Monday, November 19, 2007

So what's up with Abraham sacrificing Isaac?

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to hear a sermon about this biblical story. You know, the one where Abraham is out playing ball with his miracle child Isaac, and God shows up with some instructions:
"Here I am," he replied.
"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."

Wait, what?

To his credit, the preacher mentioned that this story is a little problematic. Then he went on to extract the moral that we ought to loosen our grip on our ideas about ownership ... that we ought not be Consumers above all, and that we should be willing to give God whatever God demands. That bit of scolding was good for me, because the message about holding loosely to things and releasing my consumer identity is definitely a message I need to hear.

But this lukewarm approach to the story of Abraham and Isaac still strikes me as sort of ... how do I say this nicely? Morally deficient?



OK, so I'll grant that we shouldn't be all grabby about our possessions. Great. But it makes me a bit queasy to see Abraham held up as a paragon of virtue when he holds his morals so loosely that he's willing to stoop to human sacrifice. I mean, it's not like this is some abstract theological question about an event that could only happen in the context of a Middle Eastern sacrificial system. No, apparently people have to answer this question on a fairly regular basis. When the voice of God pops into your head and tells you to kill your children, what should you do?

I don't know how much theological arguments can influence people with schizophrenic disorders. Maybe not at all. But my answer to the question is: if that voice in your head tells you to do something evil, like murder your children, call "bullshit". You can be pretty sure that it's not the voice of God.

Oh, but what if God has changed her mind and decided that in this situation, it is actually good to kill your child!?


Maybe God knows good and evil, but she doesn't make them out of thin air. Power does not imply goodness. Or in the words of T.H. White, might does not make right.

Therefore, if you're worshiping a God who obliterates entire races of people, and demands child sacrifice, and deceives his followers about the nature of good and evil, then you've been tricked. You aren't worshiping a good God, you're worshiping an evil spirit. And by worshiping it, you empower it. You are complicit in it. If it continues to hold sway over the earth, then to some small degree, it's your fault.


After the sermon ended, a husband and wife stood up to share some thoughts before the eucharist; in our tradition we call them "communion meditations". And while I wish they had said something different, I can't really blame them for what they did next. They began juxtaposing scriptures about the sacrifice of Isaac with scriptures about Jesus, implying that just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac to God, God was willing to sacrifice Jesus to God, so that our sins could be forgiven.

Like I said, I can't really blame them. The metaphor pops up in the text over and over again, and if somehow God can be good while also demanding child sacrifice, well then of course God can be good while demanding adult sacrifice. God can't just forgive the sins of the world, somehow reparation has to be made, God's wrath has to be "satisfied". Jesus has to be the perfect sacrificial lamb.

On my more generous days, when I read those things, I can imagine how they were helpful to someone. But the only people I can imagine who might have taken away more good than evil from those metaphors were premodern Jews, who had no inkling about the philosophies of liberal humanism, and whose worldview was steeped in blood and sacrificial mystery.

Premodern Jews.

Now I understand why the church spends so much time literally interpreting biblical stories, giving churchgoers background about the Jewish sacrificial system, praying for rain, disparaging other religions and allowing a tribal deity's murders and genocides to go unexamined. It's because almost all of its sacred texts were written for an audience of premodern Jews. The only way to make any sense of the Bible, really, is to squeeze one's postmodern, liberal humanist mind into a premodern, Jewish worldview. It's only then that the theology of penal substitutionary atonement can be self-evidently beautiful, and it's only then that we can ignore the dissonance between God's claims to be huge and eternal and God's apparent distaste for shrimp, polyester and homosexuals. It's only then that it makes sense to say "Jesus ascended into heaven" rather than "Jesus flew off into space".

Consequently, my current task at church has become translation. Maybe this has even become my approach to theology in general. How can we understand the Christian story -- what metaphors can we use -- that will make it powerful and engaging for people who haven't spent their whole lives training to be premodern Jews? More practically, how can I make it through a church service without being offended at the wicked, petty God that my fellow Christians worship?

It's a tricky proposition, and though I think I've come a long way in the past few years, I'm still hunting the used bookstores for a pocket dictionary translating between "postmodern liberal humanist" and "premodern Jew". Wish me luck.


