The moral messages of religious myths (3) 1

Do biblical myths convey a “higher”, “transcendant” morality? Do all, some, or any of them possess a validity for all human beings for as long as the human race exists?

In our post The moral messages of religious myths (1), (June 29, 2017), we discussed the story of Adam and Eve, and in the next of the series, The moral messages of religious myths (2), (July 21, 2017), Cain and Abel.

Now we come to the story of Abraham not sacrificing his son Isaac.  

Here is the story (taking the text of the King James Version of the Bible):

Ninety year old Abraham and his barren old wife Sarah suddenly, miraculously, have a son, to their surprise. They name him Isaac. They’re delighted with him. Then God orders Abraham to kill him as a sacrifice.

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.

And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.

And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

This is the most important myth in Judaism. It is told as a story of obedience; the obedience of the founder of monotheism to his one god. So it is reasonable that it is almost always interpreted as a story of obedience. The obedience is rewarded.

The willingness to sacrifice the beloved son is rewarded. The willingness being there, the deed need not be performed: :

And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,

And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:

That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;

And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

So the story has a greater significance: that the god of the Hebrews does not require human sacrifice – only the willingness of men to sacrifice their children. 

Many if not all ancient gods required human sacrifice. But Abraham – or Abram, as he was called at the beginning of his story – led his family or tribe away from the land of the Chaldeans where “The recovery of about 2,000 burials attested to the practice of human sacrifice on a large scale“.

Abram’s tribe removed themselves from a cult of human sacrifice. Abram’s god would not be like the other gods of Mesopotamia. For their One God, animal sacrifice was substituted for human sacrifice  

… until a Greek who had come from Tarsus to Jerusalem, tried to re-introduce human sacrifice into the Jewish religion about two thousand years later. He probably converted to Judaism and gave himself the Hebrew name Saul, which he later changed to the Roman name Paul. He heard that a certain pious Jew, a teacher and preacher with a small but devout following, had been killed by the Romans; nailed to a wooden pole and cross-beam – the usual method of execution they used for rebels. But then, he was told, a miracle had occurred. Although the Jew had certainly died and been put in a tomb, he came to life again three days later, walked about and was recognized by some who knew him. So his followers related. After that, they said, he had gone up to heaven, but would descend again to Judea, and on his second coming lead an insurrection that would succeed in overthrowing Roman rule and make the Jews as prosperous and powerful as they had been in the days of King David and King Solomon.

Paul was so taken with the story of the resurrection that, finding the Jews obstinately refusing to accept his interpretation of it, he built a new religion on it. His version of the story was that the Jew, whom he named with the Greek name Jesus, had sacrificed himself to redeem mankind from the sin that all human beings were stained with because Adam and Eve had tasted the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Jesus, Paul taught, was the divine son of God, who had been born on earth as a man in order to redeem mankind from that original sin by sacrificing himself; by God the Son sacrificing himself to God the Father.

(For more on Paul and his authorship of the Christian religion, go here.)

The Jews could not accept Paul’s version of the story. The essence of their religion was that there was only one god who did not require human sacrifice.

The myth that encapsulates this idea is important to Judaism; and it has a wider significance historically if it is true that the Abrahamic tribe separated itself from the Chaldeans in order to move away from child sacrifice.

In any case, it marks a moral advance in the history of the human race.

Does it have any more meaning or importance than that? Some enduring lesson for all time?

We cannot see that it does.

Posted under Christianity, Judaism, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Sunday, September 24, 2017

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