Biblical Series XII: The Great Sacrifice: Abraham and Isaac by Dr. Jordan Peterson
Thank you all for coming. I’ve been thinking about things that I’m happy about. What I’m most happy about is that I haven’t spilled my bubbly water into my computer, so far, while I’ve been doing these lectures. I’ll probably do it tonight, now that I’m bragging about having avoided it. This is the last lecture in this 12-part series. I did mention that I have made arrangements with the theatre, to do this once a month for the next four months, and we’ll play it by ear past then. I want to continue, and find another venue, and perhaps to do it every two weeks, but certainly once a month. Maybe I can even get deeper into the material, if it’s only once a month. Then we’ll really slow down to a snail’s crawl.
This is a tough one, tonight. It’s a story that everyone with any sense should approach with a substantial degree of trepidation. I’ve been working on my book this week, on chapter seven, which is called "Do What Is Meaningful, Not What is Expedient." It’s been a very difficult chapter, because I’m trying to extend my understanding of sacrifice—which is, of course, what we’re going to talk about tonight—in great detail. I’ve been wrestling with exactly how to do that. I’m going to read you some of that, I think, today. I don’t generally read when I do my lectures, but this is so complicated that I’m not confident of my ability to just spin it off spontaneously.
It will also give me a chance to test out if what I’ve written—which I’ve been struggling with—has the kind of poetic flow that I’d like to have. If you’re writing, it’s really good to read things aloud, because you can tell if you’ve got the rhythmic cadence right. So, anyways, thank you all for coming. Many of you have, I believe, attended all 12 lectures. That’s really remarkable. It’s amazing that this place has been full every single lecture. It’s completely unbelievable for that to be the case. This has been watched more than 2 million views. It’s not 2 million people, because it would be the same people, I would suspect, many times. That’s also crazy, but it’s a crazy world, and it seems to be getting crazier. Hopefully, this is some addition to stabilizing it, and making it slightly more sane. That’s the hope, anyways.
We’ve got a couple of stories to deal with tonight—complex, complex stories that are not really easy to comprehend, in any sense of the word. With the story of Isaac, God calls on his chosen individual—Abraham, the person he’s made this contract with—to sacrifice his son. How in the world are you supposed to make any sense out of that? It’s exactly that sort of story that makes modern people, who are convinced that the faster we put the Biblical stories behind us, the better—it’s grist for their mill, because it seems like such an incomprehensible and barbaric act, on the part of God. I hesitate to even approach it, because there’s so many ways that an interpretation of that sort can go wrong. But we’ll see how it goes. Let’s walk through it, and see what happens.
We'll start with the story of Sarah and Isaac. "And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said." Remember: when Abraham was in the midst of his appropriate sacrificial routines—which we’ve characterized as his return to the contract he made with the idea of the Good; the contract with God—he was informed, by God, that he would get what he most wanted, which was an heir, despite his advanced old age. Of course, Sarah was very sceptical about that, as she had every reason to be. But this story opens with the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.
"And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken. For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him. And Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him. And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me. And she said, Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have children suck? for I have born him a son in his old age. And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned."
I suppose one of the purposes—perhaps the literary purposes of this story—is to exaggerate, for dramatic purposes, the importance of a child. When people are young—and I think this is particularly true in the modern world—they seem to often regard the possibility of having a child as an impediment to their lifestyle. Of course, in some ways, I suppose that’s true. Although, you have to have quite a lifestyle before a child actually constitutes an impediment, because having a child in your life is actually something that’s remarkable almost beyond belief. You can have a relationship with a child that is better than any relationship that you’ve ever had with anyone in your life, if you’re careful, and if you’re fortunate.
I’ve seen many people delay having children for understandable reasons. It’s no simple decision to have a child. Of course, now we can make the decision to have a child—which, of course, people couldn’t in the past ages, really. But, sometimes, you see people delay, and they delay too long, and then they don’t get to have a child, and then they’re desperate. They spend a decade doing fertility treatments, or that sort of thing, and immersing themselves in one disappointment after another. It’s just at that point that you see exactly how catastrophic it can be for people not to be able to undergo one of the great adventures of life, let’s say. One of the things this story does, by delaying the arrival of Isaac continually, is to exaggerate the important significance of a child, because it’s truly not until you’re deprived of something that you have any sense of what its value is. Abraham was waiting a hundred years—a very long time—and the same with Sarah. So they’re unbelievably excited. Of course, this also heightens the drama that’s inherent in the entire sacrificial story. It’s not only that, eventually, Abraham is called upon to sacrifice Isaac, which would be bad enough under any circumstances whatsoever, self-evidently. The fact that he’s been waiting a century for this child, desperately, and made all the proper sacrifices, and lived in the appropriate manner to allow this to occur, dramatically heightens the literary tensions.
