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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac and Religious Terrorism

In Genesis 22 the following story regarding God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is found:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about." Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you." Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?" "Yes, my son?" Abraham replied. "The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son" (vv. 1-12, NIV).

Three things stand out to me from this account.

1. Abraham did not act surprised that God commanded him to perform a human sacrifice.

I think this is because human sacrifices were common in the culture in which Abraham lived and since others had shown their devotion to their god via human sacrifices, it was not thought odd by Abraham that he would be asked to do the same thing.

Some defenders of the Canaanite genocide have claimed that one of the reasons why God was just in commanding the extermination of the Canaanites after the Exodus was because of their despicable practice of child sacrifice. Yet if you read the passages carefully, it seems that Yahweh's problem with it had to do with the fact that the sacrifices were made to a false god. There is no record that Yahweh said human sacrifice per se was wrong. As David Dilling points out, if one claims that human sacrifice per se is wrong, then the death of Jesus was wrong. He writes: This view, carried to its logical conclusion, would eliminate the necessity of the sacrificial death of Christ. This in turn eliminates the atonement and thereby abnegates the whole Christian gospel.("The Atonement and Human Sacrifice," Grace Theological Journal 12.2 [Spring, 1971]: 27).

2. Abraham is praised for his willingness to obey the command to perform human sacrifice.

In vv. 15-18 of Genesis 22 is found:
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."

3. If Abraham's faith and obedience is praiseworthy, then so is the religious faith and sacrifice that religious terrorists demonstrate.

Stewart Shapiro writes:
Lots of people did what Abraham was prepared to do--sacrifice a close relative in obedience to a higher power. We are told, more than once, that Abraham loved Isaac. I presume that at least some pagans loved their children too. It is only natural to love one's offspring. The only difference between the pagan who sacrificed a child, and Abraham who tried and was stopped, is that the latter was (supposedly) following the true religion. But does one get special credit, and praise, just for being right? If it is indeed praiseworthy to (be prepared to) kill one's child in obedience to a deity, then Abraham and his pagan counterparts are on a par. If the pagan's child sacrifice was too immoral to deserve praise, then so was Abraham's ("Faith and Reason, the Perpetual War," in Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, ed. Louise Antony, pp. 11-12).

Actually, the pagan's faith and devotion are even more praiseworthy because Abraham may have expected God to intervene miraculously and either prevent him from completing the sacrifice (which is what happened) or raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:17-19). Thus, it really wasn't a sacrifice at all for Abraham, whereas, for the pagan it was a costly sacrifice.

Shapiro continues:
Nowadays, we read almost daily of people who kill innocent human beings claiming that they are doing what God wants. We call them terrorists, or would-be terrrorists if (like Abraham) they are stopped at the last minute. Whatever else we may think of such people, I presume that we do not doubt the sincerity of their beliefs. They must be sincere, many of them deliberately kill themselves in the process. It is the beliefs themselves that are sick, demented, irrational. No God would want this, we tell ourselves. The philosopher in me still asks the quesstion. What's the difference between the near sacrifice of Isaac and contemporary religious terrorism? (p. 12)

To answer Shapiro's question, there really is no difference. Abraham thought that God told him to sacrifice Isaac. Religious terrorists believe that their God has told them to kill, and, in some cases, even to sacrifice themselves in the process. Christians would say that these people are deceived and perhaps even under the influence of Satan. Yet, they cannot in principle deny the possibility of God telling someone to kill an innocent person if they believe the account in Genesis 22.

17 comments:

  1. Ken

    Thanks for this... I can partly see what you are getting at. However it would be simplistic to see religious sacrifice and terrorism as one in the same thing. Indeed, to be tediously pedantic, it is necessary to deconstruct what we mean by terrorism, the term itself is problematic. A useful illustration can be found in a little detour into recent history. In 1979 an ailing communist government in Afghanistan was propped up by the invasion of Soviet military might. The US, Britain et el decried this invasion of Afghanistan; however no direct confrontation took place instead there was covert opposition.

    The Islamic world was reeling in 1979 after the siege in Mecca and the Iranian Revolution. Many leaders of Muslim countries feared the activities of Islamic groups within their borders and wondered if they would be unseated from power by the use of religious ideology. So it became useful for countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt to occupy their Islamic militants in some ‘pious’ war – Afghanistan seem fit for such a purpose. This also suited the US and the Brits. Soon Western nations were also using their internal security forces to point their own Islamic militants in the direction of Afghanistan and to fund and train the Mujahideen. The latter were seen as freedom fighters, but their tactics were often the same as what we would call terrorists. The Soviet government collapsed in 1990 and Afghanistan was left high and dry. There was a power vacuum that was filled by the Islamic ‘freedom’ fighters, once supported by the West. The rest, as we know, is a history we know all too well.

