Monday, October 15, 2007

Fear and trembling

In the deepest hour before the dawn, Abraham lay awake in the tent, his wife Sarah asleep by his side. He was tormented by the kind of doubt that comes in darkness. How could he prove his faith in God?

In the shadows at the other side of the tent, his son Isaac slept soundly. It came into Abraham's head that he could affirm his faith by sacrificing Isaac, the thing he most loved. The gravest doubt required the greatest refutation. It was a mad idea, of course, but the old man could not shake it. It burrowed into his brain and lodged there, behind his watery eyes, driving every other thought aside. His fists clenched beneath the coverlets, fingernails digging into the flesh.

With first light, he rose from his pallet and went to stir the campfire. The ashes were cold and gray. Sarah saw that her husband's eyes were swollen and red. Her heart was filled with pity, but this sadness in Abraham's countenance was not new. She remained silent, and prepared breakfast for her husband and son.

Abraham said to Isaac, "Come." Isaac demurred: "Father, I must tend to our family's business." "Come," said Abraham. Isaac heard the fierceness in his father's voice. He laced his sandals and followed Abraham out of the camp.

They walked for three days, without speaking. Isaac grew frustrated, angry and distraught. There was much work to be done at home, and here he was following his silent father -- where? At night, as they lay wrapped in their cloaks, he heard his father weep. He understood that Abraham was wrestling with some inner demon, and knew he must remain at his side as a prop and protection. It was his duty as a son.

On the fourth day they came to the summit of Mount Moriah. Abraham took out his knife and laid it upon a flat stone. He looked into his son's eyes and said, "You understand what I must do." It was the first words he had spoken since they left the camp.

Isaac might have resisted. He was a grown man, in the prime of life; his father was old and weak. "God wills it," said Abraham.

Isaac looked into his father's eyes and saw deep wells of doubt. He understood that Abraham could only be made whole again if he proved himself to God. But he believed too that the old man would never be able to commit the heinous act. He let himself be bound, trusting that at the last moment his father's resolve would fail.

Abraham raised the knife. His face glowed with a dogged resolution. Isaac realized he had made a terrible mistake in letting himself be bound, that the conflict of faith and doubt in his father's mind was so great that love and reason and human pity would be swept before it. Sunlight glinted on the poised blade.

And then they heard the bleating of a stray ram entangled in a nearby thicket.

(An explanation tomorrow.)