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Keywords: Tattoo, Circumcision, Covenant, Self-esteem, Naive, Anxiety, Monkey, Stranger, Antisocial, Nostalgia

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Biblical Series XI: Sodom and Gomorrah

by Dr. Jordan Peterson

Three difficult stories, tonight. My plan is to get through all three of them. So we’ll see how that goes. We’re going to talk about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and then the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, which is an extremely complicated story. So we’ll try to make some headway with that. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is plenty complicated, too.

All right, so what we established last week, at least in part, was this idea that the Abrahamic narratives are set up as punctuated epochs in Abraham’s life. We were hypothesizing that you set out a goal for yourself, in your life—it’s like a stage in your life. You might say that. And then, when you run that goal to its end, when that stage comes to an end, then you have to regroup and orient yourself once again. I was making the case that that’s a good time to make necessary sacrifices. Part of that’s because, as you move through your life, you have to shed that which is no longer necessary. Otherwise it accretes around you, holds you down, and you perish sooner than you should. I think that’s in large part because, if you don’t dispense with your life as you move through it, then the stress of all that undone business, and of all those unmade decisions turns into a kind of chaos around you. That chaos puts you in a state of psychophysiological emergency preparedness, chronically, and that just ages you.

It’s necessary, in some sense, to stay light on your feet, and also, I think, to renew your commitment to your aim upward. I believe that’s what the sacrifice routines in the Abrahamic stories dramatize. I said, already, that these things are often first portrayed very dramatically and concretely before they become psychologized. We’ll see, because one of the things that happens is that, when God makes his covenant with Abraham—this is the next part of the story—it’s also when the idea of circumcision is introduced into ancient Hebrew culture. Now, there’s every bit of evidence that other cultures were utilizing circumcision beforehand, so it wasn’t necessarily a novel invention of the Abrahamic people. But I see its introduction as a step on the road to the psychologization of the idea of sacrifice. First of all, it’s giving up something concrete. Second, it’s signified by the sacrifice of a part of the body for the sake of the whole. It’s something like that. It’s dramatizing the idea that you have to give up a part of yourself for the sake of the whole, and eventually, well, by modern times, that becomes virtually completely psychological in its essence, in that we all understand—perhaps not as well as we should, but at least well enough to explain it—that it’s necessary to make sacrifices, to move ahead in life.

One of the themes that I’d like to explore tonight, especially in relationship to the sacrifice of Isaac, is that once humanity had established the idea that sacrifice was necessary to move ahead—which is, really, a discovery of incalculable magnitude: the idea that you can give up something in the present and that will, in some sense, ensure a better future. It’s an unbelievable achievement. It’s the equivalent of the discovery of the future. It’s the equivalent of the discovery of the utility of work. Its importance can’t be overstated. It took a long time for people to figure this out. Animals haven’t figured it out, at all. We’ve figured it out, and it’s hard for people to make sacrifices, because, of course, the present has a major grip on you, as it should, because, in some way, you live in the present.

So anyways, there’s the twin problem of getting the whole idea of sacrifice up and running, and then figuring out exactly what it means. But there’s a twofold problem that branches off that. The hypothesis is that sacrifice is necessary to ensure that the future is safe, secure, productive, positive, and all of those things. Ok. Two questions immediately rise from that. One is, well, what’s the proper sacrifice? Now, we already talked about that a little bit in regards to Cain and Abel. One of the things we saw was that Cain’s sacrifice, whatever it was, was wrong, and Abel’s was right. Noah’s seemed to be right. Abraham’s seemed to be right. There is something about a sacrifice that can be correct. There’s something about a sacrifice that can be incorrect. The question is, what would be the maximally correct sacrifice? That’s an obvious question to arise from the mere observation that sacrifice is necessary. If you’re going to sacrifice, and it’s necessary, well, how is it that you would behave if you were going to do it really well, if you were going to do it perfectly? Ok, so that’s question number one.

