Abraham and Acceptable Sacrifice
By Eleazar, November 2000
The story of Abrahamic sacrifice is familiar to most of the world and occupies a foundational position in the world's largest religions (eg. Christianity, Judaism, Islam). Yet do we really know what it is about? Could there exist an irony of all ironies in this story of Abrahamic sacrifice which irony is also found in other scriptural stories such as in the creation parable? Is it that a "proper and full understanding of what it is about", is what it is really all about? While this may not make a lot of sense for anyone newly considering such, hopefully it will become more clear as this essay progresses.
Before moving to a direct discussion of the symbolism in the story of Abrahamic sacrifice, it may be necessary to review some simple concepts about obedience, understanding, and sacrifice. There is also something else that one needs to (eventually) come to consider. It is that all of the scriptural parables are meant to be understood on their highest level when applied to you (the House/Temple of God) in the present time and the present place. As one begins to see this, things begin to make a lot more sense.
As stated in other essays, this discussion may appear to be incomplete with some subjects covered insufficiently or not at all. Nor is there a pretense of being authoritative The greatest truths can only be discovered through individual searching. This essay is not meant to substitue for what each person needs to do individually.
Obedience and Sacrifice. The phrase "Abrahamic test" is often used synonymously with the story of Abraham and acceptable sacrifice. Most of the world tends to view the story in terms of a test (of obedience) given to Abraham. It is rarely understood outside of the context of God commanding Abraham to kill his son (Isaac) in sacrifice, followed by perfect obedience by Abraham. Of course, many will add that Abraham didn't have to go through with it because God was just fooling him to see if he would really obey. At any rate, many suppose that Abraham's perfect obedience (to something he didn't want to do) is the important thing that is required by all who desire to pass such an Abrahamic test. It is all about perfect obedience.
Perfect obedience is also the context in which most of the world views the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the creation parable. That is, the Fall of Adam is viewed as a failure at perfect obedience to the command of God (to not eat of the tree of knowledge) while the Abrahamic story of sacrifice is viewed in terms of success at where Adam failed (again, perfect obedience).
As a result of this view, most of the world tends to think of the relationship of God to man as one would view the relationship of a military General and his Private. God is the one who gives the orders and carnal man is meant to obey perfectly without question. The duty of the private is to be blindly obedient, whether or not he agrees with what he is ordered to do. Carnal man is therefore blessed (by God) if he does the same, which is to obey the orders (commandment) whether or not he understands it or agrees. Obedience is thusly viewed as being paramount greater than sacrifice, or at minimum a necessary precursor to acceptable sacrifice.
Yet, perhaps there is a great irony here too. It is that this view is the very thing keeps carnal man from understanding what he is doing wrong. Despite his efforts at perfect obedience to "all of God's commandments", man ultimately finds himself in a dilemma where he has no choice but to disobey one commandment or another. He has not yet learned that it was made this way from the beginning. So carnal man keeps trying and trying to improve his level of obedience without ever coming to an understanding of what is going on. As a result, he keeps starting over again, and thereby failing again, at the very same thing which he failed at in the beginning. He is always trying to improve his level of obedience, thinking that this will eventually save him, but he finds that it never does. Ultimately, he becomes frustrated and it is here that the whole experience begins to accomplish its design. Carnal man eventually begins to consider that he has been going about it the wrong way. He finds that his failure is not about a lack of perfect obedience, but rather it is about a lack of perfect understanding.
With these new considerations, he begins to see that this pattern is all through the scriptures that he once worshipped without comprehending their meaning.
Understanding and Sacrifice. In the creation parable presented in the LDS endowment, there is a very interesting event that occurs after Adam is cast into the hell of the "lone and dreary world". Adam offers sacrifice by the shedding of blood (of animals) and an angel comes to him to inquire why he is doing this. Adam's reply is profound: "I know not, save the Lord commanded me."
Of course, after this encounter with the angel, Adam still remains in the lone and dreary world. He doesn't understand why it is so, just as he does not understand why he is offering sacrifice, much less what is meant by the response the angel gives him.
