Eid, Pride and Abraham’s Sacrifice

The first thing that I tend to notice is that there seems to be more sweet things in the shops in Great Western Road than usual.

And then on the day itself it is obvious that there’s more people going about their business all dressed up for an occasion. Some of them are carrying food. A swish of coloured fabric or a brilliantly white robe. And then I see people going visiting family in the local tenements. It is obvious that there’s a celebration going on.

This week the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha was going on. The Islamic calendar doesn’t keep time with the Gregorian Calendar that most of us use most of the time to organise our time.

The Feast arrives about 11 days earlier each year. And living here, I can always tell when the feasting is about to break out. You can feel it in the street.

Now it will be a very long time before we get this happening again, but the feast that is being celebrated by our Muslim friends is directly related to the worship of much of the Christian church today. Because the feast that was celebrated this week is based on one of the stories that comes up in the Lectionary today. And it will be another 33 years or so until these two things happen in the same week.

So, I’m paying attention to Abraham this morning. And to his son. In our tradition we remember him taking Isaac in response to believing that he heard a call to sacrifice his son.

The tradition in the Qur’an doesn’t mention the name of the son and Muslims generally presume the son to be Ishmael – the son of Abraham and Hagar the maidservant, whose birth we heard of just a few weeks ago.

But it is in essence the same story.

Abraham hears a call from God to sacrifice his son and sets off to do just that. And then just in time, God intervenes and calls off the sacrifice.

The straight-forward interpretation of the story that is found in Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions is that Abraham’s willingness to perform the sacrifice was enough. The son’s blood didn’t need to be spilt after all. Abraham’s willing submission to the will of God was enough.

Various retellings of the story have different details – particularly in the acquiescence or not of the son in the sacrifice scheme.

But none of those three traditions has been entirely content to leave this text to speak for itself. This is a story that has been argued and puzzled over for centuries. Indeed, perhaps that is its major purpose.

I knew a priest some years ago who had a painting of Abraham and Isaac in his study looking down at him as he prepared every sermon. It was a fine picture. An beautiful picture.

Until you noticed the glint of a knife in the father’s hand.

For me, I’m not convinced that simple and straightforward tellings of this story are enough. It is complex and disturbing and very puzzling indeed.

At first glance, it seems to be a very long way from our experience.

We have no contact with those who sacrifice their children at the whim of a capricious God, do we?

And yet, immediately I start to think of stories I’ve heard as a priest from troubled children about troubled parents.

On several occasions when I’ve been at Pride marches I’ve had people come up to me terribly upset at the violent sentiments that parents have expressed towards them in the name of religion.

“I told my dad last night. He told me to get out the house. He told me I was an abomination before the Lord. He told me he wanted me dead”.

People are prepared to sacrifice all the love in the world on the altar of misguided beliefs about what God wants in this world.

People sometimes think I go to Pride to have fun. Actually I go so that people have someone to tell those stories to. And I go to bear witness to a God who turns out not to want such sacrifices at all.

And therein lies my interpretation of this story.

I’m suspicious of the text and I’m deeply suspicious of the interpretation that the God I know would ever be the instigator of this violent psychodrama.

I’m suspicious of the text because people have tried to sanitise Abraham’s saga ever since it was written and passed on. Although the readings that we get about Abraham on Sundays present someone who is far from straightforward, they miss out stories that are even more problematic.

If we are all children of Abraham, we are all children of someone who twice passed his wife off as his sister and offered her to powerful men to save his own skin, someone who slept with the maid and then disposed of her when it didn’t suit him and someone who begins the very biblical tradition of fathers who have trouble dealing fairly with their sons.

And I am suspicious of the traditional supposedly straightforward interpretation of this story because it just doesn’t make any sense to me.

No God worth believing in wants children to be sacrificed and killed.

So for me, I think this story is worth telling and retelling through the ages as a paradigm for the idea that religion can change and bad practices that can only lead to death, destruction and loss should themselves be sacrificed.

For me this story stands out as marking a moment when the idea of God wanting a child sacrifice was seen for what it was – nonsense and violent nonsense at that.

There has been much change even in my lifetime in how decent religious people behave. This text is a blessing to those who embrace that journey.

Bad religion can be sacrificed.

Bad religion should be sacrificed.

Violence begets violence – it does not beget holiness.

The God whom I believe in loves us and bears us no ill will, wants no violence, demands no pain.

Live on earth is evolving.

Human life is evolving.

The life of the spirit – religious life on earth is also evolving. I’ve seen it change. We’ve been part of it changing.

And I believe that God is with us as we question these texts and worry over them and puzzle our way through them.

This text teaches me that God has only good things in store for us.

And that idea is well worth an annual party, in any street on this earth.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.



  1. As one who grew up(?) in churches leaning toward the view “it’s a tough story for a tough world, how else would God be just?” in varying degrees, I agree the face-value-narrative understanding of the story is repellant.

    One thing stood out for the first time during Sunday’s reading: the plurality in Abraham’s line – “…and we will return to you”. I’ve been idly wondering about that since.
    It doesn’t make the story wholly acceptable as Abraham still ploughs on ever closer.
    But if one’s goal is to find a “by faith, Abraham” in there, better to say it’s the prior confidence that things will somehow work out well (which I thought was how Hebrews was trying to define it), than to locate the commendable quality in violence (which, by rabbiting on about resurrection, Hebrews does).

    In the absence of other clear & wholly mitigating contexts in which to place the story, certainly it’s simplest, easiest and probably best to file it under “that’s how they saw God back then” and move swiftly on.


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