Question number two might be, well, if the future can be better because of a sacrifice, and sacrifices can vary in quality, then how much better could the future be if your sacrifice was of the highest quality? There’s a limit issue, there. The limit is something like, well, how good could your life be if you really got your act together and gave up all the things that were impeding you in your movement forward? If you did that forthrightly and with integrity and dead seriousness, and you tried to set your life right, what is the upper limits with regards to how your life might lay itself out? I would say, well, we don’t know the answer to that, but I think that the idea of something like the city or kingdom of God on earth, or the reestablishment of paradise, is the answer of the imagination to the question: how good could the future be if sacrifice was optimized? Those are archetypal questions. An archetypal question is a question that everyone asks, whether they know it or not. Sometimes you can act out a question. An archetypal question is a question that everyone asks, and an archetypal answer is the answer that can’t be made any better to that question. I can give you an example of that. The reason that Christ’s passion is an archetypal story is because it’s a kind of limit. It’s the worst possible set of things that can happen to the best possible person. So it’s a story that constitutes a limit. It has nothing to do with the factual reality of the story. That’s a completely independent issue. I’m speaking about this psychologically. Certain stories can exhaust themselves in a perfect form—that would be the archetypal form. So that’s the territory that we’re going to wander around in a little bit today. We’ll use the stories as anchors.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sodom and Gomorrah story, because it’s classically associated with the Biblical injunction against homosexuality, and that’s often how it’s read, in particular by the more fundamentalist end of the Christian spectrum. I’ve thought about that a lot. It’s pretty damn clear that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has something to do with sexual impropriety, but I’ve really come to the conclusion that it has very little to do with homosexuality. So we’ll see how that interpretation prevails, as we walk through this tonight. Ok, so we’ll start with a bit of a recap from last week. Abraham’s had his last adventure. He’s 99 years old.
"…the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect." Well, that’s quite the command. Alexander Maclaren, who we talked about before, elaborated upon this slightly. This is what he had to say: "It is not precisely walked with God; It is rather that of an active life, spent in continual consciousness of being naked and opened before the eyes of Him to whom we have to give account."

Ok, so that’s an idea that’s in keeping with the notion that what we’re seeing in the Abrahamic story is the call to adventure of the typical person. Your life, in some sense, is an adventure. I suppose the reason for that is that you’re confronted by things that you cannot understand, that you have not yet mastered; there’s a heavy price to be paid if you fail to conduct yourself appropriately, and there’s a large reward to be gained if you conduct yourself properly. That pretty much defines an adventure story.

God calls to Abraham and tells him to move out into the world, to leave what he is familiar with, to go into the strange lands of famine and tyranny, and to find his place. That works out quite nicely for Abraham. What that also means is that, because Abraham was doing that consciously—at least according to this interpretation—he’s not naive in his determination to move forward. I’ve dealt with lots of people who have anxiety disorders. They are not mysterious to me. It’s no problem for me to understand why people have anxiety disorders, or why they’re depressed, or why they have substance use problems. The mystery to me is always why people don’t have all of those things at once. Everybody has a reason to be anxious. In fact, we have the ultimate reason to be anxious: we know that we’re vulnerable, and we know that we’re going to die. How you can not be anxious under those circumstances is a great mystery. It’s a massive mystery. The same thing applies with regards to depression, and then the same thing applies, to some degree, to drug and alcohol abuse. As I said last week, there’s plenty of reasons to drown your consciousness in alcohol. That’s for sure. We could refer to the aforementioned anxiety and depression, not least. The sorts of drugs that people are prone to take are chemicals that take the affective edge off the tragedy of life.

Back to the issue of fear. Abraham is self-conscious. That’s what this commentary says. But the thing is, he moves forward despite that. He’s self-conscious, and he knows the dangers, but he moves forward despite that. That’s actually the appropriate response in the face of an actual, non-naive understanding of what constitutes life. If you’re naive and you move forward, it’s like, well, what the hell do you know? There’s no courage in naivety because you don’t know what there is to stop you, and you don’t know what dangers you might apprehend. But to be aware of what it is that your problem is—so to be alert existentially, let’s say, or to be fully self-conscious—means that you’re perfectly aware of your limitations and how you might be hurt. And then to make the decision to move forward into the unknown and the land of the stranger anyways…That’s one of the secrets to a good life. I can say that, really, without fear of contradiction, because the clinical literature on this is very, very clear.