    So what? Well, it is evident that terrorism and religion make good bedfellows because religion is able to provide a symbolic universe that can accommodate contemporary ideas and situations. The following is from a piece of my own writing on the Islamic ideologue, Sayyid Qutb:

    “Qutb developed this notion of jihad as a manifestation in time and space of the symbolic war between jahiliyya and Islam, truth and falsehood, the latter being evident by what he believed to be the satanic agents within the Egyptian government of Qutb’s day. Again this involved the use of Qutb’s intellectual abilities, in that he interpreted Qur’anic texts and the writings of later Islamic scholars, particularly those of Ibn al-Qayyim (1292-1350) in a manner that advocated militant jihad. In Milestones he discusses the concept and interpretation of jihad at length. Qutb asserts the concept of jihad had been distorted by Muslims who did not understand its meaning, confining it to defensive warfare only. Whereas Qutb interprets the word as the overcoming of jahiliyya, by which he means the reordering of society by the use of ‘fighting’ if necessary (jihad bis saif – striving through fighting). Qutb stated that the Qur’an itself advocates aggressive or pro-active jihad; Mohammad took flight from Mecca to Medina, however once in Medina he was allowed to defend himself and ‘later he was commanded to fight the polytheists [jahiliyya] until God’s religion was fully established.’ Qutb suggested modern day polytheism is not necessarily the religion of worshiping idols, as was the case in pre-Islamic Arabia, but means anyone ‘who submits to multiple sources of authority’, that is not the authority of the Qur’an and sharia; hence a secular state.”

    Hence is certain that before religion can be used by terrorists there has to be a degree of rationalisation of texts. But we see this with Christian texts too – for centuries and until the present day Christians have spilled blood in the name of their God – the Crusades are an obvious example, but even in the latest Iraq war there were tinges of religious ideology from Bush and Blair.

    My 1st and 2nd PhD supervisors have jointly edited a book you might find interesting on the subject: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dying-Faith-Religiously-Motivated-Contemporary/dp/1845116879/ref=sr_1_10?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1280833523&sr=1-10

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  2. Problem with Religion,

    Thanks for the link to the book, it looks very interesting. Yes, you are right that sacrifice to a god and religious terrorism is not exactly parallel in all cases. The precise parallel is the concept of a person killing another person in obedience to what one perceives to be a divine command. This is what some religious terrorists do and this is what Abraham was prepared to do. My point is that if one is praiseworthy, then the other is praiseworthy.

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  3. Ken

    Thanks - yes I can see what you mean... This concept does translate rather well to both religious and non-religious aspects of life.

    Indeed, I think this is demonstrated in part by Qutb's theological efforts; and it must be remembered – tho’ often isn’t – that for the first half of this man’s life he was pro-Western, it was only after his experiences as a master’s student at North Carolina University (in the late 40s/early 50s, a time when the US recognised the State of Israel and there was a good deal of anti-Arab propaganda in the American media and blatant materialism), the secular/socialist agenda of the then Egyptian state and its brutal suppression of the Islamic Brotherhood that changed his thinking.

    This is what I meant by ‘rationalisation’ (very Weberian I know, but it fits!). Scripture (because by its nature it is ambiguous) can justify one thing and its opposite. The problem people do not want to believe this. They marshal themselves along partisan (tribal?) lines.

    Regards:

    Steven

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  4. Actually, the given text doesn't offer Abraham's reaction to the order given by god. He could have been absolutely giddy or he could have been horrified. It seems to be left for the reader to decide. One things for sure, he was ultimately obedient to the command given by god.

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  5. Jon Levenson in his book "The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son" argues that the story was edited by later authors who had concluded child sacrifice was wrong. Originally Abraham probably did sacrifice his son and the story was changed. Notice how that when Abraham was finished it says he left and took his servants to Beersheba. Isaac was not mentioned as leaving with him.

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  6. That is interesting. I have not read Levenson but there is a section by him in the book I am reading: Understanding religious sacrifice: a reader by Jeffrey Carter. It would seem to agree with Heb. 11:17 which states that Abraham did sacrifice Isaac.

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  7. Ken,

    Hebrews 11 doesn't say that Abraham sacrificed Isaac. Has the text been changed from the original in modern translations? If not, what leads you to believe this about Hebrews 11?

