Friday, 27 November 2015


Something a bit different today.

I shared a meme on Facebook.

First of all, why did I share it? Well, this one has always bothered me. I've had it explained to me many times, by very well-intentioned people, and last night was no different. The Christian friend who explained it went for the standard, orthodox explanation. The whole test of faith thing. OK.

There are two ways to look at this, and we'll do both of them.

The first way is to treat the story at face value, as a literalist Christian would, and examine the motives of God. Assuming the God in this story is the same God that people today pray to etc, and assuming there's only one, which is a big assumption in itself, but necessary for our purposes, then he had some reason to test Abraham in this way. One man. Just a man. To say he was putting a lot of responsibility on Abe's shoulders is a considerable understatement. He then had to make sure the guy was obedient. I get that. If you are planning on choosing one human being out of the entire human race and making him the patriarch of not only your chosen people but of religions and adherents yet to come, you have to make sure he's up to the task. He has to do what you tell him. And there can be no greater test than this. Additionally, many believers insist that the child was never actually at any risk, because God didn't actually let Abraham kill him.

The sacrifice went ahead, incidentally. If you are not familiar with the story, Abraham sacrificed a sheep instead. This goes right along with the modern view that we must take into account standard cultural practises of the time, such as child and animal sacrifice.

It gets more complex after that, because the Christians connect this to the sacrifice of God's son Jesus, while the Jews have several ideas on this but a big one is that Abraham knew the child was in no danger, while some say that it was his own idea to use his child, and not God's. This is the sort of thing believers love to argue about, and we'll leave them to it.

The other way to look at this, from a non-believer perspective is that what we have here is an interesting myth, packed full of symbolism. Remember, the Jews created stories to cement their place. It's all about belonging to that piece of land. They had a very tenuous grip on it at times, and in addition the people, the masses, weren't always all that interested in staying. It was their leaders, just like all leaders everywhere, who had to persuade them to conform, and these were the people who wrote the stories. We no longer live in the age of myth, but the same thing still happens, only we call it propaganda.

When I refer to this story as myth, believers are often offended. They refer to other people's ancient stories as myth, but they believe theirs to be different, special, true. This is where we tend to argue, and it's a pity because there is so much value to myth.

One of the things that happens in myth is that a group of people become one person. Several heroes, who each did maybe one memorable thing, get conflated into one legendary figure whose story gets passed down. Or, as in the case of Abraham, just people. The figure of Abraham represents the tribe. It is very unlikely there ever was a man by that name, with that role, who did any of these things. Maybe he's based on one or more leaders over time, who were memorable. Maybe he wrote stories. The point is, this event didn't actually happen. It's quite possible it happened in somebody's conscience. Maybe more than once. At 2am on a hot desert night, a man with a lot of responsibility could easily think to himself, what if? And a story begins. We have never lived in such circumstances and cannot judge.

These were not stupid people. They were unsophisticated, but the quality and genius of their stories tells you they were deep thinkers. They had a need for these stories, and they honed them carefully before they were written down.

Therefore, the meaning of the story - its purpose - was known to its writer (s). But since then, different opinions, and being out of touch with the lives of the writers and those who they wrote it for, leads us to guess at their motives.

The test of faith theory, in one form or another is the most logical one. Unfortunately, whether you see it as a true story OR an important myth, it leaves several questions unanswered.

The first one is that an omniscient God ought to have known BEFORE choosing Abraham whether he was the man for the job or not. It's not as if there was a line of candidates. This test should have been completely redundant. Any test of faith should be, if God knows everything. As usual, as with so many Bible stories, it suggests a God who can be fooled. Who isn't quite sure.

And why didn't God save the sheep too? Or at least scold Abraham for sacrificing it. It was totally unnecessary to kill the animal.

Let's now look at the circumcision. The modern view here quite often is that this practise was to do with hygiene, but it's probably a blood sacrifice ritual from earlier times. It certainly existed in Ancient Egypt and lots of African tribes have traditionally used it as a rite of passage into manhood.

It's not unusual for a concept (in this case sacrifice) to be repeated in several different ways in ancient stories. That was how things were taught. If you didn't "get" the idea one way, you got it another way. Creation myths are a good example of this. The story of Noah, which comes long after the early stories, is in fact another creation myth. Why are there two? Because none of these early stories were original. They were borrowed from earlier civilizations and altered to suit. Noah comes straight from Gilgamesh, with details changed. All of this is lost when the stories are read literally.

The concept of sacrifice is found throughout ancient stories, just about everywhere. It comes from pre-history, from superstition, and it hasn't gone anywhere. Animals are still sacrificed today by some Greek Orthodox priests, and it's a widespread practise in Africa and Asia. So we shouldn't be at all surprised that it was a big deal in stories written almost 3000 years ago.

Yesterday was American Thanksgiving. A ritual turkey sacrifice. Don't laugh. The turkey was killed, the ritual was done, you'd better believe it is NOT a million miles removed. That's humans. We still like rituals. No, we love them. We are all about meaning and symbolism. Of course we are, we don't change much in a few thousand years. Some of us take it more seriously than others, and some.....some think God requires it.

Why? What possible use could God have for humans performing rituals?

When the meme said that this story is crazy. it was looking at it from the perspective of modern behaviour. If somebody today claimed to hear voices, we'd assume they had a mental illness. People who cut off parts of their body are considered at the very least to be a bit odd. And someone who said they were going to kill their child "for God" would have child services round so fast it'd be a blur. So, yeah, it was crazy. We allow it because it's an ancient story, and because generally today even believers have no intention of copying it. Well, hopefully.

Nevertheless, these stories are still told. Reasons are debated. Excuses are made. Apologists smirk. Non-believers smirk back.

The real test here seems to be one of credulity. I wonder what God would have done if Abraham had said "Not bloody likely! That's my son! He's precious!" That's a man I'd admire. I like to think that would be the outcome God would be pleased with. But then I never did like the Old Testament God. He killed a lot of children.


  1. It's a good take from your prespective. However, while they idea of myth is credible it is doing the same thing as those who believe the story is real. It assumes. Yes there are similar stories but do we know who borrowed from who? No since the Torah and the Pentateuch were passed down orally. In other words there is no recorded record of when the story originated. So we are left in similar positions. We believe it to be true or we believe it to by myth and neither side can prove the other wrong.

  2. I offer this quote by the late Joseph Campbell, from his work, "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" (1949): "Centuries of husbandry, decades of diligent culling, the work of numerous hearts and hands, have gone into the hackling, sorting, and spinning of this tightly twisted yarn. Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."

    We must both have storytelling on the mind. Well done ~ Blessings! :)

  3. What a wonderful post. You probably know the similar story of Iphigeneia? The second daughter of Agamemnon, she was also sacrificed, this time to Artemis, who also substituted an animal just in time, and whisked the girl away to be her priestess in Tauris on the Black Sea, not exactly an ideal existence. She gets rescued years later by her brother Orestes.

    1. Yep, there are quite a few. Because the message in the story is the important bit. I do wish people understood that.