On Sacrifice, the Abraham Accords and Trump Rallies

Deuteronomy 24:16 reads:

טז  לֹא-יוּמְתוּ אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וּבָנִים לֹא-יוּמְתוּ עַל-אָבוֹת:  אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ, יוּמָתוּ.  {ס}16 The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin. 

Children shall not be put to death for fathers, and, therefore, by fathers. Yet in Genesis 22, God called Abraham, who replied, “Here I am.” Then God ordered Abraham to:


ב   קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה, עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ.
2 “Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering (my italics) upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’

Isaac is not just a son; he is a son much loved by his father. Why did God give Abraham such an order? The text is clear; to test him. But for what? When Abraham picks up the knife to slay his son, an angel of the Lord, not God Himself, called out to him: “Abraham, Abraham.” This time the father’s name is repeated twice, possibly to make sure the angel got Abraham’s attention. Why did God not retract His order Himself? Why did He use an agent? Abraham gave exactly the same reply as he did when he was called the first time. “Here I am.” I am here to do whatever I am asked. Here I am.

יב  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וְאַל-תַּעַשׂ לוֹ, מְאוּמָה:  כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ, מִמֶּנִּי.12 And he [the angel] said: ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.’

Presumably, this was the test. Abraham proved that his devotion was so great that he would not withhold even his son as an offering to God. But is this the correct or the best interpretation of the Akeidah story? One justification for God’s action is that child sacrifice is clearly of a different order than sacrificing a ram. God, through His agent, in calling it off, and, in so doing, is, in reality, condemning child sacrifice. After all, Leviticus 18:21 reads: “You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.” However, it says do not sacrifice your child to Molech – other passages say to Baal. They do not command that your child not be sacrificed to God. In fact, God repeatedly insists that the first of your children belongs to God.

Deuteronomy, as put forth in the opening paragraph, seems somewhat different. There, as in Deuteronomy 18:10, sacrificing your own child for any reason seems to be condemned. “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer.” In fact, the wrath of God would be delivered upon Israel if a father offered his son as a sacrifice. “Then he took his oldest son, who was to reign in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel, and they departed from him and returned to their own land.” (2 Kings 3:27) Sacrificing your son was an abomination of other nations. Sacrificing your son to God was an abominable act. (Deuteronomy 12:31) When you cause your child to pass through the fire, you defile yourself. (Ezekiel 20:31)

Yet in Christianity, God purportedly sacrifices His only son to save mankind. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Is not what is good enough for God, good enough for humans? Should not humans be willing to sacrifice their children for a higher purpose?

There is another interpretation of the Akeidah story. In Genesis, child sacrifice is not forbidden. Ritual sacrifice of children was part of early Judaism. Abraham got off the hook because he showed such great fidelity to God. But others possibly did not. It was only in mature Judaism that child sacrifice was banned only to be inverted in Christianity and ascribed as the highest expression of God’s faith in humanity when God sacrificed His son. Further, in some interpretations, God Himself is identified as Molech.

Let me offer a final interpretation – though there are others. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was a contrast with what he actually did to Ishmael, his oldest son, the child of Hagar, when Sarah demanded that both Hagar and Ishmael be expelled. Then Abraham resisted at first until God sided with Sarah, but then once again gave a reprieve by offering water when Hagar and Ishmael were on the verge of dying of thirst in the wilderness.

I do not want to enter a debate about these or other interpretations that focus on the morality of sacrifice. Instead, I want to concentrate on the phenomenology of sacrifice first by examining the various ways sacrifice is applied to the Israel–United Arab Emirates normalization agreement and the Israel-Bahrain normalization agreement. Formally, they are known as the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement: Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization Between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel and, with respect to Bahrain, the Abraham Accords: Declaration of Peace, Cooperation, and Constructive Diplomatic and Friendly Relations.  

What has been most noted about both agreements, even more than the contents about ending boycotts, formal recognition of Israel, establishing normal diplomatic relations and working together on technological, financial, agricultural, health and trade relations, is the sacrifice of the Palestinians. They were not party to either agreement. Though lip service was paid to a just and comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, it was literally lip service. Even in the UAE-Israel Agreement, there was no mention of a suspension of annexation and for how many years.

