Saturday, March 18, 2017

Abraham's Curse - a book review


This review is reprinted from my 2008 original at BookLoons. Read the reprint below or read the original posting at BookLoons via this link.

Abraham’s Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam  by Bruce Chilton (Doubleday, 2008)



Let's face it, violence is ubiquitous and persistent throughout human history, and the violent impulse has appeared in many forms, including but not limited to 'a knife thrusting or slashing, punches thrown, a firearm discharged, or an explosion detonated.' Bruce Chilton, author of many scholarly articles and books, including the acclaimed Rabbi Jesus and Mary Magdalene, now offers a fresh and disturbing perspective on violence, the behavior (arguably the unique province of humans) that has been a part of every society, beginning with mankind's earliest primitive beginnings and continuing through the present as a frightening religious conflict threatens to engulf the world.

Chilton begins his persuasive argument in Abraham's Curse - a provocative work of religious scholarship - by offering a powerful analysis of the famous Abraham and Isaac story as it is found in Genesis 22. The story of Abraham's absolute obedience of God's command to sacrifice his innocent son Isaac, as most readers of the story would agree, is one of the most disturbing of all Biblical stories; after all, at least three important issues arise (and remain disturbingly unresolved) in the story. First, readers must confront the question about why God would order Abraham to kill his beloved son (a child who had represented an important covenant between God and his loyal servant Abraham). Second, and perhaps more challenging, readers must deal with the horrifying problem of why Abraham would so willingly and so quickly acquiesce to the bloody sacrifice of a small child. And a third issue arises when we more closely examine the thoroughly unsettling fact that in some interpretations of the ancient story, Abraham actually killed his son.

The Abraham and Isaac story is much more than an idiosyncratic ancient tale of obedience and sacrifice in an early monotheistic society; it is representative of ancient traditions in which sacrifices in the name of religion (even the actual sacrifices of children) were common and accepted practices in societies (which is born out through the author's presentation of anthropological evidence). More significantly, as Chilton carefully explains in his stimulating argument, the Abraham and Isaac story serves as the template for understanding beliefs, teachings, and behaviors that have dominated societies for all of recorded history since the era of Abraham; in fact, by thoroughly understanding what is at stake in the Abraham and Isaac story, we as readers can more correctly understand a wide range of seemingly disparate historical events: the crucifixion of Jesus, the martyrdom of Christians (and other religious adherents), the Crusades of the middle ages, modern world wars, militant Zionism, Islamist suicide (homicide) bombings, the 9/11 attacks upon the United States, and American invasions of Kuwait and Iraq.

Chilton carefully makes the brilliant case that the Abraham and Isaac incident was something much more significant that an ancient, primitive aberration of otherwise sensible human behavior. The incident, in fact, serves as an example of religiously motivated violence that enables readers to more clearly understand that the sacrifice of children (either with Abraham on Mount Moriah in the name of Yahweh or with warriors on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq in the defense of the Christian west against the inscrutable zeal of radical Islam), has been, remains, and will always remain 'a fundamental part of our lives and culture.'

Here is the bottom line: You could read hundreds of books that explain war and violence (especially current events) in terms of politics, economics, geography, and (or) religion, but you will not find a better book than the extraordinarily well-written and thoroughly fascinating Abraham's Curse for giving you a more accurate and compelling perspective on violence (and sacrifice) in our past, present, and future as a frighteningly immutable and inescapable fact-of-life.




7 comments:

  1. It sounds like a thoughtful, well-written, and thought-provoking read, Tim. Thanks for sharing it.

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  2. Tim,

    good review. it's not in the library, so I will do a search for it with ILL.

    This story has always puzzled me, along with Job and others. A test for absolute obedience? I don't know.

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    1. Yes, Fred, the Abraham story has always puzzled me too. And I'm not sure about Job either. So many enigmas in the Bible!

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    2. Fred, I took several courses in college that focused upon the Bible, one taught by a rabbi, but I never understood the Abraham story. Perhaps I need to continue my education by doing more reading. And don't get me started on Job! What an unusual book in the Bible! It is almost a heresy!

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  3. Isaac always seems emblematic to me, and the near-sacrifice is fascinating. Nothing happens to him otherwise--he doesn't even go to fetch his own wife, as others do in the Old Testament. It's as though everything in his story has to point to the sacrifice. Things happen around him, but the near-sacrifice stands out (in part because he does not enact and cause events.) It's a Christ prefiguration, with the promise that "all the nations of the earth" will be blessed because Abraham "listened to my voice." So an isolated near-sacrifice leads and points to a much later full sacrifice that will bless the world. Isaac's birth is long-delayed and begged-for; his sacrifice is not chosen by him. Christ's birth is chosen by God, and the sacrifice is also self-chosen. Wild!

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    1. Fascinating, Marly. Yet I wonder about the Jewish reading and meaning, and I will be exploring more along those lines.Thanks for the Christian explication.

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