Abraham's Covenants with God: Circumcision and Near-Sacrifice of His Son

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Patriarch Abraham

Abraham is held up as a paradigm of the moral and spiritual virtues — humility, magnanimity, and unshakable faith in God. The Bible does not tell why he was singled out by God, who promised him a great nation, abundant blessings, numerous offspring.The covenant God established with Abraham was symbolized by the rite of circumcision, which is reenacted by the circumcision of all Jewish and Muslim male children. Abraham is also emblematic of a faith that resists all temptation, as when, to test his trust in God, he was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac.[Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s Encyclopedia.com]

God appeared to Abraham several times during his travels. One time he appeared and told Abraham that his children will be as numerous as grains of dust on earth and stars in the sky. Another time God recognized that Abraham was committed to “keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice.”

In a dream God appeared to Abraham in a smoking furnace and made a covenant with him, promising Abraham and his descendant that he would be their God and provide the land of Canaan in return for worshiping Him alone and obeying his commandments. As “a sign of the covenant between me and you,” God told Abraham that “every male among you shall cut my Covenant in your flesh” — which was interpreted as meaning that all males must be circumcised as a sign of their faith. “Abraham later circumcised his sons when they were eight and himself at the age of 99 To this day all Jewish boys are circumcised when they are eight to symbolize this covenant.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik told National Geographic the whole idea of a covenant was revolutionary. “What emanates from a Divine promise foretold about the future, rather than by events impelling from the past. Jewish history is pulled, as by a magnet, toward a glorious destiny,” he said.

In Genesis 15:18, God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved and subject to suffering for 400 years but would then inherit the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. Today many Jews and some conservative Christians regard this statement as a promise by God giving the Jewish people alone the right to the Holy Land. Muslims, who regard Abraham as a father of their religion, said the agreement between God and Abraham gives them just as much of a claim to the Holy Land as the Jews have.

Websites and Resources: Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Judaism Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu Christianity: BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Biblical Images: Bible in Pictures creationism.org/books ; Bible Blue Letter Images blueletterbible.org/images ; Biblical Images preceptaustin.org

First Covenant

Abraham visited by three angels

According to the BBC: “The ultimate test of Abraham's obedience, however, comes in Genesis 22 when he is asked to sacrifice his son by Sarah - Isaac. God had promised that Abraham's descendents would come through Isaac, so the level of faith he displays is quite astonishing. Abraham trusts God and takes his son, as directed, up a mountain. At the very last minute, God intervenes and spares Isaac's life by providing another animal (a ram) for sacrifice. The test is complete and God once more reiterates his promises to Abraham of land, descendents and a personal relationship. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]

“According to the Bible, Abraham is humanity's last chance to establish a relationship with God. At the beginning of the Bible in the creation narratives, Adam and Eve set in train a pattern of disobedience to God's commands which takes root. Even after the Great Flood, in which only Noah was saved, humanity once again comes perilously close to alienating themselves from their creator God. They build the tower of Babel (Genesis 11), a tower that seems like it will almost break through to the heavens and God again intervenes and scatters the people across the earth. |::|

“The covenant between God and the Jewish people is a thread running throughout the early parts of the Bible, and one of the vital pillars of Judaism. The first covenant was between God and Abraham. God asks Abraham to do certain things, in return for which he will take special care of them. The covenant between God and Jews is the basis for the idea of the Jews as the chosen people. Jewish men are circumcised as a symbol of this covenant. (You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. — Genesis 17) |::|

God promised to make Abraham the father of a great people and said that Abraham and his descendants must obey God. In return God would guide them and protect them and give them the land of Israel. But it wasn’t simply a matter of obeying rules - God didn't just want the Jews to follow a particular set of laws, but to live their lives in such a way as to show the world that God actually was the one and only all-powerful God, whom people should follow and worship.

God ordered Abraham to abandon his way of life and leave his home country to live in the land of Canaan. Abraham was 99 at the time, so this was a hard thing to ask. “The LORD said Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. — Genesis 12:1-2

This promise that Abraham would become the father of a great nation seemed impossible, since Abraham was very old, and his wife Sarah (90) had never been able to have children. But God did cause Sarah to become pregnant with Isaac. By doing this God showed that he was in control of even the processes of nature like having children. God also showed that in order to keep his promises to his chosen people he would intervene in the world and alter it. Later, God tested Abraham’s obedience by ordering him to kill his much-loved son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham didn’t argue with God, he kept his side of the covenant and prepared to sacrifice Isaac. God stopped him from killing his son, but the story remains as a perfect example of the level of obedience that God expected.

