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Abraham, Isaac, and Some Hidden Assumptions of Our Culture.

In the beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century, in the most modern of places--the United States of America--a tragedy of biblical proportions unfolded with the morning newspaper: "Father Sacrificed Child. God Told Him To."

So accustomed are we to horrendous tales of domestic violence that this headline might seem only a bizarre twist on the ordinary. People who read about the incident over their morning coffee noted it, registered a reaction, and turned the page, muttering, "The man must be crazy." In this way, the man was defined, the deed was labeled, and the whole thing could be put out of mind. A year later, when he came to trial, only one of the jurors remembered the newspaper story.

Yet once upon a time, God asked another father to sacrifice his child. For his willingness to obey God's command, Abraham became the model of faith at the foundation of the three monotheistic (Abrahamic) religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His story has been inscribed on the hearts and minds of billions of people for millennia. Even today, Abraham's devotion is revered and his example extolled in countless sermons and in the secular media. With that cultural model readily available, it is not so surprising that a father in our time felt he must obey God's command. Yet for his willingness to comply with what he took to be God's request, he was brought to trial.

Perhaps, then, we should put the Abraham story on trial as well. Because, while the contemporary case helps bring the Abraham story emotionally closer and raises several issues, it cannot raise the most important question: why is the willingness to sacrifice one's child the quintessential model of faith; why not the passionate protection of the child? What would be the shape of our society had that been the supreme model of faith and commitment? By critically examining the Abraham story, I think we can catch a glimpse.

If it is true, as author Shalom Spiegel suggests, that the "story of Abraham renews itself in every time of crisis," then the time has come to take another look. The crisis of society today is about values, about the very values that, I think, are epitomized by the Abraham story--not just faith and sacrifice but also the nature of authority; the basis and structure of the family, its gender definitions and roles; and which children, under what circumstances, shall be deemed acceptable and be provided for. My purpose is not to reinvigorate these values but to challenge them at their foundation.

The story of Abraham, some will say, is just a story about something that happened (or might have happened) long ago. They feel it has little to do with their lives or their faith, and thus they do not usually imagine that it has any bearing on contemporary life. What they forget is that the story of Abraham, like that of Jesus, was powerful enough to change the course of human history. It is clear that the story of Abraham is not just one story among others; it is, as Judah Goldin writes, "central to the nervous system of Judaism and Christianity." It is also central to Islam. Insofar as it has shaped the three religious traditions, their ethical values, and their views of social relations, it has shaped the realities we live by. Even if we are not believers, any of us raised in a culture influenced by Judaism, Christianity, or Islam has been affected by the values, attitudes, and structures exemplified by the story.

It is therefore important to uncover the set of assumptions that make the story possible, to get behind the story. Traditional exegeses proceed out from the story and move quickly to conventional contexts for interpretation--namely, sacrifice and faith--contexts that predetermine possible lines of interpretation. For example, if the story is viewed in the context of the theories and meanings of sacrifice, then the questions put to it will be how and in what ways does it conform to, deviate from, or shed light on known sacrificial practices? Related, surely, is whether the story represents the end of the supposed practice of child sacrifice and the institution of animal sacrifice. But even if child sacrifice was practiced in the ancient Near East, such interpretations fail to recognize that Abraham is revered not for putting an end to the practice but for his willingness to go through with it. That is what establishes him as the father of faith. That is what I find so terrifying. The story is not about substitution, symbolic or otherwise, but about a new morality; it represents not the end of the practice of child sacrifice but the beginning of a new order.

Interpretations that focus on Abraham's faith argue that to demonstrate his absolute, unswerving faith he had to be willing to sacrifice the thing he loved most in the world: the son he waited so long to have, the very child his God had promised. The paradoxical aspect reveals, to some, the mystery of God and the power of faith; one must simply make a leap of faith and believe. I am suspicious of these types of interpretations and think there is another, less mysterious question that, perhaps because it is so simple, has been overlooked.

Religious commentators have failed to ask the question that has nagged me from the time I first became a mother: what allowed Abraham to assume the child was his to sacrifice? At first blush, the question seems meaningless. God asked him. But could or would the all-knowing God ask only one parent for the child, knowing that a child belongs to both mother and father or, perhaps, to neither? The story, however, conveys the impression that the child belonged to Abraham in a way he did not belong to Sarah.

The focus on fatherhood pervades Genesis; one need only think of all the begats and the emphasis on the patrilineage to realize that this is the case. But if so, on what basis were children attributed to their fathers? To say that the child belongs to the father because of patriarchy, a usual response, explains nothing because patriarchy means the power of fathers; such an answer is circular and only defers the question. What we need to ask is: what is it about fathers or fatherhood that conveys such power?