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  8. John,

    I am not saying that the author of Hebrews states that Abraham literally killed Isaac but that since he was willing to do so and was about to do so, it was as if he actually did. The NIV translates the first part of the verse: By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice . The Greek word, προσφέρω (prospherō) means "to offer as a sacrifice." It is because of language like this that one can understand how the thought developed that Abraham really did sacrifice Isaac.

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  9. Dear Ken,

    What I find troubling about this post is that it misses the theological point that the author is trying to convey, i.e. God is not like the other God's he will provide the sacrifice for us so that human sacrifice while demanded will not take place. Therefore God is good and gracious.

    A discussion of the non-consequential aspects of the story is professionally negligent.

    Phil.

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  10. Rev. Brown,

    I think the main point of the "test" is made clear. It is to see if Abraham will obey God and sacrifice his only son, his most valuable possession and the only means through which the promise made to him in Gen. 12 could be fulfilled, vv. 15-18 make that clear. My point also was that Yahweh had no issue with a human sacrifice per se as is obvious from the fact that he sacrificed his only Son in order to atone for man's sins.

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  11. After 9/11 I developed a personal rule that said there are no gods that kill people or who order people to kill others. Otherwise, how can we condemn Osama bin Laden? He just did what the bible says YHWH told the israelites to do, what god will do to much of the population in the glorious future.

    It's really hard to retain faith with this rule, because there is so much justifiable violence and killing in the bible. Jesus is the exception, but it emphasizes how different he is and how difficult it is to blend him into the rest of the bible.

    pf

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  12. This is all a but academic as there is no proof that Abraham or Isaac actually existed! There is no archaelogical or historical evidence of any of these fictional characters existing before David and even his existance is a bit iffy.
    Its just a good fairy story!

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  13. Clare,

    I agree that this story is not historical; however, it is presented as historical and is considered historical by the later writers of Scripture. Even if it is acknowledged as a myth or legend, it is still supposed to teach some moral lesson.

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  14. The story of Abraham and Isaac should include a warning for the general public, don’t try this at home.

    The stories in the Torah were never meant for the non-Jewish public to read. Without a solid foundation in Torah study one cannot begin to understand the story of Abraham and Isaac nor its place in Jewish history.

    The story is not about child sacrifice, nor a foreshadowing of the life and death of Jesus. It is not a dual prophecy. It is about one very holy man’s test. A test specifically for Abraham to bring him to a higher level and to find out what he still needs to learn. According to Jewish wisdom, Isaac was in his late 30’s when this test took place. Isaac was a willing participant. The request by the Almighty was only to, “Bring him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will designate to you.” The test does not read, “Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

    In fact, ancient Jewish wisdom says that Abraham was criticized for thinking that the Almighty was asking him to kill his son.

    The alter on Mount Moriah, which is in Jerusalem, is the exact spot where the temple would be built hundreds of years later. Abraham named the place “God Will See”(Ge 22:14). In Hebrew the words “Will See” are pronounced Yir’eh. Originally the place was named Shalem (in English, Salem) which means perfect or whole, by Shem who was the righteous gentile king of Salem. (Genesis 14:18). Later the name was changed to Yerushalayim or Jerusalem honoring both Shem and Abraham.

    There are some interesting questions that should be noticed. Why does Abraham get up early and saddle a donkey that no one rides? Why does it take three days to walk from Hebron to Mount Moriah, Jerusalem, which is only an 8 hour walk?

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  15. "Christians would say that these people are deceived and perhaps even under the influence of Satan. Yet, they cannot in principle deny the possibility of God telling someone to kill an innocent person if they believe the account in Genesis 2".


    Yes I can got to a real seminary. study real theology dont be afundy educate yourselves.

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  16. I think the main point of the "test" is made clear. It is to see if Abraham will obey God and sacrifice his only son, his most valuable possession and the only means through which the promise made to him in Gen. 12 could be fulfilled, vv. 15-18 make that clear. My point also was that Yahweh had no issue with a human sacrifice per se as is obvious from the fact that he sacrificed his only Son in order to atone for man's sins.

    Then why didn't he go ahead and make him do it?

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  17. I think the main point of the "test" is made clear. It is to see if Abraham will obey God and sacrifice his only son, his most valuable possession and the only means through which the promise made to him in Gen. 12 could be fulfilled, vv. 15-18 make that clear. My point also was that Yahweh had no issue with a human sacrifice per se as is obvious from the fact that he sacrificed his only Son in order to atone for man's sins.

    Then why didn't he go ahead and make him do it?

    ReplyDelete