Abraham Makes a Covenant with God

20120502-Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld_Bibel_in_Bildern_1860_022.png Genesis 15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward. 15:2 And Abram said, LORD God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? 15:3 And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir. 15:4 And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. 15:5 And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. 15:6 And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. [Source: King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org]

15:7 And he said unto him, I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it. 15:8 And he said, LORD God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? 15:9 And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. 15:10 And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not. 15:11 And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away.

15:12 And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him. 15:13 And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not their's, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; 15:14 And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. 15:15 And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. 15:16 But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full. 15:17 And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.

15:18 In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: 15:19 The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, 15:20 And the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaims, 15:21 And the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.

Abraham Firms Up His Covenant with God

Genesis 17:1 And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. 17:2 And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. 17:3 And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, 17:4 As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. 17:5 Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. 17:6 And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. [Source: King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org]

17:7 And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. 17:8 And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. 17:9 And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.

17:15 And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. 17:16 And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her. 17:17 Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? 17:18 And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee! 17:19 And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.

17:20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. 17:21 But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year. 17:22 And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.

Circumcision, Abraham’s Way of Fulfilling His Side of the Covenant

Abraham and Ishmael circumcised

Before he left God said: Genesis 17:10 This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. 17:11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. 17:12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. [Source: King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org]

17:13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 17:14 And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

17:23 And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him. 17:24 And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 17:25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 17:26 In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. 17:27 And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him.

18:1 And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 18:2 And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, 18:3 And said, My LORD, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: 18:4 Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: 18:5 And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.

18:6 And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth. 18:7 And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it. 18:8 And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.

Abraham Nearly Sacrifices His Son

According to one of the most famous Biblical stories, God tested Abraham by instructing him offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice. Abraham obeyed the instructions; he took Isaac up a mountain, gathered wood, bound his son, and was preparing to kill Isaac when he stopped at the last moment by divine intervention. A ram was provided as Isaac’s replacement

In Beersheba, Abraham had a vision in which God told him to take Isaac “to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on the mountains,” meaning Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, the precious heir to God’s promise. Abraham obeyed the first part of the order and took his son to Mount Moriah (later the site of Solomon’s Temple and the present-day Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem.

20120502-Safricce isaace Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_035.jpg
Rembrandt's take on the Sacrifice of Isaac
On Mount Moriah, Abraham erected an altar. He tied up Isaac and placed him on a pile of wood. Just as Abraham raised his knife to kill his son, according to Genesis 22:4, God sent an angel to tell Abraham: “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad and do nothing to him. Now I know thou fearest God...Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore.” Instead of Isaac a ram was grabbed from a nearby thicket and offered to God as a sacrifice.

Impact of Abraham's Near-Sacrifices His Son

The sacrifice has been topic of discussion among intellectuals and scholars and even pop singers. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “Though Abraham aroused my admiration, he at the same time appalls me.” Bob Dylan wrote: “Abe says, “Where do you want the killin’ done? God says, Out on Highway 61.'”

Candida Moss writes in the Daily Beast: The story about the near-sacrifice or binding of Isaac is one of the most influential in the Bible. Among Christians this moment is seen as a prefiguration of the actual death of Jesus. In the Gospels, at his baptism, a heavenly voice singles Jesus out by saying “this is my beloved son.” The same phrase “beloved son” is used when God directs Abraham to take his son Isaac (presumably to distinguish Isaac from Abraham’s other son Ishmael). The parallelism between the two stories is one of the reasons that Christian artwork will sometimes place the binding of Isaac story and the story of Jesus’ crucifixion alongside one another. One might imagine that theologically speaking the parallel would be better if Isaac had actually died. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 22, 2018]

Christians tend to see the idea of a sacrificial son as a hint of what will happen later with Jesus; Jews tend to view the event as a parable of the suffering of the chosen people. The story of Abraham and his son also shows that human sacrifice was a real possibility in Biblical times. Jewish scholar Isaac Elchanan of New York's Yeshia University told Time, "Why did God test Abraham? So the world would know that if anyone tells you, "I am committing murder in the name of God, he's a liar."

