Understanding Genesis 22: God and Child Sacrifice

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.