Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Aborted Sacrifice of Isaac and the Abolition of Human Sacrifice

The Old Testament story of the aborted sacrifice of Isaac by his father is illustrative of many cogent points regarding this transition. Abraham, the father of his people, is tempted by God, given divine order to sacrifice his son, and the instructions are detailed and explicit regarding ritual and methodology. Hence, the symbol of an incipient, quasi-Canaanite Judaism in a transitional state between a reluctant but ready acceptance of the old form (human sacrifice) and the fruits of a new revelation. The institution of human sacrifice is here credited as the result of a temptation by God, a means of testing the faith of his followers. After having proven his devotion by readying for the sacrifice, Abraham’s hand is stayed by an angel of the Lord, who then points to a more suitable substitute, a stag with its antlers caught in a thicket. Why is Abraham’s devotion praised, when it has almost resulted in a barbaric end? It is praised for its totality, because the very repulsiveness of the act is a test of Abraham’s faith. In this case, the ends justify the means, yet there is a paradox in that a semi-divine intervention is required to resolve both. That an angel rather than the Lord Himself resolves the contradiction represents a key lesson of the story: God will not resolve humanity’s moral problems or guide us toward progress; that role is filled by angels, however we may wish to define them. To some, they may seem the better, or more evolved, aspects of our nature, or those among us who best express them. It is similarly significant that “Isaac” means “to laugh” in Hebrew. What does it mean to say that we must not sacrifice Laughter to our god, or for that matter, to what we worship? If Laughter is seminal, essential for hope and progress, then our actions must befit its preservation. But since some cruelty in life is unavoidable, the compromise that we make (and the best that we can do) is to gradually minimize its destructiveness. The institution of human sacrifice is shown to have rendered a historical function appropriate to its time- humans have proven their capacity for devotion- but it is now rendered obsolete and considered primitive and brutal. Thus, the command of “I AM THAT IS,” with Being entailing a progressive, futuristic element, delivered by His angelic intermediary: Humans will not be sacrificed either for God or in His Name. Lastly but no less significant is the meaning of the substitute sacrifice, the stag trapped by its antlers: an adult male animal, whose masculine attribute, the antlers (representing its masculine sexual function) has become a hindrance. Herein lies a lesson of evolutionary dynamism: neither females nor the young animals are sacrificed, for these carry the future of their kind; instead a male past his sexual prime is offered. This mirrors the moral at the heart of the story: just as angelic intermediation has abolished human sacrifice in the present (the time of the story’s narration), so shall it one day abolish animal sacrifice, and beyond that, eventually, the necessity for all sacrifice, whence comes the Sabbath of Days.

(c) Copyright 2009 by A. Rogolsky

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