Genesis on Abraham Almost Slaying Isaac

Genesis 21:34 And Abraham sojourned in the Philistines' land many days. 22:1 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. 22:2 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. [Source: King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org]

22:3 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. 22:4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 22:5 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.

22:6 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. 22:7 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? 22:8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. 22:9 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.

22:10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 22:11 And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. 22:12 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. 22:13 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.

22:14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen. 22:15 And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, 22:16 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: 22:17 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; 22:18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

Muslim Perspective of Abraham’s Near Sacrifice of His Son

Muslims tend to see the near sacrifice of Abraham’s son as a test of obedience. As narrated in the Qur’an, it describes Satan’s attempt to tempt Ibrahim (Abraham) so he would disobey God’s command. Ibrahim, however, remains unmoved and informs his son, who is willing to be sacrificed. But, just as Ibrahim attempts to kill his son, God intervenes and a ram is sacrificed instead. This story has institutionalized the practice of sacrifice in Islam. To commemorate the event all Muslims who can afford to must sacrifice a sheep, goat, camel or cow in memory of the great sacrifice and Abraham's submission to the will of God.

Muslims believe that Ishmael not Isaac was nearly sacrificed. The Koran mentions the sacrifice but doesn’t mention which son or the place it took place. According to Sura 37:102, 112, Abraham said, “Oh my son! I see in a vision that I offer thee in sacrifice. When Abraham showed his willingness to comply, God promised another son, Isaac.” Because Isaac was mentioned here, Muslim scholars a few decades after Mohammed’s death reasoned that the son who was nearly sacrificed had to be Ishmael. Many Muslims believe the aborted sacrifice took place in Mecca.

In the Koranic version of the sacrifice, Abraham tell his son of God’s plan and his son replies: “O my father! Do that which thou art commanded. Allah willing, thou shalt find me of the steadfast.” The Korean then says “they has both surrendered.” After the aborted sacrifice is over Allah tells Abraham. “Lo. I have appointed thee a leader for mankind.”

Muslims believe Abraham and Ishmael were commanded by God to build the Kaaba — the most revered object in Islami. The Koran states that “Abraham and Ismail raised the foundations of the House. The “House” is the Kaaba. Abraham and Ishmael dug it from the sands in the desert. See the Kaaba Under Muslims and Islam.

Ancient Text Describes Abraham Killing Isaac

In 2018, archeologists announced that had discovered and published an ancient version of the Abraham story in which Isaac dies. The unhappy ending to the Isaac story, first reported by Live Science and originally translated by University of Oxford scholar Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, was found on a 1,500 year old piece of papyrus. The papyrus was discovered in 1934 near the pyramid of Pharaoh Senwosret I, and is owned by the Metropolitan museum. It is written in Coptic (the latest form of ancient Egyptian) and refers on numerous occasions to God as “the one who presides over the Mountain of the Murderer.” In contrast to the biblical account, Zellman-Rohrer says, the papyrus describes the binding of Isaac story as if the sacrifice actually occurred. He told LiveScience, “the tradition of a literal sacrifice seems in fact to have been rather widespread.” [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 22, 2018]

All of which raises the question, which version of the story is oldest? This might, at first blush, seem like an easy question to answer. After all the book of Genesis is a lot older than this Christian era manuscript. And there are plenty of stories about the adventures of Isaac after he came down the mountain. But this intriguing new find is not the only ancient document to suggest that Isaac died on Mount Moriah. As Harvard professor Jon Levenson has argued in his book, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, there is a rabbinic text that seems to suggest that Isaac died. Why would people in the ancient world have thought this? Well, in Genesis 22, after the ram is sacrificed, only Abraham is mentioned as going down the mountain. There is no reference to the recently imperiled Isaac.

This has led some scholars to argue that the version of Genesis 22 found in our Bibles was originally put together from more than one source. In at least one of those, the argument goes, Isaac ended up dying. As the stories were woven together, the death of Isaac dropped out of the official version. Liane Marquis Feldman, an incoming assistant professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, told The Daily Beast that in general “human sacrifice in the Pentateuch, at least, is completely at odds with the way the [ancient Israelite] sacrificial system is set up. It’s really about the purification of the temple, and human sacrifices don’t accomplish that goal.”