Embedded in Adam's response that "I know not, save the Lord commanded me" are two aspects of his condition: Lack of understanding (I know not), and perfect obedience (I do it because I was commanded). When one carefully considers this event, one realizes that Adam's failure to lift himself out of his fallen condition cannot be due to his lack of (apparent) obedience (since that is what he is doing). Rather, it must be due to his (Adam's) lack of understanding.
This is also the story of most of us (Adam) in the present moment and present time. It is a test which carnal man continually fails for the same reason that Adam failed: He fails at understanding the true meanings. Holiness has very little to do with blind obedience and everything to do with proper understandings. Unquestioning (blind) obedience never exalts anyone, rather it serves to make man into a slave-like puppet rather than an all-wise Son.
Unfortunately, carnal man rarely comprehends the words of God that he is given. It is simply outside of his way of thinking. He (fallen man) is prone to focus on the image and totally miss the substance that is behind the image. The great and profound irony here is that this is also the very thing that the "Abrahamic test" is all about: It is all about profane and holy understandings. Again, it is a test (of understanding) that we are given every day and one which we continually fail. The fallen Israelites of the Old Testament who failed to see what it was about are not so far away in the past and so many think. They exist right now in this very time and place, because, in a manner of speaking, we are them. We fail the "Abrahamic test" of sacrifice because we do not comprehend its meaning. We wrongly think that proper performance of an outward act (an image) is what is required for holiness and that we are saved by our good works.
Blood Sacrifice, Circumcision, and Destroying the Enemies of God. Nearly all are familiar with accounts of animal sacrifices, circumcision rites, and neighbor-killing of the Old Testament. Of course, these were the rites carried out by a fallen and lost people rather than the opposite. One might wonder how these could be considered "holy acts" in any sense at all. What appears to be explicit instructions (commandments) by God to "sacrifice the beast" were taken by the fallen Israelites to literally mean the slaying of innocent animals rather than the slaying of the beast within man. The rite of circumcision was applied literally to cutting of foreskins (of innocent children no less) rather than being taken to mean to circumcise the (profane) heart and mind. The slaying of ones enemies was made into a literal process of complete genocide on the (so-called) outward enemy rather than being understood as a symbol of the enemy that exists within. Carnal man is always looking everywhere but within himself for the problems he encounters in his sojourn. It is often someone else who is most innocent that is caused to suffer for this lack of understanding.
Of course, the Old Testament also records that God did not favor the Israelites for their misdeeds. When God proclaimed to the Israelites that …. (your) "… burnt offerings are not acceptable…" (Jeremiah 6:20), the usual reaction from fallen men is that they were not performing the act in the proper and acceptable form. Despite the clear rejection of animal sacrifices by God (cf. Isaiah 1:11-15 … "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats… Bring no more vain oblations… your hands are full of blood."), carnal mans usual response is to renew his effort to get it right next time, even though he ends up mistakenly doing what he has been doing all along. What got carnal man into trouble is what keeps him in trouble.
At the risk of belaboring what should be obvious and being too repetitive, lack of understanding is really what it is about. In focusing on the outer image (the literal), carnal man lives out his existence (in the present time and place) in darkness (outer darkness). Of course, the phrase "outer darkness" is a redundant (two witness) phrase, since "outer" (which means "carnal", "sensual", "devilish", "profane", etc) is also synonymous with "darkness". Carnal man thinks that the important battles are to be fought against a supposed enemy that is outside of himself. As a result, he is always killing his neighbors and neglects the most important task of purifying himself (from within). He doesn't realize that the most difficult and rewarding battles he is to fight will be within his own soul and the beast that is to be slain (in acceptable sacrifice) is within himself. As a result, he goes on being his-own-worst-enemy and keeps failing to offer the acceptable sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Despite his best efforts at better performance (more perfect obedience), he keeps finding that what he does brings the same result as it did the first time. He remains in his own self-created lone and dreary world of "outer darkness" until he finally reaches a frustration point sufficiently high that it breaks his pride and vanity. In the process, he fights the well talked-about, but little understood, "battle of Armageddon" in his own soul until the Christ reigns victorious. This is the ultimate path walked by carnal man which purifies him. There will be an event come up in his life that causes him to reach the end of his rope. Ultimately, this strips him of pride and vanity and renders him as teachable as a young child. This is the very thing that happened to Abraham as told in the story of acceptable sacrifice.
