The first of forever

1) The Sacrifice

He, Abraham, the Father of all
stood first upon the Summit of Surrender.
There, with the knife of His heart raised,
the witness stones themselves cried out,
Father, forgive us!
We are nothing to You.
Every act from this Day hence
draws its breath from Yours!
Father, forgive us!

2) The Covenant

Then light was reborn in turmoil’s lament
as the Breath of God blew across His Servant’s brow.
His Will flashed down, His Voice thundered out
and His Patience billowed forth.
Thus did the storm of His Promise well up
to rage unabated, where it rages still,
deep in the hearts of His lovers.

3) The Lament of Ishmael

Father! cried Ishmael,
Why dost Thou stay Thy Hand?
Hast Thou no mercy for me?
Then, falling upon the dust
he, eldest of all thereafter
proved worthy to the task.
Embracing the ground at his Father’s feet
he calmed himself to account,
stretched forth his neck,
and awaited the blow that would never, he now knew, come.
Father forgive me! he wept, I am nothing!

The story of the Sacrifice has occupied Judaic/Christian/Muslim religious thinkers since the time of the Patriarchs themselves.

Before I go into why I wrote this three poem collective, I should explain a particular point: Jews and Christians believe that the child of the Sacrifice was Abraham’s second born son, Isaac. Muslims believe that the child in question was Abraham’s first born, Ishmael, who was twelve years older than his brother, and whose mother was Hagar. Isaac’s mother was Sarah, who bore Him when she was quite elderly and, so all believed, past her child bearing days. (In the Qur’án, Abraham is Ibrahim, Ishmael is Isma’il, and Ishaq is Isaac.) In religious history, all Jews believe that they are descended from Isaac, while all Arabic speaking peoples of the Arabian Peninsula—the first Muslims—believe they are descended from Ishmael.

Bahá’u’lláh—the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith—makes the point that the essential element of both versions remains the same: in the end, through the Will of God, an animal is sacrificed, not a son, and that the story is about the nature of the Sacrifice itself, not which child is named. To Jews (and Christians) it should be Isaac;  to Muslims (and Bahá’ís) it should be Isma’il/Ishmael. In either case, the essential Truth of the Word of God remains unchanged.

This story pops up everywhere. It is, for example, an essential plot element in the Hyperion series of science fiction books by Dan Simmons (highly recommended, by the way) and I recently listened to an NPR podcast from the RadioLab show that was specific to this story.

The point of the Sacrifice is to examine the nature of obedience to the Will of God and the meaning of sacrifice in His name. For centuries it has been the essential ethical and moral question pertaining to faith that many scholars and religious theorists have debated. The essential element is usually in the format of questions: “How can God ask this of Abraham?” and “How can Abraham accept that God…” or “How can Abraham even contemplate killing…” and “How can Ishmael not see that he…” My poem was written out of frustration with the interpretations I have studied on the story and to try and establish a different perspective on the nature of its meaning.

The universal failing, I believe, that people bring to the story is to bring it down to the level of their world experience and to cast the roles of the participants into their lives so that they can make the story relative to themselves. They do not try to cast themselves into the roles of the participants, or try to understand those roles, and so fail to grow into the understanding of what true faith is, as exemplified by the actions and the roles of the participants.

Let me explain this by using an example from the author, Rúhíyyih Khanum, when she writes about understanding the nature of great spiritual effort. She noted that when an airplane is on the ground it obeys all the laws of physics that pertain to objects rolling around on the earth. However, when, with a great surge of power, that airplane leaps into the air, it comes under the influence of a completely different set of physical laws, ones that cannot truly be experienced, but only imagined, by those who are earth-bound.

The same goes for great spiritual heroes; how can we, of lesser spiritual insight, understand the degree of sacrifice they are willing to make, and the degree of obedience they are willing to commit to? Because it is by these very acts that they enter a spiritual realm that we can only see and dimly be aware of. Their realm of action, while visible to ours, is not controlled by the same spiritual laws we follow.

And yet, paradoxically, there is, on their large scale, a truth that also works on our small scale: that sacrifice, willingly and lovingly given, is the spiritual energy that empowers every powerful act for good in this world. And if this is so for every human being and up to and including religious martyrs, then how much more so is it true for the Messengers of God Themselves?

We should not try and recast the story of the Sacrifice into something we can understand from our small world perspective. We must try and stretch our understanding and empathy towards the spiritual heights to which Abraham and Ishmael, in obedience to God, soar, and from our limited ability to view and understand such holy, detached and obedient certitude, strive to bring those same qualities into our lives.

First of all, Abraham is the Forefather of four world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Bahá’í Faith. As a Messenger of God, His sense of conviction, faith, certitude and obedience is the very definition of what these words mean. He is not to be questioned, not to be pulled down, not to be examined by our standards, but is the One Who creates and sets the perfect value of those standards; as such He is to be obeyed, instantly, completely and exactly. Such is the difference between a normal human being and a Messenger of God—One who is a perfect mirror to God.

This sense of obedience and humility that even the rocks of this planet do a better job at then we humans do, is the heart of man’s role in the eternal Covenant of God, the essential relationship that binds man to God. This is the theme dealt with in The Sacrifice, the first poem of the trilogy.

The Lament of Ishmael is the essential point in the poetic trilogy. Most commentators raise the issue of how the Sacrifice deals with the sense of loss or betrayal that the story must have engendered in Ishmael. But this misses the point. Surely the history of religions has shown that spiritual heroes are ready to lay down their lives for their faith. And not just to do it, but to do it unhesitatingly, with joy, love, and even eagerness; this is the very essence of faith. I am certain that Ishmael would have been eager to shed his blood for his faith, and that not having the opportunity to do so would have been a great loss to him.

To show this point let me end with this: consider the story of Khálid ibn al-Walíd, the fearless, first great general of Islam, he who was designated by Muhammad as ‘The Drawn Sword of His Faith.’ On his death bed as an old man he lamented, “I’ve fought in so many battles seeking martyrdom that there is no spot on my body left without a scar or a wound made by a spear or sword. And yet here I am, dying on my bed like an old camel.”

What will each of us, I wonder, lament on our death beds?

Thank you for reading The first of forever. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.


PS: A friend pointed out, after reading this poem, that in the Qur’an, it is said in Surih 37:102… And when he [Ishmael] reached with him [the age of] exertion, he [Abraham] said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. These poems and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge,

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