Sunday, March 11, 2007

Abraham's Purgatory

Abraham’s Purgatory

Ben Christensen

“Father,” said the boy, grasping Abraham’s shoulder, “wake up. The sun has risen and I see the mountain in the distance. We’re here—we’re in Moriah!”

Sharp pains stabbed at Abraham’s back as he sat up. He was too old for this. They had been travelling for two days and had not stopped to set up camp last night until late, too dark to see how far they’d come. He had neither the strength nor the heart to go on. The boy’s enthusiasm only made it worse.

Isaac grinned. “Come, Father, it’s not far. We’ll get there by noon if we leave soon.”

The men had already prepared breakfast, but Abraham didn’t eat. He feared he wouldn’t manage to keep anything down. While Isaac ate, Abraham prepared wood for the burnt offering. He laid a pile of faggots atop two small logs and tied two cords around the bunch. One of the servants began to ready the donkey, but Abraham stopped him. “Abide ye here with the ass; the boy and I will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.”

“Just you and—” Isaac grunted as he strained to lift the pile of wood. “—you and I?”

“No,” said Abraham. “Never just you and I, Isaac. You and I and the Lord.” He turned away to hide the quivering of his bottom lip. Please, Lord, Abraham thought as he lit a torch in the campfire, please be with us. I will do what you ask, Lord, just don’t leave me alone. He slid the sacrificial knife under his belt and they were off, Isaac practically bouncing at his side despite the heavy load of wood.

“Father?” said Isaac after they had walked a ways.

“Here I am, son.”

“You have the fire, and I have the wood, but where is the lamb?”

“My son,” Abraham said, “God will provide the lamb.”

Three hours later, Isaac lay on a slab of stone, a log along each side of his torso, as Abraham tied the boy’s hands and feet down with the twine that had held the wood. The boy did not struggle; he only looked up at his father, his eyes filled with tears and questions. “Father,” he said, “I don’t understand. What’s happening? Why are we doing this?”

Abraham did not speak, did not look at the boy. He focused only on tying the knots. Please forgive my weakness, Lord. I know this is what you have commanded, but I’m scared. I don’t want to give up my son.

Please, Lord.

Please give me strength.

He lay the knife against the boy’s neck and cut.

When it was done, Abraham knelt before the burnt body and wept into his own blood-stained hands.


“Father,” said the boy, grasping Abraham’s shoulder, “wake up. The sun has risen and I see the mountain in the distance. We’re here—we’re in Moriah!”

Sharp pains stabbed at Abraham’s back as he sat up. He was too—

“Isaac?” Abraham wrapped his arms around the boy and squeezed. “Isaac!”

Isaac pulled back, his cheeks flushed red. He smiled sheepishly. “Good morning, Father. I just wanted to tell you that it’s not far at all. We can get there by noon if we leave soon.”

“Leave?” Abraham covered his mouth and turned away when he realized what morning it was, what he must do—again.

Three and a half hours later the boy cried as Abraham fastened the twine around his wrists. Please, Lord, Abraham thought, please give me strength.

He placed the knife against his son’s neck and cut.


“Father,” said the boy, grasping Abraham’s shoulder, “wake up. The sun has risen and I see the mountain in the distance. We’re here—we’re in Moriah!”

Abraham stared at the roof of the tent. How many times will you require this of me, Lord?

Four hours later, he placed the knife against his son’s neck and cut.


“Father,” Isaac said on the fifth journey to the mountain, “you have the fire, and I have the wood, but where is the lamb?”

Abraham did not answer.


“Father,” Isaac said on the eighth—or was it the ninth?—journey to the mountain, “you have the fire, and I have the wood, but where is the lamb?”

“You, my precious son, are the purest lamb there could ever be.”

Isaac did not understand what his father meant until he lay on the stone with his hands and feet strapped down.


“Father,” Isaac said on the tenth—Abraham was sure it was the tenth—day, “you have the fire, and I have the wood, but where is the lamb?”

“My son, you are the lamb.”

Isaac frowned. “What do you mean?”

“There is no lamb. The Lord has commanded me to sacrifice you. Do you understand?”

Isaac nodded as tears welled up in his eyes. He went willingly, but didn’t stop crying until Abraham had completed the horrible task.


“Father,” Isaac began on the eleventh day, but Abraham shushed him.

“Don’t ask questions, boy.”


Please, Lord, don’t make me do this.


I beg of you, release me from this hell.


Please, not again.


Abraham had lost track of how many times he’d relived this day. It felt like months, perhaps a year. He was not sure which he dreaded more—waking up the next morning to kill Isaac yet again, or waking up the next morning to find that he was truly gone.


Abraham wept beside his son’s burning corpse and cursed God. He knew, though, that he would continue to obey as long as it was required of him. There was no other choice.


Why do you still test me, Lord? Haven’t I proven my loyalty yet?

Isaac walked beside his father, humming a tune his mother often sang.

Is this why you blessed me in my old age, only to see if I would destroy that blessing in your name?


