The Story of Abraham Sacrificing Isaac brings a Modern Trauma

    January 2012          
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A Terror Of Knives

By Ben Nightingale

"I heard them rattling in the bottom when I picked up the trash bag." Naomi was holding the knives up for Stuart, her husband, to see.

"All of them?" Stuart asked.

"All the large, sharp ones."

Naomi put the knives in the dishwasher. "Are you going to ask him?"

"Me?" Stuart had slumped into a chair. "He's only seven. What I mean is...I don't know what I mean."

"We can't just ignore it." She was sitting at the table, holding Stuart's right hand.

"Can you talk to him, Naomi?"

Naomi got up, walked out of the kitchen, through the dining room, and slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor. At the top she paused and brushed back her hair, then walked down the hall. Eli's bedroom door was slightly ajar. She knocked lightly. Eli glanced in her direction, then continued reading his book. Naomi slid a chair over and sat beside his bed. She rested a hand on one of his legs. "Son...we've got to talk." A torrent of tears ran down his face. The sound of his loud sobs filled the room. "I didn't mean it Mom...honest."

Now Naomi was sitting on the side of the bed, holding him tightly. "What dear. Didn't mean what?"

"You know," Eli whispered between sobs. "The knives."

"Why did you throw them out sweetheart?"

"I was scared."

"Of what?"

Eli dropped the book he had been reading, and slumped down on the bed on his back. "Mommy, would Daddy do it?"

"Do what?"

"Kill me."

She grabbed both of his hands-"What in the world makes you ask such a question?"

Tears were still pouring from his eyes. In a low voice, Eli answered..."That's what it said Mommy."

"What Eli?"

"The Torah story."

Naomi held his hands tighter. "In Hebrew School?"

Eli's crying had stopped. "Yes Mommy. They said it was about sacrifice. That if we give something that means a lot to us, like Isaac meant to Abraham, that that was sacrifice. But I knew that wasn't the real story."

"Well," Naomi said, as she smoothed back his hair, "it sounds like your teacher told a wonderful story."

"Not the whole story. Not the one I heard you and Daddy telling each other."

"You overheard?"

"Yes, I had to go to the bathroom. It sounded like you and Daddy were fighting. Daddy said something about what if Abraham had put the knife into Isaac's heart. Had killed him. Daddy asked you if Abraham would have been a murderer?"

"Well we were just discussing the story. I mean..."

"Mommy, I'm scared. Abraham was a Daddy. And Dad's my Dad."

"Oh sweetheart, Daddy would never do something like that to you."

"How do you know?"

"It's just a story. Some think it's not even true."

Eli looked puzzled. "If it's not true, why is it told so many times in Hebrew School and even you and Daddy talking about it?"

Naomi didn't know what to say. "Look young man, it's past your bedtime." She reached over and switched off Eli's bed stand light. Then held up the covers so he could get under them. She bent down and kissed his forehead. "I'll leave your door open a bit. Now you go to sleep."

"Okay Mommy."

Naomi paused at the door and blew Eli a kiss. "Love you honey."

Stuart was still sitting at the kitchen table when Naomi walked in. "Well-what happened?"

"He was afraid you would kill him." A slight smile showed on Naomi's face.

The chair Stuart had been sitting on fell to the floor as he jumped up. "Me-kill him. And you smiling. Should I go up and talk to him?"

"No. He had settled down and was going to sleep."

"Did he say anything about the knives."

"Yes. He admitted he had thrown them away, because he was scared."

Stuart had picked up his chair and was seated again. "This is all ridiculous. How does he get things like that into his head?"

"We did it Stuart. He overheard us discussing the Akedah. You going on about Abraham almost being a murderer."

"It was just talk. A discussion."

"Tell that to a seven-year-old."

"I have no idea what to say to him." He got up, went to the spare room that was his office, and got his laptop. As he walked back into the kitchen, he made sure the door was shut. He sat down and booted up the computer."

"Why'd you bring that in here Stuart?"

"Just to do some surfing on the internet. I want to see what it says about the Akedah. See if there's some stuff we can use."

After the laptop had booted and Stuart had surfed some, he said..."Listen to this Naomi." Stuart leaned forward, peering at the laptop's screen. "Here's a guy who took his four-year-old son camping. He was leading his son up a hill so they could watch a sunrise. The little boy turned to him and asked, 'Daddy, are we going to Mount Moriah?'" This guy says he has no idea how his son even heard that story. And the little boy had some fears."

"Wow, four."

"Damn," Stuart almost shouted. "Here's a story about a family in India sacrificing their daughter. And another one about a guy in California taking his youngest daughter-his favorite-and sacrificed her. The jury found him insane, but at his trial they say he considered himself a modern Abraham."

"Those are so extreme Stuart," Naomi said as she got up and went to the refrigerator. "Honey, you want something to"

"After what I just read? Extreme? Did you say these were extreme? How about Abraham. Wasn't he extreme?"

"He didn't actually kill Isaac."

