Tag Archives: Abraham

Sacrifice

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The Sacrifice of Isaac_0001

 Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah;

and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains, which I will tell thee of.

Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son;

and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together.

~ Genesis 22: 2 & 6

The rabbis tell two midrash of Sarah’s death.  In both versions she learns that her husband Abraham has taken her son to the mountains along with wood and a knife to make a sacrifice to God.  Fearing the worst, she runs distraught from camp to camp searching for news. In one version an angel appears to say that Isaac survives; overcome with joy her heart gives out and she dies.  In the second version, when Satan appears and lies to her, proclaiming Isaac’s death, she drops dead from grief.

In this collage, which focuses on Isaac, you find Sarah, almost invisible at this point in the story, in the shadow of Isaac’s coat, shrouded in mourning.  Her role is over.  There’s nothing left for her to do but die.  Her marriage and her faith are lost to her.  How can she ever forgive God or Abraham?

Isaac carries a branch in his hand to represent the wood he carried, the wood for his own sacrifice.  The mountain looms ahead of him with its high altar.  The fire is built, the knife is honed, but an angel appears to stop the proceedings.  Instead of Isaac, a lamb will be slaughtered to complete the rite.

This story is full of drama and dilemmas.  Many interpretations have been offered over the years, from awe at Abraham’s faith, devotion and overwhelming love/fear of God to stark horror at the idea a parent would be willing to sacrifice their child to some abstract cause.  But, how can we forget the sons sent off to die in Vietnam or disowned for refusing the honor?  In the Iran/Iraq War children were given plastic “keys to heaven” and sent to die. Children are recruited by the thousands in Africa and Central America. An estimated 300,000 children are currently involved in 33 armed conflicts around the world.  In El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Uganda, almost a third of little soldiers are girls. Europe is no exception – thousands of child soldiers fought during the Balkan wars between 1991 and 1995.  And who can forget Europe’s infamous Children’s Crusade?  Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of children routinely murdered around the world since classical times for simply being girls.

Even yet, girls are often considered second best to sons in the patriarchal model we still live under.  Primogeniture – inheritance of a Father’s property by the first born – has long been a part of that model.  Notice that when the Lord speaks (see opening quote) he calls Isaac Abraham’s only son.  What happened to Ishmael?  When she was freed/exiled did “ownership” of her son revert to Hagar?  Did banishment automatically make Hagar and Ishmael “other” – not one of the “people” and hence not eligible under the laws of inheritance?

And what about poor little Isaac, trussed like a lamb and laid upon his funeral pile by Dad?  Not only was he betrayed in the most traumatic way by his trusted father, he returned home to find his mother dead.  Perhaps in the end Ishmael did get the better deal.  Though their father betrayed both his sons, at least Ishmael didn’t lose his mother.

What did God really want?  Isaac’s name means he laughs or perhaps he will laugh.  Is God laughing?  Is this some elaborate cosmic set up?  What if he wanted Abraham to defy him and put his son’s interest first?  Of course we’ve already seen the Abraham couldn’t be counted on in a pinch to remain loyal to family.  Twice, he pandered his sister/wife Sarah to men richer and more powerful than himself.  Perhaps God was hoping against hope Abraham would put Isaac’s interests above his own. As we know, God visits the sins of the father on future generations.  Today we see the rivalry between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac still going on at the cost of incalculable human suffering, billions of dollars and countless lost hours of creativity, community and collaboration.

This story is rich in odd details, extensive in its scope and cast of characters, yet full of puzzling gaps.  It’s a complicated tale that inspires our curiosity with its unanswered questions.  Grappling with it has been exhausting – calling up a whole gamut of emotions I wasn’t expecting.  It doesn’t take much to crack the surface and begin floundering in its depths.  But the struggle is rewarding.  Jump in and join us at the deep end …

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And Sarah Laughed…

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and sarah laughed

One day, God took with him two angels and went visiting, disguised as a wayfaring stranger.  Abraham, obeying the ancient laws of hospitality ran out to welcome the weary travelers in.  He ordered a lamb slaughtered and sent Sarah to bake bread.  Seating the stranger in a place of honor, he offered him wine, dates, almonds and salty olives.  God, pleased with Abraham’s kindness to strangers, promised that Sarah, who had been barren her whole long life, would soon bear a son.  Sarah, eavesdropping on their conversation from within the folds of her tent laughed to herself at the idea.  God heard her and asked Abraham why she laughed.  Sarah, frightened, denied that she had. “Yes you did,” said God.

What a strange and wonderful story this is.  I’ve read several interpretations of Sarah’s laughter – some describe it as a peal of joy, others as a snort of derision.

In the entire Bible Sarah is the only person who is described as laughing.  Laughter is mentioned in a few other places and a couple of times groups of people laugh scornfully, but no other individual laughs. This is an old old story, repeated hundreds of times before it was written down more than six hundred years after it was first told.  Why did this little detail of one woman’s quiet laughter survive?

I found a great article by Richard Restak on the psychology and physiology of laughter.  Basically, laughter releases endorphins that make us feel good.  It relieves stress, alleviates anxiety and lowers our blood pressure.  Laughter also dispels nervousness, eases social situations and creates feelings of companionship and good will. Laughter can also be derogatory, self-deprecating or ironic.