Now, you remember Hagar? This is the next part of the story. Hagar was Sarah’s handmaid. When Sarah was unable to bear Abraham a child, she sent him Hagar. Hagar immediately got pregnant, and she gave birth to Ishmael. The story picks up from that point. I mentioned, in a couple of weeks in a row, just how interesting it has been to scour the internet for the paintings that are associated with these stories. There’s an amazing wealth of great paintings that illustrate every single Biblical story. It’s really been enlightening to find out just exactly how poorly educated I am. I’m a great admirer of artistic talent and endeavour, but there’s so much that I don’t know about the history of art that it’s just absolutely beyond belief. To see this treasure trove of images, that I really had no idea existed…Of course, they’re spread all over the world. It’s only been in recent years that you could have access to them in this way. It’s a constant revelation of the depth to which these stories have absolutely permeated our culture, and the loss that it would be if we didn’t know them properly, and take them with the degree of seriousness that they deserve. So, anyways, this is one of those great images.
"And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son."
There’s been quite a bit of tension between Sarah and Hagar, as you could imagine there might be. Why wouldn’t there be? First of all, Hagar had the first child, and that elevated her status. She was Sarah’s handmaid, and so that’s obviously going to be quite awkward. And then she lorded it over Sarah because of the fact that she got pregnant so easily. And now we see this situation, where Ishmael is doing the same thing with regards to Isaac. That causes a substantial amount of trouble. A familial division is occurring, here.
"And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed."
That’s an interesting outcome, too. We pointed out, before, the fact that, because Abraham has lived his life properly, and has kept a contract with God, there’s every evidence in the story that, no matter what the vicissitudes of Abraham’s life—how the great serpent that he sits on, in some sense, weaves back and forth—there’s always the promise that things will work out positively. You can read that as naive optimism, but I think it has a lot more to do with the actual power of keeping the contractual agreement. I really do believe it, and I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about this over the last couple of weeks, in addition to the decades before that. And all that’s happened, since I’ve been doing these Biblical lectures, is that my conviction in this has been strengthened. What’s quite interesting is that, if you do what it is that you’re called upon to do—which is to lift your eyes up above the mundane, daily, selfish, impulsive issues that might upset you—and you attempt to enter into a contractual relationship with that which you might hold in the highest regard, whatever that might be—to aim high, and to make that important above all else in your life—that fortifies you against the vicissitudes of existence, like nothing else can. I truly believe that’s the most practical advice that you could possibly receive.
I was answering questions last night. I did this Q and A, which I do about once a month for the people who are supporting me on Patreon, and which I also release on YouTube. Somebody was struggling with their religious faith, and they asked what they could do about that. I’d also been thinking about the difference between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, which I’ll discuss in a minute. I was trying to answer this question in regards to religious faith because this person was shaky in his faith in life, let’s say, which is a better way of thinking about it. It seems to me that the way that you fortify your faith in Being, life, and your own existence isn’t to try to convince yourself of the existence of a transcendent power that you could believe in, in the same way that you believe in a set of empirical facts. I don’t think that’s the right approach. I think it’s a weak approach, actually. I don’t think that’s the right cognitive technology for that set of problems. That’s more a technology that you’d use is you were trying to solve a scientific problem. It’s more something that needs to be embedded in action, rather than in statable belief. The way that you fortify your faith in life is to assume the best—something like that—and then to act courageously in relationship to that. That’s tantamount to expressing your faith in the highest possible Good. It’s tantamount to expressing your faith in God. It’s not a matter of stating, ‘I believe in the existence of a transcendent deity,’ because, in some sense, who cares what you believe? You might, and all that, but that’s not the issue. The issue, it seems to me, is how you act.
