I’ve been talking about doing a post about Abraham for a long time. People often reference Abraham when talking about things like Joshua’s Unholy War, the Priesthood Ban, or polygamy. Usually the reference is to the sacrifice of Isaac.
So, this post is to serve two purposes: (1) to show some different perceptions about the sacrifice of Isaac, (as well as some other strange stories of Abraham), and (2) to introduce some new information from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and archaeological scholars. I’ve had fun learning about it, and hope you do to. While I believe Abraham is a prophet, I find some things that Abraham did as troubling, and I’ll point them out below.
Abraham was born in southern Iraq, and traditional lived somewhere between 2000 and 1500 BC in the city-state of Ur. Ur (located near the border of Kuwait) was surrounded by city walls. A Ziggarat (stepped pyramid) has been discovered there, and some scholars believe it may be the basis for the Tower of Babel story found in the Bible.
Abraham is a well traveled person. Born in Ur, he and his wife Sarah, left with his father Terah’s family (including nephew Lot), for the land of Haran (which is now Turkey), a journey of about 1000 miles. Abraham lived there until he was 75. Apparently, there was some sort of mass migration from Ur to Turkey, as it seems many others traveled from Ur to Haran. Abraham left Turkey for the Land of Canaan (now Israel), due to a revelation from God. But due to a famine, Abraham leaves Canaan to go to Egypt. After the famine ends, he returns to Canaan. Muslim scholars believe that after Sarah’s death, he traveled to Mecca (Saudi Arabia) to live with his son Ishmael.
One story not found in the Bible, is the story of Abraham destroying his father’s idols. Mormons are familiar with the story from the Book of Abraham, but similar stories are also found in the Jewish Midrash, and Muslim Koran. The Midrash is a book composed by ancient Jewish rabbi’s to explain passages of scripture. Not only does the Midrash explain interpretations of scripture, but often further explains stories, or introduces new parts of a story. The Koran also tells of this story of Abraham destroying his father’s idols. Previously, I speculated that Joseph could have found a Muslim text in translating the Book of Abraham, but it easily could also have been a Jewish fragment of the Midrash as well.
Abraham is credited for being the “founder of monotheism,” as well as the founder of the 3 great western religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There is an old cable series (1994) from the network A&E called Mysteries of the Bible which has a show about Abraham. William Dever, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, at the University of Arizona, states that monotheism was a unique religious idea in 2000 BC. (Note these quotes are taken scattered throughout the video. I have tried to put similar quotes together for clarity in this post.)
“There is nothing like the ethical monotheism of the Hebrew prophets anywhere in the ancient world. If you want to believe in the uniqueness of the Bible, this is a good point to begin with, it is a fact. There is nothing like this anywhere else.”
Walter Zanger, a Jewish scholar concurs with this opinion. “Every other country in the world, every other civilization had gods whom you had to feed, to sacrifice to them. Abraham had a god who gave him law and behavior. The introduction of a single moral law for king, for commoner, and even for God is a milestone in the history of the world.”
Dr Nahum M. Sarna, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies, Brandies University. “How did one man, stand up against all cultural and religious notions and accepted views of the time. That’s a question that there just is no answer. You can ask the same question about every innovator every founder of a new religion, every revolutionary. We just have no answers. These are abiding mysteries.”
While the Bible seems to indicate that Adam down to Abraham were all monotheists, some scholars disagree. Jewish scholar Walter Zanger makes a case that Abraham was not a true monotheist. He says,
“It’s hard to talk about Abraham as a monotheist. Abraham had an agreement, a covenant with his one god, who is the Lord. Abraham didn’t say, or believe as far as we know, that there weren’t other gods. All the evidence is that there were other gods for other people. And Abraham’s god never insisted on exclusivity.”
The narrator, Richard Kiley continues, “While experts disagree over whether Abraham was a true monotheist, the Bible does not indicate if he worshipped other gods. It only tells us that led by his fervent faith in his one god, that Abraham informs his family that they will be leaving their secure, familiar world behind.”
