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The Sacrifice of Abraham

Undset compares this biblical episode with paganism contemporary with and after Abraham. She derides the already fashionable idea of abolishing the patriarchy in favour of a kindler, gentler matriarchy.

It must have been my father who explained it to me, since as long as I have known the story of the sacrifice of Abraham, I believed the same about what it meant. (At home, I read with my grandparents until I went to school in the third class and I had already learned some of the stories of the Old Testament before then.)

All the peoples who lived near Abraham offered human sacrifice to the gods. They sacrificed slaves on the altars, they sacrificed people on top of mountains, they buried people under the corners of houses when they built a new dwelling. To secure victory in war or to lengthen their own lifespans, people sacrificed their own children. In this vein, Snorre relates how from the old days here in the north, King Aun in the Ynglinge Saga exposed nine of his sons and each time was given an extra ten years of life. Håkon Ladejarl exposed his son for victory in Hjørungavåg. For the pagans, these gods were always members of large families of gods. There were dynasties of gods behind the gods, there were stories of gods who mutilated and murdered their fathers to take their power and there were brothers of gods who loved or hated each other. The gods had wives and were often married their sisters – goddesses were abducted and brought back with them. To these gods, people could at best be nothing more than one interest among many.

Jahveh was different. He was alone “from the beginning”, he had created everything that is, simply by willing them into existence. In the other creation stories, there was material of some kind at hand from which the gods began to create. Jahveh watched over his world and over the people because that he intended to save them and lead them back to himself when they turned on him and laid hold of the one thing in the whole world that he had not already given them. He chose out Abraham to make him a father of nations, which God himself would raise and from which his Saviour would be born.

But the task to be given to Abraham and his clans could not require a lesser willingness to sacrifice and a lesser fidelity that the idols required of their worshippers. Therefore, God demanded of Abraham that he would offer his son, miraculously given to him in his old age: the boy upon whom Abraham placed all his hope for eternal life, for at that time, his people believed that each person only lived a shadowy life after death but through the clan a man came to live a complete and mighty afterlife. Abraham had faith and a sense of sacrifice. When the boy asked where was the sacrifice, his father replied that God would provide. Perhaps he thought that when it came to the crunch, God might swap Isaac with an animal. (From Utheim’s Stories of Ancient History, I knew the legend of Ifigenia whom Artemis exchanged for a deer when the girl had already been placed on the altar.) Or did he simply bow down in absolute trust that when God wishes something, it must be right to do it?

Then it happens that the angel prevented Abraham, who had his sword already drawn: “Lay not your hand upon the boy or do him any harm. Now I know that you are pleasing to God because you have not spared your only begotten son for my sake”. Abraham then sacrificed the animal that suddenly appeared and the mountain where he sacrificed, he called “The Lord Sees”.

It would seem that this story of the sacrifice of Abraham must have remained in the Jewish consciousness as an unquenchable light. But so deeply was the trust in the magical power of human sacrifice ingrained in their minds that the Jews likewise time and again regressed and “allowed their children to walk through the fire”, worship idols on mountaintops – a usual place for human sacrificial rites. (We have also the story of Jephthah’s daughter; but Jephthah stood somewhat apart from normal Jewish community life. As a son of a prostitute chased out of home by his true-born step-brother, he took to the mountains and lived as a bandits’ chief until in their time of need his compatriots needed a strong man and brought him back as a judge in Israel.) Slowly and through the burning words of the prophets, Israel learns that Jahveh looks not upon the sacrifice but the willingness to sacrifice.

Of course, one can object to the Israelites’ culture as distinctly patriarchal and to the idea that human sacrifice always seems to have been a feature of matriarchal culture. For example, the original Artemis, the bear goddess, would have been typical of a matriarchal society and as far as we know, the Greeks had human sacrifice – besides the sacrifice of war prisoners on a pyre – always tied to the Artemis cult, even if this was modified early on as the Ifigenia legend shows. Whipping boys at the altar of Artemis Orthia is believed to have taken the place of the sacrifice of the boys. At the Athenian feast of Thargelia, actually a feast for Artemis and Apollo, for a long time two sacrifices of singularly hideous men were made after they were chased around the altar and whipped on their genitals with twigs of a fig tree before being stoned and burned. It was a particular feature in the matriarchal culture of the indigenous Indian society to have women not infrequently as chiefs in North America. But both the primitive hunting tribes in the north and the highly developed Indian states of Central and South America made human sacrifices, sometimes with ritual cannibalism. In fact, Aztecs and Mayans sacrificed people on a scale unparalleled anywhere else. On the other hand, there are few or no traces of human sacrifice where the culture was most characteristically patriarchal. It is possible that the Romans in antiquity sacrificed people during the Saturnalia feasts, but it is far from certain. And in China and Japan, human sacrifice seems never to have been in use. (This is not to say that infanticide and exposure of infants was not practiced for other reasons.)

