The story of the ‘almost’ sacrifice of Isaac has, over the centuries, remained both one of the most evocative and also highly contested tales in the Bible. How could God ask Abraham to kill his son? It appears to teach that we should do as God says, without questioning the ethics of the demand, and in the end, God will prove himself just. Is it really right that we do not question the ethics of God's apparent commands? - an argument that could be used to justify all manner of atrocities from the Crusades to 9/11. Here, though, I suggest an alternative, probably thought of by many others before me.
It strikes me that the story probably arose at a time when child sacrifice was common. It was inevitable that any conscientious person, who wanted to appease their deity, would assume that this is the thing to do. Abraham, brought up in such a world, was no different. He would have accepted the received wisdom that God wanted him to sacrifice his son - he even ‘heard’ God command it. However his instinct for justice and his love for his son meant that it did not sit easily with him, to say the least. As he heard the sound of a ram in the thicket he had something of an epiphany. “Maybe God wanted him to sacrifice a ram instead.” The tale, I suggest, became important for later Judaism in defining the distinctiveness of their religion. It explained why they sacrificed animals, while the religions around sacrificed children. Thus, when Jews told the story of the origin of their faith, they told it as a story about the rejection of the inhumanity of child sacrifice.
Rather than reading it as a story that encourages blind, unquestioning obedience, I suggest it should be read as a tale about the ways in which we can all hide behind God’s ‘command’ and thereby do evil in God’s name. It is also, though, a story about the rescue of a loving, caring father from the brink of a murderous act in the name of God. It is about the possibility of rescue for all of us from harmful belief systems. To quote one of my favourite poems,
“ the awareness of things ill done
and done to others’ harm
which once you took for exercise of virtue”
It is about the human capacity to mishear (sometimes genuinely) and find ourselves, in the process, culpable of dehumanising. It is about the human discovery that God always works to make us more human and that any conception of God that dehumanises is to mishear or misunderstand.
I’m hoping to read “Fear & Trembling” by Kierkegaard over the holiday, which I think picks up the image of the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac. Hopefully I’ll learn more after reading it.