One of the most troubling passages in the Bible is the story of the binding of Isaac: Abraham setting off up Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son.
Traditionally, in Christianity, Abraham is portrayed here as passing a test of faith: obeying God’s command no matter what. This is because it is explained in this way, as evidence of Abraham’s great faith, in the New Testament: Hebrews 11: 17-19.
But this does not seem to make sense on its face. How, after all, did Abraham know it was God’s voice speaking to him? We are advised to “test the spirits,” and calling on him to do an immoral act should have been proof positive that the voice he heard was not God, but the Devil. God, being all-good, cannot command an immoral act.
I, on a close reading, conclude that Abraham must have understood from the beginning that there was no chance Isaac was actually going to be sacrificed, that God had told him so. It was all done for show, in the context of a surrounding society that practiced child sacrifice, and would expect such a thing.
But then, the question arises; why is child sacrifice or infanticide so much a feature of so many cultures?
Jewish commentators find the passage similarly disturbing; and are less inclined than Christian commentators to give Abraham a pass.
Leonard Cohen wrote a song about it, “The Story of Isaac,” in which he accuses Abraham of simple malice towards his son:
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
In doing so, Cohen suggests that Abraham represents and is acting out an eternal urge: the parent’s feelings toward their child are always ambivalent. The child, after all represents the parent’s own mortality. The child will gather strength as the parent’s strength wanes, and one day will supplant them. The child looks like a dangerous rival. At least, to a narcissistic parent.
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must
I will kill you if I can.
Cohen seems to see this in his own childhood. He makes Isaac nine years old—the same age he was when his father died. He speaks then from Isaac’s perspective. He explains, in an interview, that at that point in his own life it seemed to him that it was “either him or me.” If his father had not died, he would have.
This seems to say Cohen was abused in his early childhood. This might explain, in turn, his lifelong struggles with depression.
Cohen, writing the song during the Vietnam War, suggests such an impulse to kill the young may be behind the urge to war: the old men send off the young to die.
You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
.. have mercy on this uniform,
Man of peace or man of war.
"It has fathers and sons in it and sacrifice and slaughter, and an extremely honest statement at the end. It does say something about fathers and sons and that curious place, generally over the slaughtering block where generations meet and have their intercourse. I think probably that I did feel [when I wrote it] that one of the reasons that we have wars was so the older men can kill off the younger ones, so there’s no competition for the women. Also, completely remove the competition in terms of their own institutional positions."Cohen’s take may shock, but is in fact confirmed by fairy tale after fairy tale: it is the underlying theme, for example, of Snow White, or Beauty and the Beast, or Cinderella, or Hansel and Gretel, or Rapunzel.
We pretend it is not there, we are in denial as a civilization, as we abort our young in vast numbers, but it is inevitably there.