Sunday, November 12, 2017

Abraham’s Curse — a book review


Abraham’s Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Bruce Chilton (Doubleday, 2008)

Let's face it, violence persists throughout human history, and the violent impulse has appeared in many forms, including but not limited to 'a knife thrusting or slashing, punches thrown, a firearm discharged, or an explosion detonated.' Bruce Chilton, author of many articles and books, including the acclaimed Rabbi Jesus and Mary Magdalene, offers in Abraham’s Curse a fresh and disturbing perspective on violence, the behavior (arguably the unique province of humans) that has been a part of every society, beginning with mankind's earliest primitive beginnings and continuing through the present as a frightening religious conflict threatens to engulf the world.

Chilton begins his persuasive argument in Abraham's Curse - a provocative work of religious scholarship - by offering a powerful analysis of the famous Abraham and Isaac story as it is found in Genesis 22. The story of Abraham's absolute obedience of God's command to sacrifice his innocent son Isaac, as most readers of the story would agree, is one of the most disturbing of all Biblical stories; after all, at least three important issues arise (and remain disturbingly unresolved) in the story. First, readers must confront the question about why God would order Abraham to kill his beloved son (a child who had represented an important covenant between God and his loyal servant Abraham). Second, and perhaps more challenging, readers must deal with the horrifying problem of why Abraham would so willingly and so quickly acquiesce to the bloody sacrifice of a small child. And a third issue arises when we more closely examine the thoroughly unsettling fact that in some interpretations of the ancient story, Abraham actually killed his son.

The Abraham and Isaac story is much more than an idiosyncratic ancient tale of obedience and sacrifice in an early monotheistic society; it is representative of ancient traditions in which sacrifices in the name of religion (even the actual sacrifices of children) were common and accepted practices in societies (which is born out through the author's presentation of anthropological evidence). More significantly, as Chilton carefully explains in his stimulating argument, the Abraham and Isaac story serves as the template for understanding beliefs, teachings, and behaviors that have dominated societies for all of recorded history since the era of Abraham; in fact, by thoroughly understanding what is at stake in the Abraham and Isaac story, we as readers can more correctly understand a wide range of seemingly disparate historical events: the crucifixion of Jesus, the martyrdom of Christians (and other religious adherents), the Crusades of the middle ages, modern world wars, militant Zionism, Islamist suicide (homicide) bombings, the 9/11 attacks upon the United States, and American invasions of Kuwait and Iraq.

Chilton makes the brilliant case that the Abraham and Isaac incident was something much more significant that an ancient, primitive aberration of otherwise sensible human behavior. The incident, in fact, serves as an example of religiously motivated violence that enables readers to more clearly understand that the sacrifice of children (either with Abraham on Mount Moriah in the name of Yahweh or with warriors on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq in the defense of the Christian west against the inscrutable zeal of radical Islam), has been, remains, and will always remain 'a fundamental part of our lives and culture.'

Here is the bottom line: You could read hundreds of books that explain war and violence (especially current events) in terms of politics, economics, geography, and (or) religion, but you will not find a better book than the extraordinarily well-written and thoroughly fascinating Abraham's Curse for giving you a more accurate and compelling perspective on violence (and sacrifice) in our past, present, and future as a frighteningly immutable and inescapable fact-of-life.




12 comments:

  1. This sounds very interesting, Tim. Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful review.

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  2. R.T., a fascinating review. I'm of two minds here. I want to read the book, but I don't want to read a shopping list of violent actions taken by humans down through the ages. There's enough violence in the news today--why voluntarily read about more such incidents.

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    1. Fred, I understand. Of course, asking “why” leads to answers, and answers might lead to understanding and prevention?

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    2. R.T., does asking "why" really lead to answers which might lead to . . . "? Christ, Buddha, and others had the answers about violence, or so I've been told, over 2000 years ago and see how far we've progressed.

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    3. Fred, in my better moods I remain hopeful and nearly optimistic. Most of us are not violent. There’s reason for hope I hope.

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    4. R.T., maybe most aren't, but war is fought by more than just a few violent ones. The most I hope for is to not be violent myself and to avoid those who are.

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    5. Fred, because of my Navy career, I think often now about war and peace. I have little to say now on the matter that is sensible or persuasive. Perhaps someday I will burrow into the (my) dilemma.

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  3. Chilton reads the story as history. Read as myth (in, shall we say, the Jungian sense), it prefigures God’s sacrifice of His Son in the New Testament.

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    1. And story as myth prefiguring persistent cultural flaw?

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  4. I was raised Catholic and was told exactly that: it prefigured the sacrifice of Jesus. It's not only a Jungian reading, but a classic example of seeing OT events as a precursor of Jesus.

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    1. I defer to Frank on matters involving either Catholicism or Jung. Those are beyond my pay grade.

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