Aric Clark said...

Very funny. I love your wit.

Penal Substitution is pretty demonic, it's okay if you just say it. Though I think you got it wrong ascribing this view to premodern Jews. Really they would have been horrified by it too. Penal Substitution really belongs to Calvin & Hodge who adapted it from Anselm. Just so you have the right people to blame.

There are other flavors of atonement out there that don't arouse quite the same gag reflex in us sensitive postmodern types - my personal preference is Christus Victor.


Matthew said...

"Penal Substitution really belongs to Calvin & Hodge who adapted it from Anselm."

Hm, you may have a point there, although the text does provide the metaphors that PSA is built on. That's why it's so easy for traditions like mine (sola scriptura) to pick it up and run with it.

Mystical Seeker said...

if that voice in your head tells you to do something evil, like murder your children, call "bullshit". You can be pretty sure that it's not the voice of God.

Yes, of course, absolutely. You are also correct that power does not imply goodness.

If morality is one of God's attributes, then God cannot command us to do immoral things. Another classic example of this is in the book of Joshua, where God supposedly orders people to commit genocide. And the amazing thing is that biblical literalists will tell you with a straight face that this is really true, and that right and wrong are whatever strikes God's mood on a given day, that God can be as capricious as "he" wants to be because, after all, "he"'s God. It's a crock, it's ridiculous, but it shows the sort of logical twisting that takes place when you take the Bible literally.

Connor said...

I think the issue of what makes something 'good' is a big separation point for many people. I once asked someone why they followed God (person had the more traditional view of that if God commands it or does it then it is good) and the person listed off things that we would pretty much anyone would consider good (but what of the bad things?). Seems to be a disconnect.

That said, do you think that people consider an action good because they were told by God through some type of revelation that it is good or because they feel it to be good? And, do ones that claim that sacking cities in the book of Joshua was okay because God commanded it operate from one or the other perspective?

Matthew said...

"do you think that people consider an action good because they were told by God through some type of revelation that it is good or because they feel it to be good?"

I suspect that each person's moral sense is determined by some combination of genes and memes.

Human beings have probably evolved a lot of ethical hardware, which would create a sort of moral baseline. That sort of hard-wired conscience would explain why most people in most places have moral codes that prohibit things like theft and rape.

But our cultures also seem to play a big part in determining our feelings about what's right and wrong. So if I was brought up to think it's good for everyone to be paid a living wage, I'm likely to continue to feel that such a thing is intrinsically good, even if I don't have any genetic predisposition to that belief.

On the other side of the same coin are fundamentalists who insist that the bible is the inerrant word of God, but who fail to integrate things like "don't eat shrimp" and "don't wear polyester" into their moral codes. I guess what matters is not so much what scripture says, but what one's culture says it says.

Smartiniz said...

"I guess what matters is not so much what scripture says, but what one's culture says it says."

I absolutely agree, Matt. This is why the "inerrant Bible" point of view is so frustrating to me. In our post-postmodern society, there's no way you can viably claim to have the interpretation of any text. It's as though people who interpret the Bible this way are living in some immaculate bubble that separates them from every development in literary theory since the Middle Ages.

As for my own personal understanding of violence, the Bible, the will of God and the death of Jesus, I've found the works of Rene Girard incredibly helpful. He views many of the Old Testament stories as ancient myths (in the literary sense, not the common sense) that the Biblical author has re-worked from a new more Godly perspective. He sees the authors of the Old Testament as moving closer to God's truth but still rather far from its essentials. His reading of Jesus' death vis a vis atonemenet fits more or less with the Christus Victor interpretation mentioned above.

I'm not sure I buy everything he says yet, but his perspective has been very illuminating for me.

Paul said...

To me the message of the cross and sacrifice is: Everybody dies. And we're here to dedicate our own lives to the larger world in our own ways while we're here.

The cross, to me, holds up Jesus as an example. Christians through the centuries have pondered the mystery of who's saved and who's not, forgetting the example of one whose focus decidedly was not on saving his own skin.

Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect, work while it is day, know that the Sabbath was made for man, etc - this aspect of the good news isn't as easy to hear as "the Lord has saved us," and it's no coincidence that it's been relatively downplayed. But if enough of us had ears to hear it could have some major practical effects on the planet and the kind of earth our great grandchildren will inherit.

