I was involved in a conversation with two people who read my book, Men Djinn & Angels, and the question arose regarding my personal belief in the Abraham child sacrifice. In my book, I seemed to lean to the idea that Ishmael was the child of sacrifice and not Isaac. It may be difficult for many of us in the western hemisphere to accept, but the majority of the world leans the same way. I don’t claim to know the answers, but there seems to be more weight on the Ishmael point of view than the latter. Here are some reasons that I shared with them.
One of the first things I consider is that the accounts described in the Biblical text are not all in chronological order. Let’s just say for the sake of continuity, Genesis chapter 21 describes a moment when Isaac was born and later weened. There was a big party for the successful weening and then Sarah, the mother, becomes concerned that Abraham’s first born, Ishmael, the rightful heir to Abraham’s wealth would be given what he deserved. In fact, as it is described in the Biblical text, Sarah was so selfish that she wanted it all for her son. She was not at all so inclined to suggest a 90% to 10% split between the two. She wanted everything for her son, so she demanded that Abraham discard his child. In Chapter 22, we have the sacrifice where the script claims that Abraham, through divine command, was told to offer his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. The continuity is obviously flawed. There was no point ever where Isaac was the only son. Considering this, I become suspicious of text tampering.
Another suspicion I have comes from the nature and concept of sacrifice. For one to make a sacrifice in Biblical times, one had to part with the thing that he loved or needed the most. An example is when sacrifices were made, the owner needed to sacrifice his best goat or lamb – the one with no flaws. In this sense, the eldest son, in those times, was held in very high regard and would have been a more acceptable sacrifice that kept in line with tradition. Not to say that it would not be heart wrenching for a parent to sacrifice any of his children, but in the character of sacrifice, it would have been more of a show of faith for Abraham to sacrifice his first born before a second was born. If we assumed the order of events as listed in Geneses is correct, I believe that Abraham would have seen the sacrifice of Isaac a punishment rather than a service – a punishment for sending his young son and the mother into the wild with little food and water. Especially for the selfishness and inhumane reasons for the dismissal. It does not seem divine that a person, Sarah in this case, would be rewarded with a son who deserved the blessings of Abraham’s faith and wealth when she exemplified the vices that the religion should discourage. When I think about it, I ask myself, what virtues are we to learn from Sarah’s actions? Additionally, when it comes to virtue, the Biblical account paints a picture of Abraham in a less than virtuous light when he is not honest with his son. When “Isaac” ask his father regarding the lamb for the sacrifice, Abraham did not say that the sacrifice is you, my son. Instead, he says that the lamb would be provided. Some would say that he spoke out of faith and thus deserved the title Father of faith, whereas others may see this as a second character flaw, the first being to leave his firstborn child, fatherless.
When it comes to research, we are taught to question the authority of the sources that we use to make our conclusions. In this, it is difficult to say that there is a credible source of Abraham’s existence, or his other sons. That being said, when I look at the sources, I know that the sources claiming Isaac was the sacrificial son comes from the Jewish ideology. It was allegedly written by Moses at a time when he needed to unify the different sects of Israeli faithful. Keep in mind that Jacob (Israel) had over 70 children, only 12 of those and their families left the desert life to live in Egypt where they were subsequently taken into bondage. The other 50 plus families remained outside of Egypt making two separate groups with various ideologies and cultures. Being that Moses is the one credited with writing the Book of Genesis, he had only one commonality between the free Israelis and those who came from Egypt. That was the common belief in Abraham. It is likely, that Moses or whoever wrote the Book of Genesis altered some details to create unity between the two sections. Again, being that our most common source of information comes from just one of the lines from those many families, it seems opportune to have Isaac, not Ishmael be the sacrificial son. For me, the source of information lacks credibility. Whereas in the Arab world, even before Islam, the influence of Ishmael and Abraham’s relationship is paramount.
In the Arab world, there is the Kaaba, a cube like structure that was and is believed to have been originally structured by Abraham and Ishmael. It has always played a vital roll in Arab tradition. Before Islam, it was a place believed to hold such spiritual importance that the Arab tribes felt it important to have their idols housed there. It was believed by them that if they left their idols in the Kaaba, their gods would send blessings on them. As a result, the Quraysh tribe who maintained the Kaaba charged the other tribes rent fees. After Muslims were victorious over the polytheist tribes, the Kaaba was cleansed and placed as a cornerstone in the religious practices. In this, I see that while the Arabs had veered away from Abraham’s theology, they retained the value of his relationship with Ishmael, even until this day where Abraham’s sacrifice is commemorated with a holiday celebration where the first-born sons are celebrated. Additionally, as Abraham is depicted in the Islamic traditions, the sacrifice has more purity than the Biblical depiction. In the Islamic tradition, Abraham is depicted as an honest man who is open and transparent with his son who is trusting and equally faithful. The reward of a lamb in his place seems more inline with the values the lesson should teach. In this, Ishmael and Abraham are rewarded for their good and faithful deeds, not for the selfishness, and hidden agendas depicted in the Biblical tradition.