31 March, 2008
The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac is one which has resonated throughout the ages. Despite being only a few paragraphs in Genesis it has raised many questions about faith, obedience and moral behaviour. Starting with the text itself, the main body of it is from the E source, while the section describing the Angel of Yahweh is from a later redaction. This raises the question of whether in the original story Abraham actually carried out the sacrifice of his son. Certainly in the E stories no more mention is made of Isaac after this one, and the E text states that Abraham “did this thing” and “didn’t withhold” his son. Clues perhaps that he did stick the knife in after all. The later redactor makes it clear that child sacrifice is not something that their god requires. This could be a story (priestcraft) explaining why a long held practice should no longer be carried out. The priests did not want people to sacrifice their children and so stated that even should you want to, Yahweh will accept a sheep instead. It isn’t clear how widespread the practice of child sacrifice was in the ancient world, at the stage this story was redacted though, child sacrifice was not something that the Israelites supported. Their condemnation indicates that it was something that people were familiar with though.
Later scholars of the Talmud, including Josephus who wrote a history of the Jews in the first century CE, claimed that Isaac was a grown man in this story. There is no indication in the text itself of what age Isaac is meant to be, only that he is old enough to talk. If he was a grown man then in adds another dimension to the story, not only was Abraham being tested but Isaac was as well. Only as a child would Abraham be able to forcibly tie him to the altar, if he was an adult then he must have succumbed willingly. To me this is reaching a bit far with what we have. The only source for working out Isaac’s age is the next chapter where it talks of his mother’s age at the time of her death, but there is no indication that this happened immediately after Genesis 22. Since the narrative before Gen 22 has Isaac still as a child, he could be any age you want him to be.
The character of Abraham who by faith alone is willing to commit a monstrous act is seen in different lights by people looking at this story today. To many it is appalling, an example of “to make good people do evil it takes religion”. Indeed were we to picture anyone today doing as Abraham did we would probably try to lock them away for their own good. What good is faith if it leads to doing evil things? In the Epistle to the Hebrews (in the New Testament) it states “By faith, Abraham being tested, offered up Isaac … he reasoned that God was capable even of raising the dead”. The argument is that since Abraham has already been promised that his descendants will multiply, then God cannot possibly let his only child die. This ignores Ishmael, but even so, does this not then challenge the idea of faith alone? This is faith that God will *not* let his son die forever, rather than faith that he should do something which he cannot understand.
As an aside it brings into question the idea of what a sacrifice is for if it is temporary. If Abraham knew that his son would not really die, how much more would God/Jesus know that he would not die for any length of time either. Would Jesus need faith?
The philosopher Kierkegaard wrestled with this idea of faith and ascribes a higher level of faith to Abraham – that of trust based on the strength of the absurd. It is Abraham’s faith that God will not let Isaac die which prevents him from being a murderer. But who can imagine what Abraham was thinking as he proceeded to attempt to kill his own son. Did he truly believe that God would not let him, was this the faith he had? In Dan Simmon’s Hyperion books, one of the characters realises that it wasn’t Abraham who was being tested by God, but that God was being tested by Abraham. If God had allowed the sacrifice then he surely wouldn’t be a God worthy of worship.
To me the idea of using this story to teach about real world faith falls apart with the start where God tells Abraham what to do. In the stories it has been established that God and Abraham have had a lot of little chats, they’re on first name terms, so Abraham is sure of what God wants. Does anyone today believe that they understand the will of their god so completely and assuredly? Even if you have faith that your god will not let you do something so terrible, can you be sure that it is your god that you are following? I would argue that anyone who doesn’t have doubts about that is exceptionally immoral, but thankfully child sacrifice is rare enough these days. In any case, this little story in the bible is certainly a great one for bringing up the dilemmas and conundrums inherent in faith.
30 March, 2008
Abraham had been residing in the land of the Philistines for many days when the High God El decided to test him. El said to Abraham “Hey minion of mine, take your son, the only one you love (I know what you think of Ishmael really) and go the land of Moriah. Kill your child and let me smell the sweet scent of his burning flesh.”
“OK” said Abraham, keen to win the Father of the year award.
He left early in the morning, with Isaac and a couple of his boy servants. He cut the wood for the offering and went to the land of Moriah. After three days he saw a mountain and knew that it had to be the one where he was to kill his beloved child. Abraham said to the boys “You stay here, I’m going off with my son to do a bit of praying and then we’ll be back.” Abraham gave the heavy wood to Isaac to carry and they walked up the mountain.
“Phew,” said one of the boy servants, “I thought we were goners for a moment, he’s off to pray and yet doesn’t have a sacrifice, I was sure he was going to kill us!”. “Nah, ” said the other, “that would be absurd.”
Meanwhile Isaac, not always the brightest, had noticed the same thing. “Father, I can’t help but notice that there isn’t any sheep to sacrifice to El.” Abraham replied, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, El will provide a suitable sacrifice.”
