Mount Moriah

This is the story of Abraham's experience on Mount Moriah, after God had told him to sacrifice his son. Unlike most of my other pieces, it is not specifically written for church use or for reading aloud, but is a personal exploration of the story. If you do use it in any worship or Bible study setting, please do so with care; this is one of the most traumatic and troubling moments in the Bible, and this piece provides a pretty strong exposure to it.

‭ ‬The old man told his wife the evening they returned‭; ‬almost the instant they returned.‭ ‬He shook as he told her,‭ ‬and once he made a tiny,‭ ‬childish movement toward her as if he thought she would gather him into her arms‭; ‬but her arms hung motionless by her sides,‭ ‬and he stopped.‭ ‬She neither moved nor spoke the whole time he was speaking‭; ‬she sat like a stone before him,‭ ‬and the glint of the oil-light flickered a little in her staring eyes.

‭ ‬ He had not slept,‭ ‬the night before they left.‭ ‬He had lain by her side with his eyes open to the huge dark around him,‭ ‬and let it pour itself into him,‭ ‬hour by hour,‭ ‬like the ocean pouring into a single drain.‭ ‬He tried to think,‭ ‬but there was no light,‭ ‬there were no words,‭ ‬in his mind‭; ‬only the darkness and the burning even the darkness could not quench,‭ ‬the burning of what he must do.‭ ‬He opened his mouth,‭ ‬not knowing if there would be words‭; ‬he spoke the words of the promise.‭ ‬He lay still again,‭ ‬letting the darkness pour in.‭ ‬He saw the edge of sky around the tent-flap lighten and pale with dawn.‭ ‬He felt the promise within him bloom in the midst of the burning,‭ ‬like a white almond-blossom on a glowing bed of coals.

‬He got up.‭ ‬Outside a bird in the tamarisk tree gave three low clear notes.‭ ‬He found his knife,‭ ‬and tied it on his belt.

‬On the journey he slept.‭ ‬They lay two nights under the stars,‭ ‬he and his son,‭ ‬close together‭; ‬and when the darkness had fallen and the stars been led out across the sky thick as an army and glorious as the children of God,‭ ‬then he would look at Isaac and see he was asleep.‭ ‬Then he would take his son in his arms and weep very quietly,‭ ‬and very quietly he would beg‭; ‬but the stars were silent then,‭ ‬and the voice behind them also.‭ ‬He looked up again at the stars and whispered the promise.

‬ Then he slept.

‬ On the third morning there was the mountain,‭ ‬a huge hunched beast in the distance,‭ ‬and the old man shut his eyes at the sight.‭ ‬There was the place where it would be done,‭ ‬and in his mind he could see the doing of it now.‭ ‬He whispered the promise to himself as they walked,‭ ‬as they came within striking-range of the beast,‭ ‬and the blossom lay in the heart of the fire in all its glory and fragility,‭ ‬and was not consumed,‭ ‬and did not quench the flames.‭ ‬The promise did not change the doing of it.‭ ‬He gave his son the bundle of wood,‭ ‬and let him hoist it on his strong young shoulder,‭ ‬and in his hand he took the fire and the knife.‭ ‬And from them a cold stream of terror seeped into his fingers.

‬ They walked on.

‬ The mountain grew‭; ‬it filled the old man's eyes.‭ ‬It had changed now,‭ ‬it was no beast‭; ‬he stood at its foot and looked up,‭ ‬and every rock recoiled from his gaze.‭ ‬The ragged,‭ ‬thirsty bushes shrank back from him and tried to hide themselves in the cracked ground.‭ ‬High above the mountain's crown,‭ ‬against the sky's pure and terrible blue,‭ ‬circled a vulture,‭ ‬and its cry came down to him where he stood and he understood it:‭ ‬murderer.‭

It was then that Isaac spoke,‭ ‬and said‭ "‬Father‭?" ‬and his father answered with the same words he had said to God:‭ "‬Here I am.‭" ‬But as the boy asked his question,‭ ‬the old man hardly heard his words for the beating of the boy's heart that asked,‭ ‬in its gentle one-two-three rhythm:‭ "‬God told you‭? ‬God told you‭? ‬God told you‭?" ‬But he told him the only thing he knew:‭ ‬that God knew.‭ ‬That God would provide.

‬At the crown of Mount Moriah was a flat place,‭ ‬like a stage.‭ ‬The sun was at its zenith,‭ ‬a pure and cruel white.‭ ‬The air was heavy around them,‭ ‬heavy as the hand of God,‭ ‬and the hand of God was heavier than it had ever been.‭ ‬The old man knelt on the cracked earth to wrench up its stones for the altar‭; ‬he pulled as though he were wrenching out his own heart,‭ ‬his liver,‭ ‬his testicles.‭ ‬He did not dare recite the promise now,‭ ‬even in a whisper.‭ ‬He did not dare anything but what he had to do.‭ ‬The old man ran with sweat.‭ ‬The stones were too heavy‭; ‬his son knelt down beside him,‭ ‬to help him wrench them out.

