TEXTS OF VIOLENCE

2.1 THE SACRIFICE OF ISAAC: VIDEO CLIP

The video clip shows Michael, Pieter-Jan, Sarah and Ahmed skating together. Suddenly, Michael slips and bumps into Pieter-Jan, causing a wheel to break off of Pieter-Jan’s skateboard. Michael and Pieter-Jan start arguing because Pieter-Jan thinks that Michael deliberately broke the skateboard. Pieter-Jan accuses Michael of always acting violently because he is Catholic, and he refers to a story in the Bible where a father murders his own son. The friends go in search of the story about the ‘sacrifice of Isaac’ and discover the true meaning of this story.

2.2 The Sacrifice of Isaac: interpretation

2.2.1 The Story: Exploration

[God said,] “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 on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.

[….] Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. The two of them walked on together [without the other young men]. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father! The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” [.…] Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

[.…] When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar…

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” [….] “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. [….]

Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

Source: S. DE BRUYN, B. LEMMELIJN & S. VANDEN HEEDE, Bijbel. Verhalen uit het Oude Testament, Tielt, Uitgeverij Lannoo, 2017.
For a longer version of this biblical story, see: NRSV BIBLE VERSION, Genesis 22:1-19,

ASSIGNMENT. Read the story of ‘the Sacrifice of Isaac’ (Genesis 22:1-19) and answer the questions below.

In the biblical text, indicate verses …

• That you do not like;

• That surprise you;

• That you do not understand.

Caravaggio – ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ (1603)
Image: Wikipedia

How does the story unfold? What do you think God’s purpose is when He asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? What do you think of this?

2.2.2 How to read a biblical story?

The Sacrifice of Isaac is not a regular biblical story. At first glance, it seems to be a dramatic story about a gruesome command from God. The Sacrifice of Isaac is part of the First Testament’s first book: Genesis.

In this story, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Does God really want Christians to sacrifice people? If you read the story literally, it does seem that God commands people to do such horrible things. Yet, this is not the message or meaning of the story. It is important to always look for the symbolic meaning of a biblical story. You must look, think, and reflect beyond the words that are written down. Above that, you should not look for facts in biblical texts, but rather look at symbols that are used to express a vision of God, the world, and human beings.

The Bible is a centuries-old book that is more than 2000 years old. Back then, the world was very different from the one we live in today. In order to understand a story from the Bible properly, it is important to have knowledge of the world of that era. After all, the world in which you live always influences your thoughts and actions.

What do you think was different about the world of Abraham and Isaac?

The stories of the First Testament were originated centuries ago in the culture of the Middle East. At that time, society was not global but strongly concentrated in rural areas, local cities, and small villages. Electricity had not yet been invented, nor had the internet. Industry did not exist, the people supported themselves economically mainly through agriculture and fishing, handicrafts, and trade. Christianity did not exist either. In general, religious life in the Middle East was characterized by polytheism. The term ‘polytheist’ refers to someone who does not believe in one god, but in multiple gods. The term ‘polytheism’ therefore refers to a religion with several gods. All these elements had an impact on the Biblical stories.

2.2.3 Does God Truly Desire Human Sacrifices From His Believers?

Back to our story. In Genesis 22:1-19, we can read that God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. At that time, about 2000 years ago, offering a sacrifice to (a) God was common. People did this to appease the gods and to honor them. Abraham does what God commands. He goes to the land of Moriah with Isaac. On top of the mountain, Abraham is about to sacrifice his son to God.

Can we use this story to legitimize religious violence?

Why did you pick this answer?



Statement: “The Sacrifice of Isaac is a gruesome biblical story that approves human and child sacrifices.” Do you agree? Why?

The story of Abraham and Isaac does not approve child sacrifices at all. For at the last moment, God stops Abraham, and He even provides a sacrificial animal (a ram). This is an important part of the story that shows that God resists human and child sacrifices. God doesn’t want human sacrifices, because He doesn’t want people to pay a price to secure His favors. The story criticizes sacrifices to God. This story says that violence is wrong and can certainly not appease God.

The sacrifice of Isaac street art Brussels,
Source: Sparrow via Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under the Creative Commons

2.2.4 An Allmighty Fatherhood

The message of Genesis 22:1-19 goes beyond the prohibition of human sacrifice. It is also an affliction of Abraham, an affliction that does not involve sacrificing Isaac but teaching him to let go of his son. God ultimately asks Abraham to sacrifice a ram. In ancient times, this animal was a symbol of masculinity, leadership, and violence. The story thus makes it clear that Abraham is sacrificing power over his son instead of his son himself.

This is also being showed at the end of the story. Abraham leaves on his own, without Isaac. So, this story not only disapproves of human sacrifice but also says that children are not just the property of their parents. As a parent, you cannot just simply determine anything that might happen to your child. The ram that is eventually sacrificed is a symbol of masculinity and power. By sacrificing this ram, Abraham shows that as a father, he cannot and will not fully rule over his child.

The story of Abraham and Isaac has a double symbolic meaning, but which one? Indicate the correct answer.

2.3 offering an Isaac sacrifice

What is an ‘Isaac sacrifice’? In a symbolic reading of the biblical story about the Sacrifice of Isaac, we can wonder whether we sometimes still make an ‘Isaac sacrifice’ nowadays. Sacrifices are part and parcel of life. They teach us to reflect upon ourselves. For believers, such an ‘Isaac Sacrifice’ can cause them to question not only their image of humanity but also their image of God.

Have you ever had to offer an Isaac sacrifice? Explain.

Can you imagine that even today people sacrifice their lives, or the lives of others, for their ideals, like a god? What would you say or ask to these people?

Click on the finish button to complete the course!

GLOSSARY

Genesis
Genesis is the first book of the First Testament. ‘Genesis’ is Hebrew for ‘in the beginning’. This Bible book tells the story of creation, the Fall, and the history of Israel. The sacrifice of Isaac can also be found in this Bible book. Genesis contains stories of faith and does not aim to give a factual or historical account of the creation of the world.

Isaac sacrifice
In a symbolic reading of the Bible story about the Sacrifice of Isaac, we may also ask ourselves whether we are making an ‘Isaac Sacrifice’ today. Sacrifices are part of life. They teach us to reflect upon ourselves. This is also called ‘to bring an Isaac Sacrifice’. For believers, such an Isaac Sacrifice can cause them to question not only their image of humanity but also their image of God.

Middle East
The Bible, and thus the stories of the First Testament, originated centuries ago in the culture of the Middle East. All biblical stories are strongly influenced by the culture and the social life of the Middle East.

Jesus lived in the Middle East. That is why Christianity has its origins in this region. The Middle East has also contributed significantly to other developments in European culture, like for example, our alphabet, developments in agriculture, and so on.

The term ‘Middle East’ refers to the countries of Southwest Asia and some parts of North Africa, such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and so on.

Polytheism
The term ‘Polytheist’ refers to someone who does not believe in one, but in several gods. The term ‘polytheism’ therefore refers to a religion with several gods.

The Greeks and the Romans of antiquity, for example, were polytheists as they believed in different gods.

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