And they came to the mountain place. Abraham built the alter and arranged the wood. Then he quickly bound Isaac and put him on the alter. He raised his knife and …
Suddenly an Angel of Yahweh called to Abraham. “Wait, wait, stop! Don’t kill your child! I have seen that you were willing to do so and therefore fear the gods. Behold, a handy sheep.” And Abraham saw a ram caught in a nearby thicket. And he sacrificed the ram instead of his son, which is the way things should be when you think about it. And the Angel of Yahweh called to Abraham for a second time and said…
And The High God El said “I swear that because you did this thing and did not withhold your son that I will bless you and multiply your seed like the stars of the sky and like the sand on the shore. That’s loads by the way, you have no idea how many stars there are, seriously Abe. Your seed will possess its enemies gate (if you know what I mean, nudge, nudge), and all nations will be blessed because you listened to me.
And Abraham went back to the servants and they went to Beersheba.
[Based on the E account, italics represent REJ redactor’s part of Genesis 22]
23 March, 2008
The gods were worried. Their king had been gone for some time now, and it wasn’t clear if he was coming back. Already the murmuring was worrying the king’s sons. What if he never returned? How long before one of them would have to take up the position of King of the Gods? The noblest of the sons stood forward. “We cannot be sure our beloved Father will ever return. It is in all of our interests to agree on a new King.” A daughter spoke, “Beware though brother of mine, for if we cannot agree then it is sure that there will be war amongst the gods, and such a thing could tear reality apart.” The Queen of the gods spoke next. “This household waits for my husbands return. We do not know the hour that he will come back, it could be now, it could be a thousand years from now. No one knows, not any of the sons, only the Father. We must be prepared for his return as if it was about to walk through that door. Woe to he that takes my husbands place while he is away.”
The daughter spoke again. “We must wait then, unless we can be sure that he will not return. The only way Father will not return one day is if he is truly dead. None return from death. Old hag, you can see death and feel it’s icy hand. Has death claimed our Father?”
The hag peered out of an ancient shawl. Her faced was weathered and cruel. “Know this. Your Father is indeed dead. He has sacrificed himself.”
The oldest son looked shocked. “Sacrificed himself? But to whom? Surely as the humans sacrifice to us, and we sacrifice to our Father, there is no one left to sacrifice to?”
“He has sacrificed himself, to himself.” replied the hag.
“But that makes no sense whatsoever! Are you sure he didn’t just accidentally fall off of a cliff or something? Surely you cannot appease yourself by killing yourself.”
“No, he is indeed dead by his own design. He hangs from a tree, his side pierced with a spear. I shall say no more of it.”
The children of the King looked at each other. All were worried now. If no agreement could be reached then the whole world would shake with the armies of the gods. Death loomed for all now, chaos was near. They looked to the Queen of the gods, and asked for her council. “What fools you children are”, she said. “What the hag says changes nothing. Your Father may be dead, but I still say he will return when you least expect it.”
“No one can return from the dead.” said one son.
“If he is dead then he is a corpse.” said another.
“I don’t expect him to return ever, least of all right now.” said yet another.
“I have returned.” said the King of the Gods.
Everyone within the hall gasped. Standing in the doorway was the unmistakable outline of their Father. All bowed to him as he walked towards his vacant throne, dragging his spear with him. Two ravens circled the hall. The King of the Gods sat down on his throne and raised his head. His broad rimmed hat tipped back revealing his one good eye.
“We gods think we are blessed because we do not know death. Mortals have known death since I first breathed life into them, but we remain aloof from such things. No more. I have seen what it is to die. I have died and I have returned with much knowledge.”
“Tell us of this knowledge Father!” cried the gods children.
“I know that I hung on a windy tree for nine long nights. I was wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin, myself to myself, on that tree of which no man knows from where its roots run. No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn, downwards I peered; I took up the runes, screaming I took them, then I fell back from there.”
The gods looked upon the All Father and marvelled at his words. “I bring wisdom to you from death, and wisdom to the mortals as well. My death and return will bring hope to all. For it is I, Odin, the King of the Gods who is the first of all beings to return from the dead. This is why I shall be King until the end of the world.”
15 March, 2008
After the fall of Mycenaean civilisation there was a dark age across Greece. The writing that was used in the great Palaces of Mycenae and Pylos disappeared from the archaeological record, never to return. Oral tradition and bardic entertainers kept the stories of this heroic age in the minds of the Greeks. The fall of Troy, the interactions of the gods, all were spoken of, none were written. After hundreds of years spent in this ‘dark age’ writing once again came to Greece. This time is was based on the Phoenician alphabet and it would last until the present day. Now the stories of the bards were committed to tablets, written down and stored.
The most famous of these were the Iliad and the Odyssey, telling stories set around the Trojan War. At the same time the Theogony was written, a poem describing the origins of the gods. These tales were full of descriptions of how to serve the gods, and how a hero should act. The Theogony explained why it was that when an animal was sacrificed, the humans got the best parts of the animal and the worst parts were burned in offering to the gods. There was no sacred text book as a foundation for the religion of the Greeks, but these books served a similar purpose, showing how the religion was to be carried out.
