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Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth.

Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth, by Carol Delaney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. 333 pp. $29.95.

In this multifaceted book, an anthropologist denounces the ethical vacuity of Jews, Christians, and Muslims over the centuries who treat Gen. 22:1-24 (Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice Isaac) as "the foundational story," "the model of faith," and a central "myth" of faith. In moral indignation, Delaney asks why these three religions did not choose "the passionate protection of the child, at the foundation of faith?" (p. 252). She concedes that holding this one story "responsible for ... contemporary sacrifices" of children over the centuries, such as we see today in "physical and sexual abuse, poverty, and the welfare system" is "ridiculous." Nonetheless, Delaney does claim this story has been "an influence, which, though subtle, is relevant" to these crimes against children over the ages (p. 233). While the Bible begins with Genesis, the stories of a primeval history allow Delaney to conclude that "the narrative of Western culture begins with Abraham" (p. 21). In her second chapter, entitled "Abraham as A libi? A Trial in California," she attends a trial of a man who on January 6, 1990, killed his youngest daughter because he thought God had told him to do so. Despite the man's history of hearing voices, Delaney assures us he is not "a crazy man," and cites as proof a quote from a minister elsewhere who once said we should do whatever God tells us even if we do not know why. This leads her to speculate that the killer's evangelical Baptist minister must have said "similar things" (p. 39). She cites no evidence that any minister suggested the sacrifice of a child was a logical possibility. Still, she declares confidently, "I felt that there was something very similar between the structure of the trial and the structure of the biblical story" (p. 53). In the Preface, she thanks her daughter for constantly reminding her of "the insanity of a system [in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] that has made a virtue out of the willingness to sacrifice a child" (p. xv). In spite of Jesus' cry on the cross against God, his father (cf. Matt. 27:46), "theologians, and more recently, psychoanalysts have tried to drown out that cry, as over and over children are sacrificed to the will of the father(s)" (p. 229). In sum, "The story of Abraham is not causative in any direct sense.... But... it exemplifies and legitimates a hierarchical structure of authority" (p. 14). On this opening level of her study, I would have expected much more careful reflection by someone who is an anthropologist.

At her best, Delaney surveys much of the evidence of how the story has been interpreted within each of the three religions. She also reasonably questions archaeological evidence that children were ritually "sacrificed" in ancient Israel. Alternatively, she suggests that the ritual burial of children probably represented an ancient effort to sacralize the common premature death of children up to the age of five. The more compelling statements in support of child sacrifice come from Carthage in later centuries. These later reports should not be uncritically read back into the circumstances of ancient Israel. While Ugaritic texts depict gods who kill their offspring, these accounts do not imply the same activity would be tolerated as normal in human society. Likewise, she impressively criticizes the opposite notion in Freud's psychoanalytical theories: his reliance on the Oedipus story and his view of Moses as an elevated "father" whose laws are glorified due to repressed guilt of escaped slaves after they kill ed him, and Freud's consequent assumption that the "discovery" of "paternity" entailed a "spiritual" advance over a prior "maternal" hierarchy in primitive societies (pp.226ff.).

Less compellingly, Delaney claims to be the first to explain why Abraham presumed he had the right to offer his son without consulting Sarah, his wife. The antique, patriarchalist notion that the "seed" derives solely from the man led, in her view, to a one-sided construction of the authority of the "father" over children. Even Mary Daly fails to see that "paternity is a concept embedded in a theory of procreation." Likewise, men who do not exercise that generative capacity still claim "life-giving, authoritative, god-like power" (p. 157). One problem with this theoretical proposal in its application to Genesis 22 and Abraham's failure to consult with Sarah is how silence permeates the story itself, while specific actions alone are foregrounded, leaving feelings, thoughts, and conversations mostly in the understated background. So, in Gen. 22:3 Abraham's trivial actions are described in copious detail, and not a word is conveyed about his conversation with Isaac, the servants, or Sarah. Delaney's theory trea ts the silence as a sign of Abraham's patriarchal power without refuting how Erich Auerbach brilliantly describes the silence as a device to leave the narrative fraught with psychological background. We are forced to wonder what people feel or say to each other. By such an imaginative construal we ourselves become figures in the depictive realism of the narrative itself. Furthermore, by not taking seriously other biblical accounts, we must wonder why, for example, barren Hannah did not consult her husband when she vowed to make her son a Nazarite, if God would grant her a child. Only later does she tell her husband, who says, "Do what seems best to you" (1 Sam. 1:11,23). Are the social roles of who consults with whom, between husband and wife, so rigidly fixed as Delaney implies?

Delaney concludes that we need "more moral vision, a new myth to live by." But why not live by truth rather than myth? I do not think for a moment that the testing of Abraham functions in Scripture either as a moral vision or as a simple myth to live by (p. 250). Like the Flood story, it is an unrepeatable event that signifies a revelation of the reality of human life. Soon after the testing of Abraham, Sarah dies and Abraham must pay an outrageous price just to bury her in his so-called Land of Promise. The mockery of his life in terms of God's promise of both posterity and land belong to his epitaph as he saunters off the stage of history. No wonder Christians often viewed his "saving faith" as superior to their own.

Finally, Delaney makes no historical case for a "social legacy" of killing children based on this one bad story. Conversely, Shalom Spiegel's The Last Trial reminds us that the legacy of death which God irrationally allowed in the successive threats of genocide for Jewish people points to a reality rather than a consequence of a flawed biblical tradition. For Christians, often culpable in that same legacy of death, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is not based on Jesus as a "type" of Isaac, but looks to the faith of God who like Abraham brings through his own son an end to sin and death itself, enough to cover the hopes of all humanity (cf. Rom. 8:31-39). If bad interpretation justified the dismissal of literature, then all books should be burned. What is more interesting is when historians and anthropologists show us by empathetic imagination that some things we at first find repugnant may be life-affirming within a certain social context and even a revelation of hope for others.

I have no doubt that Delaney could write a better Bible, if Bibles were simply "myths" or exemplary, moral "stories" to live by. Just as Delaney recalls her daughter's disgust with Genesis 22, I recall my own mother's admonition to me, "not to tell stories." Of course, she did not want me to lie or excuse my own failings by a cleverly twisted narrative. If Genesis 22 is simply such a story, then I would agree with Delaney that it is immoral and no myth to live by. However, if it belongs to the tapestry of the Torah of Moses in which love of God, children, oneself, and one's neighbor is a constant theme, then Genesis 22 is not an isolated story at all. It would more accurately be called a "testimony" in the Torah of Moses (cf. Deut. 31:26; Josh. 24:22-28), with the same assumption inherited from Judaism in the New Testament, e.g., John 3:11-36; 5:31-47; 21:24; Heb 2:6, and Rev. 1:2, et al.). As a biblical witness it points to a revelation of reality which depicts God as our hope of redemption and a profound p roblem in our lives-prayers in the psalms complaining against God confirm the same. Whatever truth it claims lives from the revelation itself and not from the morality or ideal world of the storyteller. Admittedly the Bible is a peculiar book for a peculiar people, but no anthropologist will empathetically understand Judaism and Christianity if this dimension is misunderstood, whether they personally believe in its truth or not.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Sheppard, Gerald T.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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