What you do with people who are afraid—and, to some degree, depressed, but certainly anxious—is you lay out what they are anxious about, first of all, in detail. What is it you’re afraid of? What might happen? And then you decompose it into small, hypothetically manageable problems, and then you have the person expose themselves to the thing that they’re afraid of. What happens isn’t that they get afraid. That isn’t what the clinical literature indicates, exactly. What happens instead is that they get braver. That’s not the same thing, right? Because if you get less afraid, it’s like, ‘well, the world isn’t as dangerous as I thought it was. Silly me.’ If you get braver, that’s not what happens. What happens is, ‘the damn world’s just as dangerous as I thought, or maybe it’s even more dangerous than I thought, but it turns out that there’s something in me that responds to taking that on as a voluntary challenge, and grows and thrives as a consequence.’

There’s no doubt about this. Even the psychophysiological findings are quite clear. If you impose a stresser on two groups of people, and on one group the stresser is imposed involuntary, and on the other group the stresser is picked up voluntarily, the people who pick up the stresser voluntarily use a whole different psychophysiological system to deal with it: they use the system that’s associated with approach and challenge, and not the system that’s associated with defensive aggression and withdrawal. The system that is associated with challenge is much more associated with positive emotion and much less associated with negative emotion. It’s also much less hard on you. The defensive posturing system, the prey animal system—man, when that thing kicks in, it’s all systems are go for you. The pedal’s pushed down to the metal, and the brakes are on. You’re using future resources that you could be storing for future time right now, in the present, to ready yourself for emergency.

There’s nothing simple or trivial, at all, about the idea of being called to move forthrightly forward into the strange and unknown. There’s some real adventure that’s associated with that. That’s an exciting thing, which is part of the reason why people travel. And then also to see yourself as the sort of creature that can do that, is willing to do that on a habitual basis, is also the right kind of tonic for—I hate this word—your self-esteem. The self-esteem has nothing to do with feeling good about yourself. As I already mentioned, there isn’t necessarily reason why, a priori, you should just feel good about yourself. But if you can view yourself acting in a courageous and forthright manner, and encountering the world, and trying to improve your lot, and taking risks in the non-naive way, well, you have something that you can comfort yourself with at night when you’re wondering what the whole damn point is of your futile and miserable life. That’s necessary, because it’s sometimes the case that you wake up at four in the morning when things haven’t been going that well and wonder just what the hell the point is of your futile and miserable life. You have to have something real to set against that. It can’t just be rationalizations about how you’re a valuable person among others. Even though that’s true, that’s not good enough. You need something that’s more realistic to set against that. Observing courage in yourself is definitely one of the things that can help you sleep soundly at night when things are destabilized a little bit around you.
Back to the covenant. God tells Abraham, "I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee." Abram means high father, and Abraham means father of a multitude. "And I will make thee exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.
"And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God."

I love the line about the land where you’re a stranger. Almost everything that happens in these more archaic stories is laid out geographically. The metaphor is geographic. So you move to a land that you haven’t yet occupied, maybe that’s full of strangers, and then the land is what’s granted to you. But it’s perfectly reasonable to think about this from a more abstract perspective, and from a perspective that’s much more relevant to modern people, with our incredibly complex societies.

