XXXV. (191) Therefore putting a barrier on their unbridled and evil-speaking mouths, let them moderate that envy in themselves which hates everything that is good, and let them forbear to attack the virtues of men who have lived excellently, which they ought rather to reward and decorate with panegyric. And that this action of Abraham’s was in reality one deserving of praise and of all love, it is easy to see from many circumstances. (192) In the first place, then, he laboured above all men to obey God, which is thought an excellent thing, and an especial object for all men’s desire, by all right-minded persons, to such a degree, that he never omitted to perform anything which God commanded him, not even if it was full of arrogance and ingloriousness, or even of positive pain and misery; for which reason he also bore, in a most noble manner, and with the most unshaken fortitude, the command given to him respecting his son. (193) In the second place, though it was not the custom in the land in which he as living, as perhaps it is among some nations, to offer human sacrifices, and custom, by its frequency, often removes the horror felt at the first appearance of evils, he himself was about to be the first to set the example of a novel and most extraordinary deed, which I do not think that any human being would have brought himself to submit to, even if his soul had been made of iron or of adamant; for as some one has said, —
“Tis a hard task with nature to contend.”
(194) In the second place, after he had become the father of this his only legitimate son, he, from the moment of his birth, cherished towards him all the genuine feelings of affection, which exceeds all modest love, and all the ties of friendship which have ever been celebrated in the world. (195) There was added also, this most forcible charm of all, that he had become the father of this son not in the prime of his life, but in his old age. For parents become to a certain degree insane in their affection for their children of their old age, either from the circumstance of their having been wishing for their birth a long time, or else because they have no longer any hope that they shall have any more; nature having taken her stand there as at the extreme and furthest limit. (196) Now there is nothing unnatural or extraordinary in devoting one child to God out of a numerous family, as a sort of first fruits of all one’s children, while one still has pleasure in those who remain alive, who are no small comfort and alleviation of the grief felt for the one who is sacrificed. But the man who gives the only beloved son that he is possessed of performs an action beyond all powers of language to praise, as he is giving nothing to his own natural affection, but inclining with his whole will and heart to show his devotion to God. (197) Accordingly this is an extraordinary and almost unprecedented action which was done by Abraham. For other men, even if they have yielded up their children to be sacrificed on behalf of the safety of their native land or of their armies, have either remained at home themselves, or have kept at a distance from the altar of sacrifice; or at least, if they have been present they have averted their eyes, and left others to strike the blow which they have not endured to witness. (198) But this man, like a priest of sacrifice himself, did himself begin to perform the sacred rite, although he was a most affectionate father of a son who was in all respects most excellent. And, perhaps, according to the usual law and custom of burnt offerings he was intending to solemnise the rite by dividing his son limb by limb. And so he did not divide his feelings and allot one part of his regard to his son and another part to piety to God: but he devoted the whole soul, entire and undivided, to holiness; thinking but little of the kindred blood which flowed in the victim. (199) Now of all the circumstances which we have enumerated what is there which others have in common with Abraham? What is there which is not peculiar to him, and excellent beyond all power of language to praise? So that every one who is not struck by nature envious and a lover of evil must be struck with amazement and admiration for his excessive piety, even if he should not call at once to mind all the particulars on which I have been dwelling, but only some one of the whole number; for the conception of any one of these particulars is sufficient by a brief and faint outline to display the greatness and loftiness of the father’s soul; though there is nothing petty in the action of the wise man.