The Law of Circumcision
Circumcision is not unique to Abraham, and in fact the practice dates before this story in the Bible. Scholars say that the difference in the Abrahamic story is that it attains some sort of spiritual blessing. I’m not trying to be sacrilegious here, but I have to tell you that this idea has to be one of the strangest spiritual blessings that man has ever known.
Why couldn’t God have pierced the ear, asked for a tattoo, or some other sign? I just don’t understand why God or any man thinks it’s a good idea to put anything sharp near a person’s genitals. Before I get into the scriptural account, I want to talk about a few things regarding circumcision.
Most of us are appalled by female circumcision, which usually involves removal of the clitoris (which gives pleasure to women during intercourse.) Not all Muslims support the practice, but it is quite common among African Muslims. The practice of female circumcision pre-dates Christ and Islam, and seems to have originated in Egypt. Its main purpose is to keep women virtuous by making sex not enjoyable. It seems completely barbaric and incomprehensible to me.
Male circumcision is being discouraged in western countries because it seemingly has no medical benefit. However, medical opinion is changing. There are several studies showing that AIDS infections have been decreased by 60% in Africa due to a new campaign to promote male circumcision, as seen in this NY Times article. Another study in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that male circumcision has the benefit of reducing herpes infections, as well as human papillomavirus (which causes genital warts).
The Biblical account makes no reference to medical benefits, but says the Law of Circumcision is part of the spiritual covenant where God covenants with Abraham to make him a leader of many nations. The DVD talks about the ancient practice of male circumcision, making it clear that it was a practice common to Middle Eastern people prior to Abraham.
Circumcision was already widely practiced in the Middle East at Abraham’s time as a ritual of passage to adulthood, or a premarital rite. But when Abraham circumcised himself at the age of 99, the ritual acquired a new spiritual meaning.
Dr. Mark Brettler, Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Brandies University, “What is unique in terms of the Bible is not so much the physical circumcision itself, but rather that circumcision was considered to be a central part of the covenant.”
This is my covenant which you shall keep between me and you, and your descendants after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised. It shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is 8 days old among you shall be circumcised.” Genesis 17:12.
Rabbi David Wolpe, lecturer at the University of Judaism. “One of the reasons that circumcision is a mark on the generative organ is, that God says to Abraham, ‘you’re going to be the head of a great nation, and I want you to always remember that it comes from you and your loins, and I want a mark of your commitment at the very place where this great nation will spring from.'”
Some time after Abraham’s circumcision, Sarah became pregnant, giving birth to Isaac. I suppose it could be argued that in Abraham’s case, it may have helped Sarah get pregnant. However, Abraham had previously fathered Ishmael through his slave-servant Hagar. While I have plenty of problems with polygamy, and slavery, I’m going to ignore these issues for the purposes of this post. (FYI, I don’t believe God was happy with either polygamy or slavery.) Regardless of whether people support my position on slavery and polygamy, I’ll assume that both were culturally innocuous for this post.
The Mistreatment of Hagar
Throughout history, jealousy between polygamist wives has always been a problem. In the Bible, there are several instances of jealousy, such as David, Solomon, and Israel’s (Jacob’s) wives. Sarah was greatly jealous of Hagar after Hagar conceived Ishmael, and ordered Abraham to send Hagar away (to die) on 2 occasions. What is most ironic is that Sarah asked Abraham to take Hagar as a wife, and then blamed Abraham. The following account is from an NIV bible, Genesis 16:1-11.
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said.
So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.
Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur.
And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered. Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”
The angel of the Lord also said to her: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.
This angelic appearance to Hagar receives far too little notice in Judaism and Christianity. What is so amazing to me is that Hagar received the vision, not Abraham. Hagar chose the name (via the angel), not Abraham. The Hebrew version of the name is Yishma’el, meaning “God has hearkened”. In Arabic, his name is Ismael. Isma in Arabic means ‘to listen’ i.e answer prayer, and ell is derived from the Hebrew word el, meaning God.
Who is the righteous one in this story? To me the answer is Hagar. Hagar returns to Abraham, and the Bible story says that 13 years after Ishmael’s birth, Sarah becomes pregnant with Isaac. (The Koran seems to put the births of Isaac and Ishmael closer together— more on that in a bit.) At any rate, Sarah once again casts out Hagar and Ishmael, this time for good, referring to Hagar with the derisive term of slavewoman, rather than maidservant as in chapter 16. The DVD narrates this incident.
