Among people trying to promote interfaith relations, it is a common cry to note that Jews, Christians and Muslims are all children of Abraham.
But Bruce Chilton, a distinguished prof of religion up at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, has wondered about the legacy of Abraham’s story. In a new book, Abraham’s Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he looks at the meaning of sacrifice, in particular God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice a son.
He says that the religions have used the story to glorify the idea of human sacrifice…
And get what Chilton what told ReligionDispatches about the genesis of his project:
In the autumn of 1976, I began my first full-time academic appointment at Sheffield University in England. One afternoon, after meetings with students, I struck up a conversation with a colleague who was (and is) an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
We talked about Abraham’s offer to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. Both Judaism and Christianity took that story and changed its ending. According to some graphic accounts, Abraham actually slaughtered the boy on Mount Moriah, just as God commanded him to do, and that is what made him a noble patriarch. Intrigued by these strange variants, my colleague and I wrote articles that explained the literary development of the texts.
Might the ending of the story have been changed? Now that’s food for thought.
Asked for the biggest misconception about Abraham and sacrifice, Chilton says:
It is easier to see Abraham’s curse in others than in oneself. Christians spot it in Islam, but fail to recognize it in the Crusades. Muslims deny it in the Qur’an, and call attention to how Jewish tradition turned it into a literal sacrifice. Jewish believers often deny any connection with the idea of sacrifice, and so ignore a great deal of the Bible and Judaic tradition.
Some writers have recently blamed religion as a whole, or belief in God, for all forms of violence. They conveniently ignore the deadliest ideologies of all time— from the modern period—that have called for self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of others in the name of atheist values. Abraham’s curse has been with us since the Stone Age, and can only been overcome by self-criticism, not new versions of the blame game.