One of our readings at Easter Vigil this year was about the sacrifice of Isaac. Later I heard of people asking, what was that all for? why do we read that? I’d thought about that passage before. To me, it marks the point in Jewish history when they turn away from human sacrifice. The story serves not only as example but as a sanctioning by the patriarch himself, Father Abraham, of religious practice not involving human sacrifice. This, among other things, distinguished the Jewish people from virtually all other peoples of the earth. Not that they were consistent; they did from time to time, intermingle with, even intermarry with, foreign peoples and come under their influence. One need look no further than Psalm 106 to read about it.
They did not destroy the peoples*
as the Lord had commanded them.
They intermingled with the heathen*
and learned their pagan ways.
So that they worshiped their idols,*
which became a snare to them.
They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to evil spirits.
They shed innocent blood
the blood of their sons and daughters,*
which they offered to the idols of Canaan
and the land was defiled with blood.
Abraham’s sparing of Isaac is nothing less than one of the most significant turning points in human history.
One would wonder why human sacrifice was so prevalent around the globe, not just in the area we think of now as the Holy Land but in the southern part of the western hemisphere too. I think it is a matter of the intensity of believing. If you believe – and I mean really believe, the way you believe that you will be burned if you put your hand on the red hot burner of your kitchen stove – that there is a god who requires that you individually and in community offer sacrifices in exchange for rain and successful crops; a god whose wrath is expressed in volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and lightening (Psalms 18:8-13, 104:33.); then crop failures and mass starvation would drive you desperately to appease such a demanding god with sacrifices of greater and greater value, culminating after centuries of unsuccessful appeasing, in the most valuable of all sacrifices, one’s own children.
But Father Abraham said “No more.” Thanks be to God.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC.