The Sacrifice of Isaac . . . Or Provincial Much?*
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. ~ Micah 6:7-8
The reality is that infanticide has always been part of human behavior. It’s been practiced everywhere and through all time periods. Including during the time of Abraham. In fact, there is evidence from both ancient writings and from archaeology of wide-spread infanticide and ritual child sacrifice in the Ancient Near East continuing into Greco-Roman times.
There is some controversy among scholars as to whether evidence of infanticide is evidence of child sacrifice or not. After all, leaving a child to die from exposure because you can’t afford another mouth to feed isn’t quite the same thing as actively sacrificing your child to a god. And since at many sites from the area Abraham lived in, most of the remains found at these sights were immolated (burned) it is hard to be certain that these were the remains of sacrificed children and not children who had died of natural causes. However, we do have clear evidence of the practice of ritual child sacrifice from many places around the would, so it’s hardly unthinkable. And we know from the way infanticide is practiced to this day in a few remote tribal areas, that the distinction between simple infanticide and child sacrifice can be one without meaning. For example, the Kara people in Ethiopia kill infants and children for a variety of reasons from deformity, being born without permission from elders to having their teeth come in on the top first rather than the bottom. These children are called “mingi” and must be killed in order to appease malevolent spirits who would bring harm to the tribe if they were allowed to live. Is infanticide done to meet the demands of the spirits or gods really any different from the sort of ritual child sacrifice said to have been practiced by the ancient Carthagians?
Even though we view the sacrifice of children as unthinkable, the reality is that it has always been very widespread. (In fact, it’s entirely possible that in a thousand years, scholars will say that ours was a time of mass child sacrifice to our gods of eros and manna due to the 1.2 million abortions performed yearly in America alone. But you know – another subject for another day.) When a practice is as wide-spread as infanticide and child sacrifice has been, it is normal human behavior. Which further means that in many places through out human existence, the killing of a child was not seen as problematic in the least. Writing during the time of Jesus, Strabo actually comments on how peculiar the Egyptians were for insisting that all human children be reared. And as we know from our own experiences, what we consider to be normal can be terribly hard to shake. Simply telling people that what they think is normal is actually wrong doesn’t usually cut it. A generation of physicians had to die off before germ theory would be accepted, for example.
Now, let’s go back to Abraham. He is living in a time when it was known that gods can and do demand children be sacrificed to them. Abraham has made covenant with a new God which is not at all the same as saying that he knew all the ways of this new God. So when God tells him to take his son and sacrifice him, this would have been seen as normal behavior for a god in Abraham’s world. To read it and be outraged at the request is to project our own ideas onto the story. Abraham clearly does not want to do this, but it is within the realm of what one can expect when dealing with a God. Plus, he made a covenant with this God. An unbreakable, binding covenant. (Abraham and God had split an animal in two and passed between its two halves. It was a common way of making a binding agreement in that area and time. The idea was that if either party to the agreement broke covenant, they would be split in two like the animal.) So he packs up Issac and treks to the mountain to make the same sacrifice which many around him had made. When Isaac asks where the sacrificial animal is, Abraham responds that God will provide. Which could well have been his own assurance to himself. After all, the covenant was unbreakable for God as well. Promises had been made. Maybe he felt sure that God would not actually ask him to kill his son in the end – after all, God’s way of dealing with Abraham up to this point had been to say, “leave and go to a place I will show you.” First obey, then God will show what obedience looks like.
Of course, at the last minute, God does provide. An angel stops Abraham from sacrificing his son to God. Because although child sacrifice might have been normal in Abraham’s world, it is not something which this new God – the true God – demands for himself. Abraham has proven himself willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in service to his God – according to his own and his world’s understanding of things. God stepping in to stop Abraham didn’t just mean sparing the boy. It also meant giving Abraham and his decedents a new understanding of normal. Sacrificing your own child to meet the demand of a god would no longer be part of normal, proper behavior for Abraham’s decedents even though it would continue to be for those around them for many centuries to come. It is not easy to shake a person’s understanding of what is normal, but this event does just that.
The problem with this story is our own. First there’s our own provincialism. We presume to judge without appreciating context or the difficulties posed by human nature. As if we would have done it all differently had we been there. But even more than that, we have a problem with stories like this because we fail to understand what it is God has been doing in his interactions with us all this time. God’s primary purpose is and has always been to re-orient us to himself. To take us from where we are and move us ever closer to where He is. So many of us have this fairy-tale notion that God works by fiat – he comes down, sets us right and then sits up on high watching to see if we get it right. But that’s not what God does – because that’s not how people work. As I’ve been talking about a fair amount lately, we humans don’t change easy. Paradigm shifts are hard. Even in a rapidly changing world such as our own, shifting our way of thinking about and viewing the world is a challenge some people just aren’t up to. How much more difficult would it have been for people 6000 years ago living in a world which changed very little from generation to generation? Sure, God could have come down and declared a new order, but going from an ANE mindset to the perfection of God in one lifetime is well beyond human capabilities. God’s been dealing with us for millenia now and we’re still working on it, in fact.
*This post was originally published in Nov. 2012. I figured now would be a good time to dig it up again, given the recent interest in the story triggered by Rachel Held Evan’s treatment of it. You may also want to check out my facebook friend and fellow blogger Eric Reitan’s response. And this bit on the mistake of reading and responding to stories like this one like a fundamentalist when you’re not even a fundamentalist. Just in case you were spending your days thinking, “I really need to spend 30 minutes reading about the binding of Isaac”, which is a thing that happens to all of us sometimes, right? Obviously, my take is the best one out there, but I figured I would offer y’all some close runners-up for your perusal. 😉
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