Bruce Chilton on Isaac’s Sacrifice

In the Chronicle Review (of the Chronicle of Higher Education) Bruce Chilton has an excerpt from a forthcoming book, Abraham’s Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to be published this month by Doubleday. This link will remain live for 5 days but the permalink is by subscription only.

Because it is an excerpt, albeit adapted, the piece feels very partial and incomplete. The Big Three faiths have all appropriated the Aqedah (Gen. 22) and, as a result, Chilton seems to be saying, religionists of these faiths are trapped in a psyche and cycle that elevates sacrifice.

If you considered not what we say about ourselves, but what we do in relation to one another, you would observe that the 20th century saw more children sacrificed to one cause or another than any previous century saw offered to its gods.

Chilton can make this connection by viewing war as an extension of the sacrificial instinct.

The Christian soldier, the Israeli conscript, and the Muslim jihadist are all poised for conflict and prepared for death, armed by their training and motivated by an ethos that is thousands of years old. The impulse to praise martyrdom, and therefore to encourage susceptible adolescents to become martyrs, is embedded in our cultural DNA.

We live on the edge of a prolonged sacrificial commitment, in a war on terror whose end is as obscure as its purposes and whose methods are ill defined. Understanding what it is we’re talking about when we speak of human death as a “sacrifice” has become crucial to us.

But the reason why I say his article feels incomplete, and perhaps it will be rectified in the book, I certainly hope so, is because he leaves the Aqedah at the moment of Isaac’s throat being slashed. He tells us, “Several ancient interpreters stated, or implied, that Abraham did cut his son’s throat, and that Isaac had bled out and was offered in the sacrificial fire.” But he never tells the reader about the ram caught in the thicket and the fact that the text, as it has been received, tells of God’s providing so that human sacrifice is not required.

It may be considered an old fashioned or “safe” reading of the text, but I think in its canonical form, the form that has shaped Jewish and Christian theology (I cannot speak to Islamic theology), the story is intended to convey the message that God will not require human sacrifice. That Christianity understood Jesus’ death as a sacrifice is not in contradiction with this, but is rather the exception and culmination of the sacrificial system.

I look forward to Chilton’s book and I hope that the Aqedah is more fully explored. Because rather than providing the source of violence in these faiths (“To confront the Aqedah involves confronting a source of violence within our societies and ourselves, which remains a powerful anthropological force in the West.”) it offers the model of God’s compassion on his people.

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