Stuart went to another internet page. "Here's a 1907 New York Times article by a Princeton professor. The title-'Is The Story of Abraham a Myth?' It opens with-'Princeton professor doubts whether the Patriarch ever existed.'"

"Stuart, I must confess, I told Eli that the Akedah might not be true."

"You did? So Eli must really be confused now."

"I just wanted to tell as much truth about the story as I felt was necessary."

"Wow Naomi! Here's a guy that starts by telling about God calling out to Abraham. Telling him to take his son and go to the land of Moriah and offer him for a burnt offering on the mountain. Finally when the wood is on the altar and his son, Isaac, is tied up and also placed on the Naomi, read the rest."

Naomi put on her glasses. She read..."'Then the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, 'Abraham! Stop! Stop!' But Abraham's dagger had already dug into his son. And so the Lord swooped down from heaven and knocked Abraham to the ground with the force of a gale. As Abraham lay in the dust the Lord berated him: 'Why?! Why in heaven's name were you trying to kill your son, your only son, whom you love?!' And Abraham replied, 'But my Lord, you asked me to! It was your will and I was fulfilling it.' And the Lord replied, 'You desert idiot! I wasn't after your loyalty; I was testing whether you had the brains to distinguish between what's crazy and what's not! Woe to you for you have failed miserably. Any father who actually went out to kill his own child just because some higher-up told him to ought to be locked up for life!' Oh Stuart, this guy's nuts. That's not the way the story goes."

"I know Naomi. But there's something to it. At least it gets me thinking."

"Well you go ahead and think Stuart. I've had enough!"

"Wait. Lean in closer Naomi. Here's a children's site. Read this." Stuart pointed to the computer screen. Naomi put on her glasses again. She read, "Isaac grew into a strong and healthy boy and Abraham loved his son with all his heart-and then some." She heard Stuart blowing his nose. Naomi handed him a handkerchief as she watched the tears roll down his cheeks. As Stuart wiped them from his eyes and patted Naomi's hand resting on his shoulder with the other, he cried out-"Do you think Eli knows I love him like Abraham loved Isaac?" She didn't reply except to squeeze his shoulder.

Naomi read out loud the whole story about Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac and the ram being provided for the sacrifice in place of Isaac. How God was testing Abraham. "This seems pretty gentle Stuart. You could tell Eli all of this. And I like this ending...'Consider the person in your life who is your most treasured gift. How would you feel if God asked you to give up this gift? Have you thanked God for this gift?' Dear, you need to tell Eli these things. The simpler, softer parts of the story."

"I'm sure he's heard all that stuff in Hebrew School."

"Oh Stuart, he needs to hear you say them as his loving father."

The next night, Stuart went to Eli's bedroom. He sat in a chair beside Eli's bed. They had already talked for about twenty minutes, Stuart retelling the Akedah in loving, simple terms as best he could.

"Daddy, Mommy said the story about Abraham and Isaac might not be true."

" Eli. It is true. I mean as a Torah story it's true."

Eli looked puzzled. "But Daddy, suppose Abraham had used the knife. Had killed Isaac."

"Oh Eli, God wouldn't have let Abraham kill Isaac. Remember he stopped Abraham before he could use the knife. And he provided a ram for the sacrifice."

"So Daddy, was God just kidding?"

"No Eli. God doesn't kid. What I mean is...look at the clock. Way past your bedtime." Stuart got up, bent over and pulled the covers up around Eli's shoulders. He rested a hand on top of Eli's head. All was quiet. Eli's eyes were shut. Stuart was just about to leave.

In a soft, questioning voice Eli asked, "Daddy, did the ram mind being sacrificed?"

"That was God's purpose for the be sacrificed."

Have you ever sacrificed, Daddy?"

"Well son, I know I love you as much as Abraham loved Isaac. Maybe more. And I would give up anything to help you. To show how much I love you. In other words, I would sacrifice something so you could enjoy more...have a better life."

"Who owned the ram Daddy?"

"Eh...I guess God did."

"So God could always get more rams."


"Then the ram wasn't really a sacrifice."

Stuart got up, bent over and kissed Eli. He shut his lamp off. "We'll have to continue this discussion tomorrow. Now you go to sleep, I'll check on you later."

Eli had closed his eyes. Stuart tiptoed out of Eli's bedroom.

As soon as Stuart had entered their bedroom, Naomi asked, "So how did it go."

"We had a good talk. He's pretty bright. Understands a lot." Naomi pulled the covers down on Stuart's side of the bed. "Let's go to sleep dear."

Several weeks passed. His Hebrew School teacher told Naomi that Eli was doing fine. From his grammar school he got a good report card. All was peaceful at home.

One night Stuart opened a kitchen drawer. "Naomi, did you take it?"

"What dear?"

"The big butcher knife?"

"No dear. Maybe it's in another drawer."

Both of them searched all the drawers thoroughly and checked the trash. "I just used it yesterday," Naomi remarked.

"Well it's missing," Stuart said.


from the January 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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