Abraham's Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Abraham's Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

by Bruce Chilton

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"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. Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son..." --The Book of Genesis

The story of Abraham's acceptance of God's command to sacrifice his son Isaac is one of the most disturbing of all biblical stories. Isaac is spared only at the last moment, when an angel stops Abraham's hand. Theologians and scholars have wrestled with the question of why God asked Abraham to kill his beloved son, why Abraham acquiesced, and why in some interpretations he actually killed his son.

In Abraham's Curse, Bruce Chilton traces the impact of the story of Abraham and Isaac on the beliefs and teachings of Judaism (where Abraham is regarded as the forefather of Israel), Islam (where he provides the role model for Muhammad), and Christianity (where he is the ancestor of King David, whose lineage culminates in Jesus). As Chilton examines the story's significance, he makes the case that, far from only reflecting the violence of an ancient, unenlightened time, the sacrifice of children in the name of religion is still a fundamental part of our lives and culture -- from Islamist suicide bombings to militant Zionism and graphic glorifications of the Crucifixion of Christ.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385525602
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/19/2008
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 552 KB

About the Author

BRUCE CHILTON is the Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson and Rector at the Church of St. John in Barrytown, New York. He is the author of many scholarly articles and books, including the acclaimed Rabbi Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Read an Excerpt


Sacrificial Species,

Human Offerings

Before Judaism, Christianity, or Islam existed, before people could write, and before they founded cities, they sacrificed. The species Homo neanderthalensis (flourishing between 110,000 and 35,000 years ago) interred both animal and human skeletons near hearths evidently constructed for sacrificial gatherings. Remains of young children found in Crete from the ancient Minoan civilization at Knossos, dated during the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., were found charred, their bones nicked in a way that accords with how Minoans prepared sheep and goats for ritual slaughter. Horrible to conceive of, human sacrifice has nonetheless remained rooted in human behavior from the time it emerged, deeply enough that the impulse persists, encoded even in evolved societies.

Many investigators cherish Minoan civilization as a gentle oasis in the midst of warring Mediterranean tribes. Human sacrifice, and child sacrifice at that, contradicts what has been called "the Minoan Myth." Evidence for the practice outraged one archaeologist, who tried to explain away the skeletons as those of apes rather than human beings.

Sacrifice featured as centrally in primordial societies as it has been marginalized and denied in modern cultures, repressed like a bad dream of violence running rampant in the precivilized past. Yet sacrifice need not be any more destructive than a meal; ancient liturgies often called for offerings of grain or wine rather than slaughtered animals of any kind. Wherever sacrifice is practiced, however, the possibility of a human offering emerges. Although tantamount to homicide, the desire to please the gods can break through, and often has broken through, a basic human taboo: not to kill one's own child. Two distinct but related impulses, the impulse to sacrifice and the impulse to offer children, wove themselves together during the ancient period and have emerged together persistently ever since in appeals to atavistic violence, articulated to this day in calls for young people to sacrifice their lives for the good of their faith, their society, their nation, or their family.

To see these forces at work requires getting beyond the reflexive denial, fashionable since the Enlightenment, that the desire to sacrifice sometimes drives human behavior. That fashion persists today, despite centuries of war in recent history, with its comforting assumption that human beings have no natural proclivity toward sacrifice or violence, but are guided by instinctive and rational -self--interest. Leaving optimistic views of humanity behind to study sacrifice in any period is emotionally as well as intellectually demanding. To consider the incontrovertible and transcultural facts of sacrificial behavior, although they are endemically human, requires an act of will as well as of intellect. I have never met anyone who has not been shocked on first confronting unmistakable evidence that human beings killed their fellow humans--including their children--because they wanted to please their gods.


The inescapable reality of people's tendency to sacrifice, and their consent to offer their own children, has disturbed modern thinkers in the West, like the archaeologist who preferred to think of human bones as ape skeletons rather than concede that the highly developed, generally gentle Minoans had sacrificed children. The idea of child sacrifice awakens deep revulsion. Part of that reaction involves outrage, a moral rejection of the act. The willingness to offer a child in sacrifice, especially one's own child, seems utterly inhuman to many observers, specialists and nonspecialists alike, and they reflexively want to deny that child sacrifice ever really happened. If it did happen, they naturally think, then it should never have occurred. To reject sacrifice as a human activity has long been part of our Enlightenment makeup.