“So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slavewoman and her son. For the son of this slavewoman shall not be heir with my son, Isaac. [Gen. 21:10]
Walter Zanger, “Sarah is very strong in the house. When she herself had a son, she was strong enough, and smart enough to know that the firstborn son, Ishmael, would naturally take the birthright. But she also knew that God had promised it to her son, and therefore she was strong enough to ensure that the woman got thrown out, with her son.”
“And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Be not displeased because of the lad, because of your slavewoman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you. For through Isaac, will your descendants be named.” [Genesis 22:11-12]
The heart-rending moment, when Abraham sends the Egyptian slave Hagar, and their son Ishmael into exile will sow the seeds of conflict between Jew and Muslim, which on occasion will bear bitter fruit in centuries to come.
It is hard for me to reconcile that God would go along with sending a mother and child into the desert. But just as Joseph thrived in Egypt, it seems to me that Ishmael had a few miracles ahead of him in Saudi Arabia. The more I learn about this story, the more I am amazed at God graciousness in protecting Ishmael and Hagar. We Christians and Jews fail to recognize God’s hand in dealing with the Arab nations.
I’d like to emphasize another scripture about Ishmael that is ignored by Christians. In Genesis 21:12-13, “But God said to [Abraham], “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
Did you get that? God said, “I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also.” The Arab nations claim their father is Ishmael. Ishmael had 12 sons— the 12 tribes of Ishmael, who became the great nations of the Arabs. God’s promises to Ishmael are in the Bible, yet I have never seen anyone emphasize this. The Koran has a similar, but more miraculous version of this event, and I was a little astonished to see that it is also in the Bible. First, let’s go over the biblical account in Genesis 21:14-20,
Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.
God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.
Are Arabs God’s chosen people, as well as the Jews? Genesis seems to support that idea. The Islamic version of this story is even more amazing. First of all, I did not realize that the pilgrimage to Mecca was so tied to Ishmael and Abraham. As I was transcribing some of these quotes from the DVD, one of the Islamic scholars had a thick accent, and I couldn’t understand what she was saying, so I asked my friend Ann, who I mentioned in a previous post about Arabs and Persians, what the name of the temple was in Mecca. She then told me the story of Ishmael and Hagar, and how it relates to the pilgrimage. I was even more astonished to discover that this well mentioned in Genesis is the well in Mecca.
Each year during the Hajj (the ritual pilgrimage) to Mecca, pilgrims re-enact Hagar’s (or Hajar, in Arabic) desperate search for water for her infant son, running seven times between two hills and drawing water from the well of Zam Zam. Ann told me that the Islamic version of the story holds that Ishmael was a baby, rather than a teenager in the Genesis account. During this desperate search for water, the baby Ishmael just kicked his feet on the ground (as toddlers would do), and a spring of water came forth. To me, it sounded almost like the story of Moses getting water from the rock. The full story is mentioned in Sahih Bukhari. The well Zam Zam is still there today, and it is illegal to sell the water outside of Saudi Arabia, as it is considered so sacred.
The name of the well comes from the phrase ZomÃ« ZomÃ«, meaning ‘stop flowing’, a command repeated by Hagar during her attempt to contain the spring water.
According to Islamic tradition, Abraham rebuilt the Bait-ul-Allah (House of Allah) at the site of the well, a building which had been originally constructed by Adam, and today is called the Kaaba, a building towards which all Muslims around the world face in prayer, five times each day. The Zamzam well is located approximately 20 meters east of the Ka’aba.
I love these quotes from the DVD.
Dr. Wadad Kadi, professor of Islamic Thought, University of Chicago, “Abraham’s message is the same as Muhammad, articulated at a different time to a different nation, and a different language.”
Abraham’s spiritual odyssey inspired both Judaism and Christianity. Abraham is also a founder of Islam. According to Muslim belief, Abraham and Ishmael helped build the Ka’aba, the holy shrine at the center of the great mosque in Mecca. They believe that Abraham literally laid the foundation for what in Islam is the most sacred spot on earth.