I was thinking about this intensely when I was thinking about Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Of course, you know that Nietzsche was the philosopher who announced the death of God, and who’s a great, great, critic of Christianity, and a vicious critic of institutional Christianity, in the best sense. He announced the death of God, and he said that we’d never find enough water to wash away the blood. It wasn’t a triumphant proclamation, even though it’s often read that way. Nietzsche’s conclusion from the death of God, the fact that our ethical systems were going to collapse when the foundation was pulled out from underneath them, was that human beings were going to have to create their own values. There’s a problem with that. This is something that Carl Jung was very thorough in investigating. It doesn’t really look like people are capable of creating their own values, because you’re not really capable of moulding yourself just any old way you want to be. You have a nature that you have to contend with, and so it isn’t a matter of creating our own values. We don’t have that capacity. It might be a matter of rediscovering those values, which is what Jung was attempting to do.
I think Nietzsche was, actually, profoundly wrong, in that recommendation. I think he was psychologically wrong. Dostoevsky wrote, in many ways, in parallel to Nietzsche, and he was a great influence on Nietzsche. Their lives paralleled each other to a degree that’s somewhat miraculous. In some sense, it’s quite uncanny. Dostoevsky was obviously a literary figure, while Nietzsche was a philosopher—a literary philosopher, but still a philosopher. Dostoevsky wrestled with exactly the same problems that Nietzsche wrestled with, but he did it in a different way. He did it in a literary manner. He has this great book, The Brothers Karamazov. The hero of the book is really Alyosha, who’s a monastic novitiate; a very good guy. Not an intellect, but a person of great character. But he has an older brother, Ivan, who’s a great intellect, and a very handsome soldier, and a brave man. Dostoevsky’s villains—Ivan isn’t exactly a villain, but that’s close enough. Dostoevsky makes his villains extraordinarily powerful, so if Dostoevsky is trying to work out an argument, he clothes the argument in the flesh of one of his characters. If it’s an argument he doesn’t agree with, then he makes that character as strong as he possibly can—as strong, attractive, and intelligent as he possibly can, and then he lets him just have at ‘er. Ivan is constantly attacking Alyosha, and, from every direction, trying to knock him off his perch of faith. Alyosha can’t address a single one of Ivan’s criticisms. He doesn’t have the intellect for it, and Ivan has a devastating intellect—it’s devastating to him, himself, as well.
What happens in The Brothers Karamazov, essentially, is that Alyosha continues to act out his commitment to the Good, let’s say, and, in that manner, he’s triumphant. It doesn’t matter that he loses the arguments, because the arguments aren’t exactly the point. The arguments, in some sense, are a side issue. Because the issue—and this is the existential issue—is not what you believe—as if it’s a set of facts—but how you conduct yourself in the world. Dostoevsky grasped that, and it’s one of the things that makes him such an amazing literary figure, and a genius. He was smart enough to formulate the arguments in a manner that no one else really could, with a possible exception of Nietzsche, and that’s quite an exception. And yet, using his dramatic embodiment, he could still lay out solutions to the problems that he was describing, that are extremely compelling. Both Crime and Punishment, which is an amazing, thrilling, engrossing book, and The Brothers Karamazov—all of Dostoevsky’s great books, really, circulate around those profound moral issues. And so, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from reading him.
"And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed."
All right. I commented that Abraham is being blessed in multiple directions, even when things are going wrong. This is pretty bad, because his family, in some sense, is breaking up. There’s this emphasis in the text that, because he’s kept this contractual relationship with God, that he’s in an ark—we could put it that way—and that he’ll triumph through the vicissitudes of life, which is the best that you can hope for. It’s quite interesting. Again, one of the things that’s so powerful about the Abrahamic stories is that it’s not like Abraham, even though he’s chosen by God, has an easy time of it. He has a rough life. It’s a successful life, and all that, but it’s not without its troubles. That’s for sure. It’s got every sort of trouble that you could possibly imagine, pretty much. That’s one of the things that makes the stories so realistic, as far as I’m concerned.
"And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba."
It’s funny…I guess this had more of an emotional impact on me this week than it might have because my daughter just had a baby, a week ago. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing…We’re so happy that that’s happened. I was trying to put myself in the conceptual space of the people who these stories are about, and trying to notice the catastrophe that this sort of breakup would actually constitute. The visual images really help with that, because they’re so carefully crafted. They hit the story from so many different directions that they add an additional layer of emotional meaning to it, which I found very, very significant.
