PETERSON: The Great Sacrifice: Abraham And Isaac


The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series exploring the psychological significance of the biblical stories in the book of Genesis. You can now listen to or watch the lecture series on DailyWire+.

“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 to you again. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it upon Isaac, his son; and he took the fire in his hand and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold, the fire in the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.”

When I was answering the questions last night at this Q and A, a guy asked me this question. He said that he had parents who were desperate, antisocial, alcoholic, addicted, friendless, and they didn’t want him to leave their home. He was the only relationship they had, and he asked what he should do. I told him that he should leave. The reason for that is that you have a moral obligation as a parent to encourage your child to go out into the world and to be whoever they can be — to be the best they can possibly be. In doing that, you’re encouraging them to pursue the good. You’re sacrificing them to the good; you’re not keeping them for yourself, selfishly. You’re telling them that they can go out and live their life and live it properly, and that’s the parallel to the idea of the sacrifice of Isaac as far as I can tell. You don’t want for your son what it is that you want for him. You want for your son what would be best for him and for the world. And you let go in precise proportion to your desire to have that happen.

The great psychoanalyst — I think this is actually Freud’s dictum, but I’m not certain of that — said the good mother fails, which is a brilliant observation because when you have an infant, you do everything for the infant because the infant can do nothing for him or herself. But as the infant matures and is increasingly capable of doing things for him or herself, then you pull back. You pull back, and every time the child develops the ability to do something, you allow them or encourage them to do it. And you don’t interfere. So if your child is struggling getting dressed, obviously there’s sometimes you help them, but mostly, you let them learn so that they can know how to do it in the future. That’s better for you, and it’s certainly better for them.

If you’re working with the elderly in an old age home, there’s a rule that’s something like, don’t do anything for any of the guests; they can do for themselves because you compromise their independence. So as a mother, you pull back and you pull back and you let your child hit him or herself against the world. And you fail to protect them. But by failing to protect them, you encourage and ennoble them to the point where you’re no longer necessary. Now they may still want to see you, and it would be wonderful if that was the case. But the point is, you’re supposed to remove yourself from the equation by encouraging your child to be the best possible person that person can be. And you sacrifice your desires, all of your desires, your personal desires, even your desires for your child in relationship to you because you want them to move forward into the world as a light — as a light on a hill. That’s what you want if you have any sense.

So you don’t get to keep your children at home because you need them. Now, I’m talking generally, obviously, and there are circumstances under which families make their own idiosyncratic decisions. I’m not trying to damn everyone with a casual gesture, but the point is still strong that the good father is precisely someone who is willing to sacrifice his child to the ultimate good. That’s dramatized in this story, and it’s brutal, but the world is a brutal place and much wisdom comes out of catastrophe. This is an indication of how much catastrophe our ancestors had to plow through in order to generate the substructure for the conceptions of freedom even that we have today — for freedom and the good — and that’s how the story appears to me. 

Watch this lecture in its entirety here.

Now, I think there’s more to it; I think there has to be more to it. It lays the groundwork, at least in the Christian context, for the eventual emergence of Christ as I alluded to in my reading. That story obviously has to be unpacked and unpacked and unpacked just like it has been for the last 2,000 years. It’s also an indication here of the transmutation of sacrifice into an increasingly psychological form, which is a development that we’ve tracked all the way through the Old Testament up to this particular point — first acted out, then represented in ritual (those would be the rituals of sacrifice), then laid out in story, then turned into a psychological phenomena so that now we’re capable of making sacrifices in abstraction to conceptualize a future that we want, to let go of the things that are stopping us from moving forward, and to free ourselves from the chains of our original preconceptions. That’s laid out in these old stories as the optimal pathway of being. 

There’s a philosopher of science named Karl Popper, a very sensible and down-to-earth person, who was talking about thinking and its nature. He thought about thinking in a Darwinian fashion. He said the purpose of thinking is to let your thoughts die instead of you. It’s a brilliant notion. So the idea is something like, you can conjure up a representation of yourself. You can conjure up a variety of potential representations of yourself in the future. You can lay out how those future representations of yourself are likely to prevail or fail. You can call the potential use in the future that will fail, and then you can embody the ones that will succeed. You do that while simultaneously conjuring up a representation of your current state and determining for yourself, because of your undue suffering, which elements of your pathetic being need to be given up so that you can move forward into the future — and the goal. 

What is it that you’re aiming at with that work and that sacrifice? That’s the ultimate question. It’s the question I was trying to address in that writing. What is it that you’re trying to do? Well, you’re trying to improve the future. We believe that the future can be improved. We believe that it can be improved as a consequence of our sacrificial work. So once again, what are the limitations? What are the limits to that? What are the necessary limits to that? I would say we don’t know. I would say as well, that that’s actually something that the entire corpus of Biblical stories is trying desperately to figure out and articulate. We conjured up this remarkable idea: the future exists. We can see it even though it’s only potential. We can adjust our behavior in the present in order to maximize our probability of success in the future. How best to do that? Well, the idea is something like, don’t hesitate to offer the ultimate sacrifice if you want the future to turn out ultimately well. Now, obviously, that idea is clothed in metaphysical speculation and religious imagery, but it still remains an intensely practical issue. What is it that you could contract for if you were willing to give up everything about you that’s weak and unworthy. 

There’s continual hints of that in the Old Testament because what happens with Noah is that he establishes the proper covenant with God, the proper contract with being, and thrives as a consequence, and then Abraham does the same thing. There’s a strong intimation that that’s how the world is set right. That idea develops and magnifies as the stories progress into something like the concept of heaven on earth — the notion being that the proper sacrificial attitude produces a psychological state and then a social state that’s a manifestation of that attitude that decreases the probability that the world will careen into hell and increases the probability that people will live high quality, meaningful, private lives in a society that’s balanced and capable of supporting that. None of that seems to me to be questionable. I also don’t think it’s anything that people don’t actually know.

People have told me many times that when they listen to me talk, they’re hearing things that they already knew, but didn’t know how to say. This is one of those things that I think is exactly like that. It’s at the very core of our moral knowledge, which is our behavioral knowledge and our perceptual knowledge. Let’s get this straight. Moral knowledge is no trivial matter. It’s knowledge about how it is that you orient yourself in the world. There’s no more profoundly necessary form of knowledge. It’s predicated on something that’s exactly like this. We know that we have to make sacrifices. We know that we have to aim at what’s good. So then why isn’t it that we don’t aim at what’s best and make the sacrifices that are necessary in order to bring that into play? I think it seems to me that in some sense that’s self-evident. 

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.

Juliette Fogra is a fine art painter and graphic designer and was trained as a classical musician. She was the illustrator of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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