Kadi, “Abraham developed the true faith, and it is the true faith that Muhammad eventually preached, as part of the message that he received from God. So Abraham’s role is absolutely one of the cornerstones of Islamic tradition.”
Perhaps the fact that all 3 of the west’s great religions draw upon the story of one man for inspiration holds out a promise that the 3 faiths will someday live in harmony together as God promised to Abraham in the Bible.
“By your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves because you have obeyed my voice.” Genesis 22:18.
Abraham is set up as a model of righteousness for attempting to follow a command of unimaginable horror— taking the life of his own son. It is terrible to think about. I have found some alternate interpretations, and I want to share some of them below. I’m not so sure I believe that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac or Ishmael (apparently there is a disagreement among the religions). However, I do accept that God saved Abraham from making a terrible mistake. To me the most important idea is that God saved Abraham’s son, but I don’t believe God would command anyone to kill their own child. From the DVD,
The words will haunt us today, as they have haunted the human imagination for thousands of years. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” Genesis 22:1
Rabbi David Wolpe, “the binding of Isaac, though it is only some 20, or 22 verses, is in the Jewish tradition, the most commented incident in the entire Bible.
Walter Zanger, “It is impossible for modern man to explain that story. It is impossible to deal with. I can see this historically, but I can’t feel it personally. It’s too horrible.”
Wolpe, “One of the strange things is that although Isaac is the one who is going to be sacrificed, the focus is really on Abraham, because the truth is, that we really feel it is harder in this case to be the sacrificer than to be the victim. Isaac is a figure of simple, almost pathetic trust, and Abraham is a father that is torn between his love to a son, and his duty to a god who has given him a terrible command.”
Isaac carries the wood to a place of sacrifice, while Abraham carries the fire, and the knife. Isaac then asks his father one of the most heart-rending things in the entire bible. “He said behold the fire and the wood, but where is the Lamb for a burnt offering. And Abraham said, ‘God will provide the lamb’ for a burnt offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together. [Gen 22:8]
Abraham builds an altar, and places his son Isaac on top of it. Then Abraham took forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, “do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me. [Gen 22:12]
We will never know what happened after that terrifying moment. Did Abraham and Isaac weep? Did father and son embrace through their tears. We know only that Isaac was spared.
“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns, and Abraham took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” [Gen 22:13]
Perhaps no story in the Bible has inspired as great an outpouring of speculation as the binding of Isaac, of ancient times to our own.
Wolpe, “The protestant theologian Kierkegard at the beginning of his book, “Fear and Trembling”, imagines a scene in which Abraham takes Isaac, and binds him on the altar and says to him, ‘I hate you–I’ve always hated you. I can’t stand you, and now is my chance to kill you! And now I’m going to do it. And he starts to kill him, and God stops him just as he does in the Bible. And then, Abraham unties Isaac and holds him and crying, says to him, ‘I thought it was better that you should hate me, than that you should hate God.'”
But what is the meaning of the Biblical story of the binding of Isaac? Some scholars believe that it was a statement by the editors of the Bible 1000 years after Abraham against a gruesome practice of their own time.
William Dever, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, University of Arizona, “Child sacrifice was fairly common throughout the ancient near east. And in fact at Carthage in North Africa, a Jewish cemetery has been found with small urns containing the burned bones of infants and the inscriptions accompanying these burials make it clear that parents had sacrificed a child to one or another of the gods to bring them good fortune.”
Scholars have sought to probe the seemingly baffling mystery of how any parent could sacrifice his own child?
Brettler, “As horrific as this might be to us, we can really see this as a very significant religious notion, where a person is coming and is saying to God, ‘God you have given me that which is most valuable, namely a child. I am going to return it to you.'”
Dever, “I think the editors wanted for us to believe that child sacrifice was never practiced. And yet the very critique of the prophets against it is proof of the fact that the practice was common. You don’t complain about something unless there was a real problem.”
