Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Was Abraham Ethical?
Should We Admire His Willingness to Sacrifice His Son?

Carol Delaney, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology, Stanford University

(Prof. Delaney delivered this speech on 18 April 2002 as part of the Markkula Ethics Center Lecture Series. In it she draws upon her book, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth, published by Princeton University Press in 1998.)


"Was Abraham ethical? Should we admire his willingness to sacrifice his son?" Just so you know where I am going with this talk, my answer to both questions is an emphatic "No." But it will take a while for me to say why.

Most of you are probably familiar with the story in Genesis 22, but let me read the first few lines to refresh your memory:

"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 [God] 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.’"

When I first heard this story as a child, I was outraged. What kind of God would ask such a thing? And what kind of father would be willing to do it? It is certainly enough to strike the fear of god into you—and also fear of the father. (Perhaps that was part of its intention.)

Even as a child I was very suspicious of the various interpretations given to me—especially those that tried to convince me it was really a story about love. (Quite a strange way of showing it.) I always felt they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes—the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing—and I no longer trusted them.

Only much later did I realize that Abraham had two sons, Ishmael the firstborn and then Isaac. But he had banished one into the wilderness and here he is ready to sacrifice the other. When God referred to his "only" son, why didn't Abraham retort, "But I have two sons"? When God said "whom thou lovest," why didn't Abraham say, "But I love both"? He argued with God to try to save a few good men in Sodom and Gomorrah. Why then didn't he do anything to try to save his son?

One interpretation that would see the story as ethical is the one that sees it as marking the end of the ancient practice of child sacrifice. For example, the popular Interpreter's Bible states, "The story of the proposed sacrifice of Isaac would not have been told except to discourage a custom which already existed." The Encyclopedia Judaica says, "The original intent of the narrative has been understood by the critics either as an etiological legend explaining why the custom of child sacrifice was modified in a certain sanctuary by the substitution of a ram, or as a protest against human sacrifice."

There is of course no mention of any cultural practice of child or human sacrifice in Genesis. Furthermore, the evidence that some archaeologists believe points to such a practice is highly contested and of much later provenance, and thus of little relevance for the Abraham story. Embedded in these interpretations are social evolutionary assumptions, chiefly that the earlier the time the more barbaric the people. But that simply doesn't hold up anthropologically. Besides, if the purpose of the story was to put an end to a practice of child sacrifice, God, or rather the biblical writers, could have said as much; they could simply have prohibited the practice.

More important, however is that an etiological tale is unlikely as the foundation story of the three Abrahamic religions. Such an interpretation diminishes its theological significance. A prohibition against a practice of child sacrifice is merely negative, not the positive constitution of a new faith. The story of Abraham, like that of Jesus, changed the direction of world history. Nahum Sarna, renowned Jewish scholar, also argues against the etiological explanation. He says, "The Akedah ["binding"] in its final form is not an attempt to combat existing practice, but is itself the product of a religious attitude."

In fact, Abraham is revered not for putting an end to the practice but precisely for his willingness to go through with it. That is what makes him the father of faith, the foundation of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—albeit interpreted in mutually exclusive worldviews.

But why is the willingness to sacrifice rather than the protection of the child the model of faith in these traditions? That question spurred the research that resulted, finally, in my book Abraham on Trial.

But the question itself did not just pop out of the blue. There is a personal "genealogy" behind it. The outrage I felt as a child and the punishment I received when I expressed it no doubt etched the story on my brain or soul. But it went underground until I had a child. What could ever motivate someone to sacrifice their child? The questions we choose to explore and the perspective we take on them derive from one's own experience. The personal is political and also intellectual. The connection may not seem obvious, but there is always a hook.

It was my personal experience of giving birth and the questions raised by that experience that first began to rekindle my interest in the story. I felt that giving birth was a miracle—each and every birth, not just one—yet we are led to believe that only one is a miracle while all the others are natural, ordinary events.

Many people like Simone de Beauvoir assume that women merely reproduce the species while men produce the monuments of culture. Even the word reproduce makes it seem as if what we are doing is churning out photocopies. Yet what is produced is a sentient, human being, a unique individual, the very individual we in the West are so concerned about. I felt something was wrong with de Beauvoir's view. The main questions raised by my experience and thinking about it were the following:

1. Why is motherhood devalued, while something about fatherhood makes it an appropriate epithet for God (and for priests)?

2. Why is motherhood associated with what is natural while fatherhood is associated with the divine? And what is the effect of those associations on real live men and women?

3. How could anyone think of sacrificing their child, and how could such an action come to seem ethical?

4. Why is that story at the foundation of the three religions? Indeed, why is the foundational story about a male-imaged God, a father, and a son?

Gender and procreation seemed to me to be inextricably intertwined with notions of divinity and spirituality. I could no longer see them as peripheral but at the very center of theological speculation. This is hardly even an issue in traditional interpretations. I will return to this shortly, but first I wish to turn to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, since it has been very influential in Christian thinking about ethics in relation to the Abraham story. I dislike the book intensely and do not wish to get into a long discussion about it. But I will comment briefly. In order to do so I dug up a critique I did thirty years ago when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School. (I was pleased to see that I still agree with it!)

