This week, Muslims worldwide celebrated Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice. This holiday commemorates the story of the prophet Ibrahim, visited by Allah in a dream and asked to sacrifice his son Ismail as a sign of his devotion to Allah. He nearly does so, only to be stopped at the last minute with the substitution of a lamb for the boy. In the Koran, Ibrahim and Ismail are both prophets, and Ismail is the forefather of the prophet Muhammad.
The story is told as well in the Hebrew scriptures. Ibrahim there is Abraham, and instead of Ismail the one to be sacrificed is Isaac.
Let’s take a look at this story and see what it can teach us about the idea of sacrifice, in our day and age.
The plot is familiar. I’m going to tell it as it’s told in the Hebrew scriptures, only because it’s given a bit more detail than it is in the Koran.
What sets the scene? God determines that he is going to test Abraham. The story says that God called to Abraham, who responded “Here I am.” God then said “take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountaintops I will tell you about.”
So, the story goes, Abraham sets out with Isaac and two others, goes to the mountaintop, and walks up to the place of the sacrifice. Isaac, seeing no sacrifice, asks “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And Abraham says “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” and on they go.
So we know how the story ends. As Abraham raises the knife, an angel of the lord calls out “Abraham! Abraham!” and tells him “do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Because I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Later, the angel tells Abraham that because he was willing to sacrifice his son he will be blessed, and his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore. All nations will be blessed because of his faithfulness.
The story speaks of a father’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved child to show his devotion to God. And often, that’s what we take from this story and that’s where we leave it. Abraham was so devoted to God that he was willing to do this horrendous and heartbreaking act because God comes first.
It’s especially meaningful because we are also told how much Abraham had wanted that son. We remember the story told earlier that Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children, a heartbreak to them. Sarah had long ago passed the age where childbearing was possible, and when she learned that she would bear a son she laughed out loud. Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah, was precious to them, and yet Abraham was ready to sacrifice him just because God asked.
Was Abraham promised anything in return for this extraordinary act of devotion? No – God’s promises about numerous descendants and many blessings came later. No reason was given. Abraham didn’t ask why he was supposed to do it, and he didn’t ask for anything in return.
And then we have … this God. We have a God who tells Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son as a test – just to see how much Abraham values him. What kind of God does this? The story no doubt has turned many away from the Christian story – they say who can believe in any God who would do such a cruel thing to a loving father?
I understand the lesson as it’s framed above, but I wondered what other lessons we might get from this story. Are there other insights that might have meaning for us?
As I thought about this story, I changed my focus away from God toward Abraham, to the man who was willing to answer the call. Not in fear – there’s no mention in the Christian or Muslim version that Abraham was afraid. Neither was the son – in the Koran Ismail is told he is to be the sacrifice and he says in Sura 37 “My father, do as thou art bidden; thou shall find me, God willing, one of the steadfast.” No fear, no bargaining, just acceptance.
It became not a story of God demanding, but about us being willing.
As I’ve said before, we take our own meanings from these ancient stories, and we are not bound by the interpretations that have been passed down to us. That notion is very liberating, to be able to peek behind (or tear down) the curtains of what we’ve been taught these stories teach.
So when we free ourselves of that constriction, what might these stories mean?
What do we find when we look at the story as an allegory? That’s where I find a truth that resonates with me.
First, I start with where I am, how I see the Divine. Do I see God as a detached entity up in the clouds, separate from me, from us? No. I see God right here – in me, in you, in the relationship between us and all of life. God is in the dance and flow of all creation, what Fr. Richard Rohr calls the “circle dance” of all of it.
So God appears to Abraham, personally. I can come to know my own divine nature – I can awaken to the divine within. Spirit can appear to my understanding, my consciousness.
God then calls on Abraham to sacrifice his son, his beloved son. Just so we don’t miss the point, the verse reads “take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.”
So the question becomes this. What is my divinity calling on me to sacrifice? What is my divine nature calling on me to sacrifice that may be the absolute hardest thing to do, for the greatest benefit that I cannot yet see?
Remember when Abraham was told to sacrifice his son he wasn’t given any reason for it. He just moved ahead because that was what God, in the story, told him to do.
As I continue in my own unfolding, what is required so that I can continue on that journey? What am I required to sacrifice, to put aside, in order to walk into all that I can be as a cocreator with God, as a manifestation of God here on earth?
What is our divinity calling on us to sacrifice that is the last thing we want to give up, but which we must be willing to give up to walk into our greater unfolding? Remember what was given to Abraham – descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky, blessings to all nations. However, first he had to move through the challenge of sacrifice, of release. We must do the same, in order to awaken to the divine within.
What is my Isaac? What is your Ishmael?
Is it our position in life, for which we’ve worked so hard, our accomplishments, our sense of specialness that we’re smarter or better than someone else?
Is it fear to move from where we are, or judgments we refuse to look at or release? What is keeping you where you are?
The word sacrifice means to make holy. By moving past those things that scare us, that separate us, those things that stop us, we bring ourselves closer to the holy within. We pare ourselves down to what is our essence, and we release what is not. We peel back the layers to the oneness with all creation within.
In “The Book of Awakening,” author Mark Nepo writes on sacrifice, saying:
“Burning your way to center is the loneliest fire of all. You’ll know you have arrived when nothing else will burn.
At first this sounds rather somber, but from Moses to Buddha to Jesus, the deepest among us have all shown that living is a process of constantly paring down until we carry only what is essential.
It is the same in the human journey as in the natural world. As the center grows stronger, what once was protective turns into a covering, like tree bark or snake skin, that is now in the way, and sooner or later, we as spirits growing in bodies are faced with burning old skins, like rags on sticks, to light our way as we move deeper and deeper into the inner world, where the forces of God make us one.
When faced with the need to keep going inward, we are confronted with a very difficult kind of life choice: like carving up your grandmother’s table for firewood to keep your loved ones warm, or leaving a job that has been safe and fulfilling in order to feel vital again, or burning an old familiar sense of self because it’s gotten so thick you can’t feel the rain.
In truth, always needing to stay immediate by removing what is no longer real is the working inner definition of sacrifice – giving up with reverence and compassion what no longer works in order to stay close to what is sacred.”
As you consider this ancient story, think on this timeless question. What must you give up for the sake of your greater unfolding? What needs to be released in your life, perhaps even with great pain, to bring you closer to oneness with your divine essence? Your greater enlightenment is waiting.