One Old Testament — Two Interpretations

It’s always interesting to hear my husband, a militant atheist, and me, a respectful agnostic/atheist, talk about the Bible to the kids.  Today, my husband tackled the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.  He told the kids that the whole point of the story is to remind religious people that they have to be blindly obedient to their God, no matter how evil or wrong his commands are.  I told the kids that it’s a stunningly important story, since it marked the beginning of the end of human sacrifice.

My husband has a different view of the story of Exodus too.  He refuses to celebrate Passover, because he says it commemorates the genocide of the Egyptians.  While it is certainly troubling that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to the point where the Egyptian First Born had to die (a neat parallelism, of course, to Pharaoh’s decision to kill the Jewish First Born), the fact is that Jews, for thousands of years, have celebrated Passover as a story of freedom — it’s the world’s first recorded slave revolt.  As celebrated, it isn’t a blood-thirsty tale of murder but is, instead, a story about Mose’s personal redemption, and about individual dignity and liberty.  It’s also a story about overarching human emotions:  self-sacrifice, greed, fear, etc.  Or, I guess, if you want to see it that way, it’s a story about genocide.

There are many troubling stories in the Bible, whether Dinah’s brothers slaughtering a whole town, Lot offering to throw his daughters to a rape-made crowd, or even the story of the circumcision of Moses’ son.  What’s striking about the Judeo-Christian tradition is that these religions have looked at these stories, some of which reach far back in pre-history, and have rejected their randomness and violence.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we tell these stories, but we keep our life lessons focused on justice and morality.  Just as it’s troubling that modern Muslims take literally Mohamed’s most violent prejudices and prescriptions, so too is it sad that atheists look at the Bible and see only a book of evil.

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  • gkong3

    Bookworn: It’s not actually that we ‘reject’ per se, it’s the fact that we don’t see it as controlling (or prescriptive).
    Take a look at every character in TaNaKh and (excepting Jesus) the New Testament. Every single one is portrayed as a completely natural human being, warts and all. Abraham, the Father of Many Nations, who was chosen and blessed by G-d to bring forth Messiah, connived to lie about his marital status not once but twice. Noah, the sole righteous man whose family repopulated the earth after G-d decided to wipe out all other traces of sinful mankind, promptly got dead drunk. Jacob, called Israel, well, he was called the Supplanter for a good reason, not that his mother was much better. Joseph was an arrogant punk when he was younger, and he still played fairly mean practical jokes even as an adult. Let’s not talk about David, the man after G-d’s own heart, also the adulterer and murderer.
    The NT portrays people in no less realistic fashion. Peter, on whom Christ will build the church, was a cowardly blowhard. Rabbi Shaul of Tarsus was a persecuter and anti-Christian hater. Most of Jesus’ Apostles were more or less infighting, ungrateful, blockheaded morons. Sure, they were later transformed and all, but the NT faithfully records their prior idiocies (and in some cases, later idiocies).
    Your husband is incorrect in that it is genocide of the Egyptians. Obviously, since only the first-born males were killed. So maybe you need to tell him to at least get his facts right whenever he delivers his polemics. You want real genocide? Talk about the Amalekites, who G-d commands King Saul to annihilate down to the last dog and babe.
    Point is, the Bible faithfully records all of these acts, because they happened, and the Bible isn’t about to sweep it under the carpet. IOW, it’s descriptive. But G-d has not ordered any of us (Jew or Christian) to annihilate any existing people group down to the last dog and babe, nor has He asked us to have up to 744 wives and concubines, nor to sacrifice our unborn children, etc etc etc… and hence, we have no divine imprimature.
    The Koran, OTOH, is a different kettle of fish.

  • Lulu11

    Dangerous of course to ignore how a religion itself interprets its texts and the lessons it derives from it. Kind of arrogant. 

    In Hebrew it is not the “sacrifice” of Isaac. That is a mis-translation. It is the “binding” of Isaac.   Isaac was never sacrificed. In fact, the story makes clear that God doesn’t want human sacrifice.

    I looked up what Rabbi Joseph Telushkin had to sayabout this  in his book Jewish Literacy. He writes that if anyone today heard of a father “setting out to sacrifice his child at God’s request, he would want the man committed to an insane asylum. How then are modern Jews to relate to Abraham, whose actions seem immoral or insane?”

     He writes that we are able to see child sacrifice today as “grossly immoral” because the Bible outlawed it. It had been practiced  in thousands of societies all over the world to appease gods and to have bountiful crops. (My son was just studying about Meso-American civilations- still offering human and child sacrifice into the 1500’s). The Isaac story was “the first attack on child sacrifice in any literature.” Telushkin writes that hundreds of years after Abraham, the king of Moab (a neighboring people) offered his son as a burnt offering to his gods to prevent a defeat in war. At the time he lived, Abraham had no way of knowing that humans shouldn’t sacrifice their children since his neighbors were doing so- so it is not the request that is new in the Binding story- it is the final staement of God that is different. God makes it clear that He doesn’t want human sacrifices. According to tradition, Abraham may be praised for his willingness to give up what he most cherished, but he in not to be emulated.