It’s definitely the case that, if you go into the land of the stranger, which is exactly what you do when you try out any new endeavour—when you start a new job, or when you start a new educational enterprise, or when you start a new relationship. It doesn’t matter; you’re in unexplored territory. The physical geography is the same, but we don’t live in the spatial world, only. We live in the temporal, spatial world. What that means is that the same place can be different at a different time. It can be completely different. And so if you’re in your house but you have a new person in your house, well, your house is new, for all intents and purposes. The territory surrounding that new person is the territory of the foreigner, essentially. The same things happen to you when you start a new job. You’ll find that, when you start a new job, especially if you stretched yourself a little bit beyond your zone of comfort, that you very much feel like an imposter, when you’re first there. And then the question is, well, how do you master that? The answer to that seems to be fairly straightforward: if the place that you’re in has any degree of possibility—if it isn’t inhabited by demons, so to speak—the best way to act is to lift your aim upward, attempt to get your act together, tell the truth, live a meaningful life, and to do difficult things. All of that. That is the best way of mastering a new territory. In all probability, the degree to which you’re able to act that out is precisely proportionate to the degree to which you’re going to be become a master in that territory. That sort of thing can happen a lot faster than people think.

It’s really quite remarkable how fast you can move forward if you can establish yourself somewhere and prove yourself useful, assuming that you’re around people to whom proving yourself useful actually matters. I know perfectly well that you can end up in an employment situation where you’re punished for your virtues, in which case you should just get the hell out of there. Really, you get out of there, and you go find somewhere that, if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, you’re actually going to be rewarded. Otherwise, that’s not a workplace; that’s hell, and you should just leave there.

"And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised."

That’s a mystery, there. Why that particular rite? Well, it’s dramatic. It certainly effects a man where he’s most concerned to be effected. It’s something like that. So it’s a sacrifice that has, I would say, a certain degree of unforgettability. That would be the first thing. And a certain degree of pain and threat that goes along with it. So it’s not nothing. That’s the thing.

Now, you can argue—and I think there is a case to be made about whether or not, in the modern world, circumcision is something reasonable to inflict on infants. I don’t want to have that conversation, at all. But I don’t think that’s relevant to this particular issue because we’re talking about something different. We’re talking about humanity’s attempt to reconcile themselves to the fact that something has to be given up in order for something else to happen, and to really try to work through that idea, and to make it into a psychological reality. So far, what we’ve seen in the Biblical stories is that, when you make a sacrifice, it’s not really something personal or psychological, right? It’s something external and dramatic. You give up something that you own. You don’t give up something that you are, or that’s part of you. It’s actually more of a sacrifice to give up something that’s a part of you, or something that you are, than to give up something that you own. I mean, it’s a subtle distinction, because in some sense, the distinction between what you own and what you are is subtle. It’s not overwhelmingly subtle, but people identify with their possessions. They need to, because otherwise they wouldn’t care for them. They need their possessions in order to live, so their possessions are, in some sense, integral to them. But this transformation, here, of an act that was external and associated, essentially, with possessions, to something that was at least part of the body, brings it much closer to the individual as a psychological reality. It’s something like that.
"And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you."

It’s also a permanent marker. I’ve read a fair bit about practices like tattooing and body scarification. Those are very, very common practices. They’re human universals, actually. No matter where you go around the world, you see a couple of things. First of all, almost without exception, people wear clothing. Sometimes it’s relatively minimal clothing, and often it’s more decorative than protective, but it’s almost inevitably clothing. The other thing that you see is that people do scarify and tattoo themselves. They do that, in some manner, to catalyze their identity. They’re trying to transform themselves from a generic person, in some sense, to a person that’s been designed by their own hand. It’s something like that. It’s a marker of developing identity, and some of it seems to be catalyzed with pain.

Modern people who tattoo—and I’m not saying that I’m in favour of tattooing, because actually I’m not, but that’s my own particular bias, and if you have a tattoo, that’s fine with me. I’m also not saying that there’s anything wrong with it. But one of the things you do see is that people with a tattoo do report a couple of things: the pain is actually necessary, and that the pain is actually something that seems to establish something like a memory. Well, it’s a memory because of the pain, because you bloody well remember things that hurt. But it’s also a memory because it’s actually etched on you, right? It’s not something that you can just abandon and forget. And so a circumcision is exactly the same thing. You don’t forget it, because it’s part of you. It makes a good token for a covenant. That seems to be the rationale, here, speaking from a psychological perspective. It’s to indicate, as well, that the damn thing that’s happening is serious. I also think that was the case with the earlier sacrifices of animals.

