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Ruminations of a Feisty Old Quaker

Abraham's Choice

Most people who will read this will undoubtedly know the tale of Abraham and Isaac. It is one of the foundational stories of all three of the major Abrahamaic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - although Muslims will often argue that the child involved was Ishmael rather than Isaac). The Christian version is found in Genesis 22. God challenges Abraham to prove his devotion by sacrificing his firstborn son, Isaac, on a specific mountain top. Abraham journeys to the mountain with his son and carries out all the preparations, up to and including binding the child to the pyre and picking up the sacrificial blade. At that point, God interrupts in the form of an angel, who stays Abraham's hand and points to a ram caught in a nearby thicket. Abraham, the angel says, has adequately demonstrated his obedience, and should now save his son by sacrificing the ram instead. Which Abraham proceeds to do.

 

In all three faiths, The Binding - as it is known in Judaism - is held up as a premiere example of the rewards to be obtained by radical obedience to the love of God. But now comes along Wilfred Owen, writing from a battlefield in France in the summer of 1918, shortly before his own death in battle. Owen's version sticks close to the language of Genesis. But it has a different, much darker ending.

 

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

 

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

 

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

I have been thinking a lot about this lately. Where does our current culture stand in relation to The Binding? We clearly still abhor child sacrifice: our battles over abortion relate to that, as does our focus on child sex trafficking, and the emphasis opponents of Trump's border wall have placed on the separation of children from their parents by immigration authorities. We are Bibically correct - as long as the children are concrete. But when they are abstract - children in the future, children as a whole in the present - we seem far more likely to embrace Wilfred Owen's dystopian version of the old tale than we do the original.

 

It's not just war that I am talking about.

 

We are faced - all of us, right here, right now - with Abraham's choice. We have bound our children, and our children's children, to the pyre of climate change. The angel has arrived, in the form of irrefutable scientific evidence that change is happening and that it is human-caused. The sacrificial ram - our addiction to fossil fuels - has been pointed to. We have been implored to switch. But the knife continues to descend.

 

There is another story of child sacrifice in the Bible: the tale of Jepthah, found in Judges 11-12. There, the sacrifice is actually carried out. Jepthah is not nearly so highly regarded today as is Abraham. But it is his example, rather than Abraham's, that we apparently choose to follow.

 

We still abhor child sacrifice. We particularly abhor mass child sacrifice. A story in the February 2019 issue of National Geographic recounts archaeologists' discovery of a site in Peru where hundreds of children and young llamas were slain in what was clearly a single large-scale ritualistic offering by the ancient Chimù culture to try to stave off the calamity that would soon end their civilization. Most Americans will properly recoil in horror at the idea of murdering that many children in a vain attempt to keep a dying culture alive, but we are worse than the Chimù. We are extending the life of our dying petroleum-based culture by sacrificing the future of every child on the planet. And our resemblance to the Chimù extends beyond the sacrifice itself. Available evidence points to an extended period of heavy rain as the primary cause of the Chimù's demise. They cut off their children's future in a failed attempt to continue business as usual in the face of climate change.

 

As do we.

 

Abraham made the proper choice. When the angel appeared, he listened. The child was liberated; the ram was sacrificed instead. Our time is short - it grows shorter every day - but we can still do the same. We can still turn from dismantling our children's future to dismantling our dependence on fossil fuels. Renewable energy is a viable alternative; taking Abraham's choice does not require the sacrifice of our comfort instead of our children. We should rejoice in the opportunity we have been given to shift victims. Will we be wise enough to take it? If not, the fire awaits.

 

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