The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Abraham and Isaac

I have always found the Abraham and Isaac story very disturbing. The story is held up as an example of different things by different people - some hold that it demonstrates that obedience to god is the most important attribute that one can possess, others that it is a sign of god's mercy (since he doesn't make Abraham kill Isaac in the end), and others that it is a sign that god can invert the natural order any way that he wants and that us limited humans ought not to question it.

For a variety of reasons, all of which can be grouped together under the heading of "being a normal and well-adjusted moral individual" I find all of these explanations, all of which seek to justify the proposed human sacrifice as moral, to be complete and utter bullshit. Or, as Julia sweeney puts it:

This Old Testament God makes the grizzliest test to peoples' loyalty, like when he asks Abraham to murder his son Isaac. As a kid we were taught to admire it. I caught my breath reading it. We were taught to admire it! What kind of sadistic test of loyalty is that, to ask someone to kill his or her own child? And isn't the proper answer no?

I have however come across two bits o' media that cover the story in a way that at least shows some sort of attempt to understand it. The first is from Radiolab, and is sympathetic to Abraham. Listen here.

The other is satirical and very unsympathetic not only to Abraham but to the world view that holds that this sort of sadistic test of loyalty (to quote Sweeney) is justifiable:


Kay said...

A few things about the story.

I was taught to admire it as well, as a child being raised in the Christian church, but there are a few other aspects that you don’t mention. Just thought I would wade in… not that these things change your conclusions, but just want to throw out some of the other accepted interpretations.

The first is that many Christians do see this story as horrific… the idea of sacrificing your son, your beloved (only) son is a horrible thing. This story is the precursor to god himself making that same sacrifice later when he send Jesus to his death. Isaac was young during his story, and the story was more about Abraham so we don’t get his side of things… we do see Christ’s trepidation as he begs for another way before he goes to his death. Both Christ and Isaac were the willing martyr/sacrificial lambs because that is what they were called to be by god. (And yes, I agree, a god who asks that of you is not worth spit.)
Christ’s sacrifice, god’s sacrifice of his son, is the last of the human sacrifices… it is the one to bridge the gap, to be the ultimate blood ritual. From a story telling arc and a religious stand point, you need toe counter weight of Isaac and Abraham to “balance” out Jesus and god.

The other part of this story has to do with the concept of soul vs body… life on earth vs eternal life with god. It is a foundation of Christian ideology that our physical forms are just temporary and that our life’s goal is to glorify god and get ourselves and as many of our friends/family/world into Heaven. Now, this idea has been taken to it’s most horrific extremes with things like cult suicides and murders… and Isaac and Abraham fit right in with that sense of Souls over Bodies mentality. The subliminal message is that god and through god your parents, know what is good for your soul…. Who cares about your body, your soul will be with god. (Note: this is the same sort of batshit crazy that leads not only to cult killings but anti-vax, spiritual healing, and refusal to let your kids seek medical attention –aka child abuse-)

Again, I agree with you, just thought I would toss out a bit more.

Anthroslug said...

Kay, thanks for the great comment.

I had never thought of the story as having anything to do with dualism - the notion that the body and the mind/soul are two separate entities - and I think that you make a really interesting point there. While the ancient Hebrews probably weren't thinking of it in those terms (as I understand it, they did not believe in an afterlife in any sort of Heaven) I do think that you may be right that this may be part of what keeps this story from being generally viewed as grisly by many modern people.

I think that you are probably spot on when talking about this as a precursor (and in some ways flipside) to the story of Jesus. Again, I had not thought of it this way before, but it seems quite reasonable, even likely that this was very much on the minds of Jews-turned-Christians in the Roman Empire during the first and second centuries A.D.

Really good comments, and alot to think about.

Evan Davis said...

You have to remember that Abraham was also the guy who circumcised himself and then convinced his entire village to do the same.

He also didn't have his first child until he was over 100. You mull that around for a bit.

The explanation I have often heard is that this trial was for Abraham. We do not know all the parameters surrounding this request. We know he had the faith to introduce circumcision. We know he had the faith that God would fulfill his promise to spread his seed to the ends of the earth despite his lack of children. We know that he had a good enough relationship with God to have conversations with him. It might have just been the next step in testing his faith.

It's like learning through highschool and college how the world works (physically & mathmatically). Then you decide to delve into theoretical physics where they tell you to forget all your preconceptions of space & time. To someone who is learning remedial math that statement would sound pretty stupid.

Anthroslug said...

It seems, though, that to apply Occam's priciple, the best explanation for the story involves not trying to explain the behavior of a god, but rather in looking at this as a myth. As a myth, the story can easily be made to make sense without resorting to questions of the purpose of the supernatural.