Modern people don’t do this. You don’t know how serious you would take a vow if you sacrificed a goat in your backyard. It’s actually a very dramatic thing to do. You think about it as primitive, and perhaps it is primitive and archaic, and no doubt it is. But it’s also to take the life of something, and to spill its blood. That’s no joke; that’s something you remember, especially if you haven’t done it before. We actually don’t know what we would need to do in order to take something seriously. We all do things like make New Year’s resolutions about how we’re going to be better people, and we don’t do it. The reason for that, at least in part, is because we don’t know how to make the sacrifice sufficiently bloody, let’s say, so that we remember that it’s necessary. We don’t take it with seriousness. We don’t think, ‘I should quit smoking, because I’m going to die.’ We don’t think through what that means: coughing your lungs out for three months in a hotel bed while your entire family is repulsed, horrified, and sorrow-stricken at the fact that this has happened far too early. We won’t make that real enough to make it serious. Without that seriousness, we won’t do it. There’s something to be said for rituals of seriousness. I think this is one of them.
"And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed."
This is from Charles John Ellicott, who was Bishop of Gloucester: "The fitness of circumcision to be a sign of entering into a covenant, and especially into one to which children were to be admitted, consisted in its being a representation of a new birth by the putting off of the old man, and the dedication of the new man unto holiness."

It’s like a baptism—that’s what’s echoed, there. Of course, baptism is a return to the precosmogonic chaos. That’s what the water indicates: a return to the source of life, and then the renewal that comes along with it. So it’s a sacrificial idea, in some sense, that, if there’s to be a new you, the old you has to dissolve—return to the solution from which it emerged initially—and reconstitute itself. So there’s an echo of that idea, here.

"The flesh was cast away that the spirit might grow strong; and the change of name in Abram and Sarai was typical of this change of condition. They had been born again, and so must again be named. And though women could not indeed be admitted directly into the covenant, yet they shared in its privileges by virtue of their consanguinity to the men, who were as sponsors for them; and thus Sarai changes her name equally with her husband."

You could make a case—anthropology observers have made this case, too—that women undergo a set of sufficiently, radically, psychophysiological transformations merely as a consequence of being feminine in nature, such that the additional rituals of transformation that might be necessary for men aren’t necessary. One of those might be menstruation, because that’s a pretty dramatic transformation. There has been some indication that circumcision is like the male equivalent of menstruation, because of the blood that’s involved and because of the locale. Of course, the same thing is the case with women when they give birth. That’s a particularly dramatic thing, as I just witnessed, because my daughter just had a baby this week. So thank God for that!
"Recent investigation"—this is from the Cambridge Bible for School and Colleges, which, if you want to read it, is only 58 volumes—"has not tended to support the theory that circumcision has any connexion with primitive child sacrifice; nor, again, that it took its origin from hygienic motives. Apparently, it represents the dedication of the manhood of the people to God. In the history of Israel, it has survived as the symbol of the people belonging to Jehovah through His special election…This corporeal sacrament remained to the Israelite, when every other tie of religion or race had been severed."

The other thing that I read about in relationship to this idea of the multigenerational covenant had something to do with God telling Abraham to include all of the people of his household into this covenant. That really meant that he was establishing a territory of ethics around them, like the ark, except the psychological equivalent of the ark. So it was a spiritual, or psychological, or ethical territory, that everyone who was of that household was required to occupy—or obliged, or perhaps privileged to occupy. There was also an injunction to Abraham with regards to his children, which was that, as he had established a covenant with God, which we could say is something like his decision to aim as high as possible and to live properly as a consequence—it’s more than that, but it’s something like that—he also was under the supreme moral obligation to share that with the other men in his family, especially his children. And so I think there’s also a call, here, to adopting the sacred responsibility in relationship to children, that has to do with ensuring that they understand how to take their place in the world. I think that’s definitely very much worth considering, especially given the emphasis in the story of Noah that his generations were perfect. As I said before, it wasn’t merely that he had walked with God—that he had perfected his own relationship with the divine, the transcendent. I want to make that concrete, which is a strange thing to do with the transcendent.