Abraham remembered his life before this hell began only as a dream. He began to wonder if he had really been commanded to sacrifice his son. Had it been the Lord speaking to him, or had he imagined it?

Surely it was the Lord.


But had the Lord really meant for him to kill his son over and over like this? Perhaps God had required it of him only once, and now the abomination was on Abraham’s bloody hands.


Abraham held the knife over his weeping son and begged the Lord to release him. Please, I don’t want to do this anymore. Send me a sign. An angel, a bird, anything to tell me it’s okay to stop.

There was no sign. Abraham did his duty.


Once again, Abraham raised his knife high and did his best to ignore his son’s pleas.

“Father,” Isaac said through tears, “I don’t understand. Why are you doing this?”

The knife trembled in Abraham’s hand.

“Please, Father, isn’t there any other way?”

“No, son. We must obey the Lord. We—we must—” No.


I will not.

Abraham lowered the knife to his son’s wrist and cut the twine. Above Isaac’s grateful sobs he heard a rustling in the bush.

Three days later, Abraham returned to his home with Isaac and the servants.

Sarah sat in her tent, red eyed and pale. “Did—did you do it? Is my son dead?”

Abraham smiled for the first time in what seemed like years. “No, my love. An—An angel appeared and stopped me. It was enough, he said, that I feared God. He commanded me not to lay a hand on the boy. The Lord provided a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns, in Isaac’s stead.”

Outside, Isaac chatted excitedly with the servants’ sons about the adventure he’d had. His laughter was justification enough.


Th. said...


I love this version of events. My friend Recession Cone and I talk often of how God seems to just leave us alone to do whatever the heck we want. He seems to dislike micromanaging our lives. In a way, this plays on that.

May I recommend Stephen King's sort story "That Feeling You Can Only Say The Name of What It Is in French"?

Too bad. I do anyway.

-L- said...

Man! Abraham's God sucks.

-L- said...

P.S. Nice.

SenecaSis said...

Master Fob, you are a TRULY a master writer.

Just prior to reading this moving rendition of Abraham's struggle through hell, I read your email. I'm not sure how much of this story was intended to reflect personal feelings; or if the two just happened by coincidence to come along at the same time. But I thank you for the insight--and the tears, and a story that makes more tangible some feelings that I've had myself.

I know that there are very few who can truly know or understand the challenges that you have faced, now face, and will face. I myself cannot fathom them. But I SO admire you for your courage to stand tall, take accountability, and do what you feel and believe is right for you.

I am very proud to have you as my little bro!

Much Love,
Your BigSis

(p.s. ditto the same admiration and pride to FoxyJ).

ambrosia ananas said...

Well done. I like it.

JB said...

Oh what an interesting take! It nearly made me cry.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Nicely written...

It's sort of in line with another interpretation I've heard of this story... That God intended all along to test Abraham's willingness to disobey a clearly insane and unreasonable commandment. In other words, the true test was to see if Abraham had the kind of independent ethical reasoning humans need to avert the kinds atrocities that have become blase in the twentieth century -- our genocides and imperialistic wars, all carried out because we "just followed orders."

In this view, Abraham clearly failed the test by demonstrating his unquestioning allegiance. God had to stay Abraham's hand, to save Abraham from the dreadful consequences of his own ability to reason ethically.

Have you ever read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling? It's an extended philosophical reflection on the implications of the Abraham story for faith... Well worth a read...

B.G. Christensen said...

Though that interpretation of God seems rather passive-aggressive (as does mine here), I like him better than a God who would in all seriousness command a man to kill his son just to test his obedience. This story actually came from me realizing that using Abraham's sacrifice as an allegory for gay people who are asked to give up homosexual relationships for God only works if Abraham has to actually go through with it, and then do it again and again every day of his life. From there I realized that no reasonable Abraham would continue doing so indefinitely, and that no reasonable God would expect him to. So I guess the main difference between my Abraham and the interpretation you refer to is that mine passes the test--it just takes him a lot of failures before he gets there.

I'll have to take a look at Fear and Trembling.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Well, I like the implication that God lets us keep trying until we get it right (and that our suffering lasts only as long as we pigheadedly keep doing it wrong). That fits very much with my experience of God...

B.G. Christensen said...

And with Bill Murray's. (Or at least his character in Groundhog Day.)

Th. said...


We read this as part of our Bible unit today and one student decided it's all an allegory for impotence. One brings the wood and one brings the fire, but you need both.

B.G. Christensen said...

By "this" you mean "Abraham's Purgatory" or the biblical version? Either way that's a completely insane interpretation. But I like it.

Th. said...



wv: sunled

B.G. Christensen said...

Well thank you. I'm flattered. See what you can do about getting me into the high school canon.

Th. said...


A lot of kids botched the Abraham portion of the test because your version made a bigger impression on them than the King James.

B.G. Christensen said...

Woo hoo! Corrupting children is one of my favorite things to do.