‬ He did not look at the altar when it was finished.‭ ‬He looked at nothing.‭ ‬Inside him was fire,‭ ‬like the heart of the coals where the flames lick green.‭ ‬It ate at his bones,‭ ‬it ate of the roots of his soul.‭ ‬The friend of his soul was its cruelest enemy.‭ ‬The white flower lay lovely amid the green flames‭; ‬but the ice-blue sky was dark to his eyes,‭ ‬and the fire spoke only of what he must do.

"‬Isaac,‭" ‬he said.

‬The rope was in his hands,‭ ‬the rope they had used to tie the wood.‭ ‬Give me your hands,‭ ‬he said,‭ ‬his voice cracked like the earth.‭ ‬The young man had never disobeyed his father in his life.‭ ‬He stretched out his hands with hardly a thought.‭ ‬The old man looked deep into his son's eyes as he looped the rope around his wrists,‭ ‬and the fire screamed in his vitals as he watched his son understand‭; ‬and for a moment in the two men's eyes lay the same terror,‭ ‬and flashed between them like lightning.

‬ Then he was struggling with the knots.

‬ The young man said nothing.‭ ‬The old man said nothing,‭ ‬but laid his hand on the altar,‭ ‬at its center where the wood was laid.‭ ‬Isaac laid himself down on his back.‭ ‬He could not hide his trembling though he tried.‭ ‬The old man hardly felt the water that ran down his cheeks like rain‭; ‬within him the tears hissed to steam.‭ ‬He took the knife,‭ ‬and raised it high above his head.

‬Then the true terror took him.

‬He brought the knife down but there was no strength in his arm,‭ ‬and the motion of his strike broke before the knife was halfway to Isaac's chest,‭ ‬his arm going limp.‭ ‬He doubled over like a man about to vomit,‭ ‬and his mouth opened in a soundless scream.‭ ‬He had seen Isaac's eyes,‭ ‬and he had seen Isaac's eyeless skull,‭ ‬charred black in the holocaust offering.

‬ He raised the knife again.

‬ But it was the same.‭ ‬The blackened flesh that he had held in his arms‭; ‬the empty ribcage where the beating heart was now.‭ ‬His body spasmed and his arm gave way.‭ ‬He screamed.

‬ He raised the knife again.

‬ The old man stood over his son on the mountain's barren crown,‭ ‬and he plunged the knife toward his son's heart,‭ ‬and broke off,‭ ‬and cried out,‭ ‬and raised it again.‭ ‬And again,‭ ‬and again.‭ ‬He wailed.‭ ‬He screamed‭ "‬I can't‭!" ‬to the pitiless sky.‭ ‬His body cramped and twisted as if he'd been stabbed‭; ‬his beard was wet with tears and spittle.‭ ‬He groaned like a woman in labor.‭ ‬He shouted fragments of the promise‭; ‬he choked out‭ "‬Have mercy.‭" ‬He raised the knife and he aimed it true,‭ ‬and again and again his strength broke before the body and blood of his son.

‬Time did not exist.‭ ‬The childbirth of the soul does not know time.‭ ‬Yesterday is nothing‭; ‬tomorrow,‭ ‬unimaginable.‭ ‬Only the angel of the Lord,‭ ‬standing close enough to touch the old man's back,‭ ‬knew time,‭ ‬and would remember that the old man stood in his eternity three hours in all.

‬Then came a moment‭; ‬the first moment in the world‭; ‬a moment unlike any that had come before.‭ ‬Then the fire gathered itself in Abraham and was simple,‭ ‬and he saw nothing,‭ ‬knew nothing else‭; ‬then all his thought,‭ ‬all his feeling,‭ ‬all his memory and desire was lost in the burning flood of his will and nothing existed on earth or in Heaven but himself and his God and what he must do,‭ ‬and he raised the knife for the last time and brought it down,‭ ‬one long strong plunge into his son's breast.

‬It was as the knife's point touched Isaac's skin that the old man felt the burning hand around his wrist.

‬He gasped like a drowning man,‭ ‬and a long shudder went through his body,‭ ‬and he fell back into the waiting arms.‭ ‬He felt the chest against his head and for an instant heard the heartbeat,‭ ‬terrible as the roaring of the sea‭; ‬then above it like the lonely cry of a bird came a wild broken voice calling his name.‭ ‬Abraham.‭ ‬Abraham.

‬ He turned then,‭ ‬because the voice was so mighty and broken‭; ‬because the voice was a father's and a mother's and he knew the voice yet he did not.‭ ‬He turned,‭ ‬and the face that bent above him was awful as the sun,‭ ‬and streamed with tears.

‭ ‬ The face had commanded silence most clearly,‭ ‬and so strong was that command that even after all had been revealed,‭ ‬Isaac never told his father what he had seen.‭ ‬To the day of his death he neither forgot nor uttered a word about those three hours,‭ ‬when he had lain bound under the cruel sun and the knife in his father's hand,‭ ‬looking up into the weeping face of God.

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Sara said...

Few of us dare to plunge ourselves as deeply into the story as you have. I was drawn into the darkness of those hours, despite knowing the light at the end. Thank you for sharing your gift.