That said it is very possible that we are reading too much into this text. David Frankfurter, William Goodwin Aurelio Chair of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University and a specialist in Coptic magical texts, told me that “ the term ‘Mountain of the Murderer’ doesn’t necessarily mean the site of the [binding of Isaac] — Coptic ritual texts use all sorts of arcane allusions, often made up ad-hoc.” This text, he added, “belongs to a period of creative Christian monks imagining formulas, names, and images that might draw down the powers of heaven. Because monks were well-versed in the Old Testament and venerated heroes like Abraham and Elijah, often to the exclusion of Paul and Jesus, it is not surprising that such a manuscript would have the characteristics in this Metropolitan Museum artifact.”

It seems unlikely, therefore, that Abraham actually killed Isaac. But this doesn’t exonerate the Bible. As Brandeis scholar Jacqueline Vayntrub told me, for all of the scandal this text elicits, we don’t have to turn to papyri or reconstructions of the Genesis story to find human sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible. In Judges 11, she said, Jephthah makes a vow to God that if he is victorious over the Ammonites he will sacrifice “whatever comes out of the house to meet him” when he first returns home. His nameless daughter is the first to appear and while her death is not explicitly described the Bible concludes that “he fulfilled his vow.” Is it possible to argue that Jephthah didn’t kill her? It is possible. But it’s not the most obvious reading, leading Vayntrub to ask, “Why is that story not already scandalous to us?”

Abraham and Faith

According to the BBC: “Both Abram and his wife, Sarai (later called Sarah) are old people and childless. They will have to leave their homeland and they don't even know who this God is! They seem to be an almost impossible set of promises for God to keep. But the amazing fact about Abram is that he does what he is asked. There are no signs or miracles; he has no scriptures or traditions on which to draw, so Abram has to place his trust in this nameless God. Consequently, Abram has gone down in history as a man of tremendous faith. As a result of his obedience, God changes his name to Abraham, meaning 'father of the people'. [Source: BBC |::|] “Many scholars believe these stories were written to explain to people why the world is like it is and why humans are like they are. What is our place in the world? Why do we die? They address questions of life and death, rather than being simply explanations about how the world was created.|::|

This is a polytheistic age, an age when people believed in and worshipped many gods. Yet within this atmosphere, Abram answers the call of God and it is because of this that he accepts and realises the reality of there being only one true God. In the Jewish tradition called Midrash (a Hebrew word which means 'interpretation' and relates to the way readings or biblical verses are understood), there are a number of stories about Abraham smashing his father's idols when he realises that there can be only one God of heaven and earth. It doesn't matter whether the stories are true or not. They acknowledge that Abraham was the first person to recognise and worship the one God. And so, monotheism was born. |::|

“At the end of Genesis 11, we are provided with a genealogy and Abraham becomes the new hope through which God will try and create a people to live by a certain set of values. The important thing to learn here is the uniqueness of the Covenant relationship between God and Abraham. For the first time, we see the beginning of a two-way relationship: God doing something for Abraham, and Abraham doing something for God. The blessings of God are passed on from one generation to another. |::|

“The story of Abraham is about obedience to the will of God - not blind obedience, because the Bible stories tell us that Abraham frequently challenged God and asked questions. But in the end, he trusted this God who had made such extraordinary promises and in so doing formed a very special and personal relationship with God which, believers will argue, has continued through to the present day.” |::|

Abraham, Isaac and Faith

Muslim view: the sacrifice of Ishmael

God's shocking command for Abraham to kill his son as a matter of faith raises difficult and enduring questions. James Goodman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The story in Genesis of Abraham's willingness to kill his son Isaac at God's command still gets a lot of attention. But it doesn't get a lot of love. In every broadside against religion, God's horrifying demand for a sacrifice and Abraham's acquiescence is introduced as evidence that God is a tyrant, Abraham a sycophant and both of them abusers of poor Isaac, whom God decides to spare only at the last moment. Trust me when I say that this is not simply the view of professional polemicists. I can't count the number of people who have told me that they first heard the story when they were young and forever afterward swore off religion and God. [Source: James Goodman, Los Angeles Times, September 6, 2013. Goodman is a professor of history and creative writing at Rutgers University ]

