Shuck and Jive

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Carol Delaney: Abraham On Trial on Religion For Life

Cultural anthropologist, Dr. Carol Delaney, talks about her book, Abraham On Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth, on the next Religion For Life. Dr. Delaney explores the roots of patriarchy by asking the question, what gave Abraham the right to sacrifice (murder) Isaac? What is the legacy of this myth on the way we regard children today?

Listen via livestream...

Thursday, March 8th at 8 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Sunday, March 11th, at noon on WEHC, 90.7.
Sunday, March 11th, at 2 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Monday, March 12th at 1 pm on WEHC, 90.7.
Via podcast beginning March 13th.


  1. "Dr. Delaney explores the roots of patriarchy by asking the question, what gave Abraham the right to sacrifice (murder) Isaac? What is the legacy of this myth on the way we regard children today?"

    This is a good example of how asking a question rather pre-determines an answer. "What gave Abraham the right to murder Isaac?" We are used to putting it that way (i.e., what right has a mother to kill an unborn child, etc.). But I find it very difficult and anachronistic to apply that notion of "rights" to act this way or that in the narrative itself.

    The question also assumes the right, which is certainly contrary to the assumptions of the various religious traditions that revere this story. I well remember, as a child in Sunday School, the "simple lesson" of the story being that God does not require human sacrifice, and the condemnation of such sacrifices--the passing of children through the fire before Moloch comes to mind--throughout the Tanach is rather consistent with that understanding.

    So, as we attorneys are sometimes called to say, the question assumes a fact not in evidence.

    For Christians, of course, this story has always been understood as a foreshadowing of the death of the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. I know you find that an abhorrent concept, and, if I were not a believer in the essential unity of the Father and the Son in the Holy Trinity I would find it abhorrent as well. Seeing that death as a self-giving, as a laying down of one's own life for one's friends, it takes on a different aspect.

    So, given those two meanings, which, I believe, encompass the primary meanings of these stories for the religious traditions in which they are still told, I am a bit sceptical that they even suggest some sort of "right" of the father to kill. In the one case that right is explicitly negated, in the other, what is called for is not an exercise of power over another, but an example of giving up everything for the sake of another, which seems to me as the very definition of love.

  2. Well Rick, I guess you will have to read her book or at least listen to the interview.

    The simple Sunday School lesson for me was not that God does not desire human sacrifice. The lesson was that Abraham's "faith" was that he would kill his own son because "God" told him to do so.

    Delaney begins her book by discussing a case in California in which a man killed his son, or should I say "sacrificed" him because God told him to do so. Apparently, there was no substitute ram available in that instance.

    Not to spoil the interview (or the book), but the issue Delaney raises is the social issue of how we regard children. The primary myth of faith is the "sacrifice" (murder in any other time) of children for the sake of faith in God.

    What if our primary story was of care for children rather than the sacrifice of children?

    As far as "right" goes, this is where patriarchy enters. Isaac is Abraham's seed. Abraham thus owns the seed in a way that his mother does not. Abraham never consults Sarah on whether or not this would be a good plan. This is a deal struck between "the men" Father Abraham and his Father, God.

    Because Isaac is Abraham's seed, he is owned by Abraham, and ultimately, the primary seed planter, God the Father.

    If that whole scenario is love, well...strange love that.

    As far as asking a question that pre-determines the answer, that would be my fault regarding advertising the show.

    Criticism noted.

  3. I don't mean to be contentious, but so much more seems being read into this story thatit seems worthy of comment.

    "Because Isaac is Abraham's seed, he is owned by Abraham."

    I don't see how that follows. Would Isaac be "owned" by both Abraham and Sarah if Abraham had known modern biology? What has biological engendering to do with ownership? I just don't see where the notion of ownership comes into this story at all (except perhaps in the servants left down below Moriah).

    (Roman law is considerably more "patriarchal" than Hebrew. There the father has life-long control over the property of his children, whatever their age, and explicitly has the power of life and death over them until his own death. But even there in no sense does the son take on the attributes of a slave.)

    "This is a deal struck between "the men""

    But there is no "deal"--there is a command. The implication that Sarah gets frozen out of some sort of negotiation seems entirely alien to the story itself.

    "Delaney begins her book by discussing a case in California in which a man killed his son, or should I say "sacrificed" him because God told him to do so."

    And that strikes me as a such a strange place to begin. If, in fact, hundreds of millions of Jewish and Christian fathers seem to get that we ought not to sacrifice our kids to God, does the fact that one California sociopath does so really mean that this story that we all know is conditioning us to murder? And if so, do we have to worry about the story of Agamemnon and Iphigeneia?

    It seems to me that when we remove the story from the tradition in which it had come down to us (whether Jewish or Christian) and interrogate it in terms which are applicable neither to its original composition, nor the way in which tradition has presented it, and importing in ideas of ownership and negotiation, the story becomes an examplar for some separate assertion, an assertion which may be worthwhile, but which has little to do with the story, or how it has been understood by people with functioning moral senses.

  4. Rick,

    It would be helpful if you read the book. She has a whole chapter explaining the notion of seed and patriarchy.

    This post is an advertisement for the upcoming interview in which she talks about her book. Perhaps some of your questions will be addressed.

    I have a "functioning moral sense" and I have issues with this story and with the kind of "faith" it promotes. I think many, many other people throughout history with a "functioning moral sense" also have problems with this story.

    To each his own. You don't have to agree with her. I don't care if you do or not. But rather than argue with an advertisement, you might check out the book first so you can know what it is that she is saying.