Holding the Blade of Sacrifice

Holding the Blade of Sacrifice October 16, 2014

isaacI had fallen asleep thinking about the Sacrifice of Isaac: The account, given in Genesis, in which patriarch Abraham is called by God to venture to Mt. Moriah, and sacrifice his young and beloved son—the son born to him and Sarah in old age, for whom he had longed for decades. And as the Genesis narrative relates, at the very moment Abraham has steeled himself to bear the knife, a ram appears “in a thicket,” and Isaac is saved, and the ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s place.

I’d gone to bed mulling over what I was going to write in the very post you are reading now. At that point, I intended to focus on how the compact of parenthood has seemed to expand since I was a child: Whereas my older siblings and I had been more or less “thrown” into the world to survive by our own devices, young people today, middle-class and above, seem so tethered to their parents—by cell phones, by cars that parents pay the insurance on well into their children’s twenties, by the occasional checks for thousands of dollars meted out for Christmas and mortgages for sons and daughters closing in on forty.

Mostly, I’m just envious.

By contrast, I thought about a time in 1982, when, owing to some travel mix-ups, I found myself alone late one night in the Trailways bus station in Boston, with barely any money, let alone cell phone or credit cards. I was fourteen years old, and kept making collect calls on a pay phone to my mother and brother, down in Mississippi and not in a position to help with anything. The panic I heard in their voices just made my own worse.

The fact of my lingering resentment, though, seemed too insubstantial on which to hang an essay, fortunately—else you might have had to deal with my self-indulgent whining about buying our house with 100% financing in 2005.

The Sacrifice of Isaac story came to my mind, initially, as an archetype of the opposite of hand-holding parenting.

But through the dark of the night, and the cloud of sleep, the blunt bare facts of the Genesis story kept cycling through my mind: the patriarch obeying God’s command, the journey to Mt. Moriah, the youthful ephebe’s confusion and then horror, the father’s own sorrow and disbelief, the last-minute reprieve. Its stark and crazy violence.

And as I turned the narrative over in my head—“Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” as Ben Bag-Bag remarked about the Torah—it struck me that I had even less a notion of whatever meaning I was supposed to draw from it.

Naturally, the next morning, I went on Facebook and solicited comment from all my friends. And while it’s possible that I may have known that Islam teaches that Abraham was called to sacrifice Ishmael, the son born to concubine Hagar, instead of Isaac, I had completely forgotten until my friends Jehan and Aisha reminded me of it.

Many other friends echoed the version of the story that I had been taught, that Abraham’s stalwart obedience was, positively, a foreshadowing of the Father’s willingness to sacrifice his own son Jesus.

My friend Nan took a more anthropological view. In remarking that Abraham would have lived in a society where human sacrifice was quite common, she points to the narrative as a touchstone in the development of religion:

All the stuff about how God told him to do it was protesting too much. When he was about to kill Isaac, he had a clear revelation that this was wrong. He told people this and it got written down in the form of the times. Abraham is a hero for realizing the true law of God underneath his cultural bullshit.

I have always thought this was a happy story. I know I am alone in this.

Nan’s understanding is going to have me thinking for some time, but ultimately, both interpretations do not seem to encompass the radical, and essential, violence that belief entails, both then and now. The former comes across as too simplistic to me; the latter too utopian.

It occurs to me that all the violent Old Testament stories that are routinely dismissed by contemporary Christian progressives for their supposed brutality and vengeance are, in fact, the very ones I love. For are not the depictions of riven families and murder and inconclusive journeys how we actually experience life here, in the Far Country?

It strikes me that the stories of the Hebrew Bible, read in an evolutionary manner, are a great mercy to us humans, for they bring God nearer to us than we could ever imagine. We who are clueless, bumbling about in our wilderness, thinking we are trying to be obedient.

And if we are parents, we are ever—and of necessity—holding up the blade to sacrifice our children, as we seek to dispatch them into the world. As poet (and “Good Letters” contributor) Tania Runyan writes in “Keeping My Daughter”:

…I will have to give her


to the strangers who will bump her on the sidewalk

and move on, as if her body were not some miracle,


to the hundreds of cars and planes traveling

over distant, churning surfaces. I will give her


to the teacher rolling her eyes, to the HR head

shoving her resume under an old coffee cup,


to the man who will touch her face the day after

he touches another woman’s face,


to the cells in her own body

that may spin out of orbit and consume her…


We must stay here as long as we can, balanced

on this precipice of light. The moment I let go


the knife will come down, no ram in the thicket to save us.

The curse. The blessing.


A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

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