On Religious Commitment and Violence: A Reading of the Akedah

I had a thought the other day about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.

Incidentally, I like to go with the Jewish description (the Akedah) of this event--the binding of Isaac--rather than the typical Christian description--the sacrifice of Isaac--because, well, Isaac was bound for a sacrifice but wasn't actually sacrificed.

Many modern and liberal readers of Genesis 22 are rightly horrified that God would demand a father to sacrifice his own son. Even if it's just a test. The request seems cruel and inhumane.

And no doubt it is. But the other day I had this thought about the Akedah. What if the story of the Akedah was an apology for Canaanite neighbors?

We know that Israel's neighbors practiced child sacrifice. A practice that many Israelites were drawn into. For example:
2 Chronicles 28.1-3
Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and also made idols for worshiping the Baals. He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.
Thus the various prohibitions in the OT. For example:
Leviticus 18.21
Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.
Now my point here is this. Israel's faith wasn't to include child sacrifice but that was a part of neighboring religions. And I wonder what sort of religious debate this created. Specifically, if you came from a religion that practiced child sacrifice what sort of criticisms would you make about a religion that didn't have child sacrifices? I'm wondering here about Canaanite criticism of YHWH and the followers of YHWH. What form did that criticism take?

Here's my guess. The criticism questioned the religious commitment of the Israelite religion, questioned the depth of the zeal of the Israelite faith. And it's easy to see how such a criticism could be made. The Canaanites did not withhold their child from the gods. The Israelites did. So you tell me, who looks more committed? Who is more "sold out" for their faith?

So what I'm wondering here is if the story of the Akedah is working as an apology in the face of that Canaanite criticism, that the followers of YHWH are less committed to their god because they don't practice child sacrifice. Because that seems to be precisely the point of the Akedah: that YHWH does not demand child sacrifice but that the followers of YHWH are just as committed to their god as are the Canaanites to theirs. The Akedah is a story that says that child sacrifice cannot be used as the ultimate test of religious devotion. And no doubt it was being use as such a test as the Israelites and Canaanites compared religions.

That YHWH doesn't demand child sacrifices is no reflection upon the love, faithfulness, and commitment of the Israelites. Abraham, as the founder of the faith, demonstrated this once at the beginning so no further tests are needed. The point has been made:

The passion and commitment of YHWH's followers in this new non-sacrificial faith is secured in the founding story of the Akedah.

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19 thoughts on “On Religious Commitment and Violence: A Reading of the Akedah”

  1. I'm curious about the veracity of the Old Testament's claims that the Canaanites engaged in child sacrifice. Does anyone happen to know of any archaeological evidence that child sacrifice was practiced in that region? If not, then it leaves me wondering if the whole child sacrifice thing was a means of slandering Israel's rivals (I realize that if this is the case then it contradicts Richard's reading of Genesis 22, or at least requires some modification).

  2. I wouldn't be wholly skeptical. Whether or not Canaanites practised it, I read the Torah prohibition as suggesting that someone somewhere was doing it!

  3. And I think there's textual evidence that the Israelites themselves were also doing it. So the story could also be an apology for those within the Israelite community who saw child sacrifice as the defining act of religious devotion.

  4. I definitely don't want to minimize all the biblical and theological issues regarding this story. The Akedah is way too huge to be reduced to the perspective I give in the post. The post is just psychological speculation, from the edges, about how the story might have psychologically functioned as religious persons in that time and place discussed and compared notions of religious "zeal."

  5. I can see how the Canaanites would regard child sacrifice as the ultimate act of devotion; after all, it is giving up the one most precious to self. But is it always? After all, when a king sacrifices a child when his enemies are at his gate, ready to destroy him, or take away his power, it is easy to lie to self and to "god", "I will give you the most precious thing in my life...just save me". The sacrifice of child for life and power is still a constant within the daily struggle and competition, is it not?

    However, in what appears to be a benign substitute, animal sacrifice, which progressed into the message of the Prophets, and eventually the teachings of Jesus, the sacrifice desired by YHWH is the "rights to myself". When justice and mercy are recognized for what they are, the bowing and the bending of our own backs for the lifting up of others; when our own rights are not the issue when the poor and oppressed are denied theirs; when the "anger" of the outcasts and the unclean no longer makes our own tempers boil, but are heard as the cries of those who are tired of crying, then we have laid down what we always thought was our life, what we actually thought was ours.

  6. I know lots of liberals just hate the Akedah--"How could a loving God do that to a father!?"--but I think the story is critically important given the trajectory you describe. The Akedah kicks off this long meditation about the nature of sacrifice that, IMHO, reaches its final outworking in Jesus' "I desire mercy, not sacrifice."

