Trust and Sacrifice

We were up early. I was always awake at sunrise in Peace Corps, no matter how late the night before, and my visiting Auntie Viv is an early riser. This was also a special day, the most important holiday on the Muslim calendar: Eid al-Adha—the Feast of the Sacrifice.

As she had done for the previous two mornings she’d been visiting my windswept hilltop Jordanian village, Auntie Viv was starting the day with Bible study, keeping pace with her weekly church group back home in Massachusetts. By chance—or by fate, if you believe in such things—that week they were reading from the book of Genesis, chapter 22:

(2) Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

(3) Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey….

I have, as you might imagine, a particular interest in the land of Moriah. Some believe Moriah to be the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, but for Muslims, Moriah is a mountaintop near Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia, where Hajj pilgrims are gathered today.

(9) When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. (10) Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. (11) But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

(12) “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

(13) Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

This story, told in the Pentateuch, the five core books of the Jewish Torah and the Christian Old Testament, and retold in the Qur’aan, is also the reason for the holiday Auntie Viv and I had risen early to celebrate that day. The sacrifice commemorated on Eid al-Adha is the sacrifice Abraham was prepared to make that day, and the ram that he sacrificed instead.

I explained to Auntie Viv that Muslims and Christians differ slightly on this story, namely on which of Abraham’s sons is the sacrifice. Isaac, called Abraham’s only son in this Bible story, was born of Sarah, Abraham’s previously barren wife, but only after another son Ismael had been born of Hagar. In monogamous Christian tradition, Hagar was Sarah’s servant, making Ishmael an illegitimate son. In Muslim tradition, polygamous just as ancient Hebrew society was in Abraham’s time, Hagar’s son Ismael is as legitimate as Sarah’s son Isaac, born second. In the Qur’an, Abraham is commanded to take “his son,” not “his only son,” and for Muslims this is widely agreed to have been Ishmael. For Christians it is Isaac whom Abraham binds upon the altar; for Muslims it is Ishmael.

On the most important part of this story, however, Jews, Christians and Muslims do agree: Abraham is the first true monotheist, the first to put the will of God before his own, before his wife or even the sons who were miracles and a comfort in his later years. He is the common father of these three Abrahamic faiths. From his son Isaac descended the Jewish tribes of Israel, including the House of David into which Jesus of Nazareth would be born. It is also said that the Arabs are descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael, described to Hagar in Genesis 16:12 as

… a wild ass of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.

I had always found this comparison to the wild ass offensive, and this verse has been used throughout history to justify terrible, racist crimes against Arab people, but this is where Auntie Viv had something to teach me. She showed me the footnotes in her study Bible and related what her pastor had said about Ishmael before she had come to Jordan.

The “wild ass,” she said, was likely the onager that roamed the steppes from Saudi to Mongolia, gleaning all its water from the sparse plants of the desert. It was not a symbol of buffoonish stubborn stupidity as we use the epithet “ass” today. Instead, the onager was a hardy, resourceful survivor—an indomitable strength subsequently attributed to his descendants, including the Arabs. As I’ve continued to read about this verse, other scholars suggest that “a wild ass of a man” might better be translated as “a man in wild lands” or “a fruitful man,” both also apt descriptions.

All of this is why, on this day, Muslims from around the world have gathered for the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, gathered on the mountain they believe is the land of Moriah where the Prophet Ibrahim’s sacrifice was made. In two days, they will sacrifice a million sheep whose meat will travel to 25 different countries to feed the hungry. Across the rest of the world, billions more Muslims are gathering in fellowship, feasting and making sacrifices.

عيد مبارك وكل عام وانتم بالخير

For more information:

Eid Al-Adha 2018: Everything you need to know, from The Independent

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