Whatever the motive of the editors to set down the story of the binding of Isaac, its impact on all 3 great western religions is immeasurable. Today a mosque known as The Dome of the Rock, built in the 7th century in Jerusalem, enshrines the site on the mountaintop where the life and death drama is said to have taken place. However, according to the Islamic holy scripture, the Koran, it is Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, who was bound and almost sacrificed on this very rock.
Dr. Wadad Kadi, professor of Islamic Thought, University of Chicago, “In the Koranic version, there’s a general tendency to accept that Ishmael to have been that son, rather than Isaac. Isaac is accepted as a prophet, but the binding itself seems to have been Ishmael.”
Christians believe that Mount Moriah was the site of Calvary, while the Jews consider this the location of their holiest shrine, Solomon’s temple. All three religions have found profound importance in Abraham’s profound ordeal.
Wolpe, “After the binding of Isaac is over, God and Abraham in the Bible never speak again. Perhaps after this, Abraham and God have nothing to say again. ‘I did what you wanted, I fulfilled the mission, but now what else is there to say.’ But one commentator notes that after this story, Abraham and Isaac never speak again. After this, no matter how much Isaac understood that Abraham needed to do it, there was a sense that they could never be as close again.
According to one old rabbinic tale, when the aged Sarah hears that her beloved son Isaac was almost sacrificed by Abraham, the shock and horror of it are too much for her. In the Bible, we know only that soon after the binding of Isaac, Sarah finally dies.
In today’s world, anytime someone claims that God commands them to kill someone, we immediately assume they are mentally ill. Yet if the story is in the scriptures, we call them a prophet, and glory in their amazing obedience. I just don’t get it. My personal opinion is that Abraham was misled, and I want to point out some other opinions on the subject.
- Protestant theologian Kierkegaard said, “Though Abraham arouses my admiration, he at the same time appalls me.”
- Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi (Spain, early 14th century) wrote that Abraham’s “imagination” led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Ibn Caspi writes “How could God command such a revolting thing?”
- According to Rabbi J. H. Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), child sacrifice was actually “rife among the Semitic peoples,” and suggests that “in that age, it was astounding that Abraham’s God should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it.” Hertz interprets the Akedah as demonstrating to the Jews that human sacrifice is abhorrent. “Unlike the cruel heathen deities, it was the spiritual surrender alone that God required.”
- The early rabbinic Midrash Genesis Rabbah imagines God as saying “I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac (using the Hebrew root letters for “slaughter”, not “sacrifice”)”.
- Rabbi Yona Ibn Janach (Spain, 11th century) wrote that God demanded only a symbolic sacrifice.
- In Jeremiah 32:35, God states that the later Israelite practice of child sacrifice to the deity Molech “had [never] entered My mind that they should do this abomination.”
- In some later Jewish writings, most notably those of the Hasidic masters, the theology of a “divine test” is rejected, and the sacrifice of Isaac is interpreted as a “punishment” for Abraham’s earlier “mistreatment” of Ishmael, his elder son, whom he expelled from his household at the request of his wife, Sarah. According to this view, Abraham failed to show compassion for his son, so God punished him by ostensibly failing to show compassion for Abraham’s son. This is a somewhat flawed theory, however, since the Bible says that God agreed with Sarah, and it was only at His insistence that Abraham actually had Ishmael leave.
- In The Last Trial, Shalom Spiegel argues that these commentators were interpreting the Biblical narration as an implicit rebuke against Christianity’s claim that God would sacrifice His own son.
- In The Binding of Isaac, Religious Murders & Kabbalah, Lippman Bodoff argues that Abraham never intended to actually sacrifice his son, and that he had faith that God had no intention that he do so.
Finally, I want to add one last piece of information regarding Abraham. After the death of Sarah, he bought some land located in Hebron, which is part of the Gaza Strip in Israel. The Bible records that Sarah is buried there. According to Islamic tradition, Abraham left Israel and helped build a temple in Mecca, along with his son Ishmael. Abraham was later buried near his wife Sarah, in Hebron (in the Gaza Strip) according to Genesis 25:9. Ishmael’s death (at the age of 137) is also recorded in the Bible in Genesis 25:17-18.
So, what do you think of Abraham and how he relates to circumcision, Hagar, and human sacrifice?