Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 13: Abraham and Isaac
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 13: Abraham and Isaac

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

Many people are troubled by the story in which God tests Abraham by commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Does God really approve of human sacrifice?

A Girardian way to interpret this story is to suggest that the voice Abraham believed was from God came, rather, from Abraham’s own culture. Since primal cultures typically engaged in human sacrifice, often the first-born son, it was natural that Abraham would believe that such a painful sacrifice was expected of him. Since the beginning of time, people have been attributing the “need” for sacrifice to man-made false gods. In order for sacred violence to maintain social order, people must believe that the god(s) demand sacrifice, but, as discussed last week, attributing human desires to the god(s) is idolatry. However, Abraham was as much a product of his culture as anyone else, and it was tempting for him to believe that the idolatrous demand for his son’s blood came from the true God.

If Abraham were commanded by God to kill his son, the God of Abraham would differ in name only from other man-made ancient deities to which people made human sacrifices. Instead, this story has a dramatic twist. Radically, God commanded Abraham to not kill Isaac. This, I suggest, is the God we meet in the New Testament, a God who “desires mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13, 12:7). Interestingly, Abraham then saw a ram caught in a thicket by his horns. Abraham believed that God wanted him to sacrifice the ram as a substitute for Isaac, but the text does not mention that God desired sacrificing the animal.

I don’t think this story illustrates that God wants animal sacrifice. However, the ancient Hebrews could not envision a God who had no interest in sacrifices, since, worldwide, the purpose of religion was to perform sacred ritual sacrifices. Slowly, the Hebrews would question the role of sacrifice in God’s plan, and eventually it would require Jesus’ remarkable ministry to demonstrate God’s desire.

Go on to: Part 14 Jacob and Esau
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