I'm not crazy about the word "sacrifice" because it implies that to live this way diminishes us rather than fulfills us.

Matthew said...

Hey, smart-iniz and Paul.

Funny you should mention Girard and "sacrifice", because I'm actually reading Saved from Sacrifice by S. Mark Heim, an interpretation of Girard's atonement theory.

For those who haven't read Girard, the short version seems to be that religion has a deep history of sacrificial violence, and that Jesus saves us by exposing that violence and giving a voice to the victims of sacrifice.

Paul said...

That Jesus saves us, by one interpretation or another, is definitely an aspect of the message - the central aspect, it seems to me, both as presented in scripture and by the church.

But there are defintely enough verses exhorting us to be like Jesus in our works and actions, including "those who seek their lives will lose them and those who lose them will find them," and "What greater love is there than this . . ." that to me the idea of our own sacrifice is a genuine part of the message.

If both are aspects of the message, they appear incompatable: 1. The only work that really counts has already been done; 2. Work hard. I haven't done a lot of reading in the history of Christianity, but I'm thinking that Martin Luther's resolution plays down number two -"justification by faith alone."

Yet in terms of the imitation of Christ, so to speak, the NT doesn't present Jesus himself as concerned with his own justification. When he prays in the garden for the cup to pass from his lips if possible, the sense I get of it is simple human dread over the prospect of being crucified.

For sure we don't end up with the sense that Jesus finally consents to the cross because he knows that if he doesn't, he'll go to hell - a kind of fallen God-figure to accompany the fallen angel. His motives appear more expansive than that - infinitely more.

Smartiniz said...

I tend to take a "transformational" kind of view of salvation. The imitation of Christ (see Girard again and his ideas about mimesis, especially those about good mimesis) is our path to escaping the violence of human systems of social interaction. Only by imitation of Christ can community among humans ever be restored, i.e. saved from the violence we humans do to one another.

Matt, the ideas of Girard really made me think a lot about The Trial of God and the whole idea of "God is with the victims." If Jesus was God and also the ultimate victim of human violence, then the resurrection is God's vindication of the victim. It kind of turns the entire idea of a Godly war on its head.

Paul said...

SMARTINEZ: So there's a radical division of labor: we imitate Christ to reduce human misery; Christ's intervention effects a happy eschatology. A division of labor.

It makes sense, hadn't heard that. But it strikes me as a radical disconnect. Of course, it could be argued that that's exactly what Christ coming into the world is supposed to be all about.

But it leaves me with a feeling of ultimately living in a dis-universe.

Penguin said...

Speaking as a postmodern Jew, we are currently sacrificing thousands of lives in Iraq, which ethical right wing Christians and Jews, as well, can probably accept following that biblical logic of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, begotten when he was long past senility, by the way. George Bush has gotten into too many peoples' heads, ansd that is not a voice of reason, let alone of God. I am having my debut novel published next spring. I bring it up because it involves a search for faith out in the desert of Iraq in the midst of war. HUNTING THE KING follows archaeologist Molly O'Dwyer on a hunt for Jesus and his illegitimate daughter Hannaniah. Religion is purelu political and susceptible to Karl Rovian spin. True faith is democratic and purely individual. The only voice that should eb in your head is your own.

scoots said...

penguin wrote: “True faith is democratic and purely individual.”

Ironically enough, this is similar to the approach taken in probably the most famous book that affirms Abraham for (almost) sacrificing Isaac: Fear and Trembling, by Søren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard argues that ethical generalizations are not the stuff of Christian faith, because faith demands obedience to God even when we cannot defend our actions to others.

The point is not that Abraham was following societal norms, but precisely that he was rejecting them, because of what God told him to do. Kierkegaard emphasizes that an individual with faith responds directly to God, rejecting what everyone else says. And according to Kierkegaard, anyone who tries to imitate Abraham’s sacrifice (or any preacher who encourages people to do so) is a fool, because God commanded it to Abraham, not to everyone.

It’s a confrontational and even offensive interpretation of the story, but Kierkegaard ultimately exposes the lame idea that “faith” is something so meaningless that everyone has it whether they even know they have it. It remains to be seen why that kind of faith would have any kind of power to save anyone at all.

