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Abraham's Sacrifice

An Approach from the Dialogue between Judaism, Christianity and Islam


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 4/2013, P. 191-196
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Within theology the term of sacrifice is currently causing particularly intense discussions. This is not only in Christianity the case but also in Judaism and in Islam. A detailed comparison of their interpretation of the story of Abraham and Isaac, as the main reference point of the thought on sacrifice, illustrates what is at stake in view of this theological topos.


It seems that in modern theology the idea of sacrifice has become obsolete and dispensable. Both in the Christian and Islamic theology, God appears as a God who absolutely sides with man. He has shown us by his revelation his all-embracing mercy, which we can rely on in life and in death (cf. e.g. for Islam: Mouhanad Khorchide, Islam ist Barmherzigkeit. Grundzüge einer modernen Religion, Freiburg 2012, 32f.). It seems that the necessity of a sacrifice may no longer be fitting in this always already accomplished decision of God for man. Biblical and Qur'anic stories which thematize the sacrifice and want to make it theologically fruitful seem accordingly to be incomprehensible for many modern theologians.



In this context, the story of, Jewish spoken, 'Aqedah or fettering of Isaac (Gen. 22) is still particularly prominent in all three monotheistic religions. For many modern theologians Abraham's obedience of faith appears here to be the worst blind obedience, and his willingness to sacrifice his son is regarded by them as an imposition which is in no way compatible with their idea of God. Why should a good and merciful God come up with the idea of such a sadistic test? Immanuel Kant's critique of Abraham might express exactly what also many modern theologians feel, "Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice, 'That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God—of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from (visible) heaven.'" (The Conflict of the Faculties, Leipzig 1992, 64). For it is totally inconceivable that the author of the moral law would command an immoral act.

Interestingly, there is already in the rabbinic tradition of interpretation an interpretation line that, wholly on the line of this criticism, tries to make it very clear that Abraham misunderstands God's test. In this tradition, Abraham's interpretation of the voice of God is a mistake, because it is impossible for God to command something which contradicts the fundamental laws of morality. In this respect, Abraham had - so to speak - failed the test, because he "has only imperfectly understood God's essence" (W. Gunther Plaut, Die Tora in jüdischer Auslegung, Volume 1: Bereschit/Genesis, Gütersloh 1999, 215).

This line of interpretation may build on the wording of the command in Gen 22,2d, which according to that line only means, Abraham takes his son up to a burnt offering but not that he sacrifices him. This already in the rabbinic exegesis known dispute on the question of whether it is at all about a command to sacrifice, has been taken up and deepened, for example, in the exegesis of the so-called Amsterdam School. However, as agreeable as this interpretation is, so much it is in tension with the order of events in the narrative.

It is hardly able meaningfully to clarify the later speech of the angel in Gen 22.12, "Do not raise your hand against the boy ... Do not harm him." (see Thomas Naumann, Die Preisgabe Isaaks. Genesis 22 im Kontext der biblischen Abraham-Sara-Erzählung, in: Bernhard Greiner, Bernd Janowski und Hermann Lichtenberger [ed.], Opfere deinen Sohn! Das "Isaak-Opfer" in Judentum, Christentum und Islam, Tübingen 2007, 19-50, 36). Moreover, since in verse 13b in the Hebrew text the same phrase of 'take up' is used when it is about the sacrifice of the ram, this interpretation is hardly able to convince - given the biblical wording (see Bernd Willmes, Die Prüfung Abrahams nach Gen 22,1-19, in: Helmut Hoping, Julia Knop und Thomas Böhm [ed.], Die Bindung Isaaks. Stimme, Schrift, Bild, Paderborn 2009, 39-59, 57).


Supersession of human by animal sacrifice?

This tradition of interpretation seems rather to fit into the Qur'anic reshaping of the text, because here the command of God reaches Abraham in a dream, and so it is unclear from the outset whether it really is a command of God (Sura 37, verse 102). Accordingly, there is a Sufi tradition of interpretation which sees dreams as expression of deep human desire. It therefore interprets the alleged command to Abraham as his fervent desire to "make his God, who has richly endowed and always accompanied him, some special present" (Hamideh Mohagheghi, Abraham in muslimischer Perspektive, in: Friedemann Eißler [ed.], EZW-Texte 209 [2010] 48-57, 52).