"And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs." She was sent to wander in the desert, you know? It’s not just that she has to leave Abraham’s household: it’s that where she goes is not really amenable to life. It’s an extraordinarily dramatic and terrible tale.
"And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow shot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.
"And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer."
That’s actually a relevant detail, too: the fact that he became an archer. I think I mentioned to you, at one point, that the word ‘sin’ is derived from a Greek word, ‘hamartia,’ even though it sounds nothing like that word. Hamartia is actually an archery term. It means to miss the bullseye. That’s a lovely metaphor for sin, I think, because it’s associated so tightly with the idea of goal, direction, and aim. There’s a metaphorical idea that’s embedded in that image, and that is that a human being is something that specifies a target—which we do all the time with our eyes, by the way. Our eyes are target-specifying mechanisms. We have very precise central focal vision. We use our focal vision to target the aim of our behaviour. And so we are aiming creatures. It’s built right into our body. We’re built on a hunting platform. We’re aiming creatures. We do that cognitively, as well as behaviourally. As hunters, we take aim at things. We take aim at moving targets, and we’re very good at bringing them down. We’ve been doing that for who knows how long—millions of years, really. Even chimpanzees are carnivorous, by the way, and we split from them about 6 million years ago. And so we’ve been hunting and aiming for a very, very long period of time. We still have aims in our life, right? And that’s how we describe them: ‘what are you aiming at,’ or ‘what are your aims,’ or ‘what are your goals. What’s your target?’ It’s all based on that hunting metaphor. The fact that Ishmael becomes an archer means that he’s someone who can take aim at the center of the bullseye and hit it precisely. That’s an indication that he’s a good man—and, I suppose, he carries part of the narrative weight of the story, because, of course, he’s Abraham’s son, and you’d expect Abraham’s son to be someone who’s very good at taking aim.
"And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran." He could live there and survive, which is no trivial thing. "And his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt."
Ok, so that’s the story of Hagar. It’s a fairly straightforward story. It’s complex emotionally, and it brings up the terrible theme of familial catastrophe, the complications of romantic and familial relationships, and all of that. But it really serves as a prodrome to the next story, which is the one that’s so complex and difficult to understand.
"And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham"—which is a funny thing for God to do, I suppose—"and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you."
It’s really one of the first times that we’ve come across the word ‘worship,’ if I remember correctly. It’s a very difficult word to contend with, too. When I was a kid, it was never really obvious why God would want to be worshipped. You go to church; you offer up your praise and thanks to God. You think, ‘well, really? Does that make a lot of sense? Why in the world is that what he wants?’ It’s almost like you’re kneeling down in front of an ancient, Middle Eastern, tyrannical emperor and vowing your submission. That never sat well with me. I suppose it doesn’t sit well with many people. I think that’s because it’s not the proper way of conceptualizing it.
What Abraham does continually—and this seems to be implicit in the use of the word ‘worship,’ in this particular situation. As we discussed, he has an adventure in his life. It comes to an end. Then there’s a period where he reconstitutes himself, to some degree. That’s when he makes his sacrifices. It seems to me that it’s that reconstitution that constitutes the worship. The worship is something like—this is alluding back to my original proposition that it’s how you act that’s the issue. The worship is the decision to enact the Good in whatever form it is that you can conceptualize it, as well as trying to continually reconceptualize the Good, in a manner that makes the Good that you’re conceptualizing even that much better, right? When you start aiming, the probability that you’re going to be aiming in the right direction is very low. But hypothetically, as you aim, and as you practice, and as you learn, the target is going to shift in front of your eyes, and you’re going to be able to follow it ever-more-clearly. That seems to be a much more appropriate interpretation of what constitutes proper worship, especially given the context that this word is used in, in this particular story. I suppose it’s akin to the later Christian idea that it’s the imitation of Christ that’s the sacred duty of every Christian, and of every human being, I suppose, insofar as that’s an archetypal idea.