But to help account for the fateful pull of human behavior toward collective violence, we need to understand sacrifice, not deny it, and see how it develops into human sacrifice. Then, to fathom the persistence of Western violence in particular (both before and after the Enlightenment), we need also to examine how the Abrahamic religions have sometimes endorsed child sacrifice as a virtue by using the example of the patriarch's sacrifice to justify the martyrdom of the young. Following chapters will show in detail that Christians have marched to war, Jews have died to resist their persecutors, and Muslims have declared jihad, all with appeals and allusions to the example of Abraham offering his son. To understand the sacrificial motive for violence requires dealing with the evidence that people sacrifice, and that they believe in God, gods, or some other form of ultimate reality, which they are convinced they please with their devoted offerings, including their own children. Whether we like those facts or not does not augment or weaken their reality: they need to be explained for human behavior to be understood, and for it ultimately to be changed.

Despite the Enlightenment's view of human nature, human behavior since the eighteenth century has shown little sign of constitutional change. Even without official rituals of sacrifice, sacrificial acts abound, concentrated in times of war, but also ambient now, during the strange, vicious twilight of war and peace that has opened the -twenty--first century. Adolescents, and preadolescents, join up with the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, the Shining Path in Peru, Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Aryan Nation in North America, various National Fronts in Europe and Australia, and Maoist cadres in Asia. However willing these children and youths may or may not be, the groups they belong to freely expend their young lives in war, calling their deaths a sacrifice. That reflex is as basic to these groups as it is for nations to organize armies of youthful men and women and to commemorate their patriotic and sacrificial deaths on national holidays. However twisted Abraham's offering may seem, generations of people--with every kind of faith and with no particular faith--have repeated his actions millions of times since he lifted his knife over his son, only unlike Abraham in Genesis, they have brought the knives of war down on their children, convinced that such slaughter is necessary and right.


Sacrifice is a powerful, primordial act. Living things are offered and consumed in sacred meals, concentrating the collective forces and hopes of the societies that host them, and as a result participants feel their own lives revive. People participate with their gods in collective enjoyment across cultures and throughout history, by eating what their gods eat, savoring what their gods savor, and dedicating themselves to create as their gods create. Sacrifice infuses powerless people with power as palpably as it feeds the hungry with delicacies, particularly meat, which their diets typically lack. Enjoyment and purpose, combined with participation in divine destiny, suffuse sacrifice as no other human activity. The continuing power of sacrificial thinking is rooted in that pattern of dedicated and energizing renewal, accomplished by sharing the products of human work in the presence of the divine. Human beings ritually join the divine world in the act of enjoying the good things of life, as they consume the benefits of their work together and anticipate further benefits to come.

In the past, sacrifice has been portrayed as an attempt to bribe the gods with monetary gifts, or to tap into the magical life force of an animal as it dies. Both these portrayals have their merits. Without question, commercial transactions were ordinarily involved in sacri-fice, and the action of the priest or prophet who offered a victim often made him or her a magician in the eyes of worshipers, with special powers of insight and healing. But sacrifice is not a mere -by--product of advancing commerce or of specialized magical powers. The reverse is more likely the case: civilizations emerged by transferring skills they had learned in a basic social activity--the communal, sacrificial meal with the gods--into daily life with increasing degrees of specialization.

Yet sacrifice is not an exotic, remote, or "primitive" activity. Whenever human beings share the products of their own labor with an awareness that this sharing occurs with divine approval, that is a sacrificial act. The Catholic Mass, the offering of a goat at the end of Ramadan, the Seder at Passover, formal meals to gather support for a common cause or to mourn a loved one's passing, are all linked to the primordial human impulse to offer and share our goods in anticipation of the good that is to come. The character of this activity is determined by a community's discernment of what should be shared, with whom, where, and when, and by its view of the divine or transcendent truth--be it God or gods or a principle or ideal--that measures the worth of their offerings. Both ancient and modern societies frame basic ethical concerns and establish shared values when and how they decide to sacrifice, on religious or other grounds.

Neither personal nor mass psychology fully explains ritual impulses. Both sacrifice and the practice of offering children on altars--sometimes ritual altars, sometimes metaphorical altars of convenience or warfare--are powerful inheritances from at least as long ago as the Stone Age. But the two impulses are not one and the same. Sacrificing a butchered goat or a bushel of milled grain or a vat of wine is obviously not identical to offering a human being. The two acts are distinct and different, however related they may be, and ancient religious literatures as well as interpretations of those Scriptures from Antiquity until the present day reflect deep insights that have freed people from confusing sacrifice generally with homicide. Genesis 22 is the principal ancient text, Antiquity's gift to a modern consciousness bereft of means to understand its own behavior, which permits us to parse the difference between deeply ingrained impulses whose confusion has produced disaster and poses an acute danger today.


