Abraham’s Children


Abraham is the first of the three biblical patriarchs and given a high position of respect in three major world faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Therefore, followers of those monotheistic religions can, in a sense, be regarded as “Abraham’s Children”. Even in the Bahá’í Faith Abraham is in high regard as a prophet.

While Abraham by the believers is considered a historical person, modern research considers him, together with his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, as a mythological figure. In the chapter “Searching for the Patriarchs” in their book “The Bible Unearthed”, the archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman indicate tell-tale anachronisms in the biblical stories about Abraham and the other patriarchs and mean that those stories, in stead of being true historical events from about 2000 BCE, “suggest an intensive period of writing the patriarchal narratives in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE”.

Paula M. McNutt means that “there is nothing specific in the Genesis stories that can be definitively related to known history in or around Canaan in the early second millennium B.C.E.”. As a result, “it is now widely agreed that the so-called ‘patriarchal/ancestral period’ is a later literary construct, not a period in the actual history of the ancient world”. (Reconstructing the Society of Ancient Israel, Westminster John Knox Press, 1999). Nutt and many scholars believe that the Pentateuch was composed in the Persian period (roughly 520–320 BCE).

Why then bother about Abraham? Because Abraham surprisingly still is a central part of the three religions! The tale about the Sacrifice of Isaac (see below) is still told, as recently as this fall in the church lying just 300 meters from my house, and the gospel song ‘The promises cannot fail’ (Löftena kunna ej svika) is still sung. The lyrics and music were written by the Swedish Pentacostal minister Lewi Pethrus in 1913 after his wife fell ill just before Christmas. Pethrus cancelled a preaching tour in the country when he got the news of her illness and the physicians advocated an operation. However it came to Pethrus that his wife’s illness was sent from God to test him as he had tested Abraham. Therefore he refused treatment. Instead they both decided to put their trust in God in prayer. The wife recovered and the psalm’s first two verses were written during the time of prayer. The second verse relates directly to the Sacrifice of Isaac and sounds as following (own translation):

Do as Abraham did,
gaze up at the sky!
While you the stars count,
your faith grows, your hope.

Thus, the willingness to sacrifice human lives for a religious purpose is still glorified, not only within extreme religious groups as the Christian Lord’s Liberation Army and Islamic IS or Boko Haram, but also within Western churches as the examples above are showing. I hope that by reading this post at least some religious people may reconsider that glorification.

Sacrifice of Isaac          Genesis – Chapter 22

1 It happened some time later that God put Abraham to the test. ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ he called. ‘Here I am,’ he replied.

2 God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, your beloved Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, where you are to offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall point out to you.’

3 Early next morning Abraham saddled his donkey and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He chopped wood for the burnt offering and started on his journey to the place which God had indicated to him.

4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.

5 Then Abraham said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I are going over there; we shall worship and then come back to you.’

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering, loaded it on Isaac, and carried in his own hands the fire and the knife. Then the two of them set out together.

7 Isaac spoke to his father Abraham. ‘Father?’ he said. ‘Yes, my son,’ he replied. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’

8 Abraham replied, ‘My son, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.’ And the two of them went on together.

9 When they arrived at the place which God had indicated to him, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. Then he bound his son and put him on the altar on top of the wood.

10 Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

11 But the angel of Yahweh called to him from heaven. ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ he said. ‘Here I am,’ he replied.

12 ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy,’ the angel said. ‘Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God. You have not refused me your own beloved son.’

13 Then looking up, Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son.

14 Abraham called this place ‘Yahweh provides’, and hence the saying today: ‘On the mountain Yahweh provides.’

15 The angel of Yahweh called Abraham a second time from heaven.

16 ‘I swear by my own self, Yahweh declares, that because you have done this, because you have not refused me your own beloved son,

17 I will shower blessings on you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies.

18 All nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed my command.’

19 Abraham went back to his servants, and together they set out for Beersheba, and Abraham settled in Beersheba.

Interpretations of the incident above

Religious people have made interpretations of the incident above for more than two millennia, always in positive terms. Abraham is a godly man willing to do anything for God, including sacrificing his own son. He thus constitutes an example to us all. God, on the other hand is benevolent as he supplies a ram to be sacrificed in stead of Isaac. Also, the incident forebodes the crucifixion of Jesus, God’s only begotten son.

