In the past, I’ve had some interesting conversations about the controversial story of Abraham/Ibrahim being asked by God to sacrifice his beloved son, which appears (with the variation of Isaac or Ishmael) in both the Bible and the Quran. It seems that quite a few atheists use the story as a symbol of how depraved religious origins are, condoning child sacrifice at the behest of a cruel deity. Indeed, it is commonly sited as one of the harder sections of Biblical readings to reconcile with God’s repeated injunctions to the Hebrews not to sacrifice their children as surrounding pagan cultures did.
But I see it differently, containing a poignancy which has not been lost with time. Like most ancient wisdom writings, I see this profoundly subversive story as having various meanings, purposes, and symbols that come into play. It is also a tale of evolution of understanding within the human understanding of God’s nature and needs. It is one of the many turning points present in the story of Abraham, who insisted that there was one God, smashing the idols of his father, and declaiming them as merely created things. World history would never be the same again.
Many pagan practices saw the gods as higher levels of being, but still with their own needs and wants, their own necessities and demands. Sacrifices were a function of placating those desires, and in the early history of man, served a ritual function to make sense of an often cruel world, to seek succor or to expiate sin. While we might easily dismiss this as ignorant superstition, it showed an awareness of something deeper than the senses knit into the world, and a recognition of the ability to interact with it. It also showed human beings processing the many stages of guilt, and seeking redemption.
The ancient histories of the desert demonstrate this awakening, but one which is punctuated by further revelation. The gods of stone and sand and straw could not truly be God, so Abraham realized, for only the Source of All Things, which whom nothing could compare, would be worthy of worship. Only the One who was the causeless cause, the One who needed nothing, could be the true divinity that held all things together. And yet Abraham, like all of us, were part of the culture and environment in which they were raised, so revelation itself reflected those norms, a gradual process of unveiling that dealt in the very world.
The fact is that Abrham’s world expected child sacrifice. It was not a cause of shock or horror, as modern listeners experience. Indeed, it is not the fact that a deity would demand a sacrifice which would be unusual, but rather the twist that the deity insists He doesn’t require the human sacrifice in the end, but only did so test the level of faith, trust, and obedience. Then the providential ram, or proverbial scapegoat, is introduced into the picture, demonstrating that the move has been made away from human sacrifice, and instead towards animal sacrifice. And yet the need for some offering of self is still timelessly necessary to commune with the divine.
Artists through the ages have been inspired to try and capture the moment of Abraham on the brink of slaying his son, and they are always deeply moving as well as disturbing. Sometimes we see Abraham’s hand pressed over the boy’s face, as if to cover it, lest they make eye contact, and he lose his nerve to go through with the sacrifice. Some have the boy lying on his belly, his mouth agape, waiting in horror to have his throat slit. Others have him leaning on his side, almost naked, his father’s fingers clutching his hair so his head stays in place, a look of stony resignation on his face.
But then there is the angel, crying out for a hand to be stayed, and the ram, its thorns tangled in the thicket. It is redemption. It is mercy. And yet somewhere, somehow, there is an ominous sense that there is still a price. Something must be poured out, expiated, for God and Man to be fused together. We have the words of angels, and we have the blood of lambs. But surely such things are incomplete, such stories are only the beginning. And it is little wonder that the great artists of Christendom painted those haunted faces as ancient mirrors of the faces of the Passion, of God-in-Man being pierced and bled out.
Catholic tradition tends to approach the Bible individually according to book-type in this way and are not bound to take every single story with strict literalism, nor as a “do-this-at-home” instruction kit, particularly when it comes to the literature in the Old Testament. More often than not, we see the stories of the Hebrew Bible as types and disfigurements of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. Genesis, to a greater or lesser extent, has the quality of a mythic origin story, but one which is shot through with truth as well. To what extent it was true in a literal sense we may never know, but I think it’s clear to see the realism in it through our daily lives, in the battle between the spirit and the flesh.
For Jews, the story of Isaac’s sacrifice is called the Akeidah, or ‘The Binding’, and it is read during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Isaac is shown as the son promised by the three visitors who came to Abraham’s tent to foretell that his wife, Sarah, though elderly and thought to be barren, would bear a son. The fact that Abraham is then tested over his willingness to sacrifice this fulfilled promise is counter-intuitive. It indicates that the glory of the gift, even from God, should never become an idol, that it too must be submitted to the divine will.
For Muslims, the story of Ishmael is celebrated on Eid-al-Adha or ‘The Feast of the Sacrifice’. The firstborn son in desert culture literally embodied every earthly thing a person had; the event even changed their name to a new level of earthly prestige. The idea of sacrificing one’s firstborn son is basically laying down every earthly thing and not being possessed by anything in this world; it’s about laying yourself bare, emptied out, vulnerable, unfurled, and then picking yourself and everything else up again in a new light, realizing that you are neither possessed nor possess; everything is a gift, and everything in this world is passing.