However, very few people will regard this wish in any way as comprehensible or even just as honorable, and so also this reinterpretation is hardly helpful. The concept of God is admittedly saved in this way, but Abraham appears thus all the more dubious. Moreover, also in the Quran it is clear that Abraham considers the dream to be a real command of God, and just for that reason he is praised by God (Sura 37, verse 105), and so the exculpation of God does not really succeed.

In the traditions of all three religions, such a reinterpretation of the text could therefore hardly gain acceptance. By contrast, another, similarly apologetic interpretation has won many adherents in all three traditions. According to it, the text is to be interpreted as etiology of cult. It is supposed to justify the replacement of the human by animal sacrifice. Here, it was presupposed that in the area of the Old Israel the practice of human sacrifices existed. This would be opposed by this text and with it by Israel. But many difficulties stand in the way of this form of apologetics, too. Thus, in the present text "not the practice of the cult but Abraham's obedience is clearly in the foreground. Also the religio-historical thesis that in ancient Canaan or in the Ancient Orient the practice of human sacrifice was only overcome by the biblical religion has become obsolete in today's religio-historical research.



To date it has been impossible to prove the fact of child sacrifices as regular ritual practice in the Ancient Orient or anywhere in the Semitic Region" (Naumann, 25).

However, the background of the story may well be found in child victims in the cult in the era of the late kings of Jerusalem, because although in the religions outside of Israel child sacrifices can hardly be found, there are nevertheless some indications that the child sacrifice "at least at times was a real cultic possibility in Jerusalem" (Naumann, 48). Gen 22 would then be the coping with an at certain times virulent cult problem - by introducing a myth of origin. This interpretation takes up the basic motif of classical apologetics but transforms it in a for Israel unflattering way. This interpretation at least allows it to strenghten the intuition that the text actually opposes the idea of child sacrifice, in order to remove it thus a little from the moral twilight.


Theological charging of the idea of sacrifice also in Judaism

However, Gen 22 leaves open the question of whether Isaac was still a child at the time when he was fettered. According to classical rabbinical interpretation of this passage, Isaac was 37 years old when he was fettered. This age results from the age of Sarah, if one assumes like the rabbis that Sarah died from grief shortly after the events at Mount Moriah. If one assumes that Isaac was an adult at the time when he was enchained, then the overall atmosphere of the whole scene changes fundamentally: from a passive victim Isaac becomes an active partner in the temptation story, so Michael Krupp (Den Sohn opfern? Die Isaak-Überlieferung bei Juden, Christen und Muslimen, Gütersloh 1995, 27).

By Isaac's voluntary self-sacrifice (Jacob J. Petuchowski) the whole story becomes a kind of Passion - a new accentuation, which also makes understandable why the Church Fathers saw the binding of Isaac as a prototype of Christ's sacrifice. In the second century, both in Christianity and Judaism, a reversal can be seen in the focus of attention: away from Abraham to the fettering or sacrifice of Isaac.

Some Jewish exegetes go here thus far as to say that Isaac was even killed by Abraham (Jacques B. Doukhan). This means that the Jewish tradition of interpretation knows definitely the idea of Isaac's voluntary self-sacrifice; he is then burnt and his "ashes on the altar is a means of reconciliation" (Jakob J. Petuchowski, Wie unsere Meister die Schrift erklären. Beispielhafte Bibelauslegung aus dem Judentum, aus der "Biblia Rabbinica" ausgewählt, übersetzt und erläutert, Freiburg 1982, 44). This interpretation can already be found in the Lenten liturgy of the oldest synagogue liturgy; it can therefore not simply be attributed to the influence of Christianity.

