Like many people I know, I first heard the story of Abraham and Isaac as a child. I couldn’t have been older than thirteen. I was probably closer to ten. But I learned the story differently from many if not most of the Christian and Muslim and even some Jewish kids my age. The Christian kids learned that the story was about Abraham’s faith in God, who could, if need be, bring Isaac back from the dead. Abraham’s sacrifice was a prefiguration of a greater sacrifice to come. The Muslim and many Jewish kids learned that the story demonstrated the very essence of what it means to be a Muslim or Jew, complete submission or obedience to God.
I learned that the story was God’s way of proclaiming his opposition to human sacrifice.
Our Hebrew-school teacher explained it exactly as our Hebrew-school textbook did: God, he said, had brought Abraham to a new land. A good and fertile land, where it was common for pagan tribes, hoping to keep the crops and flocks coming, to sacrifice first-born sons to God. Then one day, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the beloved son of his old age. Abraham set out to do it, and was about to, when God stopped him. He sacrificed a ram instead. In the end, Abraham had “demonstrated his—and the Jews’—heroic willingness to accept God and His law,” and God had “proclaimed” that “He could not accept human blood, that He rejected all human sacrifices.”
That interpretation goes back at least as far as the thirteenth century. I found it in the writings of Ibn Kaspi, who argues not just that the story’s purpose was to uproot, undermine, and weaken the heathen practice of child sacrifice, but also that Abraham himself (even before he looked up and saw the ram in the thicket and decided, on his own, to offer it) understood that child sacrifice was an abomination to God. But as far as I can tell it didn’t gain traction until after the Enlightenment and it becomes especially prominent in nineteenth century biblical scholarship (see for example the work of Abraham Geiger) and then popularizations of that scholarship in the twentieth century. Today the notion that the story was a polemic against child sacrifice is as widespread as any interpretation save perhaps the Christian idea that the story is a story of faith and a “type” of the passion of Christ. You can still find it in scholarship, and it is everywhere in popular histories of religion, biblical and prayer book commentary, encyclopedias of religion, guides to religious literacy, and more.
It is not hard to understand the appeal of that interpretation. It puts God and Abraham on the side of the angels, civilization, and progress, in the battle against the scourge of child sacrifice waged by some of the greatest Jewish prophets in the sixth and seventh centuries B.C.E.
But among the first things I discovered when I began doing the research for my book is that the idea that Genesis 22 was a polemic against child sacrifice drives some biblical scholars to distraction. They see it is a kind of wishful thinking or anachronistic apology that can’t survive a close, critical, and clear-eyed reading of the text in the context of the Hebrew Bible and numerous other ancient Near Eastern sources, sources which suggest that child sacrifice was sometimes practiced and for centuries celebrated, by the ancient Israelites as well as by their neighbors: “You shall give Me the first-born among your sons,” God declares in Exodus 13 and again in Exodus 22. God didn’t always demand what was his, but sometimes he did.
Have a look for yourself, not just at Exodus 13 and 22, two places where God lays claim to the first born, but also at the much more familiar Genesis 22, where God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then rewards him for (links his blessing to) Abraham’s willingness. Nowhere does God tell Abraham that he never wants him to sacrifice children. Nor does God command the substitution. What’s more, the scholars say, the story lacks the kind of phrase we might expect if its purpose were to explain the origins of substitution: (“and Abraham offered up the ram as a burnt offering instead of his son, as is done to this day”). And later tradition does not refer back to the incident as the reason for the redemption of the firstborn—as (say) the story of the Pascal lamb in the Passover story does. Might the story have signaled the permissibility of substitution? Perhaps, but (the biblical scholars argue) only modern distance from and enlightened distaste for the ideal of sacrifice could make it possible for readers to imagine that a story in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then rewards him for his willingness to do it was intended to reveal God’s unequivocal opposition to human sacrifice.
Others scholars disagree, and even those who agree that the story was probably not meant to demonstrate God’s opposition to child sacrifice (or even to explain the transition from human to animal sacrifice) don’t agree on what the story originally meant. But regardless of who is correct about the history, it is important to remember that the history is just that, history—an argument about what that story meant back then, not what it has meant at various times since then or what it means to people today. The Christian idea (first expressed in the Letter to the Hebrews) that the story was about Abraham’s faith that God would come through (as opposed to his obedience, willingness to do whatever god asked) was also a reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Taking the story into their hands as if it were a chunk of soft clay and remaking it in their own image is what readers have been doing with the story for thousands of years.
Today an extraordinary number of Jews and Christians believe that the story was a polemic against child sacrifice or an explanation for its abandonment. Since I myself prefer not sacrificing children to sacrificing them (in all the forms that the sacrifice of children takes), I don’t see anything wrong with that. Many people believe that the Bible contains practical lessons, teaches how we should behave. I would much prefer that those people believe that God thinks we shouldn’t sacrifice children than he thinks that we should.