Part of the power of Genesis 22, and its capacity to explore the connection between sacrifice and killing children, is the silent horror the text awakens in the reader. Laconic and rhythmic, the Hebrew narrative avoids mentioning emotions, and the terse description builds all the more in affective tension for that reason. Actions transpire without deliberation or choice, objection, or delay, as if the sacrifice of the child Isaac were a foregone conclusion.

Rendering Hebrew prose and poetry into English in a way that conveys the unique and varying styles of the Israelite Scriptures is a challenge, and can't be met unless the translator puts aside the practice of trying to make all biblical text sound alike. Versions authorized by various churches and Bible societies have perpetuated the convention of homogeneity, because it permits translations to be inserted seamlessly into services of worship in a recognizable, "biblical" En-

glish. Even efforts of literary translation carry on this habit in a new guise by attempting to find a single, consistent voice for the Bible.

But what strikes any reader of the Hebrew Bible in its original language is the variety produced when idiosyncratic voices meet and combine in the harmonics--and occasional dissonances--of texts produced over the course of centuries. The narrator of Genesis 22, coming from the source known to scholars as the Elohist (because it prefers to call God 'Elohim, "God" in a majestic plural, prior to the revelation of Yahweh's personal name to Moses), is one of those unique voices. The Elohist source tells the story of Israel's beginnings, and is part of the whole narrative now included in the Torah or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.

The Elohist's particular contributions--the cycle of stories about Joseph, for example, and the depiction of Moses' visions--reveal a burning interest in prophecy. In Genesis 22 as well, the action pivots on Abraham's willingness to take correction from God's revelation, in the way the prophets did: only Abraham's obedience to the angel who intervenes saves Isaac's life and sustains God's covenantal promise to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

By the time the Elohist source was first crafted, during the ninth century B.C.E., the united kingdom of David and Solomon had been torn apart by civil war. Judea remained under the control of David's successors, but the bulk of the country--which appropriated the name of Israel--went a separate way, with its own king, altars, rituals of sacrifice, and ideas of what God truly desired. This Israel (called the Northern Kingdom in modern scholarship, to distinguish it from Judea) was more prosperous than its southern counterpart, more able and willing to trade and make alliances with surrounding countries and empires, and therefore more open to influences from cultures whose worship differed radically from the standards set out by the prophets of Yahweh. In this syncretistic environment, Israelites in the north embraced gods alongside Yahweh. Child sacrifice, one of the practices known from before, during, and after this period, became a pressing issue for the Elohist. The Aqedah represents the Elohist's response to the possibility that offering a son could seal a father's devotion to God.

Linguistic choices that went into telling the story give it its unique voice, alive with the exceptional nature of the events recounted:

Then after these things God tried Abraham. He said to him, Abraham. And he said, Look--me. He said, Take now your son, your cherished one, whom you love, Isaac, and go your way to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there, an offering by fire on one of the hills that I say to you.

Abraham awoke early in the morning, saddled his ass and took two of his young men with him, as well as Isaac his son, split the wood of the offering by fire, and arose and went to the place that God said to him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Abraham said to his young men, Stay back here with the ass. I and the young man, we will go there. We will worship. We will come back to you.

Abraham took the wood of the offering by fire and put it on Isaac his son, and took in his hand the flint and the knife, and the two of them went, together. Isaac spoke to Abraham his father. He said, My father. And he said, Look--me, my son. He said, Look--the flint and the wood, but where is the lamb of the offering by fire? Abraham said, God will himself see the lamb of the offering by fire, my son. And the two of them went, together.

They came to the place that God said to him, and Abraham built there the slaughter pit, and arranged the wood, bound up Isaac his son, and put him on the slaughter pit above the wood. Abraham sent back his hand, took the knife to kill his son.

The routine of sacrifice permeates this narrative, determining the content of every action, punctuating each gesture, and grounding the whole plot in a relentless rhythm. That is why Abraham needs no more than the initial command by God--what to sacrifice, how, and where--to proceed along his way. Abraham knows what to do; inexorable ritual seems to drive him to a foregone conclusion.

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