The Old Testament: stories of imperfect men becoming perfected. Before turning directly to the story of Abraham and the sacrifice, it may be helpful to mention something which should be obvious to all those who read the Old Testament, but appears to be not universally understood as it would seem it should be. There is a tendency by many to justify early misdeeds of Old Testament men like Jacob and Abraham because they were (became) men "holy and acceptable before God." There is a tendency to justify their former misdeeds as "Godly", rather than see these as imperfect men who overcame their shortcomings. One would wonder if our own past misdeeds are justified when we are perfected.
One should recall that Abraham made war on his neighbors, killing and stealing from them (even paying tithing on stolen goods to Melchizedek), and that he took a slave-wife (concubine), Hagar, as a direct manifestation of his (and Sarah's) lack of faith that she would bear "a holy son". The fact that Abraham (Abram) was paying tithing to Melchizedek at that time in his life proclaims the preparatory gospel law rather than a perfected one (of consecration). The greatest aspect of the life-stories of individuals like Abram (Abraham) and Jacob (Israel) is that they were able to overcome their shortcomings and become holy (whole) men. Like that of Jesus, it is the example (pattern) for us to understand and follow in the present time and place. One might search introspectively to ask what part of Abram's (or Jacob's) life is one living (being) at the present moment.
With these ideas in mind, now let us finally turn directly to the story of Abraham and the slaying of his "only son" in acceptable sacrifice.
What did Abraham really slay in sacrifice? The story of Abraham's sacrifice (test) is recorded in Genesis 22. Abraham is told to take his "only son", Isaac, and to make the sacrifice. Of course, carnal man is quick to take the things he hears from God and use them to decorate his own tree of knowledge. A carnal man, in his error, thinks he knows (understands) what is being communicated to him. Carnal man would have likely followed through and killed Isaac, but not so for Abraham. Carnal man, who sheds the blood of (innocent) animals in (mock) sacrifice, not understanding what it is about, often goes on to graduate to human sacrifice (like what was done to Jesus).
One might wonder first how Isaac is Abraham's "only son", since Abraham is also the father of Ishmael. Since Isaac is (literally) not an "only son", then Isaac cannot be (literally) what is meant to be slain. So, what is this "only son" spoken of? It is unclear as to what time Abraham's dilemma (of not wanting to kill Isaac) worked to help him understand, but the rest of the story attests that he did.
A man always holds within his mind and heart those things that are most important to him. In the case of carnal man, it is his own unholy and vain creations rather than the things of God. These are the metaphorical "only son" (the most important creation) of fallen man that must be laid upon the altar in sacrifice before the temple is purified.
And what is the most important creation (only son) in the mind and heart of carnal man? It is his own beastly nature, his own carnal and vain self, his own outward ego, the "man of sin" that sits in the temple of God (the body) showing forth (usurping) that he is God. This "man of sin" is "now revealed" (to Abraham's understanding)(cf. 2Thessalonians 2:3-4) by the angel who calls forth from heaven ("… the kingdom of heaven is within you" -- Luke 17:21). And the angel who spoke to Abraham from heaven is no other than the Christ himself.
In the Genesis story of Abraham, this "only son" is represented by the ram (the vain an proud mind) caught in the thicket (frustration) by the horns (of so-called power). Abraham, having been tested to his limits in being asked to sacrifice his "only son", his most important creation, finally realizes what is happening. He is stripped of his pride and vanity and recognizes this ram as his own carnal self. But, he now sees (recognizes) it behind him. When it was in front of him (ie. his carnal self was placed first), he couldn't see it. The ram (Abraham's carnal being) is slain on the altar in acceptable sacrifice. In one sense of meaning, Abraham follows through to slay his "only son" (not Isaac) in sacrifice in perfect obedience to the command by God. The usurper of the temple is cast down, the (unholy) temple is now cleansed, and the true and rightful ruler (Christ) sits once more on the throne (the heart). That which was placed first has become last and that which was last is now occupying the rightful place.
Abraham has become a holy (whole) man, having made the acceptable sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. He has finally come to understand (comprehend) what God had been saying to him for so long, that the enemy is within you, that the House of the Lord to be cleansed is synonymous with the Temple of God, that the Lord will come quickly to His Temple. And it is all about you (the House/Temple of God) in the present time and present place.