People ask me all the time about what I believe…Of course, that’s what I’m trying to explain while I’m talking…And many people, of course, are sceptical about the idea of anything transcendent and eternal. But that can also be addressed from a psychological perspective. I would say, well, if you have an ideal of any sort, how is that not transcendent? It transcends you. That’s the first thing, and it doesn’t exist in reality: it exists in a place of possibility. Believe me, man: we treat places of possibility as if they’re real. People will call on you about your possibility and potential. They’ll say to you, ‘you’re not manifesting your full potential.’ And you might say, ‘well, what do you mean by ‘potential?’ It doesn’t exist; it isn’t here, now; you can’t measure it or weigh it; you can’t get a grip on it.’ They’ll say, ‘don’t rationalize. You know perfectly well what I mean when I’m talking about your potential, and so does everyone.’ That’s a metaphysical reality that we’ll immediately accept as real, and castigate ourselves for not fulfilling—and others, too, because you’re just not happy when the people around you, especially if you love them, don’t fulfill their potential. You really feel that something has gone wrong. And so there’s a transcendent reality in potential. And then when you hypothesize an ideal that you might pursue—which you always do, if you pursue anything, right? To pursue something means that you don’t already have it. You’re pursuing something that doesn’t exist. You’re probably not pursing something that’s worse than what you already have, because why the hell would you pursue it? That’s completely counterproductive. In the mere fact of your pursuit, you posit a transcendent reality that you can journey towards, that’s more valuable than the reality you have now, that’s predicated, in some sense, on something like an eternal truth. It partakes in the ideal.

We have a relationship with the transcendent. You might say, ‘well, that doesn’t mean that you have to personify the transcendent, say, as Jehovah, God the Father.’ But there’s also some damn good reasons for doing that. One of the things that I’ve realized, thinking through this covenant idea, and also the sacrifice idea, is that the idea that the future is a judgemental father is a really, really good idea. You think about what the future is, in part: the future is however the natural world is going to lay itself out over the next endless amount of time. That isn’t what I mean. I think more about your future. Now, mostly your future is the future that you’re going to negotiate with other people. But there are going to be other people in the future, and some of those people are going to be you in the future, and family members in the future. And so what’s happening right now is that, if you make the sacrifices properly, you’re actually pleasing that future set of people, and that future set of people is definitely going to serve as a judge. That’s exactly what it does; that’s precisely what it does. You might say, ‘well, it was the brilliant imagination of mankind that hypothesized that the best way to think about the social group, including the family but also including you as your future self, was to consider that you live in relationship with a future father who’s a judge.’ It’s like, yes. That’s exactly right. Now, is it right, right, or is it psychologically right? Well, it’s at least psychologically right.

One of the things I’ve learned about the Biblical stories is that to say that they’re psychologically right doesn’t exhaust the ways in which they’re right. But it at least gives rational, modern people who are sceptical, and properly so, a better way of getting a grip on them.
"And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant." So it’s a serious, contractual relationship. I was thinking about how to understand this, and I remember this old story, which I’m going to read to you, about a monkey.
"There’s an old and possibly apocryphal story about how to catch a monkey that illustrates this set of ideas very well. First, so goes the story, you have to find a large, narrow-necked jar, just barely wide enough in diameter at the top for a monkey to put its hand inside. Then you have to fill the jar part way with rocks, so it is too heavy for a monkey to carry. Then you have to scatter some treats, attractive to monkeys, near the jar, to attract one, and put some more inside the jar." And so that’s the first part of the trick.
The second part of the trick is that a monkey comes along and gathers up the treats, and puts his hand in the jar, and grabs the treats that are in there. But it’s narrow-necked, so once the monkey puts its hand in there and grabs the goodies, then he can’t get his hand out of the damn jar. And so then you can just come along and pick up the monkey. And too bad for the monkey, right? He should have let go of what he had, so that something terrible didn’t happen to him. But that isn’t what the monkey will do, because he can’t sacrifice the part for the whole. There’s something about the circumcision story that’s about that: sacrificing the part to save the whole.