Kierkegaard distinguished between ethics and faith: ethics has to do with universal morality, it’s based on reason; whereas faith, for him, is particular and paradoxical—it is in a sense irrational. In Kierkegaard's terms, an ethical man is good, but the man of faith is best, and Abraham is the quintessential man of faith. Indeed, for Kierkegaard, Abraham's temptation or trial was precisely what he called "the ethical," that standard of human morality that would condemn murder, especially of one's own child. Abraham resists the temptation of the ethical and makes the "leap of faith." Unlike the standard ideal of the hero, he did not intend to sacrifice his child in order to save a people (as did Agamemnon) nor to fulfill a vow (as did Jepthah). "Why then did Abraham do it?" asks Kierkegaard. "He did it for God's sake because God required this proof of his faith; [and] for his own sake he did it in order that he might furnish the proof."

Kierkegaard places Abraham above the law. That is what he meant by the "teleological suspension of the ethical." His act can be distinguished from murder only if he can be seen as somehow more than human and therefore beyond human categories. Faith, he says, is "a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act, well-pleasing to God."

I don't think so. Why should such an act be pleasing to God? What kind of God would find that pleasing? Why is faith not demonstrated by the love, care and protection of the child (and other people)? Why should faith first require allegiance to God and only secondarily to fellow humans?

Kierkegaard's position presupposes at least two things that are not addressed but assumed: First, he assumes that there is a God. He does not consider the way in which this story establishes the notion of God and the kind of faith appropriate to that God. Second, he assumes that God can speak to humans in explicit terms.

Today, people who hear voices—even those who claim they hear God speaking to them—are labeled as insane. A chapter in my book describes a trial that happened here in California of a man who sacrificed his child, claiming that God told him to. He was serious and had all the right theological arguments, even though he was relatively uneducated man. He was convicted of murder in the first degree in the first phase of the trial, but in the second phase he was acquitted on the basis of insanity. He did not go free; instead he’s in an institution for the criminally insane rather than in prison.

But if we deem him insane, why don’t we re-read the Abraham story in that light? Why do we accept that God spoke to him and asked for such a sacrifice?

This is like a question that Kant briefly discussed in his obscure little book, The Conflict of the Faculties, written about 50 years before Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Here is Kant’s position:

"If God should really speak to man, man could still never know that it was God speaking. It is quite impossible for man to apprehend the infinite by his senses, distinguish it from sensible beings, and recognize it as such. But in some cases man can be sure the voice he hears is not God’s. For if the voice commands him to do something contrary to moral law, then no matter how majestic the apparition may be, and no matter how it may seem to surpass the whole of nature, he must consider it an illusion."

I think Kant, not Kierkegaard, is right on this subject. Yet Kant’s voice is not unlike what Kierkegaard felt would be the voice of Satan tempting Abraham away from faith! Kant is taking the voice of reason and human morality. He felt that Abraham should have said a resounding "No!" He did not let him off the hook as did Kierkegaard.

As I noted earlier, one’s personal life and experiences shape the kinds of intellectual issues one delves into and the perspective one takes on them. The same is true in Kierkegaard’s case no less then my own. When you realize that Fear and Trembling was written immediately after Kierkegaard broke his engagement with his fiancée, Regina, you feel quite differently about it. According to the edition by well-known translator and commentator, Walter Lowrie, "Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is a symbol of Kierkegaard’s sacrifice of the dearest thing he had on earth." Kierkegaard saw his sacrifice as heroic: he wanted to set her free. But he really wanted to set himself free: he acknowledged that he was afraid of her dependence, but he also seemed afraid of the responsibility entailed in human relationships.

Kierkegaard was not even honest with her but blackened his character, told her lies, so that she would hate him and thus relinquish him. This is unethical behavior. He made it even worse when he tried to make an analogy to a mother who blackens her breast to wean a child, ignoring the fact that a child has to be weaned to survive; nor does weaning break the relationship between mother and child.

Abraham, too, lied or dissembled in response to Isaac's poignant question, "Father, behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Shifting the onus from himself, Abraham replied, "God will provide the lamb." It should be noted that in the Muslim version of the story in the Qur’an, Abraham tells his son what is to happen: "My dear son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you. What do you think about that?" The son replies, "Father, do what is commanded of thee. God willing, he will find me among the steadfast."

Nevertheless, there is a major difference between what Abraham was about to do and what Kierkegaard did. His sacrifice of the relationship with Regina is not at all the same as taking away the life of another. (Does anyone have that right?) Kierkegaard was not about to kill his fiancée, but that is what Abraham was prepared to do to Isaac. How often the use of the word "sacrifice" allows a dangerous elision whereby relinquishing something is equated with killing, with taking a life, with shedding blood.

Kierkegaard justified his deed in terms of love: he loved her so much he just had to give her up! I find this perverse. Harming in the name of love: it perverts the meaning of love.