    As for the Exodus, the story, of course, teaches that human beings were meant to be free- another revelation in human thought.  There is no rejoicing in the drowning of the Egyptians (hardly a “genocide” though). Telushkin mentions a Rabbinic legend that says “that when the angels in heaven started singing God’s praises for saving the Hebrews, He turned on them in anger: “My creatures are drowning and you’re singing songs!” At every Passover seder this loss is remembered and Jewish teaching tells that one “should not overly rejoice at an enemy’s downfall and suffering.”

    Judaism and Christianity have gone through generations of interpretations and adaptations to thier BIblical stories. To read the words devoid of how they are understood and practiced is a form of willful misunderstanding. (As far as Islam, we hear daily how the text is understood. Unfortunately, too many choose to ignore that message).

  • Ymarsakar

    Genocide? Like what the Left did in Vietnam, tried to do in Afghanistan and Iraq? They should not boast of their pride and arrogance so often, I think.

  • Earl

    Hmmmmmmm.  Hello…….Hello…….?  Is this working?
    I don’t disagree with much above….I’m a Bible believer in a very traditional sense (No, not a “fundamentalist”, as that word is technically defined), and there are absolutely some things that are hard to square with the picture of G-d that is presented in “all 66 books”.  The order to exterminate the Amalekites is one of these…..  The description of G-d and the devil betting on what Job will do when under attack is another.
    I find it helpful to remember that this book is “G-d’s Word” (not His words) written down by fallible men who served Him.  The Spirit ensures that the message is there, but it is subject to misunderstanding.  My suspicion is that some of the things described as being ordered by G-d were done by sinful men and the attribution to the Lord was made later…..  I wouldn’t burn at the stake for that point of view, but there are a number of things that *seem* to pit G-d against Himself that I can’t seem to explain in any other way.
    Now, let’s see if this will post……


    Lulu11 – Thank you for doing the homework.
    Passover celebrates not death but freedom and choice and passing from a bad place into a better one. Pharaoh was given 10 chances and he rejected all of them. Even then G-d did not leave their woman barren, but rendered the very next generation (first born males) incapable of pursing their freed captives.
    Or, in less than biblical terms and references:
    Passover: The first jihad….leads to the world’s first Exodus.

  • Charles Martel

    “Today, my husband tackled the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.  He told the kids that the whole point of the story is to remind religious people that they have to be blindly obedient to their God, no matter how evil or wrong his commands are.” 

    I always crack up at atheists’ “logic.” By what standard or benchmark does Mr. Bookworm ascertain the evilness or wrongness of an action? By his lights, there is none. The universe is a sponstaneous event that has no meaning or rationale, therefore no “good,” “evil,” “right,” wrong,” “truth” or “falsehood.” It simply is, leaving us—rational atheists and misguided sky god-believing fanatics—free to make any claims about the universe that we want to. The fact that Mr. Book finds God’s demand on Abraham “evil and wrong” has no more meaning in the non-scheme of things than a Lindsay Lohan drop in at a Sexaholics Anonymous meeting.

    Also, not to be pedantic, but Mr. Book should understand that term genocide applies to an attempt to murder an entire race or ethnicity—moms, pops, kids, grandparents, cousins, in-laws, creepy uncles and everybody in between. Killing the Egyptian  firstborns is more like selective culling—akin to what Mr. Book’s ideological allies at Planned Parenthood do to African Americans.

  • Earl

    @gking3 – “Bookworn”, hey?  Are you suggesting anything……?  :-)
    @Charlie Martel – Ouch!  I cannot disagree with you in any particular of your post….however, in the interest of family harmony, I would suggest that BW not bring up your last sentence in any discussion with the Mr.
    A GREAT point, and I’ve come to expect this kind of insight from you.  Well done.

  • BrianE

    Your husband is partially right, BW. God does reward faith, in fact, God regards faith as the most important attribute we can display. Abraham was declared righeous because of his faith in God.

    I would disagree that the faith in this instance was blind or that God’s command was evil, though this is one of those passages that is pretty confusing. God ask’s Abraham to sacrifice his own son, and during the entire test which took many days to execute, he was ready to sacrifice his son.

    God had been preparing Abraham for much of his life and for the most part, Abraham had been faithful. Ishmael had been sent out because of his mother’s mocking of Sarah, so Isaac was his only son. And we know what a miracle that was.  God had previously promised Abraham that Isaac would be the son through whom all of his descendents would come.

    So on one hand, Abraham had witnessed a miracle of Isaac’s birth (Sarah was 90 at the birth), and promised that Isaac would continue his line, and on the other hand turned around and asked Abraham to offer him as a sacrifice. Wow, that would be confusing. I think it makes sense that Abraham trusted God to honor his word. God would provide a substitute, or raise Isaac up after the sacrifice.

    It certainly took a tremendous amount of faith on Abraham’s part to believe God, but God had already proven himself faithful to Abraham.

    In the end, God did provide a substitute– Jesus Christ. We see an archetype in this story. And God did demonstrate his love for us by sacrificing the Son he loved to redeem us. And indeed, Jesus was raised up the third day. 

    If someone today, though, said they had heard God ask them to kill their son, I would call the police.