Isaac appears here sometimes even as the Son of God. Similar to the Christian passion plays, in the Middle Ages the so-called Akedat Yitzhak plays emerge. And in an old Midrash it says, as an explanation of Gen 22.6, that Isaac carries the wood for the burnt offering "like someone who wears his cross on his shoulder" (Krupp, 39). The theological charging of the idea of sacrifice in the story of the fettering of Isaac is therefore not only a Christian heritage but is also in ancient Jewish traditions ascertainable.

However, it is somewhat difficult to connect this interpretation line with the biblical text, because in the biblical text Isaac is - so the rabbinic interpretation - consistently very passive. "He has no personality except that of his father. They go together to the sacrifice as if they were one person (Gen 22:8), and Yitzhak submits himself silently to the terrible deed." (Plaut, 217). In addition, it seems that Abraham hides the real purpose of their enterprise from Isaac, and so it appears somewhat contrived to see here a heroic act of Isaac's self-sacrifice..

You are in a very different situation, if you return to the Qur'anic text. Here it says that Abraham, after he had heard God's command in the dream, immediately turns to his son and asks him, "O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think" (Sura 37, verse 102). God's message is obviously anything but clear for Abraham, and he does also not want to take alone the responsibility for its interpretation.



The answer of his son is, "O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast."

What is interesting at this point is the emphasis that is put on the son's patience. On the one hand, he encourages Abraham to take his dream seriously and to listen to God. On the other hand, he does not want to be obedient but patient. Thus, it is primarily about patience - about the patience with that God who has promised to bring everything to a favorable conclusion. In the Quran, this patience is not put to the test for a long time, because already in verse 106 f. it is clear that God wants no human sacrifice, but only wanted to test Abraham.

In the Quran, it is apparently about Abraham's willingness to obey God's command "to sacrifice everything that he loved most in life" (Muhammad Asad, Die Botschaft des Koran. Übersetzung und Kommentar, Düsseldorf 2009, 854, footnote 41). The here invoked idea of testing is also biblically a leading category for the interpretation of the text. Thus, in Jewish commentaries it is repeatedly pointed out that it is the aim of the test to examine Abraham's ämuna, i.e. his "loyalty without hesitation, an [his] obedience in complete trust" (Plaut, 213). However, also Jewish exegetes have already at an early stage asked why God imposes such a test.


Abraham comes dangerously in the vicinity to suicide bombers

A possible answer of the Jewish tradition is inspired by the scenes of heaven in the book of Job. God tests Abraham, because he wants to make sure that he honors God not only because of his son. Here, God's intention is not first of all to find out whether Abraham will pass the test. As already Maimonides pointed out, the reason for his test was exactly God's knowledge that Abraham would pass the test. God wants that Abraham gets the chance to see the relationship to God as an end in itself. Abraham's son is indeed the bearer of all the promises of God. Without him, he has no longer any advantages from his relationship with God. If he is willing to abandon his son for God, he is ready to hand everything over to God. His devotion to God has now become an end in itself; it happens only for love's sake. It is no longer possible that Abraham expects worldly benefits of it.

With this interpretation, the Jewish tradition is in close proximity to Soren Kierkegaard's now famous interpretation of the Abraham story in his book "Fear and Trembling." It repeatedly emphasizes the paradoxical structure of Abraham's abandonment and speaks of a teleological suspension of ethics in his action. For the prohibition of killing one's own children is the core of all ethics, and somebody who even thinks about such an atrocity is in the eyes of the world at the end of his tether and can no longer expect anything from the world. God and the hero of faith get so much into the twilight that only enormous trust, faith and love may actually endure this situation.

However, faith becomes thus also a terrifying act of despotism, and Abraham gets into a dangerous proximity to the suicide bombers' willingness to make sacrifices. They, too, are willing to put everything at stake for the supposed will of God. For this reason the emphasis will probably be put again on the non-enactment of the sacrifice or on its performance as a bloody animal sacrifice.

