While seeing videos of modern-day beheadings and crucifixions, hand choppings, stonings and burial to the neck unsettle my stomach, they also fill me with awe: Suddenly, the enormity of Abraham overwhelms me in a visceral way and takes my breath away. This present-day barbarism opens a window through which we can see the world into which Abraham had been born and likely socialized, but which he rejected as unethical and immoral.
Observing the extremes to which Islamic State soldiers go to protect what they think is their pure religion we can see what fate would have befallen Abraham had he not gotten far away from his land of origin. Today’s death threats, such as are expressed toward Arabs who dare to support Israel, are nothing compared to the barbaric violence suffered by those who fall into IS hands. Abraham’s ability to see beyond that which surrounded him, to imagine a world in which there would be respect for human life, is nothing short of miraculous.
I am not a religious person, not even sure I believe in God, even though I tried to do so for a while. As an agnostic, it may surprise some to learn that I am, however, in awe of miracles, although I may define them differently from believers. And, whether we believe Abraham heard God Himself or hearkening to some inner voice he called “God”, we would likely agree that, in spite of his faults, Abraham’s soul had a purity and empathy beyond anything he could have learned from his contemporaries.
Perhaps encouraged by one or both of his parents, or maybe a teacher somewhere along the way, to develop a faculty for critical thought, he saw the implausibility that idols created by man’s hand had the power others attributed to them as gods. With his creative intelligence, he believed in the idea of One Creator and in this he defied all around him. Abraham was a heretic in his own context. He had to leave town and get as far away as possible.
Social isolation is the perfect foundation for either going mad or for incredible mental clarity. Abraham must have been a psychologically healthy man for he did not go mad. He envisioned (or was told by God) that he would father a great nation. I imagine that he understood the enormity of his rejection of his pantheistic traditions and beliefs and he seems to have been able to imagine a world in which future generations of mankind, at least those that would emerge from his own bloodline, would be monotheists and would abandon the savagery surrounding him, although abandoning the savagery was not necessarily only because he believed in The One God.
That leads me to reflect upon the two great nations he spawned. Both the Arab Moslems and the Jews have their extremists and the whole range of religious observance from ultra-Orthodox to secular. I wonder where Abraham would have found himself most comfortable today.
I have the feeling that he would have been appalled that those who rape children, chop off peoples’ heads and burn them alive in cages call themselves his descendants. I think he would disown them, for he would see that they use the word Islam to cover their inability to get beyond their brutal primitive past. To be a follower of Abraham, it is not enough to reject idols and believe in The One God; you must, at the same time, reject the evil that thrives in the cruelty we see in IS.
Therefore, while I am saddened to have to witness that people like this exist in our world today and that such barbarism has not been relegated to prehistory, bearing witness leaves me in awe of Abraham for having been able to be the rose that grew out of polluted soil.
It means that humankind can still redeem itself. And I think that about now would be a good time.