The answer turns on the meaning of paternity and shows how the definition and assumptions about paternity made it possible for Abraham to think that the child was his to sacrifice. The meanings are integral to the story; it doesn't make sense without them. Moreover, the same meanings have been carried over and reinforced by ancient as well as modern, religious as well as secular, interpretations; the meanings have been assumed, not examined. From anthropological studies of kinship and gender, it is possible to argue that neither the role nor the power of the father is a given in nature and the order of things but, rather, that both are intimately connected to a particular theory of procreation--a theory that is, in turn, connected to a cosmological/metaphysical system.

Paternity has not meant just the recognition of a biological relationship between a man and a specific child, nor the social role built on that recognition; paternity has meant the primary, creative, engendering role. In the Bible (and in the popular imagination) it is symbolized by the word seed. Identity--whether of plant or of person--is imagined as a matter of seed; in human terms it is bequeathed by the father. The soul, also, was imagined as transmitted via seed. The child belongs to the father because it is his seed. Women, in contrast, have been imagined as the nurturing medium in which the seed is planted rather than as co-creators; they foster its growth and bring it forth but do not provide its essential identity. The very notion of paternity, therefore, already embodies authority and power and provides the rationale for a particular constellation of the family and the structure of relations within it. This notion of paternity is integral to the story of Abraham, for it is all about his "seed."

The seemingly simple word seed is anything but simple or neutral. By evoking associations with agriculture and the natural world, the image naturalizes a structure of power relations as it also conceals it. Represented as seed and soil, male and female roles have been differentially valued and hierarchically ordered. This theory of procreation, common to both the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Greeks, has been the dominant folk theory in the West for millennia, shaping popular images and sentiments of gender.

From today's perspective, this theory of procreation is obviously erroneous. Today we believe that both male and female contribute the same kind of thing to the identity of a child--namely, genes--and that each contributes half the genetic endowment, or half the seed, so to speak. Women, of course, contribute much more--by way of nurture to the fetus in utero, by giving birth, and often by providing additional nurture and care during its early life--yet are still popularly associated only with the nurturing, not the creative aspects. The modern, biogenetic understanding of reproduction is relatively recent, known only to certain of the world's peoples, and it tends to be confined explicitly to biomedical discourses. Yet notions of paternity and maternity were culturally constructed long before the development of biology and genetics, and these older notions are still being perpetuated by popular images and sentiments about gender and by the social arrangements, especially the family, that continue to affect the way men and women are thought about.

The meanings of paternity and maternity were not originally based on biological theory, and they do not simply change in response to changes in biological theory. They are rooted far deeper and their extent is far wider than the discourse and domain of reproduction; ultimately they are rooted in a cosmological system--in this case, the monotheistic world view that is elaborated somewhat differently in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The foundational story of Abraham is central to these belief systems as well as to the societies influenced and the social arrangements legitimated by them.

For believers, the story has a central place both theologically and ritually in each of the religions. Jews recite Genesis 22 annually at the new year service Rosh Hashanah; it is also included as part of the daily morning prayers of the devout. Christians think the story prefigures the crucifixion, when "God the Father sacrificed his only begotten son"; a recitation of Genesis 22 is traditionally part of the services during Easter week. Muhammad's mission was to recall the people to the one true religion given in the beginning to Abraham. Each year Muslims dramatically reenact the event on the most sacred day of the Muslim calendar--the Feast of the Sacrifice--that occurs at the end of the rituals of the Hajj. On that day, whether in Mecca or in the home, each male head of household sacrifices a ram (or substitute) in place of the intended child. And every male child can imagine that, but for the grace of God, there might he be. Told year after year, generation after generation, the story has continued to make an impact on the minds and emotions of people who are, as promised, countless "as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore" (Genesis 22:17).

The Abraham story overflows the boundaries of religious communities. As one of the most common religious themes depicted in painting and also well represented in literature, sculpture, and music, it has become part of the cultural mainstream. In the space of two weeks in November 1992, just as I began work on my book on this topic, the story was the subject of an art exhibit in Berkeley, California; a sermon delivered by a minister in Little Rock, Arkansas, and directed at Bill Clinton, who was sitting in the first pew the Sunday after his election to the presidency; and a Peanuts cartoon just before Thanksgiving.

As a way of protesting the Vietnam War, Bob Dylan wrote a song--"Highway 61 Revisited"--that imagined Abraham questioning God's order. Perhaps he was aware of the practice of using the story of Abraham to legitimate war, as was Wilfred Owen in his famous poem against the "fathers" sending the "sons" off to World War I. Leonard Cohen wrote a song called "The Sacrifice of Isaac." When George Segal was commissioned to make a sculpture commemorating the deaths of the students at Kent State, he chose the theme of Abraham and Isaac. And when Kent State rejected it on the grounds that it was too inflammatory, Princeton University bought it and placed it near the chapel on campus.

