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Stories of Jesus
Chapter 4: The Stories

         

Part Two: Easter Jesus in old stories

Abraham and Isaac

The Achan story is a story of human sacrifice that masquerades as a story of punishment for a crime. In the Bible there are stories of explicitly religious human sacrifice that indicate that the practice may once have been accepted in early Israelite religion. Here is one such story, but I’m going to make it a little different—not so drastically different as in the first Eve story above. I’m getting help on this one again from James Alison. (Jesus, the Forgiving Victim, Essay 3, pp. 131-34)

An old man with only one heir hears a promise from God that he will be the ancestor of a great nation. God tests this old man’s faith by ordering him to sacrifice his only son on a mountain. The man takes wood for the holocaust and loads it on his son’s back. Together they start up the mountain, the man carrying a knife and a pot with the fire, the son carrying the wood. On the way the son says, “Father, here are the wood and the fire, but where is the victim for the sacrifice?” “God will provide,” the old man replies.

 

At the top of the mountain the man builds an altar and binds his son on it. He takes the knife and kills his son. Then he sets fire to the wood and burns up his son’s body as an offering to God. Afterwards he descends the mountain alone. 

In the familiar Bible story the father and son are Abraham and Isaac, and Isaac doesn’t die. Here it is in summary:

God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son on a mountain. This Abraham proceeds to do; but God intervenes at the last moment. A ram happens to be stuck in a briar bush, so they sacrifice the ram in place of Isaac. After the appropriate commendation from the Lord and a renewal of the promise God had made before, Abraham descends the mountain—alone! (Genesis 22:1-19)

That last detail, that Isaac is not mentioned along with Abraham at the end of the story, sets some scholars to wondering. Maybe we’re dealing here with a story that has undergone some editing. The original story may have been like what I described first. It would have taught that God desires human sacrifice. Later an editor changed the story so that it would teach that God does not desire human sacrifice. This editor changed what he thought he needed to but didn’t follow through consistently to the end of the story. Abraham still walks down the mountain alone. That apparent slip leads these scholars to suspect an editor’s hand was at work.

One lesson often taken from this Abraham story is that God doesn’t approve of human sacrifice. That message would have come across even more strongly to hearers who knew the previos story suggested above and recognized the changes made. Then the changes to the story would be what the editor had in mind to teach—and not a questionable historical fact about people named Abraham, Isaac, and a mysterious command from God. It’s the edited version that made it into Scripture. If this is a story about Jesus, I suppose the nearest thing to him would be the ram.

Thinking about the main point: In this story we get the idea that God doesn’t want human sacrifice, but we can’t avoid the impression that God considers sacrificing something to be a good thing. The custom of offering sacrifices is a prominent feature of the Older Testament often unrelated to any wrongs committed. The Original Sin story suggests that God could be making a sacrifice to the humans. What sense does it make for humans to offer sacrifice to God? Does God require repayment, even if only token repayment, for benefits we have received? That’s a common thought, but I have my doubts. What kind of giver would God be if repayment were required? Sacrifice is so central a part of biblical and many other religions that it’s going to need some more thought.

On to Cain and Abel