The bardic tradition continued. The myths were told again and again, and with variations depending on the audience, or where the tale-teller was from. The myths were well known by everyone and could be used as a shorthand to reach deeper understandings. Around 500 BCE these myths were used in a new form of entertainment – the theatre. Dramas were written and performed at competitions in great festivals. The competition was fierce and the subject matter had to impact those watching. The playwrights used the ancient myths and turned them around to look at their dark side.
The story of Jason and his search for the Golden Fleece was well known. During his voyages he received help from Medea, a barbarian girl who fell in love with Jason. After saving his life many times he brought her back home with him. After that there are several different endings to the tale, but the Playwright Euripides told the version that became the most famous. On arriving back in Greece, Jason was offered the hand of a princess in marriage. Knowing that she would bring him great wealth he accepted the offer, much to the horror of Medea who by this time had borne Jason two sons. Using poison she killed the princess and her father the King. Then she went further and killed her own two sons before fleeing Jason leaving him with nothing. It is a dark tale and although the play is based upon the Jason myth there are no daring sword fights, no miraculous rescues by the gods, and no fantastical wonders. It is the other side of the myth, exploring different subjects than the earlier bards did.
Many of the plays were written as a sort of thought experiment. Just as a science fiction writer today will take an idea and extrapolate it to see what the world could be like, so too did the ancients take ideas and stretch them to breaking point. And as when people discuss crime and law today and someone comes up with a “but what would you do in this extreme case?” argument, so too did the ancient playwrights think about how the law and society would react given events that were stretched beyond the norm.
Agamemnon was a heroic figure in the Iliad. Headstrong, arrogant, but noble. After the war he was murdered by his wife. Her motives vary according to different versions of the tale. In some she was seeking vengeance for Agamemnon’s murder of their daughter. In others it was because he had brought back Cassandra from Troy as a concubine. In yet more it was because she was an adulteress and was fearful of being caught. In any case, it fell to Agamemnon’s son Orestes to avenge him. But what was he to do? If he avenged his father he would have to kill his mother. If he did nothing, then he would allow the murderer of his father to go free. He was stuck with an appalling choice.
Orestes chooses to avenge Agamemnon’s death, and in the plays of Aeschylus this whole story is told. It ends with the trial of Orestes for killing his mother, and here it is most clear that this is a thought experiment. It was a way of looking at the current issues that were facing the Athenians as they watched this play, but told through the common myths of their time. By using this shorthand, by basing the plot of their play on a well known story, the playwrights allowed themselves to explore many issues without losing their audience. In turn they have brought these dark stories into our own modern views of the originals. Just as the Romans incorporated the plays into any summaries of the ancient legends, so do we do the same today. An ancient look at the dark side of myth has left us with better rounded stories showing all sides of the human condition.
4 March, 2008
Out of body experiences can be frightening or exhilarating, but always strange. The concept of our minds existing outside of ourselves smacks of Dualism – the idea that our Minds and Bodies are separate and distinct entities that can function happily without each other. This idea has slowly collapsed over the years and it is now clear that the Mind is a function of the brain. There can be a brain without a mind, but it doesn’t look like there can be a mind without a brain. What then of out of body experiences? Does this negate the idea of ‘brain makes mind’?
Almost all reported out of body experiences (OBEs) happen when brain function is altered. The two most common times when people report OBEs are when the brain is deprived of oxygen (so called near death experiences) and when the brain chemistry is altered by drugs. In each case it is still the brain that is causing the mind, but our perception of where we are has changed. The idea of ‘ourselves’ being tied to where our physical bodies are makes so much sense that it is bizarre to imagine it could be any other way. And yet it appears as if this is the case. Many people who have undergone deep meditation or sensory deprivation have experienced the feeling that their consciousness has moved from their head (‘behind their eyes’) to their chest, or some other part of their body. They can feel their head above ‘themselves’. And sometimes they feel as if they are outside of their body altogether. Studies which deliver mild electric currents to specific parts of the brain have duplicated feelings like these. It appears that the sense that we are an integrated whole is one that can be altered.
Subjects with one particular electrical stimulus reported a feeling of being watched, as if there was someone else just behind them. This shadow figure mimicked everything that the subject did, and gave rise to a very eerie feeling. It appears that this shadow was in fact the person themselves, but since they were ‘dislocated’ from their own body they had trouble interpreting their own movements and thought a second person must be there, constantly behind them. This creepy experience is one reason not to mildly electrically stimulate your own angular gyrus.
Other subjects experienced the classic out of body experience, looking down upon themselves. It must be noted that there is no evidence that these subject can see anything other than what their own eyes can see. Even though their ‘floating mind’ sees the room from a different angle, they have no information other than that gathered by the bodies senses. How does this work? How can you see only half a room and yet look at it from above? Another area of brain study reveals the answer. We are constantly modelling the world and using assumptions to fill in ‘blanks’ from our senses. Optical illusions (and auditory illusions) reveal various ways to fool the brain, and most of these illusions rely on our minds making assumptions that turn out to be incorrect. In the same way that we fill in much of the world we see in front of us, so too does the person who is out of their body fill in the remaining details of the world they cannot see.
The study of our own minds is a complex and difficult one. For the moment, the materialist concept of the mind as a product of the brain is the most convincing one, and further studies of our brains will no doubt shed more light on the workings of our minds as well.