The first Icelanders who became Christian obviously understood well enough what the God they had accepted thought about human sacrifice. At the Allting in 1000, when it was discussed whether Christianity would become statutory in Iceland, the chiefs who held fast to the old gods promised to sacrifice two men from each quarter of the country. Gissur Teitsson (the White) and Hjalte Skeggeson stood up to suggest that the Christians also offer Christ two men from each quarter. Without further ado, he volunteered himself and Hjalte for the Southland. In the end, the proposal was approved by every quarter. From the West Fjords the young Orm Kodrånson came to ask if they could use him; he wasn’t a Christian yet, but he still wanted to be baptised.

Ever since the first ages of Christianity, the Old Testament was considered inspired history, precisely because it was something other than a boring report of events; no inspiration was needed to write that. It was a history of ideas, open to symbolic interpretation, and the story of things to come which cast out shadows; the history of salvation. The interpretation of symbols and the search for types and parallels sometimes went beyond all borders, not least in the Greek and Syrian regions. As usual, Rome was much more sober. And precisely Abraham, who was willing to offer his only begotten son became a type of God the Father: who sacrifices his only begotten son, one with the Father; just as the word, the thoughts which our inner selves inexorably generate are one with the thinker. As Thomas Aquinas says, this is the meaning of the statement in Scripture about which we are created in God’s image; all talk of God’s eyes or hands or fingers is merely analogical speech that we use because, in our imperfect way, we see and create and deal with physical organs and limbs; even gender in the divinity is only grammatical.

Towards the era of the Reformation, a new view of historical writing arose with the growing interest in the way Greek and Roman history was written. Events are described as realistically as possible; not because they did not try to understand how fate and strength of character decide human events. At the same time, this new way effected a multiplication of books upon books available for wider sections of the people and pamphlets and leaflets became equally as good propaganda tools as oral communication in sermons and speeches had been. It was therefore natural that the Protestant sects which now cropped would understand the Bible as the only valid source of faith, without any consideration that the Church was a good deal older than the Bible, or that in course of some centuries – from the second to the fourth – from the masses of gospels and apostles’ epistles and other letters of the ancient Church’s great personalities, acts of apostles and apocalypses, after many and long discussions the Church appointed the writings contained in the New Testament. Luther himself was attentive to this situation but soon enough his successors developed his fundamentalism. It was English sects that went to North America and established their colonies along the Atlantic coast that most widely cultivated the printed word of God. The promises they made meant for their communities that nothing would be allowed were there no authority for it found in the Old or New Testaments. In some places they even appointed “selectmen” who would strictly see to it that the people would not sin against the sabbath (for example) by allowing children to play at home or by going outside on the roads other than for going to or from the meeting house; or that they not commit other sins – especially sins involving a waste of time and money.

However, I must say that I had a true religious education at school – Ragna Nielsen’s school with religion teacher Pastor Herman Lunde – but I cannot remember that I ever heard or even come across the idea that the numbers given in the biblical version of the story of the deluge, the number of days that it rained, Noah’s time on the water or the water level when the flood was at its highest had to be believed in the same way as we believed in the geography we learned of the surface area of a country or the distance in kilometres between Kristiania and Trondheim. The memory of a natural catastrophe which had once long ago destroyed whole cities and towns on the floodplain between the mountains of Asia Minor and the Persion Gulf lives on in the Babylonian and Greek legends in which a flood comes as a punishment from the gods. For the Babylonians, it was for the wickedness of the people; but the righteous Utnapishtim and his household were saved by Bel. For the Greeks, it is the wrath of the gods directed to Prometheus and the people he created, but just in time, Prometheus receives a warning from his son Deukalion and manages to save himself and his wife Pyrrha. The conviction that humans will always be their own undoing and that they will forget as quickly each time God shows them mercy is most clearly emphasised in the Jewish story of the deluge. It runs as a constant thread through the Old Testament. I must confess that I cannot discover anything in the history of the world, from the times of legends until now, that is apt to disprove this conviction.

The Pentateuch’s stories of the world’s origin are anything but naive. Of course, we do not know to what extent they draw on the primordial era’s own narratives. The books of the Pentateuch, in the form that we know them, are certainly not from any primeval age, whenever they may have been written: the ninth century BC, a little earlier or later. I will not entirely go as far as my mother, who once claimed that the story of the deluge is the only entirely truthful portrayal of humanity in the literature of the world. Think on Adam’s famous line: “The woman you gave me seduced me...” Regarding the serpent in Paradise, which has caused Swedish and Norwegian academics great angst, I agree with the Catholic priest who gave children here in Lillehammer religious education. One of the little ones asked: “Do you know how the snake got around before God got hot under the collar at him? Did he crawl around on his guts or did he have stumpy legs?” The priest spoke to him gravely: “For that you’ll have to ask Professor Hallesby”.

