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S. Ben Ami: The Sacrifice of Isaac

 Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East

A few years ago, I was invited to an Iftar during the time of Ramadan. During the evening there was an El-Haqawati, a traditional story teller. He told us a wonderful story about a young boy somewhere between Iraq and Syria who left his father’s home and went to an unknown land. When he grew up he had two sons by different mothers; the elder was banished into the desert with his mother, and the younger with his mother tried to take the birthright as the favorite son. The people around were attracted to the story and reflected in the Middle Eastern way in loud voices. Suddenly, we realized that we had been told the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael.

The story was concluded by the words: if Isaac does not ask Ishmael to forgive him, then their descendants will fight till the end of days.

Can you imagine? The crisis between Israelis and Palestinians is not over land or territories. It started a long, long ago, from the very early days of Abraham and his two sons, long before Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In order to understand the characteristics of the Abrahamic religions, we must seek out their roots. In the name of the same God, those religions sprouting from the same establishing father have done one to another the most horrible things in human history. This could not happen unless there was something very wrong and very twisted at the base of their faith.

I am going to argue that the concept of martyrdom and worshiping God with blood and sacrifice which underlies those religions is what made the terrible mental deformity which causes them to persecute one another until the present day.

Scriptures were not meant to be enjoyable reading books. They have very clear messages. They are designed to educate, transfer knowledge, and teach us the way we go. The book of Genesis has a special role in this matter.

One of the great experiences in relation to worshiping God, if not the greatest one of all in each one of those religions, is that of a father sacrificing his son. In that point, to my opinion, we have made a huge blunder. More than that, we have understood the stories in a completely opposite way to their true meaning. I’m talking about the mistake of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, the mistake of Christianity seeing the crucifixion as a willing sacrifice by God of his only son, and the mistake of Islam about Ibrahim’s sacrifice of Ishmael. We made a mistake in understanding the reference to the imperative to sacrifice a son, which is the root of the Abrahamic religions, going back to the days of Abraham.

I am aware that my point of view may provoke disagreement, since I am presenting a different and even opposite approach to the traditional interpretation, but consider the following verses in the Book of Genesis.

God, as the Creator, is the ultimate parent. Because of this, we must learn from Him how to be parents. Misunderstanding the meaning of the “father/parent” means a misunderstanding of the meaning of God. The name Abram in Hebrew, means Av-Ram: a superior father. In human history he was intended to play the role of the perfect father. God told him explicitly that “the father of many nations have I made thee.” Father is the beginning of everything. It is not for nothing that in all Semitic languages and those derived from them the word “father” is composed of the two first letters of the alphabet – A (alef) and B (bet). This is the starting point of everything.

And yet, in his mission as a father, Abraham failed completely. He failed as a family man so much that I am not sure if any woman would want him as her husband. I certainly would have hesitated to choose him as the ideal father. At the age of 90, his wife Sarah bore Isaac; and to maintain his position as the real family heir, she requested Abraham to kick out Hagar and Ishmael, his son, to the desert. Abraham obeyed Sarah just as Adam obeyed Eve in Eden, when he ate the forbidden fruit.

However, the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael was deemed by God as correct, since He told Abraham to obey Sarah, unlike Adam. In the banishment, Abraham gave away his parental responsibility. This is not the behavior one would expect from a father.

And after these things, God tried Abraham and said unto him: Abraham, and he said Behold, here I am. And said: Take now your son, your only son, who you love, Isaac, and go - go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you. (Genesis 22)

Rashi, one of the main Jewish commentators of the Bible, explains why the need for such a detailed order. After all, God could have told him right away: “Take Isaac.” According to Rashi, when God told him to take his son, Abraham replied: I have two sons. To that God responded: “your only son.” Abraham answered: they both were the only sons of their mothers. God said to him: “the one that you love.” Abraham answered: I love them both. After all those answers of Abraham, God said to him: “Isaac.”

In my opinion, Rashi was also a prisoner of the concept of the willingness to sacrifice to God, and he was completely wrong in his commentary.

God responded to Abraham the same way that Abraham argued with Him about sparing the people of Sodom. God was starting from the light to the heavy: your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac. God was making it so difficult so that Abraham would rebel against Him. But Abraham didn’t say anything.

God expected him to say: Take me instead of him, but do not raise your hand on my son. This is what one expects a father to say. But not Abraham, who pleaded for the lives of each person in Sodom but was as silent as a fish when it came to his own son. He gave up very easily his parental responsibility. He preferred to be absolutely obedient to God than to be responsible for his own sons.

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said: “Abraham, Abraham.” And he said: “Here am I.” And he said: “Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.” (Genesis 22:9-12)

That is all what the angel knew. Abraham feared God. Abraham, the ultimate father, feared God. From now on, no more divine revelation came to Abraham, only the angel spoke to him. The angel spoke with Hagar, with Sarah and also with him, but he had no more divine revelation. He failed, and God looked for another father.

Actually, Abraham sacrificed both Isaac and Ishmael. The story of the banishment of Ishmael is very close to the story of sacrificing Isaac. Both of them were parallel in the two religions, Judaism and Islam. The experience of sacrifice is held in a very high profile even as cornerstones of faith. Isaac and Ishmael grew up separately but had the same type of traumatic experience.

