When resources were fewer and farther between, sacrifice was a staple of life. When it didn’t work, we gave more, desperate for assurance that the universe could only be so cruel. Human desperation knows no bounds, and can become an ultimate externality if not addressed. This is why we took sacrifice to the furthest extreme imaginable.
Child sacrifice compartmentalized heavy despair to mitigate the fear of total despair. “Sacrifice this precious something, and you’ll never have to contemplate having nothing.” The practice assured families that giving one child would save the rest and preserve the prospect of more. It reminded societies that chaos was only ever a mistake away, and that the fear of total despair is worse than despair itself.
As humans came to better weather their circumstances, times became a bit more predictable. The necessity of sacrifice was still taken for granted, but for more and more people, the pain of killing one’s child wasn’t worth any imagined gains. For the system to change, people with power would have to tell a powerful story.
The drama’s twist would alter the future of the sacrificial altar, and through one of its variants, the story’s crux remains famous:
- The ultimate divine authority reverses a human sacrifice command
- He provides an animal for slaughter in place of the human
- He rewards the main character’s devotion with blessings
It’s pretty tempting to cast off this legend as a relic of the past. The prominence of human rights over of human obligations has created certain benefits that theistic systems failed to achieve, and often actively opposed. An additional perk is being able to consider child sacrifice not just abhorrent, but downright otherworldly. Crediting the Binding of Isaac for promoting social progress may seem generous. After all, someone is rewarded for trying to commit what we call murder.
On the other hand, an archetypal nightmare may be better suited to drive points home than a sweet dream or the logic of the times. The logic behind caring about strangers is only obvious when it’s profitable or convenient – exactly when morality doesn’t matter. What logic does for individual instances, it cannot sustain for a value system. All good deeds can be done without reinforcement, but that doesn’t mean that they will be done.
The modern shock effect from the Akedah comes from its seeming indifference to human rights. Certainly at the beginning of the story, when everyone seems to agree that human sacrifice is normal. And perhaps even at the end, when ‘don’t slaughter your child’ takes a backseat to ‘thanks for doing anything I say.’
But our shock is due to reading the story anachronistically. For most of human history, we were flesh to be used and abused save for our ability to defend ourselves. Human rights are new, and gained prominence in part because of stories that ascribe intrinsic value to human beings. Sadly, we know how prone to collapse human rights are, given how often they are violated.
By intertwining blind faith with an indispensable rule, the Akedah cemented its relevance for thousands of years to come. But even those of us who detest blind faith shouldn’t be so quick to ignore the past’s imagination. Human nature is more timeless than our stories, but our stories are more timeless than our circumstances. Only across hundreds of years and thousands of miles can we try to measure their risks and rewards, and even then, we remain morally bound.