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Child sacrifice, more precisely a story about it, has united Muslims and Jews: Muslims celebrated the Eid last week that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son; Jews read about it in the weekly Torah portion Vayerah. The same story - I am told by a Christian friend - has huge significance for Christians. Our Torah reading of last week included five instances involving a parent or a community and some form of sacrifice of a “child” (1), involving two brothers and three sisters.
Abraham had prepared to slaughter his son Isaac as an offering to obey God’s command (2). One way of understanding Abraham’s reaction to this command is that he has an inner struggle with his conscience or doubts (3) as illustrated in two Midrashic stories. In one story, Satan suggests “tomorrow you will be told you are a shedder of blood!” (4); in a second, Satan questions whether the command was from God or actually from Satan himself (5). Despite these thoughts, Abraham persists with his mission and shows great faith, which is celebrated in Judaism. In the end, the notion of human sacrifice is categorically rejected by God, who tells Abraham via an angel that he has proven his loyalty but he “should not send his hand to the child nor should he do anything to him” (6).
Another case of a child being sacrificed is only hinted at in the text and is clearly condemned. God refers to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah “…their sin has become very grave, I will descend now and see whether according to her cry, which has come to Me, they have done” (7). Commentary interprets “her cry” as referring to the cry of a specific girl (8).
“They had announced in Sodom that anyone who gives bread to a poor person or a foreigner will be burned in fire. Plotis, the daughter of Lot…saw a poor person in the city square… Every day as she [Lot’s daughter] went out to draw water from the well she put some food from her house in her pitcher and would feed the poor person. The Sodomites wondered how this poor person remained alive. Until the matter became known and Plotis was taken out to be burned…” (9)
According to Jewish teachings, the cruelty of Sodom was motivated by a deterrence strategy that was aimed at keeping outsiders out and to preserve wealth (10). There are echoes of this approach in asylum seeker policies referred to in Australia as “border protection”. In Sodom, the life of young Plotis was sacrificed in an effort to maintain this xenophobic policy; in our time children in detention continue to pay the price for deterrence strategies.
Plotis’ sisters are offered as the next sacrifice when Lot’s visitors are threatened with Sodomy by an angry mob. In trying to protect his guests, Lot offers his two daughters who “have never known a man” to the mob. (11). Lot’s action is strongly condemned in one Midrash that suggests he should have killed or allowed himself to be killed to protect his daughters (12). An alternative interpretation is that Lot has no intention of allowing his daughters to be violated. Instead he is thought to be sarcastic just as someone might say “my house is open for you, just take anything you want”, knowing that this would not be done (13).
Another sacrifice, not in terms of losing a life, but rather the loss of a parent- child relationship and home, relates to the case of Ishmael. Sarah becomes concerned about Ishmael’s possible adverse influence on her son Isaac (14). One interpretation is that Ishmael captured grasshoppers and offered them as sacrifices to idols (15). Abraham feels very sad about his son Ishmael, but in the end banishes him, giving him some bread and water and sending him off with his mother. There are other opinions that Ishmael was shooting arrows at Isaac with the intent to kill him (16), so the decision to banish Ishmael is as much a case of child protection as child sacrifice. I also draw some comfort from traditions that Abraham goes out to the desert twice over coming years to visit Ishmael, demonstrating that his fatherly love endures (17).
One very moving incident involves Hagar, the banished homeless maidservant wandering in the desert, who sees her son getting very sick and dehydrated; so she puts him down under a tree. “She went and sat herself down the distance of arrow shots because she said (to herself) I will not see the death of the boy, and she sat from afar, and she raised her voice and wept” (18). Her son Ishmael would have been desperate for her comforting presence, yet she feels so broken she cannot bear any more pain.
On Sunday, while I was writing the first draft of this article, I found myself stressed about a task set for me by an academic advisor. As I finally felt I was making some progress, I heard my son crying in another room. I had to tear myself away from what I was doing and try to comfort him. He was frustrated by his efforts learning to ride a bicycle. I took him to a park and, in almost no time, he triumphed with his riding and was thrilled!
I close with prayers for all vulnerable people suffering from fire, poverty, policies against “illegals” and children who depend on the good judgement and care of others.
(1) There are various traditions about the ages of the five “children”, but all are referred to as the child of either Abraham or Lot.
(2) Genesis 22
(3) Leibowitz, Nehama, New Studies in Bereshit Genesis, p.196
(4) Midrash Tanchuma
(5) Midrash Vayosha, Bet Hamidrash Jellineck, Tel Aviv, Ozar Midrashim, Eisenstein, New York 1928, cited in Leibowitz, Nehama, New Studies in Bereshit Genesis, p. 206
(6) Genesis 22:12
(7) Genesis 18:21-22
(8) Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b, quoted in Rashi, Beresheet Rabbah
(9) Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer 25, cited in Torah Shlaima p.776. In this version she is a married woman rather than a young girl as stated in theTalmud. An alternative commentary states that she was raped (Midrash Chefetz, also cited in Torah Shlaima).
(10) Ramban articulates this view powerfully
(11) Genesis 19:4-7
(12) Midrash Tanchuma Vayerah 12, an alternative interpretation actually praised Lot for his dedication to his guests and compares his sacrifice to that of Moses who was prepared to sacrifice himself for Israel (Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer 25, cited in Torah Shlamia p.794)
(13) Drashat Even Shuiv, in the name of Rabbenu Chananel, cited in Torah Shlamia p.794. This interpretation is certainly more comfortable, although a similar case involving the rape of a concubine (Judges Ch. 19-20) suggests that this outlandish bargain could actually be struck.
(14) Genesis 21:9-14
(15) Tosefta Sotah 6
(16) Tosefta Sotah 6, cited in Rashi
(17) Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer cited in Meam Loez
(18) Genesis 21:16