Abraham and Child Sacrifice


In Genesis 22, there’s a disturbing story about God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son. A ram is provided as a substitute, but only at the last possible moment. As readers we’re told that, “God tested Abraham“, but the man himself is given no such explanation, and God rubs salt into the wound by reminding him that Isaac is, “your only son, whom you love so much“. As we’ll see, some theological and philosophical ink has been spilt around this story, but my interest here is historical-critical.

We’re inclined to forget that in biblical days, only about 10% of the population was literate, and they were the aristocrats, priests, prophets and scribes. What they portray in their writings reflects their own religious values and opinions, rather than those of the illiterate 90%. So if we find these ‘overlings’ denouncing particular beliefs or practices, it’s fairly certain that the ‘underlings’ were guilty as charged.

It’s no surprise, then, that Israelites practised child sacrifice. There was a place called Topheth in the Valley (Hebrew ‘ge’) of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem, where child sacrifice took place. (In New Testament times, Ge Hinnom became Gehenna, a fitting name for Hell). In 2 Kings 23, we’re told that the reforming King Josiah, “desecrated Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom, so that no one could sacrifice his son or his daughter as a burnt offering.” But, reforms, as we know, can be short-lived.

It might come as a surprise, however, that some child sacrificers were Kings! In 2 Kings 16, King Ahaz, “sacrificed his own son as a burnt offering“, as did King Manasseh in 2 Kings 21. In Judges 11, Jephthah vows that if he’s victorious in battle, he’ll sacrifice, “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me.” He’s met by his only daughter. On this occasion, there’s no ram as a substitute, nor does God put a stop to this tragic stupidity, nor is there condemnation in the text. In Micah 6, a questioner asks, “What shall I bring to Yahweh when I come to worship him? .. shall I offer my firstborn son to pay for my sins?” The answer here is no, but the question shows child sacrifice to be a ‘live’ issue. In our ancient tale then, it seems that Abraham would indeed have plunged the knife into his son, splashed his blood on the altar, and set fire to the wood under his dead body.

Since we’re into surprises, here’s another. In Exodus 22, God’s demand is, “Give me your offerings .. give me your firstborn sons.” Such offerings had their origin in ancient fertility rites, which returned life to the gods who gave it, so that more life might be given back in return. To be fair, in Exodus 34, God says, “Every firstborn son .. belongs to me .. but .. buy back every first born son“, (extra income for the priests). The Exodus 22 demand, however, is still there, just as it stands.

Theologians such as Søren Kierkegaard have argued that if Abraham had killed Isaac, his action would be justified by “the teleological suspension of the ethical”, which seems to mean that ethical standards don’t apply to divine commands – a convenient ‘get-out-of-jail’ card for gods. Philosophers from Plato onwards have tormented us with this question : is what is ‘good’, good because God says it is, or can God only say what is in itself good? In other words, ‘good’ is either as flexible and unpredictable as the biblical God, or ‘good’ is an absolute standard, external to God, by which he can be judged, in which case he’s not an infinite and self-existent being after all. Which should it be? (Answers on a postcard please, to no-one in particular, at no fixed abode.)

The story tellers seem to be saying that ‘serving God’, whatever we each take that to mean, if taken as seriously as it ought to be, is more likely to be a demanding challenge than a bed of roses. But It won’t be about harming or killing, and if only some blinkered fanatics could get that into their deranged heads. Rather, it will be about looking for better ways of engaging with our fellow human beings – ways of connectedness and compassion, of mutual respect and affirmation, of non-violence and peace. 

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