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Sacrifice-of-Isaac-CaravaggioIt’s funny how you can read a story or watch a movie at two different times in your life and see it in two completely different lights each time. The second time around, you notice things you never would have caught before.
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I recently watched a favorite Bond movie and found myself saying, “Were his lines always this corny? And was the action always this…cartoony?” I also remember the first time I watched Mary Poppins again as an adult and thought to myself, “Okay, so it turns out she was actually kinda hot.”
I surprised even myself with how differently I was affected by something previously familiar. I followed a friend’s link to a gospelizing of the song “Royals” done by a couple of Pentecostal girls and had to shut it off when they started singing about being “covered in his blood.” It grossed me out, but then it struck me how readily I might have sung something similar a few years ago without any such revulsion. What a difference a few years can make!

James Said What?

This happens with reading the Bible, too. The other day I read the second chapter of James and realized that for many years I totally misread his argument about why Yahweh approved of Abraham. I had always read that passage through the lens of Paul’s counter-argument which said that Abraham was declared righteous before he ever got circumcised, which would support Paul’s own idea that it was faith (and not “works”) which earned Yahweh’s favor.

I always read James’s argument as if he were saying it was in fact circumcision which made Abraham pleasing to God, but that’s not what he applauded. No, James praised Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his own son as an act of worship to Yahweh. That is what he says made Abraham pleasing to God.
What struck me the other day about this interpretation was how quick Christians are to dismiss the story of Abraham as an example of “Old Testament thinking.” When confronted with the horrific brutality of both Yahweh and his people in the Bible, it has always been customary to explain it away by citing progressive revelation, as if such primitive thinking were not the foundation of the early Church’s profession of faith. But it was.
Far from condemning Abraham’s belief that it’s ever okay to sacrifice your own child, James extols this act of Abraham as an example for all of us as if it were the quintessential act of worship which pleases God. Reading this at my current stage in life, I see that it’s wrong on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin.

Five Lessons from the Story of Abraham

For this convoluted mental task, I’m leaning on my friend Brian, a.k.a. The Apostate, who blogs over at A Pasta Sea, to help me parse these things out. He starts off by speaking to the heart of the matter:

I think this chapter strikes at the very core of exactly how the traditional expressions of the Abrahamic faiths are able to make otherwise good people do terrible things in the names of their gods.

Indeed it does. In fact, as I re-read this story today I count at least five terrible discoveries about biblical faith which I never saw before because the eyes of faith remain blind to things like this. I’ll let Brian elucidate each one of them since he does such a good job of articulating the issues.
1) Biblical morality is relativistic to the core. Christians often accuse atheists of having no basis for moral reasoning. But the story of God telling Abraham to kill his son illustrates that, if “whatever God says is good is good,” then nothing can consistently be called “bad,” not even child sacrifice.

Another point that’s not typically dealt with by most expositors of this passage is that God has given opposing commands. He’s instructed Abraham to kill Isaac and then later commands him not to harm the boy. We can therefore conclude that any command of God might be countermanded. This presents a problem for any moral argument that makes God out to be the “objective standard” of what is right. Under this view, it was morally right for Abraham to desire to kill Isaac in obedience to the command of God and then three days later it was morally wrong. Not because the situation had changed, but simply because God said so.
How is having this kind of capricious, arbitrary, unsubstantiated and unverifiable nonsense as a basis for morality any better than some “subjective” or “relativistic” secular moral philosophy? Under morality that’s based on divine command, literally any act could be justified simply by believing that God commanded it; even acts that would appear to run counter to prior commands that God has given. (emphasis mine)

2) Killing something is central to this religion. First and foremost, there’s the killing of Jesus, which the Bible says was necessary to appease God’s wrath.

Old Testament aside, to an outside observer, it’s pretty clear that human sacrifice is undeniably central to much of Christian theology, given that its most important figure is thought by many of its adherents to have been sacrificed to appease its god’s wrath. Try to nuance it all you want. It’s simply inescapable when the main symbol of a religion is the very instrument of death its founder was supposedly sacrificed upon. Call it what you want, but blood magic is all over the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments and is celebrated all over Christianity’s traditional hymnody (e.g. “Power in the Blood”, “Nothing but the Blood”, “Are You Washed in the Blood”, “The Blood Will Never Lose its Power”, etc.) and blood magic is either ritualistically performed or memorialized every time participants drink their shot of wine/grape juice or have a priest do it for them. (emphasis mine)

Furthermore, there’s the daily metaphorical “crucifixion” of the human personality which evidently this deity requires.

It’s fitting that human sacrifice plays such a central role in Christianity. When certain Christian doctrines are taken seriously – doctrines that proclaim an individual’s depravity, uncleanness, corrupt reason, unworthiness of anything good, worthiness of eternal torture and utter inability to do anything about those things apart from the divine intervention that only comes when one blindly surrenders in faith – it leads to exactly that. It leads to the sacrifice of one’s own humanity.