In the Christian tradition, faith is what Abraham had enough of to kill his son simply because God told him to, and it’s what Paul said would cause us to believe that God saved the world through a crucified Jew whom he literally raised from the dead.

In our culture, like in Kierkegaard’s, faith is such an attractive word that people want to salvage it as the backbone of their religion, even if they don’t actually believe anything that anyone would have any reason not to believe.

Connor said...

From scoots:

"faith is what Abraham had enough of to kill his son simply because God told him to"

Again, I think this is a huge dividing line between religious people. One side says "God said it therefore I do it" and the other side asks "but why?"

Not sure what to do with that.

scoots said...

Yeah, I'm not sure either. I should add that Kierkegaard insists also that Abraham knew he would get Isaac back “on the strength of the absurd,” whatever that means. And it’s also significant that Kierkegaard claims he himself *doesn’t* have the kind of faith Abraham had.

What that means is that his book works better as a critique of people who water down faith than it does as an explanation of how we could have faith. I suppose my comment above has the same problem.

Like everyone else commenting here, I don’t want to do anything I can’t defend ethically, and I don’t like the idea that God would do or command something I am convinced is evil. It’s just that Matt’s alternative seems to me to be a God that we have explicitly invented because we like him/her, and I don’t find that satisfying either.

Richard Beck said...

I've been reading some midrash on the Akedah. This doesn't answer anything and may actually sharpen your moral concerns, but a lot of midrash on this subject deals with the fact that Isaac doesn't (overtly in the text) return back home with Abraham. The issue for the rabbis is why?

Interestingly, some rabbis have suggested that this whole incident was so psychically traumatic to Isaac that he had to go away for a time to heal, psychologically speaking

Smartiniz said...

I think that murderous episodes such as those Matt describes in his post (maybe even the Abraham and Isaac incident...) are a good explanation of why faith must not be "democratic and purely individual." Christianity was founded as an explicitly communal religion. We are meant to be in community with other members of our faith; therefore, our faith must be a communal faith open to critique from other members of the faith community. We're supposed to have other Christians around who can say, "Whoa, wait up. So God told you to murder your children? That doesn't quite add up." Maybe it's significant that Abraham was more or less alone in his faith: as far as the Bible tells us, he wasn't exactly surrounded by other Yahweh-worshipers. No one else was there to help him problematize the "kill your kid" signal he was getting. He had to figure it out all on his own....

Matthew said...

Speaking of kids, I'm busy getting one born and home from the hospital.

Briefly: the Heim book suggests that the story of Abraham and Isaac is a story about the transition from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. More about that later. =)

Frank said...

I heard a Catholic priest give a talk on this once (can't remember his name), and his point was that this story could have been a dramatization of the end of human sacrifice.

Human sacrifice was a big deal in early religions, and it was the Israelites who took the human race a giant leap forward by moving away from that (the priest commented that that could have been one of the greatest contributions of the early Jewish people to humanity). And then Christianty went a step further as Jesus became the sacrificial lamb for all time, hence no more animal slaughter, either (or something like that).

You might ask: if that's the point of the Abraham/Isaac story, why didn't they just say so?

Well, we're dealing with a story that probably got passed down multiple generations before it was written down, and with many people who had a different take on things. Many redactors, too. I don't really know how stories like this come to be.

It could be that while Abraham was following traditional customs and for whatever reason it came time to slaughter his son (maybe there was a drought or some other event that required such an extreme sacrifice). Good and faithful Abraham was prepared to do so, against his deepest stirrings (or at least he thought he could do it), but while we was just about to do so he got a revelation, an epiphany, that the same God he's been worshiping--the same God who created everything and stands by his people, the same universal God over all people and all things who loves so dearly and declared it all to be "good", is the same God who wouldn't want his son slaughtered. This is the revelation Abraham got. The sacrifice of his son did not make sense in light of his vision of God.

Abraham probably stuck his own neck out as well (pun intended!) in this by going against the social grain. He was willing to question his God, question the assumptions and traditional practices, and was so connected to this divine, life-giving force, that he could not reconcile the slaughter of his son with the profound, divine life-giving-and-loving God he was connected to, and could not go through with the sacrifice of his son. This was out of his faithfulness, not out of rebelliousness or selfishness.

