Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bathing in babies' blood

Just before Moses returned to Egypt on the mission God gave him from the Burning Bush, the Egyptian treatment of the Israelites reached a new low. According to rabbinic legend, the aging Pharaoh came down with leprosy, which made the approach of death not merely frightening but also painful and revolting. His court magicians and physicians advised him that the only cure for this leprosy and aging was to bathe in the blood of babies.

Since the Pharaoh did not want to slaughter his own subjects if he could avoid it, he reached for the easiest alternative: the babies of the Israelite slaves. A baby was slaughtered each day to provide the fresh young blood that would supposedly fend off the flesh-devouring disease and renew his failing youth. This was part of the heavy burden under which the Israelites were groaning when Moses returned in Exodus 4.

This sounds so abhorrent that many moderns refuse to believe it happened, thinking that it must have been imagined in later years by vindictive Israelites in order to demonize the hated Pharaoh. But history shows that these practices were not only known to many cultures, but could be expected from the sort of "balance magic" that was common in those times. The cure for the creeping death of old age was the life and vigor to be found in the blood of the very young.

It is even easier to understand if we recognize that without assurance of redemption, the dread of aging and death is still so strong even today that it will drive people to do exactly what Pharaoh did: sacrifice the innocent and helpless young in hopes of staving off the onset of death. Because isn't this exactly the nature of embryonic stem cell research? Oh, certainly the practicioners have changed. It is no longer the junior priest holding the struggling victim over the silver basin while preparing the killing stroke - now it's the lab technician in the white coat with the pipette. The paradigm has changed as well: we're no longer trying to finesse the cosmic balance, we're trying to coax proteins and enzymes to do what we want them to.

But regardless of particulars, the essentials remain: we're destroying the very young in hopes of gaining an elixr or tonic to stave off old age and death. We may think ourselves less barbaric because the process doesn't require slicing the throats of infants, but the effect is the same. Whether we go for their blood or their genes, the victims are still destroyed - and for the same reason. We attempt to excuse our behaviour by contending that that small cluster of cells isn't "really human" - after all, it has no features, and you need a microscope to see it! But the same excuse was used regarding the Israelite babies - it's not like they were human, they were just whelps of slaves.

And so things will always end when the Divine law is ignored. Those with power will find the will to use it in an attempt to stave off that which they fear, even to the point of murder. They'll assuage their conscience by dressing up their brutality with noble-sounding motives. ("I am the stability of Egypt!" "Create hope for those with illnesses by allowing study of possible cures!"), but it's always the same old thing: the weaker suffer when the strong are faced with something beyond their strength.

So it is that we, in our day and age, find ourselves on the exact same moral plane as Pharaoh, and for much the same reason. I find it no coincidence that this is happening just as my generation - the Baby Boomers - are approaching later middle age, and having to come to grips with their own mortality. We who tried to imagine "no hell below us; above us, only sky" are reading obituaries of friends, and people younger than we. That which we have been running from and denying all our lives is catching up to us. Like Pharaoh, we frantically scramble for the wizards, praying that they will have a cure, willing to submit to it no matter how morally abhorrent. Were we wiser, we would learn from what happened to Pharaoh and his entire nation.

Not that I expect wisdom from those driven by panic.

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