I find it difficult, if not impossible, to get inside the head of Abraham on his journey to Mount Moriah. I have never had the experience of being called to slay my son for the glory of God. The closest thing to it in my own experience pales into insignificance by comparison. It occurred not with my son, but with my dog.
When I began Ligonier Ministries in 1971 I was given a special gift of two German shepherd puppies by the benefactress of our work. Mrs. Dora Hillman gave our family two puppies that had been born on Palm Sunday. She named them Hallelujah and Hosannah. Hallie was the female, and Hosie the male. They were bred of champion stock; the sire of the litter was the Canadian Grand Victor, and the brood bitch was the champion of the noted Mellon family of Pittsburgh. Hosie was an especially magnificent animal, a classic sable German shepherd.
When Hosie was two months old he came into the kitchen through the doggie door one morning with his head swollen to almost twice its normal size. He was staggering and obviously disoriented. I quickly assumed that somehow he had encountered a bees’ nest and had suffered multiple stings to his head. I rushed him to the veterinarian’s office for treatment. When the vet examined him he discovered three deep fang wounds to his head that had obviously been made by a poisonous snake, either a copperhead or a rattlesnake. The snake had injected enough venom to be fatal to the young dog. The vet declared that it was the worst case of snakebite he had ever seen in an animal, and he gave me a grim prognosis. He explained that the ability for poisonous snakes to kill was vastly overrated and that the potency of their strikes depended upon several factors including the physical size of the animal stricken, the area of the body where the venom was injected, and the amount of venom the snake injected. On all these counts the puppy was in serious danger. The vet went on to explain that Hosie would have to go through some serious crisis stages in order to survive.
The first crisis was to survive the initial shock and the impact of the venom itself. The second was the crisis provoked by the severe swelling. He said that when animals’ eyes are swollen shut and they are reduced to temporary blindness, they simply seem to lose their will to live. He explained secondary reactions that also could prove fatal.
He administered antivenom shots and other medications and told me the next forty-eight hours would be critical. Two days later the vet phoned to inform me that Hosie had survived the initial crisis stage but that he would have to remain in the vet hospital for two weeks. After that period elapsed the vet called again to report that Hosie was sufficiently recovered to come home. I was enormously relieved by the news.
The vet then issued one caveat. He told me that a secondary reaction to such episodes of poisoning was necrosis of the skin tissue affected by the bite. He explained that the poison had killed this tissue, causing it to rot and literally fall from the dog’s face. He said I must be prepared for a ghastly sight because the dog’s face was horribly and permanently disfigured.
All of the warnings uttered by the vet did not adequately prepare me for the sight of my dog. When I arrived at the hospital to recover Hosie, I found a dog whose facial tissue had rotted to such a degree that the skin covering his face had fallen off. I looked at naked sinew and tissue that reeked of the foul odor of rotting flesh. I scooped up the dog in my arms and placed him on the seat of my car to take him home. The vet handed me a large jar filled with a special ointment that I was required to apply to Hosie’s face twice a day for weeks to come to facilitate the healing of the skin tissue. He also gave me a pair of surgical gloves to wear while applying the ointment.
When I arrived home with the dog I prepared a special bed for him in the garage. The odor from the putrefied flesh was too intense to bring Hosie into the house. Then I set upon the task of applying the first round of ointment to his face. It was an unforgettable experience as I felt a deep revulsion within myself at even coming near the animal, let alone touching his face that was oozing with all sorts of ghastly stuff. It was as if the dog could sense my apprehension or revulsion as he seemed to cower before me in canine embarrassment. This was no longer a proud young German shepherd of champion stock and extraordinary beauty. He was a pitiable specimen to behold, and I wondered if it wouldn’t have been better for all concerned, especially Hosie, if he would have died from the initial impact of the poison.
I realize that it may seem a bit maudlin to explain the visceral feelings that transpired as I knelt beside Hosie for the first application of the ointment, but those feelings were quite vivid at the time. I put on the surgical gloves, held my breath against the stench, and forced myself to touch the hideous face in front of me. As I did, some undeniable communication took place between man and animal. It was a moment of pathos and tenderness. It was as if the dog understood my difficulty in giving him this care. I could see it in his eyes. If dogs have souls then Hosie’s eyes were the windows to his heart. A vital bonding of love took place when I touched his skin with glove-covered hands. It was obvious and instantaneous that the ointment was soothing to him. The bonding of that moment was such that it was the last time I ever wore gloves to apply the ointment. Thereafter I applied the ointment to his face twice a day with my bare hands with absolutely no sense of revulsion.
As the days and weeks passed, Hosie was restored to health and returned to life inside the house. His face become covered over again, not with normal skin, but with hard, leathery scar tissue. With the development of the scar tissue his face looked like it was frozen into what most people described as a snarl but I preferred to consider a smile.
Hosie grew to full strength. As an adult he weighed close to one hundred pounds and had a barrel chest and an unusually docile disposition. He became my inseparable companion. When I lectured he would sleep next to the podium. Along with his mate Hallie, he produced fine litters of puppies, some of which were trained for service in the canine corps of the state police.
Hosie loved to go hunting with me in the forests of the Allegheny Mountains as we sought out ruffed grouse. On one occasion when I was hunting alone with Hosie I came to a barbed wire fence that blocked my path. According to hunter safety I carefully slid my rifle under the fence before I tried to cross it myself. As I started to climb over the fence my wool coat got caught in the barbs. I struggled to free myself, making the wire taut, which then flipped me head over heels over the fence. I landed hard on a rock pile, my back striking a sharp rock, leaving me stunned and temporarily paralyzed. I was immobile upon the rocks. Hosie instantly sensed my predicament, and in Lassie-like heroics he snuggled his snoot under my arms so I could grasp his strong neck. I held onto him as he dragged me from the rock pile. Moments later feeling returned to my torso, and I was able to stand and walk home safely.
Two years later Hosie went into a sudden convulsion in our kitchen. I took him to the vet, who administered medication, but the medication failed to provide sustained relief. Within weeks Hosie was having five to eight convulsions per day. The vet opined that the seizures were a result of the residual damage to the dog’s brain from the original snakebite; he recommended that Hosie be “put to sleep.”
I brought Hosie home and contemplated the vet’s advice. The procedure to end his life medically was expensive. I said to my wife, “Perhaps I should just take Hosie out in the woods as if we were going hunting. When he isn’t looking I can mercifully and inexpensively end his life with one shot from my rifle.” But even as I said it, I knew I could not do it. As I thought of training the sights of my rifle upon Hosie I knew there was no earthly way I could ever pull the trigger. I had to admit to my wife there was no way I could even drive the dog to the vet for execution. I asked her to find a student to take Hosie to the vet when I didn’t know it was being done.
Two days later I came home from a lecture, and my wife told me gently, “It’s over. Hosie’s gone.” I wept.
This episode in my life was about a dog. It was not an experience I had with my son. I could not even bring myself to kill a dog who was hopelessly ill. How radically different this was from Abraham’s situation, yet my experience gave me a much greater appreciation of what Abraham was facing. God did not ask Abraham to kill his dog; God required that he kill his son, his only son, the son whom he loved.