The Bible Says What? ‘Don’t sacrifice first-born, even if it’s popular’

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The Bible Says What? ‘Don’t sacrifice first-born, even if it’s popular’

Rabbi Pete Tobias takes a controversial topic from the Torah and looks at a Liberal Jewish response

Rabbi Pete Tobias
Rabbi Pete Tobias
Rabbi Pete Tobias

Probably the most well-known story in our Torah – and indeed the
selected reading for Rosh Hashanah – is that of the binding of Isaac. 

It truly baffles. Why would God demand such a sacrifice from Abraham? Why would Abraham obey without raising a protest?  

At what point did Isaac say to his father on the three-day journey home: ‘So when were you planning to tell me what that was all about, dad?’ 

But for me, a different approach to the story provides a clearer understanding of its purpose. 

It is clear from archaeological and extra-biblical evidence that the sacrifice of first-born children was a well-established feature of Canaanite society, but we also know that the Israelites were quite keen to follow this Canaanite practice. 

Sacrificing one’s first-born is prohibited in the book of Leviticus (20:1-5) and Jeremiah also makes a reference to it (32:35). 

The question for the sages and teachers of our ancient ancestors was how to dissuade them from this abominable practice. 

So, they came up with the idea of telling them a story about it. They cleverly chose the patriarch Abraham as the ‘hero’ of the story. The early Israelite audience would, enjoying the skilfully woven narrative that took them on the journey with Abraham and Isaac to the top of the mountain, right up until the point where Abraham was about to sacrifice his son. 

But Isaac was saved, Abraham sacrificed a ram in his place and they all lived happily ever after. 

Rather than being an enigmatic story open to a whole range of unsatisfactory interpretations, what we have is an early example of
a biblical parable, with a clear message for its audience – don’t kill your children! 

  •  Rabbi Pete Tobias serves The Liberal Synagogue Elstree 
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