Ear­li­er this week, James Good­man wrote about how he came to write about Abra­ham and the bind­ing of Isaac. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb, is now avail­able from Schock­en Books. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Like many peo­ple I know, I first heard the sto­ry of Abra­ham and Isaac as a child. I couldn’t have been old­er than thir­teen. I was prob­a­bly clos­er to ten. But I learned the sto­ry dif­fer­ent­ly from many if not most of the Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim and even some Jew­ish kids my age. The Chris­t­ian kids learned that the sto­ry was about Abraham’s faith in God, who could, if need be, bring Isaac back from the dead. Abraham’s sac­ri­fice was a pre­fig­u­ra­tion of a greater sac­ri­fice to come. The Mus­lim and many Jew­ish kids learned that the sto­ry demon­strat­ed the very essence of what it means to be a Mus­lim or Jew, com­plete sub­mis­sion or obe­di­ence to God. 

I learned that the sto­ry was God’s way of pro­claim­ing his oppo­si­tion to human sacrifice. 

Our Hebrew-school teacher explained it exact­ly as our Hebrew-school text­book did: God, he said, had brought Abra­ham to a new land. A good and fer­tile land, where it was com­mon for pagan tribes, hop­ing to keep the crops and flocks com­ing, to sac­ri­fice first-born sons to God. Then one day, God com­mand­ed Abra­ham to sac­ri­fice Isaac, the beloved son of his old age. Abra­ham set out to do it, and was about to, when God stopped him. He sac­ri­ficed a ram instead. In the end, Abra­ham had demon­strat­ed his — and the Jews’ — hero­ic will­ing­ness to accept God and His law,” and God had pro­claimed” that He could not accept human blood, that He reject­ed all human sacrifices.”

That inter­pre­ta­tion goes back at least as far as the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry. I found it in the writ­ings of Ibn Kaspi, who argues not just that the story’s pur­pose was to uproot, under­mine, and weak­en the hea­then prac­tice of child sac­ri­fice, but also that Abra­ham him­self (even before he looked up and saw the ram in the thick­et and decid­ed, on his own, to offer it) under­stood that child sac­ri­fice was an abom­i­na­tion to God. But as far as I can tell it didn’t gain trac­tion until after the Enlight­en­ment and it becomes espe­cial­ly promi­nent in nine­teenth cen­tu­ry bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship (see for exam­ple the work of Abra­ham Geiger) and then pop­u­lar­iza­tions of that schol­ar­ship in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Today the notion that the sto­ry was a polemic against child sac­ri­fice is as wide­spread as any inter­pre­ta­tion save per­haps the Chris­t­ian idea that the sto­ry is a sto­ry of faith and a type” of the pas­sion of Christ. You can still find it in schol­ar­ship, and it is every­where in pop­u­lar his­to­ries of reli­gion, bib­li­cal and prayer book com­men­tary, ency­clo­pe­dias of reli­gion, guides to reli­gious lit­er­a­cy, and more. 

It is not hard to under­stand the appeal of that inter­pre­ta­tion. It puts God and Abra­ham on the side of the angels, civ­i­liza­tion, and progress, in the bat­tle against the scourge of child sac­ri­fice waged by some of the great­est Jew­ish prophets in the sixth and sev­enth cen­turies B.C.E.

But among the first things I dis­cov­ered when I began doing the research for my book is that the idea that Gen­e­sis 22 was a polemic against child sac­ri­fice dri­ves some bib­li­cal schol­ars to dis­trac­tion. They see it is a kind of wish­ful think­ing or anachro­nis­tic apol­o­gy that can’t sur­vive a close, crit­i­cal, and clear-eyed read­ing of the text in the con­text of the Hebrew Bible and numer­ous oth­er ancient Near East­ern sources, sources which sug­gest that child sac­ri­fice was some­times prac­ticed and for cen­turies cel­e­brat­ed, by the ancient Israelites as well as by their neigh­bors: You shall give Me the first-born among your sons,” God declares in Exo­dus 13 and again in Exo­dus 22. God didn’t always demand what was his, but some­times he did. 

Have a look for your­self, not just at Exo­dus 13 and 22, two places where God lays claim to the first born, but also at the much more famil­iar Gen­e­sis 22, where God com­mands Abra­ham to sac­ri­fice Isaac and then rewards him for (links his bless­ing to) Abraham’s will­ing­ness. Nowhere does God tell Abra­ham that he nev­er wants him to sac­ri­fice chil­dren. Nor does God com­mand the sub­sti­tu­tion. What’s more, the schol­ars say, the sto­ry lacks the kind of phrase we might expect if its pur­pose were to explain the ori­gins of sub­sti­tu­tion: (“and Abra­ham offered up the ram as a burnt offer­ing instead of his son, as is done to this day”). And lat­er tra­di­tion does not refer back to the inci­dent as the rea­son for the redemp­tion of the first­born — as (say) the sto­ry of the Pas­cal lamb in the Passover sto­ry does. Might the sto­ry have sig­naled the per­mis­si­bil­i­ty of sub­sti­tu­tion? Per­haps, but (the bib­li­cal schol­ars argue) only mod­ern dis­tance from and enlight­ened dis­taste for the ide­al of sac­ri­fice could make it pos­si­ble for read­ers to imag­ine that a sto­ry in which God com­mands Abra­ham to sac­ri­fice Isaac and then rewards him for his will­ing­ness to do it was intend­ed to reveal God’s unequiv­o­cal oppo­si­tion to human sacrifice.

Oth­ers schol­ars dis­agree, and even those who agree that the sto­ry was prob­a­bly not meant to demon­strate God’s oppo­si­tion to child sac­ri­fice (or even to explain the tran­si­tion from human to ani­mal sac­ri­fice) don’t agree on what the sto­ry orig­i­nal­ly meant. But regard­less of who is cor­rect about the his­to­ry, it is impor­tant to remem­ber that the his­to­ry is just that, his­to­ry — an argu­ment about what that sto­ry meant back then, not what it has meant at var­i­ous times since then or what it means to peo­ple today. The Chris­t­ian idea (first expressed in the Let­ter to the Hebrews) that the sto­ry was about Abraham’s faith that God would come through (as opposed to his obe­di­ence, will­ing­ness to do what­ev­er god asked) was also a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Hebrew Bible. Tak­ing the sto­ry into their hands as if it were a chunk of soft clay and remak­ing it in their own image is what read­ers have been doing with the sto­ry for thou­sands of years. 

Today an extra­or­di­nary num­ber of Jews and Chris­tians believe that the sto­ry was a polemic against child sac­ri­fice or an expla­na­tion for its aban­don­ment. Since I myself pre­fer not sac­ri­fic­ing chil­dren to sac­ri­fic­ing them (in all the forms that the sac­ri­fice of chil­dren takes), I don’t see any­thing wrong with that. Many peo­ple believe that the Bible con­tains prac­ti­cal lessons, teach­es how we should behave. I would much pre­fer that those peo­ple believe that God thinks we shouldn’t sac­ri­fice chil­dren than he thinks that we should. 

James Good­man is a pro­fes­sor at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, where he teach­es his­to­ry and cre­ative writ­ing. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb?, is now avail­able. He is also the author of two pre­vi­ous books, includ­ing Sto­ries of Scotts­boro, which was a final­ist for the Pulitzer Prize. Keep up with him here.

James Good­man is a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and head of non­fic­tion writ­ing in the MFA pro­gram at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, Newark. He is the author of two pre­vi­ous books, includ­ing Sto­ries of Scotts­boro, which was a final­ist for the Pulitzer Prize.