Hitchens’ Sacrifice of Isaac

chagall--the binding of isaacChristopher Hitchens’ recent book is called god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The title tells you everything you need to know (and if it doesn’t you probably can’t read). Despite a well-argued defense of atheism, secularism, or simple non-religiosity, the book suffers from one argument in particular that seems hopelessly weak. This is the binding, or “sacrifice”, of Isaac.

Hitchens uses this tale to smear a cream pie in the face of all three Abrahamic faiths in one blow. Of course, this is easy if you read the story out of context. Abraham becomes the pawn of a bloodthirsty Yahweh as he mechanically obeys the divine appetite for child sacrifice. Obviously an appalling episode. But the story can be read another way, as Daniel Hillel suggests in his watershed book The Natural History of the Bible. As Hillel points out, child sacrifice was common in the ancient Near East. The idea was to sacrifice what was most precious–a first-born son is still privileged in many cultures–in order to elicit divine favor. In this respect, Abraham was simply a man of his times. But the eventual sacrifice was transformed, either by divine agency or by conscience, into something quite unprecedented. Hillel writes, “This rejection of child sacrifice was a major step towards a more humane view of God and a greater concern for human life in general.”

Is it not surprising that Hitchens missed this, as have so many before him? Read as a manifesto for religious submission, the story makes little sense. The sacrifice would have simply taken place. Read as a (primitive) allegory for humanism, it transcends its own boundaries. Instead of horrifying us, it speaks from the abyss of a better possible world. Rather than using such a reading as a jumping-off point to condemn religious violence, Hitchens misreads it as a manifesto for religious violence. An ugly blot on an otherwise impassioned polemic against religious absurdity.

Marc Alan Coen, also in the NEWYORKERS section of this blog.


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