The story was the subtext of President Jimmy Carter's book about the Middle East, The Blood of Abraham; more recently of a novel, The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Nell Gordon, about the ambivalent legacy of the Holocaust; as well as of Woody Allen's film Crimes and Misdemeanors. On Easter Sunday and Monday 1994, in the midst of my writing, a miniseries entitled Abraham was shown on television. I mention each of these uses of the story--and there are many more--primarily to make the point that the story is very much alive in contemporary American culture.

I approach the story of Abraham as an anthropologist, viewing it not purely as a religious text but also as a cultural text; for no matter how divinely inspired it may have been, it is an artifact of human culture. My goal, however, is not to recover the particular time and place of Abraham. The story was transmitted orally and edited repeatedly for hundreds of years before it ever reached its canonical form. Therefore, as R. W. L. Moberly points out in Vestum Testamentum, "Any interpretation which substantively depends on relating the text to a historical context must itself be forever tentative and hypothetical." At the same time, I do not mean to imply that it can be totally taken out of its context, for the opposite hermeneutical tendency often assumes that it is, therefore, timeless and represents "the human condition" or universal human psychology. That approach is equally misleading.

Regardless of its provenance, the story does not merely reflect a particular culture and society; it also incorporates a vision of society--indeed, a vision of the cosmos--that has animated numerous cultures over considerable time. To connect it only to a particular time and locale would be to lose sight of that fact. Too often we forget the way that events themselves are transformed in relation to mythic structures of interpretation. People continue to derive their identity, orient their lives, and interpret the meaning of life from the patterns first charted by the story. Judah Goldin says:
 Scriptures are not only a record of the past but a prophecy, a
 foreshadowing and foretelling of what will come to pass. And if that is the
 case, text and personal experience are not two autonomous domains. On the
 contrary, they are reciprocally enlightening; even as the immediate event
 helps to make the age-old sacred text intelligible, so in turn the text
 reveals the fundamental significance of the recent event or experience.

Religious myth has social implications; conversely, social events are made to speak to religious themes. In this way is woven the moral fabric that helps people make sense of their lives. We can never recapture the living quality of the culture of the biblical writers, but we can investigate their vision of the world and its legacy. We can ask about the role of the Abraham story in that vision. And we can ask if this vision is one we wish to perpetuate.

The story of Abraham has bequeathed a moral legacy in which we have been taught not to question the authority of "fathers," even though, in the process, we betray children. Contemporary realities illustrate the ways in which the sacrifice and betrayal of children has been institutionalized. One can point to the dreadful conditions in which most children in the world are living. Children are abused at the hands of their parents, most frequently fathers or their surrogates, and by priests--the very "fathers" who stand in for God and whose mission it is to protect children. One can also include war and point out that "children" are sent off to fight old men's battles and that the U.S. military budget vastly exceeds that of welfare. The recent welfare debate itself shows how the "fathers" (of state) exercised their power to determine the fate of a whole generation of children.

The story of Abraham is not causative in any direct sense. But because it exemplifies and legitimates a hierarchical structure of authority, a specific form of family, definitions of gender, and the value of obedience that are simultaneously the fountain-head of faith and the bedrock of society, it has created an environment that has made it seem sacrilegious to question these issues.

In Genesis 22:16--18, as Abraham takes the knife to slay his son, God through his angel calls out:
 Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine
 only son: ... I will bless thee, and ... I will multiply thy seed as the
 stars of the heaven, and as the sand ... upon the sea shore; and thy seed
 shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the
 nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

Like that knife eternally poised in mid-air, several questions should be held in our minds. Why is the willingness to sacrifice the child the model of faith? What is the function of obedience? Why so little attention to the betrayal of the child? Whose voice counts? Like another sacrificed by his father, did Abraham's son cry out at the critical moment: "Father, father, why hast thou forsaken me?" Why have we eulogized their submission?

In order to stem the tide of sacrifice--of the hopes, trust, health, and lives of children--we need a revolution in values. We need a new moral vision, a new myth to live by--one that will change the course of history as profoundly as did the Abraham story. I cannot provide such a myth; no one person can do that. Myths are collective enterprises; they emerge from people's experiences of the discrepancies between their personal lives and the myths with which they try to make sense of those lives. Yet myths, like scientific theory, do not emerge de novo; they are always constructed out of old ones. My task is a critical one, but criticism is not my only goal. By illuminating the assumptions built into the Abraham myth, we can better go about the task of reconstruction.

Genesis 22:1-18

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold here I am.

2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Mori-ah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.

5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.

6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father.' and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.

9 And they came to the place which God had told him of,' and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.

12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

14 And Abraham called the name of that place Je-ho-vah-ji-reh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,

16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:

17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;

18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed,' because thou hast obeyed my voice.


Carol Delaney is associate professor of anthropology at Stanford University. She has a master's degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago and is the author of The Seed and the Soil: Gender and Cosmology in Turkish Village Society. This article is adapted from her latest book, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth (Princeton University Press, 1998).
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Title Annotation:Abraham's impact on Judaism, Christianity and Islam
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 1999
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