The embodiment of the Good is the issue. It’s not your stated belief in the Good. When Nietzsche was criticizing Christianity, this is actually one of the things he brought up as a major issue. He believed Christianity had lost its way because it had introduced a confusion between stated belief, which is, say, your belief in the divinity of Christ—whatever it means if you state that. It isn’t obvious what it means when you state that, because it isn’t obvious what it would mean if you believe it, or even what it is that you’re believing in. As far as Nietzsche was concerned, in some sense, not only was that beside the point, it was dangerously beside the point, because it actually allowed the Christian believer not to adopt the moral burden that was actually appropriate to the faith, which was to—and I’m using a Jungian concept—manifest the archetype within the confines of your own life. That’s to make your relationship with the divine, transcendent, and infinite into something that’s actually realizable in the context of your own life, which is to say that you’re supposed to act out the highest Good of which you’re capable. That will transform your life, to some degree, into an archetypal adventure. There’s no way around that, because as you attempt to climb a higher mountain, let’s say, or to aim at a higher target, or something like that, the things around you will become increasingly dramatic and of import. That happens by necessity, obviously: if you’re aiming at something difficult and profound, and you’re really working at it, then your life is going to become, perhaps, increasingly difficult and profound. But that might be ok. That might be exactly what you need as an antidote to the implicit limitations that face you, as a human being.
"…and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you." Now there’s an implication, here, too. It’s foreshadowing that Abraham offering up his son is actually a form of worship, and it’s continuous with what he’s already done. Now I’m going to read you some of the things that I’ve written, and then I’ll return to this. We’ll see how that goes.
"Life is suffering. That’s clear. There’s no more basic, irrefutable truth. It’s basically what God tells Adam and Eve, immediately before he kicks them out of Paradise: ‘unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiple thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; by the sweat of your brow will you eat your food, until you return to the ground; since from it you were taken: for dust you are, and to dust you will return.’"
Rough. We’ve associated that with Adam and Eve’s eyes opening, and them becoming self-conscious and discovering the future, becoming fully aware, falling into history. It seems, to me, to be a very realistic, existential portrayal of the predicament of humankind.
"What should be done about that? The simplest, most obvious, and most direct answer? Pursue pleasure, and follow your impulses. Live for the moment. Do what’s expedient. Lie, cheat, steal, deceive, manipulate—but don’t get caught. In an ultimately meaningless universe, what difference could it make? And this is by no means a new idea. The fact of life’s tragedy and the suffering that is part of it has been used to justify the pursuit of immediate selfish gratification for a very long time."
Even reading Jung—he often writes as if before the rise of the conflict between religion and science, which culminated, say, in Nietzsche’s pronouncement about the death of God. People lived ensconced, quite safely, within a religious conceptualization, and imbued their life with meaning. That was just the state of reality. But there’s ancient writings that make it quite clear that the crises of faith that characterize modern people were certainly far from unknown in the past. Here’s one of those writings. This is from Wisdom 2, the revised standard version:
"‘Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end, and no one has been known to return from Hades. Because we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts. When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air. Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat. For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.
Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass by us. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. Let none of us fail to share in our revelry, everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow nor regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.’"
It’s an amazing piece of writing. It starts with an announcement for the rationale for nihilism and ends with the justification for fascist tyranny. It’s thousands of years old. It’s a remarkable thing to see, and to be laid out so concisely.
"The pleasure of expediency may be fleeting, but it’s pleasure, nonetheless, and that’s something to stack up against the terror and pain of existence. Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost, as the old proverb has it. Why not simply take everything you can get, whenever the opportunity arises? Why not determine to live in that manner? What’s the alternative, and why should we bother with it? Our ancestors worked out very sophisticated answers to such questions, but we still don’t understand them very well. This is because they are in large part still implicit—manifest primarily in ritual and myth and, as of yet, incompletely articulated. We act them out and represent them in stories, but we’re not yet wise enough to formulate them explicitly. We’re still chimps in a troupe, or wolves in a pack. We know how to behave, if we know who’s who, and why. We’ve learned that through experience. Our knowledge has been shaped by our interaction with others. We’ve established predictable routines and patterns of behaviour—but we don’t really understand them, or know where they originated. They’ve evolved over great expanses of time. No one was formulating them explicitly, at least not in the dimmest reaches of the past, even though we’ve been telling each other how to act forever.
One day, however, not so long ago, we woke up. We were already doing, but we starting noticing what we were doing. We started using our bodies as devices to represent their own actions. We started imitating and dramatizing. We invented ritual. We started acting out our own experiences. Then we started to tell stories. We coded our observations of our own drama in these stories. In this manner, the information that was first only embedded in our behaviour became represented in our stories. But we didn’t and still don’t understand what it all means.
