We take comfort in stories that are now thousands of years old without caring to think about them or reflect on their meaning. The celebration of Abraham/Ibrahim deciding to sacrifice a ram instead of his son Isaac is a classic example.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
For many, I'm sure, celebrating this story is nothing more than the opportunity to eat lots of meat. But what exactly is the real meaning? Is it that animals are always secondary to humans (hence the substitution at the heart of the story)? In which case, it is simply a renactment of the ancient theological hierarchy: animals next to humans, humans next to God - a prejudice without any ground apart from pages in a book. If so, then sacrificing an animal is not the ultimate sacrifice. Why then would God require a lesser act?
Some say that human sacrifice was at the time rife among semitic people (the antecedents of modern day muslims and jews); others argue that the sacrifice required was only ever symbolic - the murder of human or non-human animal was never in question. Whatever interpretation we take, why is it that we cling to ancient stories and assume they have relevance for our lives now? Should time confer significance of necessity and if so, why? If we read in the paper today that a man tried to kill his son because he thought God told him to, we would think him insane (schizophrenic), and agree that he should be sectioned, drugged or prosecuted. Why then would we think differently about a man doing the same three thousand years ago? Should our lives be governed by the idea that blind obeisance is the highest value (to be forever encoded within religious rites)?
Should we accept that our lives have to symbolically repeat (each year) the drama of sacrifice, re-installing an originary violence at the core of our interpretation of life? While we hang on to stories like these (stories of the barbarians from an unrecognisably immemorial past), we cannot say that we have ever been modern..