Horrible histories, terrible texts – a sidebar on when scripture seems unholy

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

There are a number of places in the bible where we encounter stories that are difficult, not only because we find them hard to understand, but because we find them morally repugnant. Quite often, the biblical story-teller narrates them without giving the listener any real clue what to think about them. The feminist scholar Phyllis Trible refers to them as Texts of Terror and many of those she focusses on are about women as the victims of male violence.

Some of these stories occur already in the first book of the Bible, so this seems like a good place to comment on them. One of the most famous of this kind of story – but by no means the worst – is at once bafflingly brutal and strangely powerful. It is effectively what we today would call a story of physical child abuse. It crops up in the lectionary on several occasions.

This is the story of Abraham taking Isaac, his only son, to sacrifice him at God’s command. At the last moment, God prevents the human sacrifice, and provides a ram instead. The story, found in Genesis 22, is used in the continuous Sunday lectionary, in Year A (Proper 8)2. It is also one of the key readings at the Easter Vigil in all three years.

Detail of sculpture depicting the sacrifice of Isaac, seen in Jerusalem shopping mall

When we read a difficult story like this, the first thing to remember is that the bible is full of stories which illustrate people’s partial, limited and mistaken understandings of God. Theologically, we speak of God accommodating himself to the limits of our human understanding, and therefore also the cultural limits of what at any period of history we can grasp.

Additionally, the bible’s story-tellers and editors seem content to employ a “warts and all” approach to their characters, even central heroic characters, and don’t tell us what to think about their morals. Just because something is described, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily approved of by the writer.

Many people think it seems fairly likely that various tribes and peoples from this time practiced some form of (at least occasional) human sacrifice. This story emerges, therefore, in a culture where people could conceive of God requiring human life. Its most significant feature then is that it ends not with a human sacrifice, but with the offering of a ram. Historically, it may represent a key moment in the understanding of the God of Israel as a God who does not require human sacrifice. That will instead be rejected by later law and custom as a pagan practice, not to be followed by the people of God.

The story portrays God as both frighteningly demanding, and ultimately gracious. God appears to Abraham at the beginning as the kind of deity we might all secretly fear God is like: cruel and capricious. At the end of the story he is revealed as generous and full of blessing. The story begins with God as a generic name for the deity, and ends with the name YHWH – the name3 by which Israel comes to know God as the one who enters into a gracious covenant relationship with them.

Then there is the character of Abraham: what sort of a man is he, and what must it be like to be torn between God and the son of his old age, who represents all his hopes of God’s promise being fulfilled? Most readers (and listeners) find the story draws them in as much as it repels them.

This is a story that also has a considerable afterlife. Perhaps in part that is precisely because it is horrible. Events in human lives, in all societies, and in global politics can be horrific indeed. At one level, it is therefore important, and perhaps generative of deeper thought, that the horrors of life appear in scripture, even if it appears God is implicated in them.

The deeper story to which Christians believe all scripture points is that of the God who takes the terrors of evil on Godself, and enters the desolation of the God-deserted on the cross. It’s just that some scriptures point to it not be proclaiming the gospel, but showing the dark side of life, and the way people seek to involve God in it, as cause, scapegoat, or vengeful judge. Scripture is not always clear at the point the story is told, whether this is about the understanding or misunderstanding of God. It is only when we look through the lens of the cross and resurrection that we begin to get our true bearings.

I mention some examples here of the echoes of this story of the Abraham and Isaac, to illustrate how enriching a deeper acquaintance with this brutal and baffling tale has been.

It finds echoes in the New Testament, when Paul speaks (using language drawn from this story) of God, “who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Romans 8:32). No longer does God only provide a ram for Abraham, but his own Son for the whole human race.

It also has a considerable afterlife in Jewish thinking, where it is referred to as ‘the binding of Isaac”. The rabbis treat it as if Isaac made a willing sacrifice of himself, in return for which God will grant blessings to his people. And a version of the story also appears in the Quran: there, because Abraham’s son is not named, Islamic tradition frequently treats it as the (also willing) sacrifice of Ishmael.

Sometimes, as I say, the most awful stories are also the most powerful stories, because they resonate with our own most awful experiences. This story, for example, in yet another afterlife, is harnessed by the First World War poet Wilfred Owen, to speak of the horrors and futility of war. He suggests that the morality of the political and military leaders of his day has failed to learn the lessons of the binding of Isaac. Here is the poem.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns;
A Ram! Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.4

  1. Phyllis Trible Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1984
  2. The Sundays of Ordinary time, and the issues of how they are named and numbered are discussed here. A subsequent post will say something about the three years, so let me sum it up in a brief comment here. In ordinary time, the Revised Common Lectionary provides alternative readings for the Old Testament. The catholic lectionary on which it is based has an Old Testament reading related to the gospel story. The ecumenical revision offers an alternative which reads some key stories of the Old Testament through semi-continuously, here in year A, for example, reading excerpts from the story of Abraham Sunday by Sunday.
  3. I will say more about this name in a subsequent post
  4. This poem can be found (often in a slightly different version) in many collections of war poetry. This is from Wilfred Owen: The War Poems ed. Jon Stallworthy, London: Chatto and Windus, 1994. Stallworthy says the poem was probably written in July 1918. Owen was killed in action on 4 November, a week before the Armistice.

2 thoughts on “Horrible histories, terrible texts – a sidebar on when scripture seems unholy

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival #166: November 2019 – Theology Pathfinder

  2. Lovely to hear you are writing again. I have missed your voice. This article is very encouraging as I and my wife have to bind our own firstborn into a long term care facility. It is a complex process and a long tortuous history of this talented boy who got himself into a serious accident 23 years ago.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.