I saw a post on HuffPo the other day (The 5 Most Terrifying Words In The Bible) where the author goes into conniptions over the story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son, Isaac.
I’m no particular fan of the Bible, and I’m certainly no fan of this story. But it doesn’t seem nearly as difficult as this author is trying to make it.
It’s a short story, and worth quoting in full. It comes from Genesis, book 22:
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
People have agonized over this horrid little story for thousands of years. I think most of them have missed the point entirely. My thoughts are based on two assumptions, which I think are entirely reasonable.
First, I assume that this is, in fact, a very old story that dates from the pre-literate oral traditions of the nomadic ancestors of the ancient Hebrew people. Second, I assume that these nomadic ancestors of the Hebrews — or at the very least, many of the surrounding cultures known to these nomadic ancestors — at some point practiced child sacrifice.
As horrible as our modern sensibilities find such a thing, infanticide, infant exposure (also known as abandonment), and child sacrifice are common methods of controlling population, especially among people living a subsistence lifestyle under stress of drought or food shortages. It has obvious connections to the culling of the herds, which is to this day a necessary and routine part of animal husbandry, and which is the basis of most or all “animal sacrifice” in ancient cultures. After all, if you have to reduce the size of the herd because you can’t feed them through the winter, or the dry season, or the annual migration through the mountains/plains/desert, you might as well make a feast of it; since you’ll very likely end up with far too much meat to eat, even feasting, you’ll preserve what you can, and burn the rest as an “offering to the gods.”
Similarly, if you have too many people in your tribe and not enough to eat, you have to make some hard choices. Sacrificing the children who cannot fend for themselves has been one traditional way to do this.
So in that presumed historical context, what is the main point of this Biblical story?
I think it’s quite obvious. Nothing stands out in this story as much as the fact that Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac.
In pre-literate societies, the story is the memory of the culture. It is how traditions, values, and identity are passed on from generation to generation. Such stories are entertaining, yes, but only because it makes them more memorable. Furthermore, stories are precious, as there is a finite (and fairly small) number of stories that a culture can really pass on without the aid of writing. You only pass on the important stories.
So if this is a pre-literate oral tradition that comes from deep in the ancient past, then it is almost certainly a precious teaching story that passes along important traditions, values, and identity.
Consider, now, that you are one of these early nomadic Hebrews, and during your travels you come across a rich and powerful city in which they regularly sacrifice their children to their gods. What is the very first thing that will pop into your mind? Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac. You are one of The People Who Do Not Sacrifice Their Children. This is one of the important stories of your people that tell you who you are, and what you value.
Here’s where things get interesting.
In places like the modern United States, where people write agonized articles for HuffPo about this ancient story, we don’t practice child sacrifice. Oh, yes, we can get all metaphorical and talk about abortion and contraception, or sending our youth off to war, or poverty, or even violent video games. But we have to get metaphorical, because there is no tradition in this society of actual child sacrifice. It isn’t done even in China and India, both of which face severe population pressure — infanticide and exposure, yes, but there is no Temple where you can take your child to be sacrificed to the gods so that they will bless your people. Child sacrifice as openly supported by a community simply isn’t done, except in horror fiction.
If child sacrifice were still commonly practiced, this teaching story would still carry its original force and meaning. But child sacrifice hasn’t been a practice in any of our parent-cultures for thousands of years, and we’ve mostly forgotten that such things were ever done and considered normal. So we no longer understand the main point of this story. Instead, we focus on the details and start to make up all kinds of bizarre things about what the story is about, such as what a lousy father Abraham was, or how Isaac must have suffered from PTSD for the rest of his life, or what an inscrutable ass God is.
This has become a Zombie Story: a story that no longer lives, yet still shambles on, searching for brains to devour.
Stories go Zombie all the time.
We could look at those tribes and cities that did practice child sacrifice, for instance. As I’ve pointed out, there are conditions where, brutal as it is, culling the human herd makes sense: times of famine and starvation after a time of plenty and over-enthusiastic baby-making, for instance. But then we start to see child sacrifice as a regular, community-supported ritual practice in thriving villages and city-states and empires, even in times of plenty. We have the Biblical mention of the Ammonites and their god Moloch. We have the Mayans, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs in South America. We have some of the ancient Kali cults in India. I’m sure there are many other examples from around the world.
