Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" And the LORD said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground." (Genesis 4:9-10)
Someone quipped long ago that the theory of mankind's descent from the apes was a libel upon the apes. However, we now know at least some misdeeds once thought to be exclusively human can also be pinned on our simian forbearers. Careful observation of our closest cousins on the evolutionary tree has found that chimpanzees engage in organized warfare with their neighbors, just as humans do. This strongly suggests that chimps and humans share a common ancestor with similar proclivities. Certainly, warmongering is not a recent human innovation. Anthropological studies of hunter-gatherer tribes have found that many engage in more-or-less constant skirmishes with their neighbors, and the cumulative casualty rates are high.
All this can lead to maudlin conclusions about the bloodthirsty nature of our species. However, virtually every human society has strong taboos against killing, at least within their own family group or tribe. The story of Cain and Abel, which is found in both the Bible and the Koran and resembles still-older Sumerian legends, makes clear that God disapproves of cold-blooded murder. The later commandment against killing, given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, appears unequivocal. According to Jewish law, even foreigners were considered to be under God's protection, and the Israelites were forbidden from doing them any harm.
Yet, as Mark Twain pointed out in Letters from Earth, the Lord could not necessarily be counted on to keep his own commandment. Notwithstanding the blanket injunction against killing, It would take a highly selective reading of the Old Testament to conclude that God was a pacifist. Twain was particularly appalled by the Lord's demand that the Israelites kill all the Midianite men, women and children, sparing only virgin girls who were taken as spoils of war. Israelites themselves risked annihilation for a broad range of offenses that we might now regard as trifling, including violating the Sabbath and taking the Lord's name in vain.
We should not forget that Judaism -- and by extension Christianity -- were built on a foundation of blood sacrifice. The role of the priests at the temple in Jerusalem was to perform sacrificial rites, a practice that is symbolically preserved in the Christian Eucharist. Whether or not the Hebrew people or their ancestors ever practiced human sacrifice, other Canaanite peoples certainly did. This may explain why Abraham did not protest when the Lord demanded that he make a burnt offering of his son Isaac.
Commentators have long wrestled with the story of Abraham and Isaac, hoping to tease from it some interpretation that is less unsettling than the bare meaning of the narrative. At first glance, it's not clear which is more disturbing: that God would test Abraham by requiring him to kill his own son or that Abraham would willingly go along with such a demand (at least until an angel intervened). Starting with St. Paul, Christians have taken the story as evidence of Abraham's supreme faithfulness, rather than dwell on the grisly nature of the proposed deed. According to Christian belief, God asked nothing of Abraham that he did not willingly take upon himself when he allowed his own son to be sacrificed on a cross.
In the most fateful moment of his life, did Abraham succumb to "divine madness," as Kierkegaard believed, or was he just plain crazy? Mental wards are full of people who commit horrific acts because they believe God told them to do it. How is Abraham any different? There is nothing in the biblical account to indicate that anyone overheard his conversation with the Lord, and he apparently told no one what his true intentions were when he set off with his son and two servants to make his sacrificial offering. But then, if Abraham was deluded in thinking God wanted him to kill his son, was he also deluded in thinking God had countermanded his original order?
If Abraham's madness was divine, perhaps it was because God himself was to blame for making such an insane demand -- assuming that he did. Or perhaps the madness came in thinking that God was a bloodthirsty tyrant who would make such a demand, and the true voice of God was the one that stayed Abraham's hand as he prepared to slay his son. The God who spoke through the prophets had little use for burnt offerings of any kind. It was the priests who created and maintained the elaborate system of blood sacrifices -- and priests who had a vested interest in keeping the blood flowing. Jesus probably sealed his doom by attacking the system and driving the moneychangers from the temple. The irony, of course, is that the blow Jesus struck against blood sacrifice led to yet another sacrificial offering that priests have been celebrating ever since.
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