Palestinians denounced the agreements even though the prospect of annexation was suspended for an estimated four years. Israel was rewarded, according to Palestinian critics, for expelling Palestinians from their land, destroying their lives and livelihoods and denying them the possibility of self-determination. Further, the two states together held fewer Arabs than those in the Gaza Strip. However, instead of the “Day of Rage” that Abbas called for in the West Bank, it became a day of weeping and an oppressive widespread feeling that once again the Palestinians had been thrown under the bus to serve the transactional and security interests of others.

However, this account bears no comparison to the Akeidah story. God did not order the sacrifice of the Palestinians. The sacrifice was definitely not for God – unless Trump=God. The offering was the Palestinians and they were definitely not the sons of Israel. Further, no scapegoat was introduced; Palestinians were shoved aside at the very least, though the peacemakers argued that they were not sacrificed.  In fact, many argued, they were given a real chance for self-determination in a meaningful geographical region because annexation had been postponed.

However, if annexation was not a real possibility, then it was not really surrendered and was not even made part of either agreement. More importantly, the Palestinians were not willing sacrificial lambs. This is a significant contrast with Isaac and more akin to what happened to Ishmael. For some, the name “Abraham Accords” was used to create an illusion of an Arab-Jewish alliance, but one without any depth and only a matter of mutual convenience. The real comparison is to the story of Hagar and Ishmael.

However, could the Palestinians not be accused of willingly offering themselves as sacrificial lambs in their past refusal to re-enter peace negotiations, their unwillingness to thank the UAE for getting annexation suspended, and their fabulist hopes that the EU and/or the Third World would still salvage their position? They might be the ones sacrificed, but it was not the UAE or Bahrain who agreed to make the sacrifice. The Palestinians were pierced on their own petard. Thus, the fundamental essence of sacrifice – that it is an offering of oneself – makes it a suitable case.

I suggest that the key common elements of the Akeidah story are the following:

  • Isaac is a willing victim, seemingly indifferent to what is to happen to him
  • Abraham is a willing sacrificer, in fact, a robotic tool of God
  • A third party commands the action
  • A fourth party is left to rescind the demand, but that does not redeem Isaac
  • Isaac never sighs with relief let alone breaks out in laughter as his name would imply.

Lest this phenomenological approach to the Akeidah story appear to be way out in left field, let me offer the conclusion of an interpretation of a third case of sacrifice, one depicted by Ivan Strenski, Distinguished Professor (Emeritus), Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Riverside.

Understood as civic sacrifice, I argue that the most coherent interpretation of Henderson, NV Trump rally as sacrifice is that the assembled devotees of the president were willingly sacrificing their own health and physical welfare for the benefit of enhancing the status of the president. I reach this conclusion on the basis of the facts that

  1. The assembled voluntarily ‘gave up’ the goods of their own future health prospects for the benefit of the president’s political purposes.
  2. In this sense, the assembly, not the president, was agent of sacrifice – the sacrifier. The crowd was a self-destructive victim of its own attitudes and inclinations.
  3. The assembled had not, therefore, been victimized by an external agency, but rather they themselves were willing sacrifices of their own health and welfare, made in the belief that the object of their devotion, their sacrifice – the president – would benefit thereby.

Does this also explain why Trump organizes these rallies? He deeply and truly loves his followers, even though he does not care about them or for them. For he loves them as followers. Further, the rallies are both tests and expressions of blind and passive belief.

Note the following additional points:

  • This is a case of extreme sacrifice because the Trumpers are voluntarily offering themselves as possible victims of a vicious virus in ignoring wearing masks and distancing;
  • It is possible to offer oneself and to be offered as a sacrifice by Trump (in contrast to Ivan’s view); just because the potential victims offer themselves willingly does not mean that Trump is not a sacrificer;
  • Further, Trump is both the sacrificer and the beneficiary of the willingness to be sacrificed;
  • Sacrifice is also possible without the sacrifice actually taking place – perhaps none of the participants at the Trump rally ended up with COVID-19;
  • Trump offers no redemption himself;
  • If there is relief from the consequences, ironically it comes ‘by grace of God’;
  • Trump is not God, whatever he may think of himself.

The moral of the tale: the lives of children should not be put at risk of death for or by a father, for or by a leader. Children should not willingly put themselves at risk of death for or by a father, for or by a leader. Sacrifice yourself at your own cost and for the benefit of another.

Shana Tova

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