That there was a rebellion of the angels before mankind is integral not only Christian faith but to most higher religions; different peoples have tried to visualise with different images the intervention of these spirits in the life of man. From time immemorial, the serpent has captured the imagination of mankind and has become a symbol of spiritual might, good or evil, attributed to gods of physicians and protecting gods – snakes have been held to guard castles or temples among many peoples. The Jews saw snakes as the incarnation of evil.

Rightly enough, I cannot remember anyone ever wanting me to believe one thing or another about what I learned in religion classes. My parents never spoke about it and for them it was really the poetic value of the Bible that had any meaning. Pastor Lunde assumed we believed what he believed; to some extent it was a nice faith, as he was himself a nice man. But I remember religion classes at school as the least boring. I have not seen Volrath Vogt’s Bible history since I left school, but I have the impression that he must have managed to retell the old stories by saving at least some of the Jewish scriptures’ dramatic tension, deep sense of humanity and religious genius. Apart from this one, we instinctively felt that the textbooks and children’s books were so moralising that they hardly dealt with real life. I sensed that Bible history was about real, living people. There was no secret that although King David was a hero and a poet, he was able commit vile actst that the virginal Samson was far less wise than he was courageous; that prophets could sulk and seethe with self-pity. I had been taken in by the Icelandic sagas and the stories of Esther and of the Maccabees for the first time brought me to discern the difference between the warrior who seeks his own power and glory, and the will to fight among men and women who stand up for their people and their faith in patriotism. Certainly, there was much in the Old Testament that went unnoticed. You have to be an adult before you can grasp something of the world of Job or of the play between light and shadow, idyll and tragedy in David’s sagas’; or to consider how the finesse of what is and what is not said comes into play in so many of these old Jewish writings. But when one reads books that employ biblical themes – biographies, novels or psychological interpretations of everything that in the originals are implied with subtlety or force – then the eyes are opened to see just how splendidly many of the biblical authors were able to narrate.

It would not in itself be improper for children to get to learn a little about what other old religions; for example, about the difference between folk religion with its layers of imagination, inexorably overlaid with new interpretations, vague or distinct, during the clans’ and the nation’s wanderings, clashes in battle, peace with other tribes and the ancient religions, which despite all transformations and vicissitudes, always kept some memory of the powerful personage upon whose thoughts it built. But how could textbooks give even a roughly, adequate image of what these religions truly were? Historians’ opinions on foreign religions have ever been changeable as new material comes to shed light on old misunderstandings and are constantly being updated. At any rate, one could avoid the pretences enthusiasts put forward under the guise of presenting one religion or another – for example, the notion that women are by nature less belligerent and less cruel than men has enticed quite a few men and women alike to dream of matriarchal societies governed by sweet mums. The little one actually knows about them points to something else. Or the natural admiration for Greek cultural life has brought authors to speak of the world of the Greek gods – with the bloody and brutal myths and the underworld’s powerless and joyless shadowy realm – as a religion that offers a joie de vivre. The Iliad and the Odyssey were also among the books I read while my father was alive and I read them voraciously as I was almost only ever allowed to read grown up books; my mother mercilessly banned children’s books and she would snatch out of my hands and deride anything sentimental, silly or vulgar. With gratitude I happily took up Homer. Sometimes reading it made me sleepy; other times, as when I read the scene where Achilles’ horse tearfully prophesises his death, I was filled with a kind of rapture at the scene, the beauty of which I only half-understood. But when I came to the account of Hector’s death, it was as if my heart stood still with terror as I read and read: Hector, chased about the Trojans’ wall; Athena who plays the part of her brother Deiphobos; the two brothers who together fall upon Achilles, who he presses forward (as Hector thinks). Suddenly Deiphobos has disappeared, Hector realizes that he has been betrayed by the goddess who hates his people. He turns to his mortal enemy to fight such a final battle that will be forever remembered by future generations.

I have never forgotten how I felt when I read the twenty second book of the Iliad for the first time. However, I cannot remember seeing this tactic – Athena betraying Hector in the form of Deiphobos – in any popular portrayals of Athena’s character or of the Greek legends of the gods and the heroes. Neither is it particularly easy to give an impartial portrayal of the subjects of religious history.


Sigrid Undset, “Omking Abrahams Offer” in Sigrid Undset: Essays og Artikler [Liv Bliksrud, ed.], Vol. IV, pp. 725-733. Translation: Brendan Arthur.

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