Angel of Abraham

"The Angel of the Lord Preventing Abraham from Sacrificing his Son Isaac" (1616) by Pieter Lastman.

“The Angel of the Lord Preventing Abraham from Sacrificing his Son Isaac” (1616) by Pieter Lastman.

In the (Brome) Abraham and Isaac play (15th century) of the English Religious Theater, Isaac exclaims when confronted with Abraham’s purpose:

“Now I would my mother were here on this hill!

She would kneel for me on both her knees

To save my life.”

Like Iphigeneia at Aulis, Isaac eventually consents to the sacrifice. But when Abraham raises his hand to strike his son, an Angel appears and takes “the sword in his hand suddenly” (A.C. Cawley, ed., Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, 1967).  In René Marqués’ allegorical play Sacrificio en el Monte Moriah (1969), Sara (Isaac’s mother) masquerades as the Angel, tricking Abraham into believing that God wants him to substitute a ram as a burnt offering for the boy.

This Angel of Abraham, according to Elaine Pagels, was what ancient Hebrew storytellers called the satan—a messenger “not necessarily evil,” but rather “one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity.” The satan may be “sent by the Lord to protect a person from worse harm” (The Origin of Satan, 1995).  In the Preface to his play Saint Joan (1924), George Bernard Shaw explained the nature of the voices and visions of the Maid of Orleans: “There are people in the world whose imagination is so vivid that when they have an idea it comes to them as an audible voice, sometimes uttered by a visible figure.”

Thus we can propose an alternative moral if not for the biblical tale, at least for the myth of Abraham and Isaac that informs Hebrew scripture. Abraham (“in the mount of the Lord it shall be seen”) lifted up his eyes and saw the wrong he was about to commit. At that moment—wrestling with his trickster angel—Abraham changed the nature of his God, and God’s command. If a “bloody and bellicose entity” (as Marqués would have it), be it a tribal god, modern idol or super-power, commands the death of your son or daughter, cut it no slack. Assume the stance of Abraham’s Angel: change your God.

On 20 July 1917, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, blindfolded, drew the first draft number in the lottery to be called up: Number 258. Those drafted were to serve in the American forces during world War I. (Photo by U.S. War Department)

On 20 July 1917, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, blindfolded, drew the first draft number in the lottery to be called up: Number 258. Those drafted were to serve in the American forces during world War I. (Photo by U.S. War Department)

Another Abraham conjured wisely, in his Second Inaugural, “the better Angels of our Nature.” We shall then multiply, according to Scripture, as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. U.S. Marine General Smedley Butler—with two medals of Honor and tours of service in the Philippines, China, Central America, Mexico and Haiti during the early twentieth century—advised American mothers:  “When you listen to some well-worded, well-delivered war speech, just remember that it’s nothing but Sound.” (War is a Racket, 1935.) And Jorge Luis Borges, in his “History of Angels,” warned us: “We should not wear down our angels too much; they are the last divinities we host, and they may fly away”  (El tamaño de mi esperanza, 2000).

OG

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