I am told it’s not bad to be human. But then I’m told the essence of worship is to die—to sacrifice myself in one way or another. How can people not see the glaring inconsistency of this? And besides, if even Christians don’t take seriously the challenge to take up their cross, why should anyone else?
3) Wherever the Bible seems to present God in a repulsively negative light, you can just make stuff up to sanitize the story and people will uncritically eat it up. The writer of Hebrews struggled with this at some level, and he suggested (rather ad hoc, I might add) that Abraham must have figured Yahweh would just bring Isaac back from the dead. Which he knows because…um…because…uh…

Second, Isaac was to be a whole burnt offering, meaning after Abraham slaughtered Isaac, he was supposed to burn him. The smoke from burnt offerings was to rise up to heaven and be a pleasing aroma. This would point to the totality of the sacrifice and the rising up of the essence of whatever it was toward heaven. There’s not going to be a body, bones or anything else left to be “raised” and the writer of Hebrews doesn’t seem to pay any heed to that little detail….
…I’m merely pointing out that it would be incredibly unnatural for Abraham to conclude that a pile of ashes would be raised back to life. Such a belief would require a highly developed theology that’s completely foreign to the Old Testament and unprecedented in any Biblical example of resurrection…and most importantly, there is no mention in the text of Genesis itself that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead…The writer of Hebrews is either offering this resurrection belief up as his own supposition or is repeating some other tradition, but it’s nowhere in the text of Genesis.
In fact, there is nothing at all in the entire Old Testament that would give us any indication whatsoever that people in Abraham’s day even had a kind of bodily resurrection theology at all. It’s not until Daniel 12 (after coming in contact with Persian/Zoroastrian theology) that we even find a clear, overt reference to the idea of a bodily resurrection from the dead following the lapse of any time…

Is the writer of Hebrews using responsible principles for biblical interpretation here? Can we just make stuff up now, and that’s cool? I guess people have been doing it for centuries, so why not?
4) If you can find enough poetic symbolism in a story or passage, you can drown out any cognitive dissonance or moral revulsion caused by the story itself. It’s like covering the stench of a recently-used restroom with a liberal spraying of floral-scented Lysol.

When I was a Christian I used to play up the comparisons of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I would point out how God, like Abraham, was going to sacrifice his son, only he was actually going to go through with it. I’d point out things like Isaac carrying the wood and Jesus carrying his cross. I’d point out how the Temple was probably built on this same mountain and how all the sacrifices performed in the Temple were pointing to Jesus. I was always sure to point out how Abraham’s response to Isaac that, “God will provide for himself the lamb” was a profound prophetic allusion to Jesus Christ.
Question begging aside, this was astounding confirmation for me as a Christian and, like all the other things I seized upon to strengthen my faith, completely glossed over just how obviously screwed-up this story is on its face.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. The supposed “child sacrifice” of Jesus doesn’t validate the command of Abraham to kill his own son. The execution of an itinerant Jewish preacher was a tragic overreach of a heavy-handed Roman empire, not a divinely-appointed sacrifice to perform an act of “blood magic.” Finding a parallel to that awful injustice doesn’t nullify the horrific nature of what the Bible suggests Yahweh wanted Abraham to do. Which leads me to my fifth and final point:
5) Abraham wasn’t praised because he didn’t kill his son; he was praised because he was going to. It wasn’t the sparing of Isaac which made Abraham the ultimate model for devotion to Yahweh; it was his willingness to do absolutely anything—even kill his son—that won him the prime spot on the Hall of Faithful. Brian puts it bluntly:

It is astonishing and baffling to me that this act of Abraham’s is so highly regarded in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This “test” would better serve as a means of weeding out psychopaths who unquestioningly obey the voices in their heads, rather than as a way to show how much someone fears God or how much faith they have. Instead, this is supposed to be the epitome of faith and the act which actually justified Abraham. I’m sorry, but if a deity comes to me in a dream, vision, physical manifestation or through some sort of esoteric sensation and communicates to me that he or she wants me to slaughter my son and burn him on an altar, I’m going to assume I’m either crazy, hallucinating, having a nightmare, on a hidden camera show or speaking to an evil spirit. In any case, I’m going to tell that deity to piss off. I would hope that any other sane, loving father would do the same.

Taking the Bible Too Seriously

I have a theory that the correlation between how seriously you take the Bible and how much credence you give it falls in line with the normal bell curve.
People who aren’t very religious can be dismissive of the crazy stories in the Bible because…come on, have you ever thought how reading these stories would strike you as an outsider? As you become more serious about Bible study, however, you will likely do as most do and begin to exercise your imagination until these tall tales begin to seem like they may have actually happened.
Thanks to Hollywood’s recent rediscovery that Christians spend money, the entertainment industry is becoming flooded with full-length films featuring every biblical tale you ever wanted to see (and probably already have, except now it’ll have better special effects). It remains to be seen whether this much-lauded nod to biblical faith will help or hurt its credibility, and either way the peddlers of religious stuff will get filthy rich off of it.
But there comes a point at which you have to suspend rationality or else you can start to take the Bible too seriously.  Once you try and see these stories as truly happening, putting yourself into these situations and imagining how these things would play out in real life, the Bible starts to make less and less sense.
If you take the Bible as seriously as some people do, you just may end up doing what many of us have done and conclude that these stories aren’t just unbelievable, they’re psychologically disturbing and morally reprehensible. The faithful will continue to gloss over its warts and deformities by reveling in poetically appealing parallels and symbolic foreshadowing, never grasping how easily these things can be reverse-engineered by superstitious people with powerful collective imaginations.
But take it seriously enough, and you just might come to reject the whole thing, and be better off for it, I might add.
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To see more of Brian’s writing visit his blog here.
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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...