This is the faithfulnes of Abraham, just like the faithfulness of Job is exhibited through his profound protest and demands for justice (as well as his ability to dive into the mystery of God). This is the kind of faithfulness that leads to revelation, and Job got the revelation in the whirlwind, and Abraham got it through angels or however the story goes.

Matthew said...

Yes, that seems to be what Rene Girard thinks about it.

Kirby L. Wallace said...

EmJayDee said...

Thanks for these thoughts. This is the lection for June 29 - when I am liturgist and I really would prefer to look at something else - but I'm disciplined enough to wrestle with the set text. Some initial musing on my (quite new) blog

Matthew said...

kirby, emjaydee:

Thanks for the links. =)

Kirby, I think the sermon you link to has some good things to say, but I think this conclusion is problematic:

"As Christians, we have every confidence that God will not call on us to do something that even God would call evil: kill children. That is, after all, one of the express morals of this story of Abraham and Issac."

I'm not sure how the author arrives at this conclusion. As far as I can see, if you take the text at face value, the only thing "express" in the story of Abraham and Isaac is that yes, in fact, God *will* tell people to kill their children. And God's reaction to Abraham's obedience seems to teach that the right thing for these people to do is to go out and kill them.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matthew said...

Anonymous: that's disturbing on a number of levels. I have removed your comment for several reasons, among them its links to pirate bay, its overgenerality, its apparently ludicrous antisemitism, and its appearance on a post that is very old.

Anonymous said...

"postmodern liberal humanist"
quite inriguing - ascribing to this idealist, seemingly highly placed,school of thought. i will nevertheless, "ascend" to your thought line and judge your posting with your on system. pretty futil since you will remove my post anyway, but at leadt you will have read regarding your prejudiced accusation against Yahweh, in strict judicial environment, there was neither any human sacrifice executed, nor one intended.the evidenenceis the pre-arranged provision of an actual object of sacrifice, a lamb, proving that God knew and intended beforehand not to have isaac sacrificed.
It would be pretty retarded to believe that Donald trump intends to employ you as a lemonade salesperson just because he gives you a task on apprentice to go and sell some.
A liberal humanist should be able to desipher this i guess.

Then, ever asked yourself why most religions, some of whom so native you wouldnt claim to have had contact outside their village, all seem to have the principle that there hass to be shedding of blood for forgiveness of sin? i am a kenyan and 80% of african religion involve a form of blood sacrifice to remove or somehow atone for sin.

well, here is my theory - itis a spriritual principle. spiritual - not christian only. free masonry and dark worship have it too. every one wiling to delfve into the spiritual must know that spiritual relationships are sealed in blood.
Principles - like gravity - work irrespective of parties involved.
another example of a spiritual principle is that spiritual entities cannot possess without permission. i.e you have to attend a gathering and perform some ritual which involves verbal proclamations inorder to operate within the power of the spiritual poewr in question - whether christian or satanic or traditional pagan religion.

I am establishing that the spiritual world is governed by principles, not human rights.

in the psiritual realm as i said, there has to be offering of blood for the remmission of sin. actually somewhere in the new testament those are the exact words.
thus, if the sacrifiice of a mortal being gives us temprary forgivenes, dont you think, it follows, oh ye liberal humanist, that an immortal sacrifice gives permanent remission of sin?

Matthew said...

Hi, anonymous. Interesting thoughts, but I'd want to see some sort of argument or evidence outside of the religious traditions that you mention that would help explain why blood should be so important to "the spiritual". I would argue that the prevalence of blood in religious ritual is there not because it has some sort of magical power to change things, but because (more recently) blood symbolizes life, and because (further in the past) religious sacrifice involved killing an outcast person in order to get groups within the society to stop killing one another. See Rene Girard's writings for more on this.

Anyhow, this is kind of an old post, but thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

You most definitely need to read "The Land of Meat and Honey" by Dr. Shmuel Asher, Th.D and "The Lost Religion of Jesus" by Keith Akers! They fit well with your journey! Shalom!

Anonymous said...

Ancient Hebrew Learning Center