After all, this animal sacrifice is up to the present day a key part of one of the greatest festivals of Islam. It is either referred to as Festival of Light (Eid al-Adha), Major Festival (Eid Kabir) or as the Festival of Sacrifice (Eid al-Qurban). It reminds of the victim which according to God's will should be offered as a substitute for Abraham's son. Muslims like it to emphasize here that this sacrifice has no redeeming function, and they insist that "neither the fat nor the blood of animals reaches God" (Mahmoud Ayoub, Die Idee der Erlösung in Christentum und Islam, in: Jürgen Werbick , Sühne, Martyrium und Erlösung? Opfergedanke und Glaubensgewissheit in Judentum, Christentum und Islam, Paderborn 2013, 13-22, 17 with reference to Sura 22, verse 37).

Accordingly, the practice of sacrifice is connected with an ethical purpose, and so the flesh of the sacrificial animal is at least partly handed over to the poor. The sacrifice gets thus an ethical reinterpretation, which is typical for the reinterpretation of the idea of sacrifice in late antiquity. It is understood as "prayer, fasting and almsgiving" (Guy G. Stroumsa, Das Ende des Opferkults. Die religiösen Mutationen der Spätantike, Berlin 2011, 100).

However, one finds such ethicization of the idea of sacrifice also already in the Old and First Testament (cf., Isaiah 58), and it would be a misunderstanding of the biblical tradition, if one insinuates that it holds the view a sacrifice would connect human beings with God in a magical way. The sacrifice - so the more recent sacrificial theology makes it unmistakably clear - must biblically not be understood as a service of human beings in order to appease the deity. Rather, in the sacrifice it is always about getting aware of God's presence: God gratuitously gives it to people and it is given by the sacrificial rite (Veronika Hoffmann, Vor Gottes Angesicht treten. Zum Opfer in biblisch-christlicher Perspektive, in: Werbick, 51-71, 53).

Entirely in this sense, also the Muslim theologian Halima Krausen interprets the Feast of the Sacrifice as Fest of Abraham's friendship with God. According to her interpretation, in this story it becomes clear "that love does not require to give up one's own existence for the beloved but to live for Him and with Him: 'And God made friends with Abraham'" (in Ursula Sieg, Feste der Religionen. Werkbuch für Schulen und Gemeinden, Düsseldorf 2003).



However, with this interpretation it remains a mystery why blood must flow for the initiation of such a friendship. Accordingly, today some Muslims no longer understand why all the many poor sheep must be slaughtered, and Christians wonder whether the bloody imagery of the Eucharistic sacrifice should not finally be defused.


Coping with the tale of woe of one's own life

On the other hand, the late antique ethicization of the idea of sacrifice already suffered from the fact that it was impossible to drive away the sacrifice from reality. In the martyrdoms in the circus, Christians became human sacrifices against their will, and the martyrs were very early - as e.g. by Origen and Prudentius - regarded as redemptive and purifying victims, though the necessity of any sacrifices should actually be redressed in Christ. Despite its rejection in the doctrine, in Islam, too, the idea of sacrifice emerges time and again in a definitely soteriological connotation - at least in the Shiite popular piety. Reason for this is the commemoration of the suffering of the rightly guided Imams, especially during the Ashura festival.

Background of this festival is the following event. Against the reign of the second Umayyad caliph Yazid, in Kufa people call on Hussein for help. He is the second son of Ali. The latter is the fourth of the caliphs who are recognized by all Muslims. Hussein had previously led a withdrawn life in Mecca, but together with his family and a few followers he followed this cry for help and went to Kufa. 70 kilometers before Kufa, his caravan is stopped at Karbala in the year 680 by Yazid's army with several 1000 soldiers. First, the way to the river is cut off. Hussein waits in vain for the help of his allies from Kufa, who are now being bullied by the local governor and do not dare to intervene. In view of the certain defeat, Hussein tried to persuade his 72 remaining companions to leave him. But no one wants to let him down, and so on 10th Moharram they all go together into a from the outset hopeless battle, in which all die (see Navid Kermani, Dynamit des Geistes. Martyrium, Islam und Nihilismus, Berlin 2002, 7 ff.).