“What's more, you don't have to be an atheist to dislike this story. Sample the sermons posted on the Web during Rosh Hashana (when the story is read in synagogue), or during the Islamic Festival of the Sacrifice (which comes in October, at the height of the hajj), or during Holy Week next spring, and you will find that many deeply devout people have grave reservations. I have heard clergy say they wish it were not in the Bible. But it is, and it recounts a pivotal moment in sacred history: Jews believe Abraham's obedience brought them God's special blessing. Christians believe Abraham's sacrifice prefigured God's sacrifice of his own son. Muslims believe Abraham demonstrated precisely what it means to submit to God. Not everyone is willing to discard it. So instead, some choose to analyze the story critically, exploring its history and deleterious half-life, which they see in patriarchy, child abuse, religious extremism and myriad forms of blind faith.

“Others look for different meanings, arguing (to take but one widespread reinterpretation) that the story's essential moment was not the command to sacrifice but the command to stop. God was telling Abraham that he didn't want Jews to sacrifice children. Others go further, saying that God expected Abraham to protest. It was a test, but a test that Abraham failed. The proof: Abraham lived another 75 years, but God never spoke to him again. When all else fails, people literally revise the story, adding to and taking away from its famously enigmatic 19 lines. There are versions in which Abraham stalls, giving God time to come to his senses, and versions in which he never intends to harm Isaac. Rather, he just pretends to obey, thereby testing God to see if he will stop the sacrifice and remain true to his own word and law. There are versions in which Isaac's mother, Sarah, stops the sacrifice, and versions in which Isaac runs away.

“Bob Dylan's Abraham thinks God is putting him on. He isn't, but Woody Allen's God is: "See," Abraham says after God chides him for taking his command seriously, "I never know when you're kidding." That kind of tinkering with the story line is as old as the story itself. Ancient writers struggled with the idea of a test in which God learned something ("Now I know that you fear me."). Why would an all-knowing God not already know? They added Satan to the story as an instigator, as in the Book of Job. God was not learning; he was demonstrating Abraham's greatness. Another writer substituted love for fear as the emotion that moved Abraham.

“Many other ancients were uncomfortable with a clueless, passive Isaac. They turned him into a knowing and willing victim, sometimes the first Jewish martyr, fully prepared to die for God. First millennium rabbis wrote Sarah into the story, often to explain her death in the next chapter of Genesis. Syriac hymnists made Sarah a type of Mary, equal to Abraham in faith. Islamic exegetes made Ishmael the nearly sacrificed son.

Don't misunderstand me: There has never been a time when Abraham wasn't widely celebrated in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as a knight of obedience and faith. Yet discomfort with his response to God's command also goes way back. One 7th century poet imagined God's daughter, the Torah, rejecting Abraham as a suitor because he did not beg to spare his son. Others imagined Abraham taking God to task for promising greatness through Isaac one day and asking for him back in sacrifice the next.

Second Covenant

Abraham and Isaac

The second covenant, given by God at Mount Sinai to Moses, reinforced the covenant that God had given to Abraham. This told the Jews what they would have to do as their side of the covenant. God promised to stay with the Jews and never to abandon them, because they were his chosen people. [Source: BBC, July 7, 2009 |::|]

The heart of the Second Covenant is the Ten Commandments. According to the BBC: The covenant at Sinai sets out in great detail the relationship between God and the Jews. Much of Judaism can be seen as the working out of this relationship and the development of the God's rules into a complete lifestyle. The covenant is made with the Jewish People as a whole, not with each individual Jew - and the result of this is that Jewish history is full of the Jews' attempts to create a good and just society. In modern times Jews continue to be very active in the fight for social justice and equality for all people. |::|

“The covenant between God and the Jewish people is a thread running throughout the early parts of the Bible, and one of the vital pillars of Judaism. The first covenant was between God and Abraham. God asks Abraham to do certain things, in return for which he will take special care of them. The covenant between God and Jews is the basis for the idea of the Jews as the chosen people. Jewish men are circumcised as a symbol of this covenant. (You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. — Genesis 17) |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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