It’s difficult to imagine a biblical passage so well known and yet so utterly incomprehensible to modern readers as Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah. In this age of Tiger Moms, and of parents whose lives revolve around their children, what are we to make of a story in which the God of Israel — our God — demands the death of a child?
Begin the comprehension by rolling back the centuries. We need only go back beyond the Victorians to find a very different attitude towards children. Pre-modern peoples loved their children, but they certainly did not organize their lives around them. Scholars offer numerous reasons for this. Some suggest that, given the large rates of infant mortality, a wise parent held back affection until viability had been assured. That observation is speculative, but, even at the beginning of the industrial revolution, children were viewed more as an economic asset than an emotional fulcrum. As the life and work of Charles Dickens attest, home life could scarcely revolve around a child, not when the child had been sent out to work in field or factory. By age twelve Dickens himself was working ten hours days in a Boot-Blacking Factory.
If a small journey through history suffices to dethrone the child, we must return to very origins of antiquity to make child sacrifice comprehensible. Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature argues that humanity is becoming progressively more peaceful. To make his case, he asks us to compare even the worst centuries of organized warfare with the miasma of violence that was the lot of pre-civilized peoples. The tribes that once traversed the globe never knew peace. Their lives were a constant struggle against other peoples, and their own members, for food and child-bearing women.
According to the French historian and philosopher of social science René Girard, that violence explains the very origin, not only of child sacrifice but, of religion itself. Girard suggests that indigenous people stood so completely under the constant threat of violence that they created religion, and the culture that flows from it, as a way of containing violence.
The argument runs something like this: You kill members of my tribe. I must respond by killing yours. Or, a murder has been committed within our tribe. Someone must die so that violence is balanced by a counter act, so that it does not spread like a contagion.
Girard suggests, and offers many examples, of indigenous tribes selecting a sacrificial victim, a scapegoat, someone chosen to die in order to curtail the cycle of violence. Originally, he suggests, this victim was taken from within the offending group, otherwise no balance would be achieved. Enter religion and culture, with the suggestion that a surrogate victim could die for the scapegoat. The tribe doesn’t lose a member, and yet the cycle of spirally violence is temporarily halted.
Girard chastens us for thinking that we have moved far beyond the notion of violence being contained by violence. We’ve simply institutionalized the process, asking the government to do what the tribe once did: see that violence is counter-balanced by violence. Even when this doesn’t lead to the death penalty, incarceration is a work of violence. It demands the chains of coercion. How far beyond meeting violence with violence have we come, when six million Americans are now behind bars? As the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik recently pointed out, America’s second largest city is now the penitentiary.
If Girard was correct, it explains why surrogate scapegoats were sacrificed, and often consumed, but only after they had been received, and even feted, by the tribe. They had to become surrogate members in order to stand in for the tribe itself as victim. This also explains why tribal children were seen as acceptable surrogates. They were born of the tribe, and yet they were not yet fully members of it. That would come later, with adolescent initiation rites. A child would die so that the people would not be annihilated by violence.
Is this the underlying rationale of the command to sacrifice Isaac? Of course, the point of the story is that the God of Israel does not demand the death of the child. Israel’s discernment of her God is growing. This God does not merely manage violence; he does not simply keep it in check. He rises above it. His love for Abraham, and his progeny, allows the substitution of an animal for the child.
As they did with the totality of the Hebrew scriptures, the first Christians would scan this story for traces — what they called typos — of the Christ. Finding Christ where he had not previously been perceived is the tonic that transforms the Hebrew Scriptures into the Christian Old Testament. Saint Augustine would provide his usual trenchant expression to the process when he wrote that “Novus in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet” (The New lies latent in the Old; the Old is made patent in the New.)
Christians had recognized the Beloved Son of the Father in Jesus of Nazareth. That conviction stands behind both the Transfiguration and their rereading of Abraham’s sacrifice. In the cross of Christ, a God is revealed who do so much more than curtail the cycle of violence. On Calvary, loves swallows violence into its own self, just as a mother does in giving birth to a child. The pain, the violence, is accepted as the cost of love in this world.
Many religious scholars have viewed the Christian proclamation as nothing more than a rewriting of ancient myths. A scapegoat dies so that a people might live. What makes nonsense of this armchair reasoning is the fact that scapegoats, guilty and innocent, have died every day since the foundation of the world. We still execute criminals. Without the resurrection, Christ would have simply joined that numberless, nameless throng.
If René Girard is right, then what separates the Cross of Christ from countless other human sacrifices? Girard points out that frequently, the chosen victim would be feted like a God, because his or her death would determine fate itself. In ancient religions, gods died and came back to life in the form of blessings for their people. So did their surrogates. But Jesus of Nazareth didn’t die a God. He was executed as a criminal. There is no parallel in the ancient world of someone dying a man and coming back as a God. And of course the Romans who killed Christ were not primitives; indeed, they had ceased to believe in their own myths. In this regard, they were thoroughly modern, executing a death penalty sentence, not offering a sacrifice.
Because of the resurrection, the cross of Christ is more than either primitive ritual or capital punishment. Like the near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah, it is a moment of revelation. God is peace and life. Violence and death have no measure in God. Having come from God, and knowing that our resurrected selves will live with God, we need not mete out our measure of violence in order to survive in this world.
Saint Paul penned the heart of Christian revelation when he wrote, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him” (Rom 8: 31-32).
Rev. Terrance W. Klein