Here Hussein is personally killed by Shimr, the commander of Yazid. And his head is brought as a trophy to Damascus, and exhibited at the east gate of the Umayyad Mosque. The Ashura (= the 10th day of Karbala) is the most dramatic event of the Shia Islam. "In Hussein's pain, the suffering of whole humankind is expressed. His death became the synonym of the deceived hope of humankind for a better future."

In Passion Plays his death is made present up to this day. And it is quite obvious that his martyrdom here becomes a reality that changes the present time and has "a redeeming function in the Shi'ite popular piety." The collective reenactment of Hussein's suffering is connected with the confession of one's own guilt, because one has not helped Hussein. Even today, adult men and women burst out crying unrestrainedly when they remember the suffering of Hussein, and they get indescribably furious when they think of Yazid. The ritual and the narrative of the Passion apparently help here - much like in Christianity - to cope with the tale of woe of one's own life, and to endure the ambivalences in one's own faith experience.

As with Abraham's sacrifice, it is here about the digesting of experiences "in which God appears to be dark and entirely incomprehensible, even as the enemy of himself" (Naumann 45). It is about experiences in which God's mercy can no longer be experienced, and he moves into an indescribable distance. Not for nothing it is in the Hebrew text of Genesis 22 the still nameless God Elohim who utters the monstrous demand to sacrifice Isaac. Only when God comes out of this anonymity and ambivalence, the turn in the story takes place.

For the rabbinic interpretation, it certainly was always of utmost importance that it is YHWH (Adonai) who appears to prevent the sacrifice and holds back Abraham's hand. "Elohim would have been able to call on him to continue, but Adonai says, 'No'" (Plaut, 213). As surprising as it is that Abraham believed the first voice, so remarkable it is that he hears the call of God who addresses him personally and understands it (Emmanuel Levinas, Noms propres, Montpellier, 1976, 113).

This personal encounter with God is apparently necessary, so that the anonymous call of God can come out of its ambivalence. A personal relationship with God is apparently necessary, so that the sacrifice can be performed properly. And apparently, the healing power of a sacrifice where God comes close to us can continue becoming understandable in all three Abrahamic religions - not least because of the hopeless state of the world.


- Michael Krupp: Den Sohn opfern? Die Isaak-Überlieferung bei Juden, Christen und Muslimen, Gütersloh 1995

- Hamideh Mohagheghi: Abraham in muslimischer Perspektive, in: Friedmann Eißler (ed.), EZW-Texte 209 (2010) 48-57

- Thomas Naumann: Die Preisgabe Isaaks. Genesis 22 im Kontext der biblischen Abraham-Sara-Erzählung, in: Bernhard Greiner, Bernd Janowski und Hermann Lichtenberger (ed.), Opfere deinen Sohn! Das "Isaak-Opfer" in Judentum, Christentum und Islam, Tübingen 2007, 19-50

- W. Gunther Plaut: Die Tora in jüdischer Auslegung, volume 1: Bereschit/Genesis, Gütersloh 1999

- Guy G. Stroumsa: Das Ende des Opferkults. Die religiösen Mutationen der Spätantike, Berlin 2011

- Jürgen Werbick (ed.): Sühne, Martyrium und Erlösung? Opfergedanke und Glaubensgewissheit in Judentum, Christentum und Islam, Beiträge zur Komparativen Theologie 9, Paderborn 2013

- Bernd Willmes: Die Prüfung Abrahams nach Gen 22,1-19, in: Helmut Hoping, Julia Knop und Thomas Böhm (ed.), Die Bindung Isaaks. Stimme, Schrift, Bild, Paderborn 2009, 39-59


    {*} Klaus von Stosch (born in 1971) is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Institute of Catholic Theology, Faculty of Cultural Sciences at the University of Paderborn. Study of Catholic theology, philosophy and economics in Bonn and Fribourg. PhD in 2001 in Bonn, habilitation in 2005 in Münster. Since 2009 Chairman of the Centre for Comparative Theology and Cultural Studies at the University of Paderborn.


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