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The Difference Between Prophet and Madman

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He has heard the voice that commanded it. An unspeakable act must be committed in a holy place.

A father must sacrifice his son.

This brief description could be a summary of Joseph Ramirez and his recent attempt to sacrifice his 8-year-old son in San Diego. It could also describe the situation of the prophet Abraham to carry out God's commandment to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Then again, there is one instance in the New Testament when a father's plan to sacrifice his child actually succeeds.

As news first reached me of Joseph Ramirez's tragic attempt to kill his son, I was instantly reminded of Abraham and Isaac. There is very little difference between the two instances other than the outcome in which Isaac was ultimately spared. No one in the time of Abraham heard God's commandment to him. It was made in private (Genesis 22:2). If you or I were alive at the time, we would lack any reason to believe Abraham to be anything other than insane. Similarly with Ramirez: according to him, his grandmother spoke to him and commanded the sacrifice of his son. He told horrified witnesses, "We're going to see Jesus. We're going to see Jesus." In both stories, the child lives and must endure a lifetime of questions and guilt as well as the notion that they were betrayed by someone to whom they should always feel trust and comfort: their father.

I previously mentioned the only biblical instance in which a father actually succeeds in sacrificing his son. Jesus of Nazareth was the only child between God and Mary (John 3:16) -- as Isaac was to Abraham and Sarah. It is believed that he was sent to earth with the sole purpose of being the "Lamb of God" (John 1:29) to atone for all human sin. But the comparison between Isaac, Jesu, and the young Master Ramirez is complicated because, according to Christians, Jesus is not only the son of God, but God himself (John 1:10). The father is killing the son and part of himself at the same time. Objectively speaking, this sacrifice illustrates a simultaneous murder-suicide, similar to what Mr. Ramirez attempted with his own son. Like Abraham's experience, there is no instance in which a witness hears the voice of God speaking to Jesus. It was always in private or through the Holy Spirit. Again, objectively looking at this scenario, no person can attest to the instructions actually received or imagined by the three fathers. Can we accurately determine who is a prophet and who is a madman? By what criteria can we make such a determination at the time of their actions? Imagine how different the world would be if Isaac were actually murdered! Scratch Judaism, Christianity and Islam out of world history.

Through all of this discussion we must focus on the most important element which is the well-being of the child. Jesus fulfilled his mission and died (Mark 15:37), so we shall not be concerned with any lingering effects on his psyche. Furthermore, although intentionally killed by his father, he was an adult at the time of his death and accounts of his childhood are mostly absent from the New Testament. Ramirez, however, has thankfully survived his father's attack (thanks to witnesses Jaymisha Pires and Corey Granberry), as did Isaac. Both Ramirez and Isaac must endure the constant knowledge that they were nearly slain by their own father. Parents are intended to be an infinite source of love, compassion and trust for their children. It is probably impossible for a child to truly trust a father that was intending to kill them, knowing a holy trump card looms with the Bill Cosby phrase, "I brought you in this world; I'll take you out."

As the world watches a man attempt to sacrifice his son in response to quiet voice in his head, it should give us pause for other such moments in history carried out by men we now deem holy. I'm not in any way implying Ramirez should have been allowed to continue! But wonder why fathers of the past are now glorified for their actions. Noah began building an ark before a cloud appeared in the sky. To know he was right required the greatest natural disaster in all biblical lore. Were a man to begin building a giant boat today, we may label him "eccentric" or "one of the guys who founded Google." Deciphering the insanity from the divine is, without question, a matter of historical judgment.