Story of Abraham’s sacrifice
Reading along with a Jewish scholar.
God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is a foundational incident in the Jewish and Christian traditions. And this incident is primarily responsible for the title of Abraham as the father in faith. Thank God, Isaac is not sacrificed. But many a times, we appreciate Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son. But an interesting question, that can be asked is, will God ask someone to sacrifice their son to prove their faith? These are questions that can be raised, and one of the answers is that, it was a test.
David Meyer (a Jewish scholar and exegete), in his work dealing with difficult texts (or violent texts in the Bible), gives an interesting interpretation to this incident. This incident appears in 22nd chapter of Genesis. But there is an interesting story in the 18th chapter, and we can try to read the story of Abraham and Isaac in the context of that story in chapter 18. Three persons came to visit Abraham; Abraham and Sarah prepared food for them. And when they were about to leave, they spoke to Abraham about the destruction planned on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for all the evil done by the people. Now Abraham starts an interesting dialogue with three men. He asked, “Will God destroy the city if there are 50 righteous people?” Definitely this dialogue continues and Abraham reduces the number from 50 to 40 and finally stops at ten. The men said that the city won’t be destroyed if there were 10 righteous people. They couldn’t find 10 righteous people, and the city was destroyed, though Lot and family (who were righteous) were saved. Meyer compares this story with the story of the sacrifice, and he sees a big difference. Abraham dialogues with God in one case, whereas he accepts the decision blindly in the case of sacrifice.
Meyer speaks of the divine-human alliance, where human have a responsibility. Abraham, for the sake of absolute justice, dialogued with God and pleaded to save the city if there are 10 righteous people. But why he stopped there? What if there was only one? Meyer would say that their lives and concerns are not of extreme importance to Abraham, and so he decided to stop at 10. Now God brings a test, which is to sacrifice his son. Here, the unique son is very close to Abraham. But Abraham doesn’t dialogue with God; he is seemingly obeying God’s command. Meyer would say that the stopping the dialogue in the first case (at 10 righteous) and failure to dialogue in the second case is a fall of Abraham. This is a failure because he is in an alliance with God and he doesn’t fulfil his responsibility to dialogue for absolute justice. (Killing even one righteous was against absolute justice). Meyer would have no difficulty in exalting Abraham’s faith not because of his obedience, but because of the ability to dialogue with God. But the story teaches the faith of Abraham that he can’t stop the dialogue before the final end, because all life is precious.
I agree that this is an argument which continues to raise many questions. But this is an attempt by David Meyer to understand certain difficult passages in the context of divine-human alliance. And the invitation on reading these passages is not to blindly follow them or to practice sacrifice, but to see the message probably intended by the author. When humans fail to take their responsibility seriously, violence do occur, and Bible has atleast a few examples for that.
I conclude by recalling the parable of lost sheep by Jesus. He went in search of the one sheep who was lost (good point to note is that he didn’t go for one righteous sheep; he would have gone for that too. But he went for the lost makes the parable more interesting).