However, when I read about the sacrifice of Isaac, I get a completely different impression.

  • The relationship between God and Abraham is reminiscent of that between master and serf. God’s motive for testing Abraham is to get a proof that he fears and obeys him. (‘Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God.’ ‘ All nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed my command.’) As described above God shows no qualms in commanding a father to kill his son just to get a confirmation of his superiority.

  • A benevolent God would never command a father to perform such a ghastly crime as to kill his own son. And if God were omniscient he would not have needed to do any test at all.

  • The sacrifice of Isaac reminds of the child sacrifices to the god Baal at the Baalbek Temple. If a living and benevolent God were to test Abraham, why did he choose to do it like a Baal worship? Anyhow, he should afterwards somehow have told Abraham that his willingness to perform the action was wrong and that human sacrifices and murders were from now on forbidden.

  • In spite of the enmity between the Yahweh and Baal cults, there is still this positive picture of child sacrifice left in the Bible. An assumption is that this incident imposed the necessity of obeying not only Yahweh, but also the religious and secular rulers of the country.

  • If God himself had killed the boy, it would have become like any other tragic accident when a parent looses his child. However, he chose the deed to be done by the father, thus making legitimate any crime committed in the name of religion.

  • When God commands Abraham he says: ‘Take your son, your only son, your beloved Isaac’. However, throughout the story there is nothing told about Abraham´s own sentiments. Only that he is twice deceiving Isaac as he does not want him to understand the purpose of the excursion. First when he says to his servants, ‘we shall worship and then come back to you.’ and then on Isaac’s question he answers ‘My son, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.’ The religious interpretation of this is that Abraham already understood that God would save Isaac, but there is nothing in the text supporting that. In stead it is a description of a man trying to deceive an appointed victim.

  • As shown above it seems that Isaac is worried, but strangely enough there is nothing about his reactions when being tied and put on top of the wood. By at least 98 % probability this was not a peaceful process as the child would have put up a struggle for his life. Why then is this struggle omitted in the story?

  • What is really strange in the story is that at the crucial moment, when Isaac is lying there tied on the altar, it is not God talking to Abraham, but “the angel of Yahweh”. Why is God himself choosing to be absent? Is it because of bad conscience?

  • The fact that Isaac is saved in the end is, according to my opinion, not because of divine benefaction, but because the intention of the incident, namely tying up Abraham and his descendants for an infinite future, otherwise would have failed.

  • Although many see the sacrifice of Isaac as a prognostication of God´s sacrifice of his son Jesus, it is difficult to see any deeper similarity between the two events. Isaac is a child, unaware of what is going to happen, while Jesus was a grown-up man who had accepted, prepared and awaited his destiny. And in the latter case it was not God father who was the executioner, it were the Romans who did it in order to avoid eventual turmoil among the Jews.

Religion or Humanism

Many see religion as a precondition for humanism and clearly there are many rules for human behaviour incorporated in different religions. However, it is a fact that it is only during the last about 200 years that e.g. slavery and public executions were forbidden in many countries, parallel to the secularisation of the communities. In general the more religious a country is, the more inhuman and ghastly customs persist. (Certain ideologies such as Communism are to great extent comparable with religions as they also assert truths that can not be questioned).

The idea itself about God as a higher creature is part of the problem and in particular when a religion advocates that actions like murder may be right just if God commands them. It is therefore horrible that the incident with Abraham willing to sacrifice his son Isaac is still preached. When the priest is praising Abraham´s willingness he is in principle simultaneously legitimating the actions of  Lord’s Liberation Army, IS and Boko Haram, although he never thinks that far.

I have sympathies for people with a belief in an almighty and benevolent God, but no priest should preach that God is inscrutable and his will superior to our own without contemplating the moral consequences of what he is saying.

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