A FAMILY ALTAR (Part 1)
“And there he built an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.” Genesis 12:7.
We met with Abraham just as he was leaving Haran on his way to the land the LORD was going to show him. Haran had been a bit of a crossroads on Abraham’s journey. Apparently the name “Haran” actually means “road” or “highway” and can even accommodate being translated as “crossroads.” Abraham’s father died in Haran, but undeterred, Abraham has continued on in his pilgrimage. God has kept his word to Abraham. Therefore, Abraham with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, have left Haran. They’ve now arrived in the land of Canaan (which is the land the LORD was going to show Abraham) and they’ve brought possessions with them, i.e., sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys and such like. Therefore, they’ve accumulated a bit of wealth along the way and they even have some servants in their train.
“So they came to the land of Canaan” Genesis 12:5. “And the Canaanites were in the land” Genesis 12:6b. So the LORD kept His Word. Abraham is safely in the land of Promise, i.e., Canaan. He is moving through the land and he and his entourage are at a place called Shechem. Apparently the name “Shechem” means “shoulder,” as in “shoulder of a hill.” It reminds me of Ben Lomond on the banks of Loch Lomond in Scotland. When viewed across loch Lomond Ben Lomond is a mountain with two shoulders and a head in the middle! Well, Shechem is likened to a shoulder that bears a load, a place of burden. Anyway, Abraham it was while Abraham was here that the LORD appeared to him again and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” Genesis 12:7.
So what did Abraham do? Did he say to the LORD “What am I? Chopped liver? LORD, You’re giving all this land to a bunch of people I’ve never even seen! I don’t even have any descendants yet, no not one!” When asked what he would leave for his future descendants, the actor Woody Allan jokingly said something like, “Why should I leave them anything? What have those good-for-nothings ever done for me?” Well, even though Abraham at that point had no descendants, he just believed that God was able to deliver what He had promised! His faith in God and His Word was growing stronger.
The LORD had promised to show him a land and here it was. The LORD appeared to him and promised the land to Abraham’s seed. So what did Abraham do? “And there he built an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.” Genesis 12:7. Then, when he moved from there he also built another altar at the next place.
We ask the question, Why did Abraham build these altars? What do they mean? We’ll mainly look at two things found in our text, the Altar of Gratitude and the Altar of Attitude. And hopefully we’ll learn the following summary of what we’ll be looking at, We all ought to strive to be living sacrifices on God’s altar.
The Altar of Gratitude
While in Shechem, (i.e., the place of burden) Abraham built an altar to the LORD. So what kind of an altar was it? Well, it was an altar of commemoration. Abraham built this altar in remembrance of the LORD who appeared to him. Therefore, he build it out of gratitude to the LORD, to visibly show his gratitude. The LORD had made Abraham a promise and the LORD held good on what He promised. So Abraham with a thankful heart wanted to display to the LORD his gratitude. So he built an altar and gave a thanks-offering to the LORD who had appeared to him.
So then, you’re probably wondering where the sacrifice bit comes in. Well, in the original Hebrew the word translated here as “altar” means “place of sacrifice.” This comes from a word which means “to slaughter for sacrifice,” e.g., when Noah came out of the Ark after being saved from the Flood Genesis 8:20 says, “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” We take it that Abraham did something of the same.
This opens up the question, how did Abraham know to sacrifice an animal to God on an altar? For that matter, how did Noah know to shed the blood of animals in sacrifice to God? Where is the command to do these things mentioned in Scripture? Well, we don’t see God instructing these men personally on how to sacrifice. That doesn’t come until Israel under the command of Moses. It’s then that we see that God gave Israel clear instruction on the sacrificial system. But how did Noah and then Abraham know? Well, we get the impression they knew what God did in the Garden for Adam and Eve after the Fall.
Genesis 3:21 says, “Also for Adam and his wife the LORD God made tunics of skin, and clothed them.” Now, you are at liberty to imagine what you want, but, where did the LORD get the animal skins? From animals? Of course God could have just made a couple of sheep-skin coats for Adam Eve out of nothing. However, if you keep in mind that the Bible is also the record of Redemptive History you’ll begin to see the significance of what God did for Adam and Eve.
The LORD most probably shed the blood of the animals in front of the naked Adam and Eve. He shed the blood to demonstrate that their nakedness could only be covered by a sacrifice God made the sacrifice. The animals sacrificed belonged to Him. As the LORD through the psalmist says, “For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains. And the wild beasts of the fields are Mine.” Psalm 50:10-11. So God when He covered Adam and Eve and clothed them with something that belonged to Himself. God was the One who made the sacrifice, not Adam and Eve. He made the sacrifice because of their sin.
The LORD had told Adam that he would surely die if he disobeyed Him. Adam died spiritually the day he sinned (i.e., his love for God died) – but an animal or animals died physically that very day. The animal died that died as the LORD made its skin into tunics and covered Adam and Eve with them, died as a temporary substitute. It’s important that we remember this, for it helps us to understand why Abram is building altars.
Meanwhile back at the ranch. Here we see Abram copy what God had done for Adam and Eve. The LORD sacrificed an animal to paint a picture of the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world! But the thing is this: Abraham did it as a memorial. He made the sacrifice out of gratitude. The sacrifice of animals in the Old Testament was a picture of what happens to a man upon whom is the curse of God remains. Like the sacrificed animal he will surely die. As it has its life drained out of it, even its very life blood, so will he! As it becomes a holocaust, a burnt offering, so will he in Hell! As the animal becomes a sacrifice to the living God who is a consuming fire, so will he, forever! Abraham the father of believers believed this, and so should we.
I find it terrifying, but trying to make it go away by not believing it doesn’t help. There are people in hell right now who tried that. Therefore never treat what God says in His Word lightly. Abraham, then, knows that he has escaped the wrath of God, the consuming fire. So Abraham is thankful. He’s really thankful. So he selected some choice stones and he built an altar, an altar of gratitude. He thanked God from the bottom of his sin-scarred heart that it was an animal that was placed on the altar and not him.
Did Abraham know that all of this was a picture of what the promised “serpent-crusher” would do? Well, we’ve already seen last week that Abraham had the gospel preached to him (Galatians 3:8). And if like me you believe that substitutionary atonement is at the heart of the Gospel then clearly Abraham, the father of all believers, is justified by faith! Abraham believed that God would provide a substitute, a substitute that would pay the price owed for his sin.
This substitutional atonement is was acted out by Abram building the altars of sacrifice. Did Abraham know everything we now know? Of course not! How could he? However, was Abraham justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? You bet! Although Christ & Calvary was in the yet distant horizon Abraham could see it afar off. For even Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” John 8:56.
God gave Abraham eyes with which to see into the far off future, even the eyes of faith! So Abraham built an altar, an altar of gratitude!