Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Abraham And Isaac And Religion And Sanity

In HP Religion, James Goodman addresses the Biblical story in which Abraham is commanded by God to make a human sacrifice of his son Isaace, and almost goes through with it, and at the last minute God says, Okay, stop, I was just testing your obedience, we're cool. Goodman reacts with horror to this story -- but not with enough horror. He draws parallels between Abraham's painful situation and tough decisions which must be made in war. He mentions people who have wrestled with this Bible passage (chapter 22 of Genesis), including Kierkegaardand, according to Goodman, Bob Dylan.

"The ritual sacrifice of a child should and would be universally condemned," Goodman states. (Not really going very far out on a limb there.) But he continues: "But[...]"

But nothing. Goodman's trying to have his cake and eat it too. For one thing, as we can see from many of the comments on Goodman's story, prattling on in a quite unbearable manner about how this horror story of Abraham being commanded to tie his son up, slit his throat and burn his body demonstrates God's perfect and infinite love, anything at all will be far from universally condemned, if it's seen as "God's will." For another thing, there is a difference between human sacrifice and war. Sometimes war is waged in an injust way which is indefensible; and sometimes it is a tragic choice which must be made to oppose injustice. For a third thing, Kierkegaard was sometimes brilliant and sometimes Christian, but never both at the same time. And for a forth thing, in "Highway 61 Revisited" Dylan doesn't portray the story of Abraham and Isaac as a deep and awesome mystery, he doesn't "wrestle" with it. He reacts to it with appropriately unambiguous horror and disgust. He portrays god as a cosmic bully and Abraham as a coward who almost instantly knuckles under to a bully in the most despicable way imaginable. In Dylan's song Abraham is just one more scoundrel in a row of jerks who are described about 1 every 15 seconds.

If Sir James Gearge Frazerwas correct, then nearly every single human civilization has passed through a stage of human sacrifice, and that stage was much more recent in the case of Frazer's beloved Romans than he or other Classicists had thought. He reacted with horror to his discovery that polished and urbane Classical Latin poets lived at the same time as priests and priestesses who made ritual sacrifices of people. I can only think of one way to see Genesis 22 in a positive light: as a story of a people leaving human sacrifice in the past, and in fact in a far more remote past than did, among many others, the Romans.

But of course it is interpreted in quite another way by many practicing Jews and Christians and Muslims. Nauseatingly, they twist the story until it looks (to them) like an illustration of pure perfect cosmic infinite Love. If a head of state demanded that one of his subjects kill his own son to prove his loyalty, no sane person would call it an act of love on the part of the ruler. It would be considered an act of extreme tyranny and grounds to overthrow the ruler. If I were married and my wife demanded that I kill our son to prove my love for her, as long as I could prove she made that demand, not only would I have absolutely no trouble getting a divorce, and custody, and a very strongly-enforced restraining order, but my ex-wife would very likely also spend some time in prison or a hospital for the criminally insane. Not to mention the utter contempt and horror, and criminal prosecution, which that hypothetical subject of a tyrant, or I in that hypothetical marriage, would deserve, if we showed the slightest sign of complying with that despicable request, which Abraham was willing to do. Believers are making ridiculous excuses for their imaginary friend who rules the universe, excuses which they would never make for a real human being. Oh the mental gymnastic believers go through to defend their god.

Imagine if people expended a fraction of that energy to protect other real living breathing human beings.

1 comment:

  1. Isaacs sacrifice was never meant to be a sacrifice, and God knew this. By acting in obedience to God, Abraham displayed absolute trust in God's goodness, grace and mercy, and also showed how God was going to bring about His future plans of redemption for his people. By obeying God's command to sacrifice Isaac for the sins of the people, God's grace and mercy is displayed in the symbolic act of providing the lamb for the sacrifice at the last minute, instead of the human being. Isaacs sacrifice is meant to display the coming act of sacrificial love shown through Jesus' sacrifice and also the redemptive act of saving us from the slaughter through the provision of the lamb. It also shows that God is good and doesn't want us to die for our sins. He wants us, and He wants to be in a relationship with us. In essence, He loves us. Contextually, the Abrahamic people would have been influenced by the sacrificial acts of humans occurring in other religious cultures of their time, meaning they would have understood that human sacrifice was a necessary atonement to be in good steed with pagan gods. In contrast to this, the Abrahamic God was displaying grace and mercy to the Abrahamic people by showing them that His way of atonement is different. The redemptive analogy revealed through the story of Issac shows the sacrifice is provided for them and it is innocent, pure-hearted, divinely appointed and provided (revealed in the lamb) and not sinful, because only by the sacrifice of something pure and blameless can a human being be made pure once again. That's the entire redemptive analogy personified in the story of Abraham and Isaac. It's not just meant to be a test, as commonly thought in the Christian community, it is supposed to be the first and most powerful illustration of how God is going to redeem His people and how He plans on doing it in the future through the divinely incarnated Messiah.