I think, no matter what our moral/ethical/religious differences these days, we can, most all of us with scant few exceptions, agree that sacrificing your child is wrong. Just plain ole’ a very bad thing to do. And doing it because some voice in your head said you should — now that’s psychopathic, right? That’s truly delusional?
Not if you’re Abraham.
Okay, okay — I know I’m being a little too simplistic here. After all, what I’m doing is applying a very modern, rational, humanist (sort of) approach to looking at the story of Isaac and Abraham. Right? From a purely modern context I’m trying to judge Abraham for his acts. I’m drawing from the many years of developments, scientific, philosophical and rational, etc. etc. That’s not being fair to Abraham is it?
I think that’s something that even most evangelical and/or Bible literalists would agree upon: don’t go trying to throw around a bunch of modern thought into these old scriptures (or maybe I’m being to optimistic).
So, if you’re still with me, my chain of reasoning here leads me to an important question: What exactly was the deal with sacrificing Isaac? Could not have God asked him just to kill Isaac for him? Or done something else dramatic to prove his love for God? I see the obvious symbolic importance of Isaac, but there must be something more, there, right?
Indeed there is. In fact, we only have to look at evidence in other places in the Old Testament itself to see an illuminating historical context. These other texts– passages from Kings, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy–indicate that child sacrifice was a common practice among the peoples in and around the Israelites. This practice, in fact, was probably even common among the Israelites themselves; after all, why was child sacrifice specifically prohibited in Leviticus (Lev. 18:21; 20:3), if it wasn’t happening?
So, then, how does this put the Abraham/Isaac story into new light? Well, it certainly provides a very valid reason for the story to be in the text. In fact, this is probably another etiological story (if you don’t know what that is, see this earlier post for an explanation). In other words, the reason for this story was to provide some “ancient” justification for the reasons why Israel no longer sacrificed kids.
Think about it this way: What better way to say that it was wrong to sacrifice kids (when people were at least doing it here and there) then by pointing to Abraham, legendary Abraham, and having God amazingly step in and prevent him from doing it? If God prevented Abraham from doing that, then there’s no reason anybody else should.
At least, then, we now can agree with the ancients (regardless of our beliefs): child sacrifice is dead wrong (pun most definitely intended).