Yet this relates to another popular interpretation whereby Abraham has been seen as ethical. During my research, quite a number of learned people including rabbis and ministers claimed that it’s really a story about love. They assume that Abraham loved his son, but loved God more. (Incidentally, there are reasons for some ambivalence about his paternity, namely the visit of the angels and the suspicion that one of them may have impregnated Sarah.)

To prove his love for God, why didn't he simply sacrifice himself? Because, say the conventional interpreters, he had to sacrifice the thing he loved most in the world, and he loved his son more than his own life. But is it ethical to sacrifice the life of another, especially without their knowledge or permission?

So those are some of the conventional interpretations. Now I want to ask a question that will seem absurd, but that opens up a whole new perspective on the story

Was Isaac his to sacrifice?

All commentators have assumed this without question. It may seem absurd because God asked him. How could he not comply? But surely an all-knowing God knows that a child belongs to the mother as much as to the father. Would he ask only one parent? Even so, why does this question never arise in the centuries of commentary? Instead, most commentators like the Biblical writers simply assume that he belongs to his father in a way he does not belong to his mother. It’s a non-issue for them.

Today, a typical response is that the child was seen as belonging only to the father because of the culture of patriarchy. But such a response explains nothing, because patriarchy means the power of fathers, so such an answer is circular and only begs the question, what is it about fathers or fatherhood that conveys such power?

Most of us take the concepts of father and mother for granted. They are felt to be self-evident. But are they? This was just where my research began. What was the meaning of father, mother and procreation during Abraham's time or that of the biblical writers? And what light, if any, might it throw on the story?

Genesis (as you might expect) is preoccupied with generativity—the coming-into-being of the earth, animals, plants, and human beings—but especially with paternity and with the continuity of the patriline established by seed. Isaac belongs to Abraham because he is his seed. The theory of procreation embedded in the Bible and Genesis in particular is what I have called the seed-soil theory. It is the father who plants the seed; the mother is then imagined as the soil in which it is planted. She nurtures the seed-child in the womb, gives birth, and nurtures again at the breast.

The word seed is used more times in Genesis than elsewhere in the Bible. Sarah is the first woman in the Bible to be called barren, a word contrasted to fertile. But both words are also used to describe earth, the soil.

This simple agricultural metaphor is really not so simple. By evoking associations with agriculture and the natural world, the image naturalizes a structure of power relations as it also conceals it. Represented as seed and soil, male and female have been differently valued and hierarchically ordered. This theory of procreation, common to both the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, has been the dominant folk theory in the West for millennia, shaping popular images and sentiments of gender, as well as laws and institutions.

Men were thought to beget, women to bear. That is, men have been (and often still are) seen as the ones who engender, while women merely give birth. The life and soul (and thus identity) come from the seed, from the male. Men are imagined as authors of the child as God is of the world; upon this their authority rests. It is this presumed ability that symbolically allies men with the divine and women with the earth, with nature, with what is created by God.

No wonder the biblical writers assumed that Isaac belonged to Abraham in a way that he did not belong to Sarah. No wonder he could take him without consulting her. In this now outdated theory of procreation, father and son are one, they are of the same essence. No wonder that according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, "The Akedah became in Jewish thought the supreme example of self-sacrifice in obedience to God's will" (emphasis added).

But whose self-sacrifice? There has been a conflation of two people: father and son, Abraham and Isaac. Abraham's submission to God and Isaac's submission to his father, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son and the presumed willingness of the son to be sacrificed, have been conflated. It is a very dangerous conflation, because it conceals the hierarchical structure of the relationship, the dimension of patriarchal power, as it also conceals the distinctness and sanctity of each individual.

In Christianity, it is God the Father who sacrifices his Son; Mary the mother is not consulted; while revered, she is not imagined as co-creator. Father and Son are one, but mother and Son are not.

Again, these central theological concepts are suffused with gender definitions that emerge from a particular outdated theory of procreation. Not surprisingly, ethical issues regarding gender, sexuality, and procreation—for example, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriages, marriage of priests, women as priests, etc.—are issues of central concern today as the three religions struggle to keep their power and authority.

It should be clear that my answers to the questions "Was Abraham ethical?" and "Should we admire his willingness to sacrifice his son?" are a resounding "No." However, it also should be clear that they cannot be answered in an Either/Or fashion. There are too many presuppositions that typically have not been addressed. My analysis has tried to understand the network of assumptions that made the story possible, rather than proceeding from the story as given.

Finally, I ask you to think about what our society might have looked like had protection of the child rather than sacrifice been the story at the foundation of faith.

I would like to end with part of a poem by Eleanor Wilner that indicates an alternative I find to be particularly poignant. (I also think about it in connection with current crises like 9/11, Israel vs. Palestine, and the scandal surrounding Catholic priests.) The poem is called "Sarah’s Choice." […]

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Copyright for this presentation is held by the author, Carol Delaney. (The poem by Eleanor Wilner is reprinted on pages 133-135 of Delaney’s Abraham on Trial. Once we’re able to obtain permission from the poet, we’ll reproduce here the part that Prof. Delaney used to end her talk.)

Further information about Carol Delaney is on the web at http://www.stanford.edu/dept/anthroCASA/people/faculty/delaney.html.

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