In both versions, the spiritual level is to dedicate oneself completely only to the things that are of eternity, not to place our power in the things of earth. It is to sacrifice even one’s name, that would be carried on by that son, to sacrifice the very instinct to have something tangible that lingers after our deaths. In this sense, by sacrificing his inheritor, Abraham would be killing his own instinct towards legacy, towards survival of his memory after death. It would even destroy his legacy as the father of Monotheism. He would be cutting himself off from all worldly gain and earthly longevity. Rumi summed this up: “Say Bismillah, In the name God, as the priest does with a knife when he offers an animal. Bismillah your old self to find your real name.”
In the Biblical story, Isaac himself is oblivious to what his father is about to do until he is already at the place of sacrifice. His father informs him that the reason they did not bring a lamb for the sacrifice is because Isaac, himself, will be the lamb. He must trust blindly in what will unfold, even though he doesn’t know how it all will end. He cannot predict that a ram, caught in the thicket, will take his place upon the altar, nor that his descendants will blow the shofar, made of a ram’s horn, in his memory each time they split heaven and earth to usher in the new year. He cannot predict the number of his progeny, the triumphs and the tragedies of the Jewish people, but he will continue to be with them in spirit, in this trial of trials, a precursor so many others to come.
In the Quranic story, Ishmael himself is more involved in the proceedings, and when his father tells him of the dream he has had – of binding Ishmael to an altar – his son replies, “O my father, do what you have been commanded to do. You will find me, God willing, among the steadfast.” This paints a nuanced image of the son being tested just as much as the father, of a young warrior, willing to lay down all his energy and vigor to the Ultimate Reality. This complete trust in divine will is honored by his own spiritual descendants each year through the sacrifice of animals and the hajj. This pilgrimage to the Kabbah, the holy house believed to be built by Ibrahim and Ishmael together for the worship of the one God, is one of the five pillars of Islam.
The Dome of the Rock, one of Jerusalem’s most famous landmarks, is also connected to these Abrahamic origin stories. The Foundation Stone the original Jewish temple structure was built is traditionally ascribed as a type of “thin place”, connecting the physical world with the transcendent reality, and as such it is designated as the point where God created the world and the first human, Adam. It is also believed to be the site where Abraham lay his son for sacrifice. As such, it is believed to be where the divine presence is manifested more more intensely than any other place, and it is where Jews turn towards during prayer. In addition, Muslims believe that Muhammad’s miraj, or Night Journey to heaven starting from the rock at the center of the structure.
Both Jewish and Muslim traditions of the story, and the places connected to them, have their own unique ability to capture different angles of this radical example of self-sacrifice; both are microcosms of a covenant of two peoples, sprung from the same Abrahamic tree, and the seed of the divine drawing mankind into unification. But the implications of the story extend a challenge to all of us, regardless of our ethnic or spiritual heritage. Are we not all called to sacrifice something of our attachments to earth on a daily basis, to die little deaths to prepare us for the one which will strip us of our physical perimeters, leaving us naked before the judgement of the Lord? Are we not all called to lay ourselves down to a higher power in faith, to be subservient before the?
From a Christian viewpoint, as I’ve outlined above, we see the story of Abraham and Isaac (or, alternately, Ishmael; it honestly doesn’t matter to the point that I’m making, as the message stays the same in both versions) as a precursor to Christ’s own sacrifice upon the cross. Obviously, Jews do not see Jesus as the Messiah, so His death has little spiritual meaning to them; and Muslims, while they see Jesus as a great prophet, believe that He escaped from the cross, a bit like Abraham’s son(s) escaped their own demise after their father passed the test. I found it interesting that this point was introduced in the film The Last Temptation of Christ, when the “guardian angel” tries to get Jesus to leave the cross, saying that God is sparing Him just like Isaac.
But Christianity’s unique poignancy has always been found in taking paradoxes to their furthest point, and indeed to their brutal reality. The reason we call Jesus the Son of God and the Son of Man is that He is that incarnated aspect of the divine life who pours Himself out and into the fleshly form and human nature, born of the Virgin Mary. This act of materialization is, in and of itself, a form of sacrifice, a pouring out of essence that comes before the pouring out of blood. In a sense, Christ died from the very act of becoming human, being brought into the mess of human history, and being subsumed by sin and death. He becomes the ultimate sacrifice that can bring heaven and earth together, the true “Adam”, which means “sap or juice of life.”
He mirrored Isaac and Ishmael both. Knowing and not knowing what was happening, He felt both faith and despair, suffocating upon the cross, commending His spirit to His Father while not long before asking why He had been forsaken. He would be plunged into the pit spared to others; He would finish the unfinished stories, consummate the love song of death, to sleep until the dawn of resurrection, and thus co-mingle with the meaning of all other suffering, and grant us hope for all things to be made new. And so the sons of Abraham, in Christian eyes, may easily be seen through the fate of the Son, and we might find the ancient archetypes lent the fullest of meanings.
Yes, God gives us His mercy.
Yes, by an angel’s word upon the day of Annunciation, the Day of Creation, and the Day of Redemption.
Yes, by the Lamb that was Slain from the foundations of the world.