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The 5 Most Terrifying Words in the Bible

09/03/2013 10:03 am ET | Updated Nov 03, 2013

"But where is the lamb?"

Abraham and Isaac are all alone, on their way up to Mount Moriah. They have just left their servants behind. Abraham has taken the fire and the knife, and he's given the wood to Isaac. "And Isaac said to Abraham, his father: 'Father!' and he said, 'Here I am, my son.' And he said, 'Here is the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the offering?'"

And we do not have a clue what Isaac is thinking. Is he really wondering where the lamb is, as a little boy might? Or has it just occurred to him that he himself may be the lamb? I am not sure that there are five more terrifying, or pathetic, words in the Bible.

What I am sure of is that critics of God and religion can't get enough of Genesis 22. Could there be better evidence that God is a tyrant, Abraham a sycophant and Isaac an utterly abused child? "All three monotheisms," Christopher Hitchens writes, "praise Abraham for being willing to hear voices and then to take his son on a long and rather mad and gloomy walk. And then the caprice by which his murderous hand is finally stayed is written down as divine mercy."

But you don't have to think God is not great -- or not at all -- to dislike this story. Many deeply devout Jews, Christians and Muslim consider it deeply disturbing, and I have heard some say they wish it weren't in the Bible. My very own mother, though not especially observant, was way too superstitious to make an enemy of God. Yet whenever she would hear me talking about the story, she would grab her head by the hair as if she were about to pull it out and say, "Stop. Stop. I hate that story. I can't listen to another word."

The Orthodox, not surprisingly, find criticism of the story appalling. God is great and Abraham one of his greatest creations. Jews believe that Abraham's obedience earned them God's special blessing. The sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is intended to remind Him of Abraham's saving merit. Christians believe that Abraham's sacrifice prefigured God's. Abraham was willing to give up his beloved son, so God actually did it. And Muslims believe that Abraham's deed demonstrated the attitude and behavior that defines their faith. In October, during Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, which comes at the height of the Haj, millions will sacrifice an animal to commemorate Abraham's submission to God.

But if the Orthodox dismay at criticism of the story is predictable, the orthodox puzzlement is less so, and I find it worth thinking about. Genesis 22, they say, is a story about sacrifice, the sacrifice of something precious, and sacrifice is something that every one of us -- atheists as well as orthodox -- does everyday. They know -- everyone knows -- countless people forgo even the most rudimentary requirements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, whether services, Sabbath, confession, communion, fasting or prayer. But who forgoes sacrifice? We sacrifice to our children. We sacrifice to our parents. We sacrifice to spouses, partners and close friends. Each and every one of our major commitments is a sacrifice of something dear.

One may object -- and one should -- that all sacrifices are not equal. To sacrifice to or for a child is not the same as sacrificing a child to God. But if you think about it, we also sacrifice children, most explicitly in war. Just counting Americans (which is a very narrow-minded way to count), we have sacrificed the lives of thousands (and limbs and mental health of tens of thousands) in this still young century alone. We have our reasons. Abraham had his. We sacrifice them all the same.

"By the standards of modern morality," Richard Dawkins writes, "this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense... Yet the legend is one of the great foundations myths of all three monotheistic religions."

I happen to share Hitchen's and Dawkin's skepticism that there is a God like the one portrayed in the Bible. Consequently, I don't believe that anyone should do something to someone else simply because God says so. I resent as much as anyone the politics and social policy that comes clothed in clerical garb. I think that Dawkins' "modern standard of morality" is great for judging how people behave today. The ritual sacrifice of a child should and would be universally condemned.

But that is not the place to start when it comes to trying to understand the history, import and value of a story so many hold sacred, to say nothing of a story that some of the most thoughtful and creative people who have ever lived have been wrestling with in theology and philosophy (Augustine, Rashi, Maimonides, Luther, Kierkegaard and Buber); painting (Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Chagall); fiction (Yizhar, Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman); poetry (Dickinson, Owen and Amichai) and song (Britten, Stravinsky, Dylan and Cohen) for more than two thousand years. And, because the story raises questions that still engage us, there is no end to that wrestling in sight.

Among those questions are questions about sacrifice, starting with Isaac's, "But where is the lamb?" What sacrifices are we called upon to make, and for whom? What sacrifices are we willing to make, and for whom? What would we be willing to kill for, or to send others to kill or to die for, or to die for ourselves? How can people who don't believe in God and people who believe in him so intensely that they would kill and die for him share the same small earth?

I don't think there are easy answers to those questions, but I think it much more fruitful to ask them than to act is if they are something all thinking people, all reasonable people, all people without illusions and delusions, have put behind us.

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