At the moment I am teaching a course on ‘Religion and Violence’ for Leiden University in the Netherlands. The topic is all too obvious these days, especially after the last brutal terrorist attacks in Brussels. As a text we use Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood. Religion and the History of Violence, a book in which she in fact defends the right of existence of religion as such, a defence which is called for indeed. All through the western world, religion sits in the dock, accused of instigating violence, and by increasing popular consent is found guilty as charged. Would the world be better off without religion? The question was raised during Enlightenment and but now roams larger, wider and much louder. Increasingly the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’. Of course this is triggered by excesses, such as we just suffered in Brussels. Forgotten for the moment the manifold contributions to our society and to western civilization by Christianity; or by Islam to the Moslem as well as the Western world, for that matter.
But all religions are under scrutiny, especially ‘strong religions’, as Scott and Appleby call them, high-investment religions with clear and strong claims. Such as ours. Here I do not want to delve into Mormon history – not without its violent episodes – but into a much more fundamental issue, one we share as Christians with Jews and Moslems: the legacy of Abraham. So let us have a look at Abraham, and I intend to do that in several instalments; today we pose the problem at the heart of the Abraham stories.
Rembrandt’s version of the Abrahamic sacrifice
The core tale is evidently the sacrifice of his son, Isaac (for Jews and Christians) or Ismael (for Moslems). Depicted as a prince of faith, Abraham is admired for strength, rectitude and for the covenants he made with JHWH, with as crowning achievement his deep obedience to and faith in the Lord when he raised his knife to sacrifice his son on the mountain of Moriah. And got a ram as sacrificial animal. The latter sacrifice is remembered each year by the Moslems in their yearly Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sheep; for Judaism he is the ancestor, whose stories are read regularly in the shul. For Christians Abraham preludes Christ’s sacrifice, a notion we as LDS share, but we stress Abraham more than most of our co-religionists. One major reason is of course the Book of Abraham, allegedly translated from an Egyptian papyrus, but better viewed as an independent revelation.
Joseph’s contribution to the Abraham myth in fact highlights the problematic character of the story, the sacrifice of the son, say Isaac. In demanding that sacrifice JHWH demands something of Abraham that goes against all the grain of humanity. It also goes against his very own covenant, and against his own stance against human sacrifices. That much is clear. What Joseph added was not the solution, far from that. The Book of Abraham gives the story its own past, portraying Abraham as a sacrificial victim in Ur, ultimately delivered by the Lord. So Joseph compounded the problem instead of solving the puzzle: Abraham in obeying JHWH was cast into the role of the priest Elkenah, he would perform the very act that drove him out of Ur to the freedom of the new country. Through this addition the sacrificial demand made even less sense than it already did.
This aggravating of the enigma is a brilliant angle, I think, but only if we see this in perspective. The much lauded obedience of Abraham, the attitude the Lord praises him for after the episode, shows even greater now, but my point is that this obedience is the very problem itself. After all, Abraham responds willingly to a request that never should be demanded, not of anyone, not of him, a demand that should never be issued from any authority, and definitely not from the loving lips of the Lord.
The official interpretation, praising Abraham’s obedience – also the interpretation inside the text itself -, not only is unconvincing, it is also dangerous. Simply obeying a command that is counter-human, counter-ethical and counter-survival distorts all possible productive interaction between us and God. My point in this blog is that it is exactly this kind of blind obedience to demands that are normally classified as crimes against humanity, which produces the world’s worst nightmares. Abraham sacrifice is a major inspiration for fundamentalists, underscoring the notion that God’s law tops any human law and even other divine laws: the story is fully anomic. For terrorists, such those who attacked the Brussels airport last weekend, Abraham’s blind obedience serves as a grounding tale for their atrocities. Likewise, Abraham inspired the Gush Emunin conspirators who prepared to blow up Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock in January 1984 – they were thwarted, Israel’s security system does top the one in Belgium. The latter band of Jewish extremists aimed at destroying the Moslem presence at the very place of the mythical sacrifice in order to build the third temple.
Inside the Dome of the Rock: the spot of the mythical sacrifice
Joseph Smith deepened the Abraham enigma, and that contribution should lead us to rethink the notion of obedience to commands that purportedly come from the Lord. Obedience is a double-edged sword and has to be handled with extreme care. If religion as such is under siege, that is exactly because of these Abraham-inspired acts. Any legacy is a gift, and great stories are powerful tools, but this gift has a poisonous side as well; in German, gift and poison are the same word (‘Gift’), in Dutch they are almost the same (‘gift’ and ‘gif’). This is a legacy with a poisonous sting and we have to be very careful in our interpretation, as the tale can be – and actually is – high jacked for nefarious purposes.
So, to conclude, another interpretation: Abraham should have refused to sacrifice his son. If it was a test, he failed it, as he should have recognized that the Lord never could have issued such a command. In the end the Lord saved him from his failure. And Sara was right in leaving him (Gen 23:2).