Maybe God’s insistence that Sarah acknowledge her laughter was a way of underlining the importance of laughter.  Maybe, it meant, “don’t undermine your own human nature.” Perhaps it serves to remind us to stay present and take ourselves less seriously.  Consider how important the issue of reproduction was and still is to many women.  Then and now, it bears directly on honor, shame, status, fulfillment, personal happiness and identity.  Sarah had been living with the burden and shame of being barren for her whole life. Her reaction to Hagar and Ishmael indicates great defensiveness around the subject.  Maybe the story tells us that relaxing our hard grip on the identities we create for ourselves opens an opportunity for change.  Look how often women who try for years to become pregnant finally conceive after giving up and going on vacation or adopting a baby. There are many ways of being pregnant with things other than babies – dreams, projects, causes, art.  For any of them to come to fruition we need to relax, breathe, and let go of outcome.  We need to laugh.

Especially we need to laugh at ourselves and the absurd situation of being human.  It difficult to be self-aware. Consciousness is both blessing and curse, it can heal but also cripple.  Laughter, a phenomenon that even now scientists cannot entirely explain, explodes paradox and shifts our perspective. It breezes like a cleansing wind through our darkest passions and most twisted assumptions, if only we let it.  The story tells us to remember, honor, and use this gift as an antidote to suffering.

In this collage we see Abraham relaxing together under the trees, drinking wine.  Sarah, having heard her name spoken, leans against the tent pole eavesdropping on the conversation.  Traditionally in those days, when a man and woman were depicted together in a work of art, particularly if they were “man and wife,” the woman would be drawn smaller than the man.  Here I’ve reversed the tradition because it is Sarah’s story that interests us; her emotions drive the story and it is her laughter we remember.

Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael

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Sar and Hagar

There’s so much to say about this story it is hard to know where to start.  We usually begin with an overview.  So, here we see Sarah the barren old woman who has been promised a child by God himself.  Even after the promise, this mythical child is a long time coming.  Worried about Abraham not having an heir from their own family (Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister) , Sarah has sent her handmaiden Hagar to lie with Abraham and bear his child.  That child, according to Jewish tradition, now belongs to Sarah and Abraham.  (Echoes of this practice reverberate down through the centuries in both real life and story.  Consider surrogate mothers and Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).

The starry heavens behind the three characters represent God’s covenant with the two women – he has promised them both that nation’s will arise from the seed of their sons.  In this collage Isaac has not yet been conceived and Ishmael is still a little boy.  Jealousy has already begun to bedevil these women.  The heavens also represent the ubiquitous God, who just can’t seem to keep from meddling in these people’s lives in the most clumsy manner.

In reading the Bible stories about women, keep in mind how seldom women are named and how little description surrounds their names. When a woman is named we can assume her story held great import for her contemporaries and that the story associated with her holds enough meaning to continue to reverberate down the millennia.

Hagar looms the largest for me in this story. She is the least powerful figure here; even her fertility can be co-opted.  Nevertheless, Hagar haunts every action and even God keeps track of her comings and goings.  We can deduce from the story that she is a straightforward woman, lacking in subtlety or cunning until motherhood empowers her and she becomes proud, defiant, stubborn and ambitious for her child. I can’t help but identify with her.  She seems to represent the status and position of so many women today, in this country and around the world.

Perhaps Hagar and Sarah together represent the precarious nature of motherhood.  The women in this tale are both hostages to fortune.  They live and die at the whims of men and their gods.  On the one hand, fertility bestows a certain amount of power; on the other, women are easily interchangeable. Perhaps the meaning lies in what these women fail to do, rather than in their actions.  Perhaps, we are being shown how divisive and enervating jealousy can be; how it saps the strength and diverts the will to the point that the welfare of children becomes compromised rather than enhanced.

We don’t know how Hagar felt about being sent to Abraham’s bed.  Was she repulsed by his age?  Or attracted by his power and prestige?  Whichever it was, once pregnant she began to enjoy her new status.  No doubt, as her time approached she was relieved of many duties and when she gave birth to a son – well the feasting and rejoicing are easy to imagine.  It all went to her head, and she began to put on airs and disrespect Sarah.

Remember that Sarah and Abraham are very old by this time and Sarah has spent decades living down the shame of being barren.  The fact that she has been a beautiful and desirable woman makes it all the worse; makes her feel like a fraud.  Perhaps, all along she has harbored a sneaking suspicion that her childless state may be the fault of Abraham.  Now that the younger woman Hagar has borne a son, even that secret comfort is denied her.  Hagar’s airs, which may be just the normal delight and pride of a new mother, act like salt in Sarah’s wounds. The humiliation and shame of a lifetime overcome her.  Sarah beats Hagar and Hagar runs away, taking the baby with her.  However, God isn’t done with these people.  He sends an angel to talk to Hagar and convince her to return.

There’s a blank in the story here – one of many.  In Jewish tradition the rabbi’s often make up a scenario to fill in the blanks.  These are called midrash and they are teaching anecdotes that carry a moral or make a theological point.

What I imagine happened here is that when Hagar ran away, Abraham was furious and worried.  I imagine he berated Sarah for driving Hagar away.  Perhaps Sarah, too, was horrified at losing her son.  No doubt they sent out search parties and prayed for them to return.

We can extrapolate from other stories in the Bible, that Hagar would have been welcomed back with rejoicing and forgiveness.  In my version, when Hagar and the baby came back, the two women come to an agreement; sharing the child and living harmoniously for a time –  at least, until Isaac arrives on the scene…

To Be Continued…