Abraham, the Cowardly Hero

Article excerpt

Abraham is called the first Jew. Why not Jacob, renamed Israel, the ancestor of the 12 tribes? Why not Moses, who received the Torah -- the law that defines us? Abraham's very name suggests that he is no more linked to the Jewish people than to several other nations; in Genesis 17 we are told it means av hamon goyim (father of many nations).

The reason is the fact that Abraham was an iconoclast, an idol breaker. In the aggadah (rabbinical narrations, not to be regarded as authoritative, that forms part of the literature of the oral law), Abraham's father, Terach, made and sold idols. (B'reshit Rabbah 38:12) He once left Abraham in charge of his business, and when he returned, all the idols were smashed except for the largest. Abraham explained that the idols had gotten into an argument over a sacrifice, and that the biggest idol had won the fight. This is the same Abraham who refused to sacrifice his son Isaac.

In the story of the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19), Abraham's willingness to obey God even to the point of sacrificing his son is traditionally taken as evidence of his goodness and moral strength, which implies that obedience to the Lord takes priority over such commandments as "Thou shalt not kill." To be sure, the Ten Commandments had not yet been given to Moses, who was not to be born for several generations. But the story may be read in a different way, as an example of Abraham's originality and courage. We know from other parts of the Bible that child sacrifice was practiced by various nations in Biblical times: "And the Avites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharvites burnt their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of the Sepharvaim." (2 Kings 18:31) We are even presented with one account where child sacrifice actually works:

   And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took
   with him seven hundred men that drew swords, to break through even unto the
   king of Edom: but they could not. Then he took his eldest son that should
   have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the
   wall. And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed
   from him, and returned to their own land. (2 Kings 3:26-27)

Abraham was clearly not the only father who ever felt called upon to offer his child as a sacrifice. Indeed, the practice apparently had been adopted in Jeremiah's time even in the land of Judah: "And they [the children of Judah] have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart." (Jer. 7:31)

To this day, our custom of pidyon ha-ben shows the discomfort our ancestors felt about not sacrificing their first-born sons. In the book of Numbers we read, "Every thing that openeth the womb, of all flesh which they offer unto the Lord, shall be Thine; howbeit the first-born of man shalt thou surely redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts shalt thou redeem." (18:15)

Archeological evidence exists to support the Biblical charges that child sacrifice was practiced among neighboring peoples. The Carthaginians, descended from the Phoenicians, did so, according to an article in the September 1, 1987, issue of The New York Times. Under the headline, "Relics of Carthage Show Brutality Amid the Good Life," we read the following: "A trove of relics now arriving in New York contains evidence that the ritual slaying of children in ancient Carthage was so common that it helped control the growth of the population and helped families keep fortunes intact over generations, archeologists say. …