  7. As far as I'm aware, there's not Canaanite archaeological evidence specifically. It may have been a rare act taking place under extraordinary circumstances, and therefore unlikely to leave traces. There is, however, considerably archaeological (and epigraphic) evidence for child sacrifice among the Carthaginians, who were colonial descendents of Canaanites/Phoenicians in North Africa. For a long time these claims were controversial, because people wanted to think it was only Greek and Roman propaganda, but the recent consensus is that no, it was child sacrifice, and practiced on a pretty horrific scale (this article says "only" 25 per year, but the strikes me as a rather large number: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/jan/21/carthaginians-sacrificed-own-children-study). Now, how much one wants to read backwards to the Bronze Age from this is debatable. But it does suggest a cultural legacy.

    what is the evidence of drug (psychedelic) use by the ancients especially to create the religious visions by the priestly class? talking to THEIR GOD...?

  9. I read this recently that suggests that the "passing through the fire to Molech" may not have been a child sacrifice, but possibly a initiation/purification ritual that involved kids jumping through a fire much like running one's finger across a candle flame. (Good article on "Hell"/the Valley of Bin Hinnom/"gehenna" too)


  10. It sounds like you are making reference to an event that took place within the Noah Movie!

    I actually wrote a Christian Review on the Movie over at


    In fact, the video on the blog mentions the use of psychedelic drugs in biblical times.

    But to answer your question, I don't believe that YHWH has to use things like drugs to communicate with his people.

    The use of DRUGS to communicate with deities sounds like the kabalistic practice of channeling.

  11. I find it interesting that the LORD, in Leviticus, does not say "Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, because killing children is wrong"; the issue, rather, is that doing so would "profane" the name of Israel's God. Am I wrong to think that's significant?

  12. More than historically plausible, I think. Perhaps necessary to monotheism: If apex commitment is to be paired with apex Being, the historical bind (no pun intended) that you describe plays out a deeper psychological script too--implicit in your assuming that "the founder of the faith" needed to make "the point." And freeing the Israelites from that bind looks like a necessary step in establishing God's love for humanity. Of course, the ultimate step is when apex Being reprises that script and carries out the apex commitment. So, if God is love, that may be a necessity (logically, psychologically?: "No greater love...").

    Then again, Kierkegaard used the story to point out the futility of--even to make sardonic fun of--attempts to rationalize faith. But it's just so hard not to use Abraham/Isaac binding and YHWH/Jesus crucifixion as a type to bookend the salvation narrative...isn't it? (Do we as Christians usually refer to the "binding" as a "sacrifice" to make a trope where the crucifixion is a reprise of the binding? Oddly, I hadn't noticed the sleight of mind used in calling the the "binding" a "sacrifice" till you pointed it out. Even so, don't we need a way to conflate the gist of the binding and the crucifixion? The narrative seems to demand that we tie the two events together with a trope. You can toss out the NT and talk about the "binding" with literal and thematic accuracy. But bring in the NT and failing to identify the crucifixion with the "binding" seems to "sacrifice" thematic accuracy to textual...)

    For my part, I think you're onto something. Of course, it's easy to draw the big picture. Perhaps the divinity is to be found in the details. Good luck if you take that path. I'll be quick to buy the book.

  13. I always find Wilfred Owen's reflection on the Akedah incredibly moving, all the more so in this 100th anniversary year...

    The Parable of the Young Man and the Old

    So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
    And took the fire with him, and a knife.
    And as they sojourned, both of them together,
    Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
    Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
    But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
    Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
    And builded parapets the trenches there,
    And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
    When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
    Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
    Neither do anything to him. Behold,
    A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
    Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
    But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
    And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

  14. Richard; I love your blog. Some time ago, I wrote my reflection on the Akedah in a sort-of poem form, but have not shared it anywhere. This seems an appropriate time and place.

    The Akedah: Abraham hears and sees

    I hear the ancient voices my ancestors heard
    making loud, severe demands in earthquake, thunder, and fire.
    And in compliant first fire I will be seen.

    But where is the promise in this voice?

    So we have come to the mountain of Seeing, to hear again.
    My knife raised, the voice answers,
    not in earthquake, thunder, and fire,
    instead in a quiet rustle, like a gentle wind.

    Now I see the sacrifice expected of me

    to watch and to listen
    to create and not destroy
    to walk humbly

    and we will, my son and I,
    with this Ancient Voice.

  15. Hey Richard, long time lurker here. I'd like to say that you have given me a serious appreciation for the ways in which psychology and theology can come together to make something beautiful and true.

    On a related note, I just finished Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard. In it he eschews the modern reaction and embraces its ethical tension to show how faith can take an attempt at murder as its greatest example. The past few weeks of reading the text in Genesis and Kierkegaard's back and forth and having the opportunity to preach it last night have been rewarding. If you're interested in further reading I recommend it.

  16. This is the second reference to WIlfred Owen I have read this week! Wonderful example..

  17. I just read this and thought it germane:

    Rashi doesn’t go into all that: the Akedah was not to test Abraham, but to prove to the non-Jewish nations Abraham’s incomparable devotion and thus religious superiority, which by extension accrues to the people Israel and explains why God favors them.


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