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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Sacrificing our children

Most readings of the Abraham-Isaac story focus on whatever lessons, moral or theological, might be derived from it. Another approach is anthropological. What does the story say about cultural practice?

Behind the story of God’s demand for the sacrifice of Abraham’s firstborn son (actually his second, but the first by his wife, the son promised by God) and God’s last-minute intervention is a long struggle by the Hebrews to end the practice. In Exodus 13:1-2, supposedly God via Moses commands them to sacrifice to Him all the firstborn: “whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.” That command is repeated in Ex. 22:29. But then one reads in Ex. 13:11-15 that while God requires every firstborn male animal, “Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem” (buy back with an animal sacrifice, just as Isaac is redeemed with a ram).

I want to make three points about these observations before telling you why I’m reflecting on these Biblical materials in this column.

One is that if you insist that the Scriptures are a unitary text, perhaps dictated by God, such inconsistencies frustrate you. The frustration disappears if you accept the consensus of 150 years of Biblical scholarship — namely that these texts were generated over a long period of time, and many single “books,” such as Exodus, are woven from several different narrative strands.

Another is that sacrifice of the first son was a widespread cultural practice in Biblical times. In 2 Kings 21:1-6, we read that the immolation of his own son is one of the several “abominable” gentile practices that Manasseh instituted after assuming the kingship of Judah about 686 BCE. Nor is it clear how long before Manasseh the Hebrews themselves had ended the practice. In Micah 6:7, the late eighth century prophet asks, "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"

Finally, there’s the common interpretation of Jesus’ death as God’s sacrificing to himself his firstborn son to satisfy his own requirement of a blood offering for sin. I find that interpretation appalling, but it was an early one, no doubt arising from the continued vitality of the cultural practice I’ve been discussing.

So what’s my point? That Veterans Day, which we just observed, tells us we haven’t abolished the practice of sacrificing our children. And to what god do we make these sacrifices? The nation, of course. Maybe even to two deities, God and country, if we presume they are on the best of terms.

But it isn’t “the USA,” much less God, that sends our children into battle. It’s Lyndon Johnson. It’s Richard Nixon. It’s George Bush pere et fils. It’s Barack Obama. We don’t think of them as gods. Indeed, we continually criticize them. During the 1960s many of my fellow Southerners would say scandalous things about LBJ because of Civil Rights, yet they would threaten with violence those who protested his war in Vietnam.

So for many of us, it seems, the president is one kind of being, the commander in chief another. One is a politician, the other chief priest. One struggles with complex human problems, the other channels the will of a fierce god.

But any god or nation worth obeying will stop demanding the blood of our children.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.