Child Sacrifice For Fun And Profit
31 March, 2008
The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac is one which has resonated throughout the ages. Despite being only a few paragraphs in Genesis it has raised many questions about faith, obedience and moral behaviour. Starting with the text itself, the main body of it is from the E source, while the section describing the Angel of Yahweh is from a later redaction. This raises the question of whether in the original story Abraham actually carried out the sacrifice of his son. Certainly in the E stories no more mention is made of Isaac after this one, and the E text states that Abraham “did this thing” and “didn’t withhold” his son. Clues perhaps that he did stick the knife in after all. The later redactor makes it clear that child sacrifice is not something that their god requires. This could be a story (priestcraft) explaining why a long held practice should no longer be carried out. The priests did not want people to sacrifice their children and so stated that even should you want to, Yahweh will accept a sheep instead. It isn’t clear how widespread the practice of child sacrifice was in the ancient world, at the stage this story was redacted though, child sacrifice was not something that the Israelites supported. Their condemnation indicates that it was something that people were familiar with though.
Later scholars of the Talmud, including Josephus who wrote a history of the Jews in the first century CE, claimed that Isaac was a grown man in this story. There is no indication in the text itself of what age Isaac is meant to be, only that he is old enough to talk. If he was a grown man then in adds another dimension to the story, not only was Abraham being tested but Isaac was as well. Only as a child would Abraham be able to forcibly tie him to the altar, if he was an adult then he must have succumbed willingly. To me this is reaching a bit far with what we have. The only source for working out Isaac’s age is the next chapter where it talks of his mother’s age at the time of her death, but there is no indication that this happened immediately after Genesis 22. Since the narrative before Gen 22 has Isaac still as a child, he could be any age you want him to be.
The character of Abraham who by faith alone is willing to commit a monstrous act is seen in different lights by people looking at this story today. To many it is appalling, an example of “to make good people do evil it takes religion”. Indeed were we to picture anyone today doing as Abraham did we would probably try to lock them away for their own good. What good is faith if it leads to doing evil things? In the Epistle to the Hebrews (in the New Testament) it states “By faith, Abraham being tested, offered up Isaac … he reasoned that God was capable even of raising the dead”. The argument is that since Abraham has already been promised that his descendants will multiply, then God cannot possibly let his only child die. This ignores Ishmael, but even so, does this not then challenge the idea of faith alone? This is faith that God will *not* let his son die forever, rather than faith that he should do something which he cannot understand.
As an aside it brings into question the idea of what a sacrifice is for if it is temporary. If Abraham knew that his son would not really die, how much more would God/Jesus know that he would not die for any length of time either. Would Jesus need faith?
The philosopher Kierkegaard wrestled with this idea of faith and ascribes a higher level of faith to Abraham – that of trust based on the strength of the absurd. It is Abraham’s faith that God will not let Isaac die which prevents him from being a murderer. But who can imagine what Abraham was thinking as he proceeded to attempt to kill his own son. Did he truly believe that God would not let him, was this the faith he had? In Dan Simmon’s Hyperion books, one of the characters realises that it wasn’t Abraham who was being tested by God, but that God was being tested by Abraham. If God had allowed the sacrifice then he surely wouldn’t be a God worthy of worship.
To me the idea of using this story to teach about real world faith falls apart with the start where God tells Abraham what to do. In the stories it has been established that God and Abraham have had a lot of little chats, they’re on first name terms, so Abraham is sure of what God wants. Does anyone today believe that they understand the will of their god so completely and assuredly? Even if you have faith that your god will not let you do something so terrible, can you be sure that it is your god that you are following? I would argue that anyone who doesn’t have doubts about that is exceptionally immoral, but thankfully child sacrifice is rare enough these days. In any case, this little story in the bible is certainly a great one for bringing up the dilemmas and conundrums inherent in faith.