A Natural and Religious History of Compassion, Part 2

In Part 1, The Liberal Pulpit mentioned the Babylonian Captivity of the 6th-century BCE and the literature that came out of it, including:
  • Psalm 137, with its mournful, poignant sadness and bitter, violent hatred;
  • the narrative arc of Abraham, with a powerful signal episode of hospitality -- an episode that pointed the captive Israelites away from vicious retribution and toward compassion.
Now, if you are thinking about Abraham, you might also be remembering another Abraham story. You might be thinking that old Abraham doesn’t seem very compassionate a few chapters later as he prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac.
"When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son." (Genesis 22: 9-10)
Not exactly a model of compassion, is it? If a man today said that God told him to kill his son, and he was preparing to do it, we’d call protective services, posthaste.

How does the binding of Isaac fit with the narrative project of 6th-century BCE captive Israelite story-tellers? How can this, too, be a part of the emerging place of compassion in the consciousness of the Hebrew people?

Glad you asked.

Genesis 22 tells listeners, "there is a meaning and a joy in a connection that isn’t just about you and your interests and your family."

The call of the divine is the call to hospitality outside the usual circle of loyalty, compassion to the stranger, a connection that stretches us. That’s where we encounter the holy. That point is made in Genesis 18, where Abraham met God by being hospitable to three strangers. Then the point is driven home in Genesis 22. The binding of Isaac story is saying: if you think that just taking care of your own is where it’s at, you’ve missed it. Other means really other.

Abraham’s willingness to cut off his own line, his greatest interest, represents in parable the dethroning of himself from the center of the world – a giving himself over to something bigger than himself – a connectedness beyond his own (his family's, his tribe's) interests.

Modern listeners can't help but think about Isaac's interests. But remember that for the peoples of the Ancient Near East, children had no interests of their own -- they were solely a part of their father's interests. Thus, the crucial part of the story is Abraham's willingness to give up himself. Isaac represents Abraham's last chance at the sort of immortality that progeny provide, for Ishmael had been sent away in the previous chapter (Genesis 21). Abraham stands ready to die without any "living on" in a son. He is ready to die utterly. Abraham is ready to die because, for him, life is not for serving Self. Life is for serving Other, represented here by God, the Holy Wholly Other.

Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac, represents Abraham's de-centering of the ego-self. It is not a retreat from Abraham's compassion in Genesis 18, but is, instead, a surrender into service to the Other, and thus a vital aspect of the emerging compassion consciousness.

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This is part 2 of 5 of "A Natural and Religious History of Compassion"
Next: Part 3.
Previous: Part 1

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