How Not to Read the Bible

By Johnson, Luke Timothy | Commonweal, July 16, 1999 | Go to article overview
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How Not to Read the Bible

Johnson, Luke Timothy, Commonweal

Abraham on Trial
The Social Legacy
of Biblical Myth
Carol Delaney
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 296 pp.
The Curse of Cain
The Violent Legacy
of Monotheism
Regina M. Schwartz
University of Chicago Press, $14, 211 pp.

The authors of these books share a sense of high moral purpose. Delaney wants fathers to stop sacrificing their sons. Schwartz wants people to welcome rather than exclude one another. Each author also has hold of a truth. Delaney sees that patriarchy has its limitations. Schwartz perceives that monotheism can generate intolerance. Both writers connect their moral passion and social insight to a reading of a part of the Bible, regarded as the source of the "legacy" of carelessness and violence in contemporary culture. Delaney focuses on the story of Abraham. Schwartz deals with Torah and the Prophets.

However, high moral purpose does not necessarily translate into clear thinking. The grasp of a single truth seldom makes for a satisfying argument. And blaming the Bible for what's wrong in the world is an exercise both too easy and too simplistic to be convincing. These books are of interest less as resources for serious social and religious inquiry than as indicators of troubling tendencies in the academic study of religion today.

Delaney's title expresses the conceit structuring her essay, playing on the tradition that Abraham's offering of Isaac in Gen. 22:1-24 (known as the Akedah) was one of Abraham's "trials" (or "testings"), as well as on the coincidence of her happening to be an observer of a recent California trial in which a man who killed his daughter offered as justification the claim "God told me to do it." Convinced that this poor deluded man was a symbol for a massive cultural pattern of child abuse, Delaney turns from her earlier research on procreation and patriarchy in Turkey to the patriarch Abraham.

Part 1 prosecutes this small part of the Abraham story for its role in sponsoring all abuse of children through the ages, including sending them off to be killed in war. The logic of patriarchy, Delaney claims, is that the child should die so that the father might live. That a man killed his daughter and used Abraham as an excuse is not anomalous but the typical enactment of the cultural script created by the Akedah as "foundation story" for Western patriarchy. The story reflects and helps establish the false inference that fathers have absolute control over their children based on the false premise that the male seed is the only active agent in procreation. Where is the child's voice in the story, asks Delaney, where is the mother's voice? How can this, this patriarch, get away with slaughtering his son?

Critical to Delaney's argument is showing that the Akedah is a foundation story for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Part 2 is therefore devoted to archaeological and biblical evidence concerning child sacrifice in antiquity. Here she reaches conclusions opposite to those of Jon Levenson, whose Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (Yale University Press, 1993) suggests that the Abraham story actually works against a pattern of child-sacrifice that was sporadically practiced even within Israel. It would seem that on prima facie evidence, Levenson would win the argument, since God stays Abraham's hand at the end and replaces Isaac with the ram for sacrifice. If the story functions etiologically, it would be most obviously read as foundational for animal rather than child sacrifice. But Delaney ends up insisting that even if Abraham did not actually kill Isaac he still was wrong for giving absolute obedience to a higher authority.

Delaney constructs her "defense" of Abraham by examining the uses made of the Akedah story by the respective religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The kindest comment to be made on this section is that as a student of religious literary traditions, Delaney proves she is mainly an anthropologist who has done field work in Turkey.

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