Bailie on Abraham and Isaac

Excerpt from Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled (New York: Crossroads, 1995), pp. 140-143.


Abraham and Isaac

Far more than we moderns generally realize, human sacrifice was a fact of life among the peoples of the ancient Near East in tension with whom Israel first achieved cultural self-definition. Israel’s renunciation of the practice of human sacrifice took place over a long period of time, during which intermittent reversions to it occurred. No biblical story better depicts how the Bible is at cross-purposes with itself on the subject of sacrifice than does the story of Abraham and Isaac. Like the fall story, the story of Abraham’s (non)sacrifice of Isaac can easily be obstructed by the story’s narrative armature. And in the same way that the author of the Suffering Servant Songs in Second Isaiah remained too enmeshed in the sacrificial logic to give a perfectly lucid account of the fate of the Suffering Servant, so in one glaring instance that same logic obscured the insight of the author and redactors who gave us the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac. As a result, the religious emphasis is just slightly off center, but in a way that makes all the difference. We are told that God bestowed the blessing and promise on Abraham after the “test” on Mount Moriah because Abraham had been willing to do what God had intervened to keep him from doing — sacrificing his son. This understanding may have had a certain coherence in the dark world of human sacrifice to which it hearkens back, and it may have some psychological pertinence, but the true biblical spirit has little nostalgia for the sacrificial past and almost no interest in psychology. What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done.

The central issue of the story of Abraham’s substitution of a ram for Isaac is precisely that, the issue of substitution. Abraham renounces human sacrifice and “inaugurates” the ritual substitution of animals for humans. Anthropologically, attempts like that of Cain to substitute nonblood sacrifices for blood sacrifices obviously occurred long after the substitution of animal for human victims such as occurs in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Nevertheless, the existing sequence of the two stories is extremely propitious.

Cain’s ritual innovation is too casually made. His alternative to blood sacrifice was inspired by neither a moral nor a religious imperative. This, in my opinion, is how the failure of Cain’s sacrifice is best understood. The sacrificial innovation undertaken for neither moral nor religious reasons fails, and the failure results in fratricide. Since Cain’s alternative sacrifice had no moral mandate, it had no religious effect. By contrast, the story of Abraham’s renunciation of human sacrifice is suffused with moral concerns, and it proved to be both religiously and anthropologically effective. It was Abraham, and not Cain, who took the Bible’s first great step toward the renunciation of sacrifice. Seemingly more modest by comparison with Cain’s complete rejection of blood sacrifice, Abraham’s substitution of a ram for the human victim represents a more “realistic” step in humanity’s historic dismantling of its sacred systems of sacrificial violence.

The Bible’s way of acknowledging the significance of what Abraham did is to regard him as the father of faith and to declare that in due course the whole human race (“all the nations”) would become the “heirs” of Abraham, his religious descendants. For Abraham performed the quintessentially biblical act: he renounced a form of sacrifice that had become morally intolerable, and he did so in the name of the God whom his contemporaries thought was requiring them to perform the outmoded sacrifice. In sharp contrast to Cain, Abraham’s alteration of the sacrificial system was driven by both moral and religious imperatives. Those who renounce sacrificial arrangements for more superficial reasons run the risk that Cain ran, and those who refuse to renounce them even after a moral and religious aversion for them has awakened risk succumbing to the morally numbing nihilism that Nietzsche espoused.

The biblical narratives don’t merely insist on abandoning the use of human victims in favor of animal victims. They insist, as the Abraham and Isaac story does, on calling attention to the fact that the animal is a surrogate victim slain on behalf of a designated human victim. The presence of designated human victims, for whom animals were no doubt sometimes substituted only at the last minute (as in the Abraham and Isaac story), significantly heightened the intensity of the rite of animal sacrifice. At the same time that the proximity of the designated human victim was lending the ritual its riveting power, the substitution of an animal surrogate was reminding Israel of its moral superiority over its historical contemporaries, whose sacrificial fires smoked all too regularly with the flesh of human victims. Paradoxically, the fact that the liturgy might revert to human sacrifice lent the ritual the degree of intensity necessary to insure that it would conclude without reverting to human sacrifice.

As more resilient and durable cultural institutions evolved, virtually every ancient culture sooner or later began replacing human sacrifice with animal sacrifice. What is unique about the Hebrew experience is that this transition from human to animal sacrifice occurred in response to moral and religious imperatives. In Israel, as elsewhere, other social rituals whose effect was human sacrifice — such as wars and public executions — continued, as they do, of course, today. But if the biblical mill grinds slowly, it grinds exceedingly well. Sooner or later these ritual vestiges of human sacrifice will those ancient ones upon which become as morally incomprehensible as we now look with such horror and bewilderment. As these residual sacrificial systems break down and lose their moral and political legitimacy, if we do not learn to live without their protection, we will have dismantled them only to stand naked before the catastrophe they existed to ward off.

In the background of virtually every biblical narrative is a cultural crisis — latent or full-blown — associated with a sacrificial system whose mythological power was waning and whose rituals were malfunctioning. This is the real greatness of the biblical literature. Since we are living in the later stages of the same epochal process whose first stages the biblical literature so vividly portrays, we have every reason to try to understand the nature and overall direction of the anthropological revolution these texts both launched and documented. Obviously, a thorough and detailed review of the Bible is beyond the scope of this book. In what follows I will try to highlight the nature of the historical and religious process in relation to which the individual biblical texts take on their greatest significance. Inasmuch as the anthropological and religious backdrop against which biblical literature becomes intelligible is essentially the same backdrop against which our own cultural crisis is being played out, the following excursion into the Bible is just another way of taking a closer look at our own perplexing dilemma.

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