The Biblical narrative of Paradise and the Fall is one such story, fabricated by our collective imagination, working over the centuries. It provides a profound account of the nature of Being, and points the way to a mode of conceptualization and action well-matched to that nature. In the Garden of Eden, prior to the dawn of self-consciousness—so goes the story—human beings were sinless. Our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, walked with God. Then, tempted by the snake, the first couple ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, discovered Death and vulnerability, and turned away from God. Mankind was exiled from Paradise, and began its effortful mortal existence. The idea of sacrifice enters soon afterward, beginning with the account of Cain and Abel, and developing through the Abrahamic stories: After much contemplation, struggling humanity learns that God’s favor could be gained, and wrath averted, through proper sacrifice—and, also, that bloody murder might be motivated among those unwilling or unable to succeed in this manner.
When engaging in sacrifice, our forefathers began to act out what would be considered a proposition, if it were stated in words: that something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present. Recall, if you will, that the necessity for work is one of the cursed placed by God upon Adam and his descendants in consequence of Original Sin. Adam’s waking to the fundamental constraints of his Being—his vulnerability, his eventual death—is equivalent to his discovery of the future. The future: that’s where you go to die. Hopefully, not too soon. Your demise might be staved off through work; through the sacrifice of the now to benefit later. It is for this reason—among others, no doubt—that the concept of sacrifice is introduced in the Biblical chapter immediately following the drama of the Fall. There’s little difference between sacrifice and work. They are also both uniquely human. Sometimes, animals act as if they’re working, but they are really only following the dictates of their nature. Beavers build damns. They do so because they are beavers, and beavers build damns. They don’t think, ‘Yeah, but I’d rather be on a beach in Mexico with my girlfriend,’ while they’re doing it.
Prosaically, such sacrifice—work—is delay of gratification, but that’s a very mundane phrase to describe something of soul-shattering significance. The discovery that gratification could be delayed was simultaneously the discovery of time and, with it, causality. Long ago, in the dim mists of time, we began to realize that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with. We learned that behaving properly now, in the present—regulating our impulses, considering the plight of others—could bring rewards in the future, in a time and place that did not yet exist. We began to inhibit, control and organize our immediate impulses, so that we could stop interfering with other people and our future selves. Doing so was indistinguishable from organizing society: the discovery of the causal relationship between our efforts today and the quality of tomorrow motivated the social contract—the organization that enables today’s work to be stored, reliably, mostly in the form of promises from others.
Understanding is often acted out before it can be articulated, just as a child act out what it means to be ‘mother’ or ‘father’ before being able to give a spoken account of what those roles means. The act of making a ritual sacrifice to God was an early and sophisticated enactment of the idea of the usefulness of delay. There’s a long conceptual journey between merely feasting hungrily and learning to set aside some extra meat, smoked by the fire, for the end of the day, or for someone who isn’t present. It takes a long time to learn to keep anything later for yourself, or to share it with someone else. And those are very much the same thing as, in the former case, you’re sharing with your future self. It’s much easier and far more likely to selfishly and immediately wolf down everything in sight. There are similar long journeys between every leap in sophisticated with regard to delay and its conceptualization: short-term sharing, storing away for the future, representation of that storage in the form of records and, later, in the form of currency—and, ultimately, the saving of money in a bank or other social institution. Some conceptualizations had to serve as intermediaries, or the full range of our practices and ideas surrounding sacrifice and work and their representation could have never emerged.
Our ancestors acted out a drama, a fiction: they personified the force that governed fate as a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another human being. And the amazing thing is that it worked. This was in part because the future is largely composed of other human beings—often precisely those who watched and evaluated and appraised the tiniest details of your past behaviour. It’s not very far from that to God, sitting above on high, tracking your every move and writing it down for further reference in a big book. Here’s a productive symbolic idea: the future is a judgemental father. That’s a good start. But two additional, archetypal, foundational questions arose, because of the discovery of sacrifice, of work. Both have to do with the ultimate extension of the logic of work—which is ‘sacrifice now, to gain later.’
First question. What must be sacrificed? Small sacrifices may be sufficient to solve small, singular problems. But it’s possible that larger, more comprehensive sacrifice might solve an array of large and complex pro