Abraham, Isaac, and Honour Killings

Over the last few hours, I’ve been involved in a discussion over twitter with a colleague named @eikonos about the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac:

Genesis 22

Abraham Tested

 1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
      “Here I am,” he replied.  2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
 3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
 6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
      “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
      “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
 8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
 9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
      “Here I am,” he replied.
 12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
 13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram <sup class="footnote" value="[a]”>[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”
 15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring <sup class="footnote" value="[b]”>[b] all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
 19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

@eikonos’ main point in the discussion was that Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac was an “honour killing.”  I couldn’t disagree more.

Using the disgusting story of Asqa Parvez as an example, you can clearly see the differences between the story of Abraham and Isaac and this one.  Asqa was killed because her father and brother, in their twisted minds, felt her refusal to wear traditional Islamic dress somehow dishonoured their family in the eyes of their peers.

Compare that to Abraham and Isaac, where Abraham took Isaac to an altar to kill him as a sacrifice to God at the command of God (who, as you can see, then stopped him before he actually did kill Isaac.)

The differences don’t stop there – Ms. Parvez was Islamic, not Jewish, but as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are all “Abrahamic” religions, the roots are the same.  Jewish tradition required a sacrifice to be “unblemished,” which is why a young, unblemished lamb was usually what was killed and burnt on an altar.  Ms. Parvez, being human, and in her teenage years, certainly would have progressed past the point of remaining “unblemished” in terms of having sinned. 

Another point is that Ms. Parvez wasn’t sacrificed – she was killed.  The theme and circumstances are completely different.  God wanted a sacrifice as a form of atonement, Ms. Parvez was killed because of a perceived dishonour to her family by her behaviour.  Isaac hadn’t done anything to warrant, in Abraham’s eyes, killing him; Ms. Parvez, in her family’s eyes, had.

So the stories are totally different, right down to the thematic basis. 

About Steven Britton

Steve is a freelance programmer, partial billionaire, dad, Recovering Atheist, Conservative, and occasionally prolific blogger.
  • martiendejong

    So, God know Abraham will do anything he asks from him (God is all-knowing). Then he asks Abraham to sacrifice his son.

    Also, my parents (devoted christians) read the story this way:
    The morale of the story is that when God asks you anything you have to obey, even if it means sacrificing your own child.
    Yes, that’s child sacrifice.

    There is also this bible text about how to be happy:
    “Happy shall he be, that taketh
    and dasheth thy little ones against
    the stones.” –Psalms 137:9

    I guess this will never be posted because you christians don’t like the truth.

    • Examining, on the surface, the story, if you want to interpret it that way, of course, you can. But the point of this is not to justify child sacrifice, (as I stated originally, God did not permit Abraham to actually go through with the act of sacrificing Isaac, after all) but to trust in God. God has a plan, and if God’s plan is for your child to die, then you have to trust that your child’s death is for a greater purpose that you cannot perceive.

      Psalm 137:9 is not a justification for child sacrifice or honour killing either. A quick read of the whole psalm (putting your quote back into context) immediately blows it out of the water:

      1. By the rivers of Babylon we sat and
      wept
      when we remembered Zion.
      2. There on the poplars
      we hung our harps.
      3. for there our captors asked us for songs,
      our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
      they said, “Sing us one of the songs of
      Zion!”
      4. How can we sing the songs of the Lord
      while in a foreign land?
      5. If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
      may my right hand forget tis skill.
      6. May my tongue cling to the roof of my
      mouth.
      if I do not consider Jerusalem
      my highest joy.
      7. Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites
      did
      on the day Jerusalem fell.
      “Tear it down,” they cried,
      “tear it down to its foundations!”
      8. O Daugter of Babylon, doomed to
      destruction
      happy is he who repays you
      for what you have done to us-
      9. He who seizes your infants
      and dashes them against the rocks.

      Psalm 137, besides being paraphrased and covered as a disco track by Boney M during the late ’70’s, is a lament. It is a promise to God that the author will always remember his origins, and a promise that he won’t submit to his captors’ wishes.

      At the end of the psalm, (verses 7 – 9) the psalmist is asking God to bring down revenge on the Babylonians: to do to them what they did to the Israelites when they sacked Jerusalem. So, in that context, “Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against rocks,” is a statement made in anger: “You Babylonians – for what you did to us, you deserve to be conquored, and have your conquorers grab your children and kill them.”

      The truth doesn’t frighten me; but the truth has to actually BE the truth, not some biblical passage twisted to suit a person’s own purposes like you did here.

  • martiendejong

    The context does nothing to help here. There are no circumstances in which it is good to kill babies by smashing their heads.
    That someone made it into a song doesn’t make it less evil.
    We now have laws against things like that and for good reason.

    • I agree wholeheartedly — there are never any circumstances in which killing babies (in any way) is good; and would have even likely been true in the time that the psalm was written. As I said, it was written as a lament, a prayer – “Please God, give them what they deserve. Make them feel the full force of your wrath for their crimes.”

      Remember as well that here in the 21st century, we have an entirely different global and social context than people 2600 years ago. In those days, when a city, such as Jerusalem was sacked, there was no distinction made between military and civilian. Nowadays, when a city falls, the invading army — usually — concentrates on the political and military targets, and the civilians are, for the most part, left alone. In the time that Jerusalem was sacked, the invaders would have gone on a rampage through the city, raping, pillaging, and murdering – men, women, and children.

      So yes, societal and historical context do indeed matter when one reads biblical material. You have to look beyond the words themselves and find the point that the material is trying to make, because it is in the point, not necessarily the mere words, that God’s truth is found.