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From Abraham and Isaac to Golgotha

Excerpt from We First Met in Ithaca, or Was It Eden?

By Richard SeltzerPublished about a year ago 8 min read
We First Met in Ithaca, or Was It Eden? at Amazon

Isaac and Abraham

Oz and Elle found themselves in another desert, near another mountain.

“Where the hell are we?” asked Oz.

“I have no idea. This is your story.”

“My story? I’m not telling it. I’m not creating it. I’m in this scene, and you are, too. We feel the same damned heat. We’re swatting at the same damned flies. We’re looking at the same damned wasteland, with mountains beyond. Is this Arizona? Are those the Rockies?”

“Wherever we are, at least we’re not alone.”

“What?”

“Do you see those two figures approaching the base of that mountain about a quarter mile from here? Let’s hurry and catch up with them,” said Elle.

“Hurry in this heat?”

“Think! We don’t know where we are, or how we got here, or how to escape. We have no water or food. If we don’t find somebody who can help us, we’ll die out here. Stop talking. Start running.”

Elle jogged, and Oz followed, evading bushes and boulders, toward and then along a trail that led to the nearest mountain.

Oz stopped to catch his breath, then ran to catch up with her, then stopped again and ran again.

The two figures in the distance were moving slowly, deliberately. An old man and a teenage boy. They were in no hurry. The old man, who was leading, stopped after every few steps and looked back at the boy, then looked up at the mountain ahead, as if hoping to see something or someone. The boy had a bundle of wood strapped on his back. A smoking pot, probably with smoldering coals, dangled from his right hand. The old man held the boy’s left hand tightly, pulling him along. And in his right hand he clutched a hatchet.

When they were within earshot, Oz and Elle shouted repeatedly, but the travelers showed no sign of hearing them or seeing them

As Oz and Elle got closer, they could see that the old man was in agony and that the boy was staring at him, terrified at what he might do. They were on a goat path that wound round and up the mountain. The pace of the travelers was glacially slow.

The boy pulled on the old man’s hand, forcing him to turn, so he could look him in the eyes, but the man looked at the ground instead, then up ahead toward the next bend, then up to the clear blue sky. Then he took another halting step forward, and another.

Oz and Elle caught up with them, but still the travelers took no notice of them.

Elle reached out to touch the boy’s shoulder, but her hand passed through his body, as if he or she were ghostlike, insubstantial.

“Oh no!” she exclaimed. “That’s Isaac and Abraham.”

“Stop!” Oz shouted at her. “I’m exhausted. I need to rest. And it’s futile to chase that pair. They aren’t real, or we aren’t real. There’s no way they’ll see us or hear us, no way that we can help them or they can help us. I have no idea why we’re here, what purpose we could serve.”

Oz sat on a rock and Elle dropped to the ground near him.

“That poor boy,” Elle lamented. “Before this, Isaac must have felt ambivalent about his father. It’s not easy being the child of aging parents. I imagine they had great expectations of him, and worried over him, controlling his every move, intending to protect him. They couldn’t let him learn by his mistakes, as they had learned. That would be too risky. And their understanding of his thoughts and moods and needs was limited. They had forgotten what it was like to be young. They were like grandparents to him, no, like great-grandparents. And the world had changed since they were young. They were out of touch not only with their son but also with the world they inhabited. They were raising him to be obedient, to be like them. They saw him as themselves reborn, only better than they ever were or ever could be.

“Now he knows his father has gone crazy,” Elle continued. “His father intends to kill him as a sacrifice to God. Not that his father has said that. No, the old man has said very little out loud, but his determined, agonized look and his reluctant halting pace, and his tight grip on his son’s hand and on the hatchet — those are all clues. The sweat pouring down the old man’s face isn’t just from the heat. It’s from his madness, his brain fever.”

Oz added, “And the son is torn as well. He loves his father, even though wanting and needing to break free of him and become his own person. Isaac understands that his father’s strict control is an expression of his love. He is the son his father always wanted. When pushed, his father would drop all rules, would do anything for him, would even without hesitation sacrifice his own life for his son’s. But now this. Unimaginable. The pain his father must be going through! Isaac wants to break free, to fight in self-defense, but at the same time he has the urge to kill himself, to end the agony of anticipation for both of them and to protect his father from the guilt of having killed him.”

“We have to intervene,” declared Elle. “That’s why we’re here. We know how this story ends. God will relent. This is a test. God never expected a real sacrifice. She just wanted proof that Abraham was willing to do whatever She commanded. But the pain of anticipation is unbearable for both Isaac and Abraham. Their willingness to do what God has demanded is wrenching the two of them apart. Stopping Abraham at the last moment wouldn’t change that. How could Isaac ever trust and revere his father as before? And how could Abraham ever look at Isaac without pangs of guilt for what he was willing to do?”