Abraham was commanded to separate forever from his two sons. In the case of Ishmael it was a potential death in the desert, and in the case of Isaac it was to be a burnt offering. In both stories, Abraham reacted immediately with full obedience to God’s commands, in the early morning, without any question. In this story lies Abraham’s greatest mistake. This led to the wrong worldview of the sons of Abrahamic religions.

What was so special about the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son? Abraham was to abandon idolatry. Idolatry worshiping at that time was accompanied by sacrificing children to the “Moloch” and other gods. This is the test in which he failed. He understood the one God as the other gods, to whom sons and daughters were sacrificed. So he feared God but failed completely in the test.

If we read the story about the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:23), we can see a different Abraham: a man who argues with God, a man who wanted to spare every man in Sodom. Abraham felt that the deportation was wrong, but he didn’t say a word. He argued about the people of Sodom and rebelled against God’s plan to destroy Sodom, but about the deportation he didn’t argue and didn’t rebel.

This situation raises the question of how many times in our lives have we found ourselves in situations in which we wanted to show our children a clear example but in fact showed something quite different? How many times have we found ourselves giving advice to everyone except to our own children? Is that not what Solomon meant in Song of Songs, Chapter I, when he said: “I was put to guard the vineyards, my own vineyard I didn’t guard?”?

In Judaism, the sacrifice of Isaac is the top symbol of faith. The rabbinic literature glorifies this story and emphasizes the exemplary act of Abraham. According to the legend,” when Abraham was told to sacrifice his son Isaac, he was so quick to fulfill the commandment of his Creator that he himself and not one of his servants put him on his donkey. He was happy as someone installs itself to the wedding of his son.”

Is the God in the stories of Ishmael’s banishment and Isaac’s sacrifice the same God of the last speech of Moses?

He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young. (Deuteronomy 32:10-12)

As Jews see the sacrifice of a son to God as the summit of their dedication to Him, so also Christians thought that God must do the same. At the Council of Nicaea, they passed the resolution of their creed stating that Jesus came down from heaven in order to give us salvation, he became incarnate, suffered, died, and was resurrected on the third day (Crucifixus etiam prō nōbīs). Jesus is the sacrifice that God made for human beings. In the thanksgiving ceremony, the Eucharist, God is thanked for sacrificing His only son for the salvation of mankind.

Most Christian commentators argued for interpreting the Old Testament allegorically, that is to view it as clues and symbols. The sacrifice of Isaac heralds the crucifixion of Jesus. Abraham sacrificing his only son symbolizes God the Father, and Isaac symbolizes Jesus. Just as Abraham bound his only son, whom he loved, God the Father gave His only son for our sake. The Christian Messiah is the Agnus Deī, the Lamb of God.

Six centuries later Islam was founded. Just like her elder sister religions, Judaism and Christianity, Islam needed something to promote itself. So from all the charming stories of the Bible, the story of the sacrifice of the son was chosen, only this time it was Ishmael. In the Qur’an it says that the order was given to Abraham in a dream. When he obeyed, God told him: “Abraham, you already fulfilled the dream.” (37:104-105)

So how can we please God as long as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe that sacrificing a son is the highest commitment of faith? Only if we, as well, sacrifice our sons!!! We sacrifice them by the Holy name, make martyrs out of them (shahids), let them explode, and talk nonsense about virgins and heaven. God in heaven will see and His heart will burst at how we got His message all wrong.

During all this time, not even one Jewish, Christian, or Muslim religious leader understood that we have got it all wrong. This is the only way we can understand how it is possible for mothers and fathers to encourage their children to sacrifice their lives foolishly and stupidly. If the Supreme Father is willing to sacrifice His only son, why should we be surprised that a father or a brother slaughters his daughter or sister for the dubious honor of the family, or a brother slays his brother?

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days for Jews, the prayers keep mentioning the sacrifice of Isaac, the father’s willingness to sacrifice his son. I always ask myself, what does God think of at that moment? Does He not ask: when will you realize you had it all wrong?

So we will keep on to sacrificing our children to the god of war and revenge, and will be proud that they are brave martyrs and shahids. But the angel does not reveal any rams and not even a lamb.

What does all of this have to do interfaith dialogue? Everything!!! As responsible parents, how can we lead our beloved sons and daughters to the rituals of slaughter? As really responsible parents, we should throw away the differences of our religions, nationalities, races, colors, and all boundaries. We must stop sacrificing our children. Our responsibility as religious leaders and as children of God is to be the conscience of our people and nations. Let us say now after thousands of years of hatred and miserable suffering: My brother, I forgive you, please forgive me. Let us be one in God.

Mr. Shuki Ben-Ami is Professor of Theology at Emil Frank Theological Institute in Germany specializing in early Christian history and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Currently, he is President of the Israeli Chapter of the World Media Association. Mr. Ben-Ami is author and publicist of many books and essays, including: “Faith of God in Man According to Jewish Tradition,” “Jerusalem Stories,” and the “Native American Culture in South Dakota.” He and his wife, Shosh, have three children and two grandchildren.