrying on his back the wood on which he would willingly lay down his life, bound and nailed to a cross. Only it wasn’t God who asked for this sacrifice. It was us.
But, this God who stopped Abraham’s hand and provided the ram in the thicket here gives his own life as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, even the sins of the kind of people that called for his death.
His name is called Jesus which does not mean “this god kills,” it means this God saves.
The truth about that statue, as more recent archaeologists have said, is that it’s not a ram in a ticket, and it’s not a god. It’s a statue of a goat on a stick. Abraham was called out of Ur, out of the land of little golden gods, out of a world filled with gods who kill. With Sarah and Isaac he was called into a new kind of people, by the hand of a new kind of God, a God who provides, a God of Grace, a God who willingly enters the world at the point of death and there provides life.
In this God made known in Jesus Christ we have been given a God who willingly entered the great pit of our sin and death, to prove that not one more beloved child of God needs to die in a pit alone.
In his name we have been unbound, freed from sin and death, and instead he has bound us to himself, our salvation, our redemption, our resurrection.
Hear the Good News: this God is your God. Repent and believe this gospel.