Somewhere behind each of these customs of child sacrifice lies a Zombie Story that explains why the gods demand that a child be put to death, lest evil and misfortune befall the people, a story much like the Abraham story above, but with the opposite outcome. Each such story probably even made sense at the time it was first told: it helped the people get through an extremely difficult time. But at some point people remembered the story and forgot the point of the story, and it became a Zombie that sucked out people’s brains.
How bad can a Zombie story be? Consider Easter Island, and its stone heads looking out to sea. Making those heads required wood, which came from the giant palms that once grew abundantly on the island. Those palms were the lifeblood of the islanders — in addition to providing food and shade, and holding the soil so that it didn’t run off into the sea, they were used to make the deep water canoes the islanders used to fish, and occasionally voyage to other islands. But some Zombie Story, now long-forgotten, stole the islanders’ brains, and they began to build stone heads so single-mindedly that they eventually cut down all of the mature palms. Not long after that, the population crashed, with evidence that the last survivors turned to cannibalism before they, too, starved.
That’s how bad a Zombie Story can be.
We have our own dangerous Zombie Stories in the twenty-first century United States of America.
We could, for instance, look at our ludicrous debates over the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, the so-called “right to bear arms,” which was put in to guarantee the slaveholding states’ right to control their slave populations with their own state militias. With the Thirteenth Amendment (which abolished slavery), the entire reason for the Second Amendment evaporated. Yet the Second Amendment shambles on, and its interpretation grows stranger and stranger. There is nothing in the amendment about arms ownership, and a clear statement about a well-regulated militia. But the whole amendment is now taken to be about private ownership of military-grade weapons by individuals who belong to no kind of militia at all, much less a well-regulated state militia, with a subtext that the purpose is to allow The People to overthrow The Government by force of arms: the Second Amendment is now about the right of the peasants to own semi-automatic pitchforks. Their slogan: You can have My Gun when you pry it out of my cold, dead hand.
It’s easy to pick on the so-called Conservatives, because they tend to collect traditional stories without understanding what they mean: a breeding-ground for Zombies. But the so-called Liberals and so-called Progressives have their own Zombies.
“They’ll think of something,” is one of the most pervasive Progressive stories circulating at the moment: a Zombie Story that is reflexively regurgitated any time someone brings up a material or social problem that threatens our US American “lifestyle.” We can have some fun unpacking this little four-word story (five if you expand the contraction).
They will think of something. Not, “I will think of something.” The latter would involve a personal commitment and direct involvement — the former merely expects to be served up a solution to the problem. It presumes that not only will they think of something, they will be willing to share it altruistically, or through the magic marketplace, so that the solution is simply a commodity to be purchased at a reasonable price.
They will think of something. Not, “They might think of something.” The solution is inevitable, undoubtable, sure and certain.
They will think of something. Not, “They will prophesy something.” We have an elaborate social system for turning thought into intellectual property and thus commodities that can be purchased. A prophecy is a call-to-change, and we don’t want one of those. We want a pill, or a gadget, or something we can buy that avoids the need to make any real changes.
They will think of something. You can see the airy hand-wave here, the “This is all over my head, I’m not a scientist.” It’s all magic: people don’t understand the solutions they’ve got, or the problems those solutions have caused, and they don’t pretend to understand the principles of any future solutions. It’s just something. Magic.
This Zombie story has evolved from an older Progressive story, “What will they think of next?” A devastating influenza pandemic swept the world only a century ago, at a time when city transportation was the horse-drawn cart, radio technology had just been invented, and children were regularly crippled by polio. Only a single lifetime later, all of these constants had changed. Note the sense of wonderment in the older story.
Now, compare that to the sense of entitlement in the modern Progressive story, and you can see exactly how this story has gone Zombie.
The antidote to Zombie Stories is Living Stories. I don’t think we have a lot of those floating around right now: that’s one of the principal symptoms of a dying civilization.
I wonder what the next Living Stories will look like….