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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Breaking the Bread of Belief: Altar

jenmichel@me.com

(Today's post is the seventh in a series entitled, "Breaking the Bread of Belief." Read about beginning, dust, home, feast, naked, and death). All images courtesy of Joetography.

* * * * *

Altar

I'm fascinated by all the leaving in the book of Genesis. For all the settled-ness of the first two chapters, the rest of the narrative is on pilgrimage, and even at its conclusion (granted, not really the conclusion as Genesis is one-fifth of a larger whole), the people of God are not yet settled into the land of Promise.

That story feels like my everyday. The unmistakability of God's promises doesn't undo the muddled quality of life as it moves forward.

In Genesis 12, God gives Abram both a command and a promise. Leave your familiarities, and go to the land that I will show you.

And I will bless you.

"So Abram went," (v. 4)

In verse 6, they arrive in Canaan, the destination of promise. More specifically, Abram, his family, and his flocks and herds pass through the land, arriving at the town of Shechem, which is regionally centralized.

"Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. . . So be built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him."

Today's word is altar.

I've always wondered about the oak of Moreh in this passage. It seems strange that a solitary tree would merit mention, but in reading from Craig Bartholemew's book, Where Mortals Dwell, he explains that this tree is no ordinary oak.

"The accompanying reference to the Canaanites still being in the land (12:6) makes it likely that the tree is a sacred one associated with Canaanite worship. Abraham faces a choice of adopting local worship or worshiping the LORD; he chooses the latter."

In this passage then, an altar is a symbol, not just of worship but resistance.

And maybe that's a principle more broadly applied. To worship the God and Father of Jesus Christ—and declare him to be the one true God—is to resist other claims on our allegiance. Jesus notes this in his teaching on money. You can't serve two masters, he insisted. You will hate the one and love the other, despise this one and be devoted to the other (cf. Matthew 6:24).

Altar.

I think this is a good word for breaking the bread of belief.

First, altar reminds us that God will not settle for the parts of us we think ourselves generous to offer him. He wants all of us. He is a jealous God and does not abide our divided affections.

But altar also reminds me of the very little that we have to give to God. In the Genesis story, God's giving Abraham the land, and Abraham is going to build a small outdoor grill on which to sacrifice a few burnt animals? The altar—and its gifts—are preposterously small by comparison.

So then this:

If the promise of blessing, given to Abraham and fulfilled most fully in Jesus Christ, is ours through God's death, what altar can be built to express gratitude tantamount to that?

Of course none. So altar-building is a limited enterprise. No gift repays God's eternal kindnesses to us.

Christ is the high priest who presides at the altar. But because there is no worthy sacrifice we can offer, he brought one of our behalf: himself.

Altar.

Worship. Resistance. And ultimately, grace.