There’s an echo of that in the New Testament, if I remember correctly—I believe this is correct, although it might not be—where Christ tells his disciples to pluck out their eye if it offends them. It seems like a very dramatic piece of advice, but it’s partaking of the same idea, which is that, even if it’s dear to you, you have to let it go. You seriously have to let it go, because there isn’t anything more important than progressing forward. Cheap sympathy, cheap empathy, cheap nostalgia—none of that is sufficient. None of that will work. The consequences of not putting things together immediately are dire, and there’s no time to wait.

"And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be." Sarai means my princess, and Sarah means mother of nations. "And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her. And Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old?" He’s got a lot of gall, I would say. I mean, here’s God, talking to him, and he laughs. But that’s ok. He’s a courageous guy, and that’s what people are like. "And shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!
"And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation."

Now what does this mean? This is a miraculous story, in some sense. What Abraham wants most is to have a son, but it looks like it’s pretty much impossible. I think what the story is attempting to indicate is something like, God only knows what will happen to you if you put your house in order—certainly things that you do not currently regard as possible will happen. The more you put your house in order, the more things that you regard as impossible will happen. It might be the case that, if you put your house together sufficiently, things that were of miraculous impossibility would happen to you. There’s no way of knowing until you try it. But there’s no way of being sure that it’s not the case, unless you do try it.

My experience has been that—I don’t mean just personally. I mean that the world is a remarkable and mysterious place. The relationship between the nature and structure of the world and your actions is indeterminate. They may be more tightly related than you think. I don’t know how to square that with the fact that, well, you’re obviously in a mortal body and constrained by all sorts of serious constraints. None of that can be trivially overcome, and I don’t really understand how there can be that seriousness of mortal constraint and the infinite potential, that also seems to characterize human beings, all at the same time. But then, I don’t really understand anything about the nature of reality. So that’s just one more mystery to add to the pile.
"But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year. And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham. And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him." That must have been an interesting conversation. I mean, really. ‘This is what God told you to do, eh?’
"And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him."

All right, so that’s the renewal of the covenant. That’s the next part of the story. That’s the circumcision story. As I said, it seems to indicate, to me, something about seriousness of intent—something about the responsibility that Abraham determines to take for everyone that’s part of his household, the increasing psychological transformation of the idea of sacrifice, the necessity of doing something memorable, and the utility of rekindling the aims of your highest values when you come to the end of an epoch in your life and have to take stock again. You take stock of yourself. That’s really what that phrase means: to take stock is to take stock of yourself and to decide, ok, what should move forward in time with me, and what should be let go as if it’s deadwood? The more deadwood that you let go of and burn off when you have the opportunity, the less it accretes around you.

Here’s something interesting about forest fires. People have been trying to prevent forest fires for a long time, especially that damn bear, Smokey. He’s trying to prevent forest fires, because forest fires burn up the forest, and that can’t be good. But here’s what happens if you don’t let forest fires burn: Forests collect a lot of dry branches, because tree branches die and what falls on the forest floor collects. The amount of flammable material keeps increasing with time. That’s not so bad if it’s wet, but if the amount of flammable material is increasing, and it gets really dry, and then it burns, then you have a real problem. The forest fire can burn so hot that it burns the topsoil right off, in which case you don’t have a forest at all anymore: you just have a desert. Lots of trees are evolved to withstand forest fires of a certain intensity, and some won’t even release their seeds unless there’s been a fire. And so a little bit of fire at the right time can stop everything from burning to the ground.