Panic flashed across Oz’s face. He gestured toward the travelers. Elle turned to look.

Abraham and Isaac were standing stock still staring at one another.

Oz whispered.

“Why are you whispering?” Elle asked out loud.

“They heard us.”

“What?”

“They understood us,” Oz continued.

Abraham nodded, and his eyes sparkled. Then he and Isaac laughed and hugged and started walking back down the mountain.

Bushes on both sides of the path burst into flame.

A loud voice boomed. “How dare you defy me? I planned to bless you and all your descendants, to make you a chosen people, as a reward for the love of Me you would show by your willingness to sacrifice your only begotten son.”

Abraham and Isaac laughed again and hugged again and ran down the mountain and across the wasteland, all the way home.

“That voice sounds familiar,” said Oz.

“What voice?”

“The God voice from the burning bushes.”

“You mean you’ve heard God before?”

“No. I mean that sounds like the guy from your Seven Sleepers story.”

“Iamblichus?”

“Yes. And his name echoes that phrase from Exodus — ‘I am that I am.’”

Chapter Thirty-Three — Golgotha

Elle and Oz suddenly found themselves immersed in physical reality. They were in a crowd, being pushed forward. They were jostled, shoved, squeezed. They couldn’t understand the words spoken by people around them. And when they spoke, the others stared back, puzzled.

Without any choice, they moved as the crowd moved, holding hands so as not to be separated. Everyone was heading toward a rocky hill in the shape of a skull.

They drew little attention. They were dressed as the others were — robe over tunic, sandals, with a turban that had been dipped in water to provide some relief from the heat. Now and then, in the distance, the sun reflected off the polished metal of what looked like military armor, probably Roman.

Crosses on the hilltop — three of them. The crowd dissolved as people found space to stand or sit. Elle and Oz advanced slowly and carefully so as not to step on or stumble over those who were picnicking and watching the spectacle. They sensed these others were here to witness the Crucifixion. They advanced to within ten yards of the central cross.

Each cross had a sign describing the offense for which the victim was being punished. The middle one read, “Hic est Iesus rex Iudaeorum.” Oz translated, “Here is Jesus, king of the Jews.”

“Now I understand,” said Elle.

“What?”

“Why we’re here. Why we had to see this.”

“Which is …?”

“Don’t you see? That’s Isaac. The boy we just saw with Abraham. That’s what he would look like at the age of thirty-three.”

“You’re right. That’s Isaac or someone very like him. ‘And God so loved the world that he sacrificed his only begotten son’. I never understood the point of that, how sin was connected with sacrifice, the point of the scape goat. I never understood how a father, any father, much less God, could sacrifice his son. Abraham wouldn’t do it, couldn’t do it, as we saw with our own eyes, in contradiction to the story told in The Bible. But God could and did, as we see now. Brutal. Pointless. Inhuman.”

“Divine,” answered Elle.

“Yes, devoid of human empathy or morality.”

Clouds blotted out the sun, and darkness fell — a moonless, starless night.

The man on the cross said, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.”

From Sunday school lessons long before, Elle knew the translation, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

And the Earth quaked, and rocks broke apart.

Elle and Oz were in total darkness now. The battery must have run down. Or else they were somewhere else and some other time. They were too exhausted and confused to go anywhere, to try to do anything. Elle rested her head on his shoulder and mused, “I never understood how Abraham could have been willing to kill Isaac or why a god would want him to do it or would want him to be willing to do it.”

Oz replied, “I can imagine a god who created the human race but doesn’t understand us at all.

This god doesn’t have a clue what it’s like to feel love or to know that you will die. So, She doesn’t understand why people make the decisions they do. When Eve said she wanted to have children, this god tried to talk her out of it, saying, ‘I imagine that you will love all your children, unconditionally. You will try to guide and advise them, but they will have free will. They will be flesh of your flesh. Regardless of what they do, even if one of them hurts or even kills the other, you will still love them. I know that rationally. I expect that of you. But no one is flesh of my flesh. And I am not mortal. I’ve never felt such emotions myself.’

“The birth and human life of Jesus was Her experiment, so She could experience parenthood and get insight into the mysteries of human nature. But it didn’t work. She couldn’t love the way a human loves. She let him die on the cross.”

We First Met in Ithaca or Was It Eden? at Amazon

Short Story

About the Creator

Richard Seltzer

Richard now writes fulltime. He used to publish public domain ebooks and worked for Digital Equipment as "Internet Evangelist." He graduated from Yale where he had creative writing courses with Robert Penn Warren and Joseph Heller.

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