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Today's Story by Benjamin Wachs

Isaac smiles as he watches his father build the pyre for offerings.


Abraham bundled his son Isaac up to protect him from the sun.  God had said that Isaac must die like cattle and be turned into a burnt offering.  Isaac belonged to God now.

“Where are we going, father?” Isaac said, and Abraham did not have the heart to tell him. He hid the knife among the kindling wood.

5,000 years later, two women in a coffee shop discuss this incident.  “I’m a spiritual person,” one says, her hair dyed a light blonde.  “I realize that you need religion to overcome the narcissism that modern society brings out in us.  But … if God asked for my child?  No.  Fuck him.  Fuck God.”

A few thousand miles away, the writer Adam Le is sending a chapter from his book about atheism to Salon.  Only religion, he writes, convinces good people to do bad things:  good people don’t need its encouragement to be good, and bad people will do what they always do.

Abraham gave young Isaac a sack of grain big enough for him to carry:  he did not want his son’s burden to be more than he could bear.  He is a hard man, a patriarch – a man who will someday be claimed as the father of culture across three fifths of the planet – but right now he wipes away tears in his eyes.

He wonders what Sarah knows.  He has not told her that the God who gave them their son has demanded him back:  he has not told her that Isaac will not be returning.  But she knows something.  If anyone understands the journey he has taken, and where it will go, it is the wife who was herself promised to him by God.

So many people would condemn him, he knows, for throwing his greatest blessing into the fire:  but where do they think these blessings come from?  How can a penitent man not understand that he may be called upon to give up what is his?  That this is the noblest act a man a can be called upon to do, the pinnacle of his nature, even if it is also the most terrible?

For all the advances to come in 5,000 years, for all the progress, Abraham understands the woman in the coffee shop and the atheistic writer far, far, better than they understand him.  They cannot imagine how he would do what he is about to do – but it is easy for him to understand why they wouldn’t.

He puts one foot in front of the other, as Isaac runs along the road with the boundless energy of a child.  This child, this son, is all Abraham ever wanted in the world.  His heart cracks a little more with each step.  His eyes burn with salt.

“Sometimes you just have to trust your intuition,” says the woman in the coffee shop.  She has two children, a daughter who has always been strong and a son who has always been gentle.  She once pulled her son out of a school because they wouldn’t keep him from being bullied.  “Deep down, you have to listen to your heart.”

Adam Le has written:  “The hard truth is that people become irrational and dangerous to the precise point to which they truly believe their religion and take its claims seriously.  After all, if God has told you what he wants you to do, any deviation is both foolish and sinful.  This is dangerous, both to the individual and to humanity.”

He is going to write a chapter about Abraham:  a whole chapter calling this man, who he does not believe really existed, an example of the fanaticism that threatens the human species.  A man who would kill his child, for no reason, is not an example of any morality that anyone should follow.

Isaac smiles as he watches his father build the pyre for offerings.  He likes to watch his father, who is a strong man, a competent man:  Isaac likes to watch his father do things well.  Though Abraham’s beard is white his back is unbent, his legs are straight, his hands are firm.  The sun begins to set.

It is only when Abraham has finished all other tasks, and taken the sacrificial knife in his hands, and sees his son’s expectant, eager face … it is only then that Isaac thinks to ask:  “Where is the animal for the offering?”

And then … “Daddy, what’s wrong?”

At that moment, Abraham has given up everything he has in this world.

Later, an angel will come.  Later, Abraham will be given everything back:  the promises made to him will be kept, and extended beyond his wildest imaginations.  A hundred million sermons, over 5,000 years, will be given about the rewards of his faith.  Later.  But not now.

Later, the two women in the coffee shop talk about the crisis of capitalism:  how rich executives take everything, and have no sense of responsibility, how the rich need to understand that they need to sacrifice for the greater good.

Later, Le will write an essay about global warming – about the way everyone in the first world will need to understand that they are lucky (he won’t use the word “blessed”) and that they need to give some of that luck up:  give up their cars, live in smaller houses, eat less food.

“It’s for the greater good,” one of the women says.

“But how do you get people to understand that?” her friend asks.  “They want to get as much as they can for their kids the same way we do.”

“We must all sacrifice for the greater good,” Le writes.  “It’s a moral imperative.”

But this word they use – sacrifice – only Abraham knows what it means.  Only the children of Abraham understand it in their blood.  You do not sacrifice for the greater good:  the greater good is always less than the smaller good in the hearts of man.  You sacrifice because you hear an impossible call.


This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.   

Read more stories from Action Fiction! productions.


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