That’s also a really useful metaphorical insight into the nature of sacrifice. It’s also a lot easier to let go of something when you’re deciding to let go of it, because you’ve decided that you’re done with that. It’s a weak part of you, and it needs to disappear. You do that yourself. It’s much better and much easier than it is if it’s taken away from you forcibly, in which case you’re very much likely to fight it.

There’s another interesting thing, here—a motif that runs through the entire Bible. It’s a very, very powerful motif. It’s partly associated with this idea of walking with or before God. In the New Testament, Christ says something like, ‘thy Father’s will be done.’ He means that will should be done through him. I won’t state this exactly right, but it’s something like, a lot of what people regard as their own personalities, are proud of about their personalities, aren’t their own personalities, at all. They’re useless idiosyncrasies that differentiate them trivially from other people. They have no value in and of themselves. They’re more like quirks.

I remember, once, I was trying to teach a particularly stubborn student about how to write. She had written a number of essays in university and got universally walloped for them. The reason for that was that she couldn’t write—really, at all. She was really, really bad at writing. And so I was sitting down with her, trying to explain to her what she was doing wrong. She was being very annoying about it, very recalcitrant, very, very unwilling to listen. That was a pearls before swine thing. At one point she said, "I can write perfectly well. The university professors just don’t like my style," and I could feel my hands creep towards her neck. That’d be funny if it wasn’t true, but it was also true. I thought, ‘what the hell’s with you? You can’t even write, and you think you have a style?’ Not knowing how to write is not a style. That’s the other point. Instead of humbling herself, which was necessary and ok, because she was a new university student—of course you don’t know how to write. When were you going to learn? In school? I don’t think so. So she had this style issue, and it just didn’t go anywhere, at all, in terms of letting things burn off. So she was proud of her insufficiency. That’s arrogance. That’s not humility: it’s self-deception and arrogance, to be proud of your insufficiency. That’s a very foolish thing. That means to cling to the parts of you that are dead.

There’s this idea that runs through the Bible, I think, as a whole, that…Ok, I’ll tell you another little side story. I was reading about Socrates today, and I was reading about Socrates’ trial. He was tried by the Athenians for failing to worship the correct Gods, and for corrupting the youth of Athens by teaching them stuff and asking them questions, which is a great way to corrupt people. So he knew the trial was coming, and Athens wasn’t a very big place. It only had about 25,000 people. Everybody knew everybody, and everybody knew who the powerful guys were. Everybody, including Socrates, knew that the trial was a warning to get out of town. ‘We’re going to put you on trial in six months, and the potential penalty is death. Got that?’

So Socrates had a chat with his compatriots. They were contemplating fair means and foul to set up a defense for him, or to leave, so that he could not be tried and put to death. He decided that he wasn’t going to do that. He also decided that he wasn’t going to even think about his defense. He said why, and this is quite an interesting thing. He told one of his friends that he had this voice in his head—a daemon, a spirit, or something like that—that he always listened to, and that it was one of the reasons that he was different from other people. He always listened to this thing. It didn’t tell him what to do, but it told him what not to do. It always told him what not to do. And if it told him not to do something, then he didn’t do it. If he was speaking and the little voice came up and said, ‘no,’ then he shut up and tried to say something else.

He was very emphatic about this. He said that, when he tried to plan to evade the trial—or even to mount his own defense—the voice came up and said, ‘no, don’t bother with it.’ He thought, ‘what the hell do you mean by that? There’s a trial coming, and I’m going to be put to death.’ Well, he eventually concluded that he was an old guy. He was in his 70s, perhaps, and the next 10 years weren’t going to be that great for him. Maybe the Gods were giving him a chance to bow out, to put his affairs in order, to say goodbye to everyone, to avoid that last descent into catastrophe, which might have been particularly painful for a philosopher, and to walk off the world on his own terms. Something like that. The point I’m making with that is that Socrates attended to this internal voice, that at least told him what not to do, and then he didn’t do it. Of course, Socrates was a very remarkable man, and we still hear about him today. We know that he existed, and all of those things.

Back to the walking with God idea