Ten Questions for Bruce Chilton on Abraham’s Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Doubleday, 2008)
What inspired you to write Abraham’s Curse? What sparked your interest?
In the autumn of 1976, I began my first full-time academic appointment at Sheffield University in England. One afternoon, after meetings with students, I struck up a conversation with a colleague who was (and is) an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
We talked about Abraham’s offer to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. Both Judaism and Christianity took that story and changed its ending. According to some graphic accounts, Abraham actually slaughtered the boy on Mount Moriah, just as God commanded him to do, and that is what made him a noble patriarch. Intrigued by these strange variants, my colleague and I wrote articles that explained the literary development of the texts.
But beginning during the late ’90s, my interest became more visceral. I noticed that the praise of sacrifice had long been part of the propaganda of warfare, and that it was making a comeback, especially in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Since then, both personal experience—the murder of a young woman at the door of my church—and the consequences of the “War on Terror” have made me realize that Genesis 22 has never been our own story more than it is right now, and it has been a constant concern since September 11, 2001.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
At base, I want to show both that human societies, especially in the Abrahamic traditions, resort too easily and without reflection to the sacrifice of their young. Human societies in every time have been plagued by resorting to sacrificing children—literally and figuratively—in times of crisis. We in our time are no exception.
Yet the final message of Abraham’s Curse is not pessimistic. In the biblical story, Abraham did not sacrifice his son. He recognized a prohibition that was greater than his desire to prove himself. He sacrificed his ambition on Mount Moriah, the dream of being totally acceptable to God. The line separating divine vision from the human world proved a lifeline, delineating the margin of survival for all of Abraham’s family. That margin of survival, the cushion between total dedication to God and responsibility for the world God has bequeathed humanity, is the hidden wisdom of Genesis 22, the voice of caution nearly silenced by cults of death that have perennially hijacked the three Abrahamic faiths.
Anything you had to leave out?
I have kept a folder of the analysis of many texts that lies behind the book. It is a pretty interesting collection, and useful for teaching. But in this book, as in my other books for Doubleday, I have deliberately spared the reader the technical information that the notes refer to.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
It is easier to see Abraham’s curse in others than in oneself. Christians spot it in Islam, but fail to recognize it in the Crusades. Muslims deny it in the Qur’an, and call attention to how Jewish tradition turned it into a literal sacrifice. Jewish believers often deny any connection with the idea of sacrifice, and so ignore a great deal of the Bible and Judaic tradition.
Some writers have recently blamed religion as a whole, or belief in God, for all forms of violence. They conveniently ignore the deadliest ideologies of all time—from the modern period—that have called for self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of others in the name of atheist values. Abraham’s curse has been with us since the Stone Age, and can only been overcome by self-criticism, not by new versions of the blame game.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
Experience has shown me that many people enjoy reflecting on the significance of religion on the basis of clear evidence. It gives me pleasure to write for them.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
In this case, insight will help us to overcome a cultural reflex that has prompted violence, especially in the West.
What alternate title would you give the book?
I have not found one.
How do you feel about the cover?
I love it. Do you notice how Abraham holds a sword, rather than a knife, over his son? That was a specific departure of Christian art from the biblical text, because Abraham was made into a military hero. Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, glorified sacrifice in the very text that was intended to bring human sacrifice to an end.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
Having shown how a religious text has proven lethal and remains dangerous, I would like to show the productive side of the prophetic tradition.
What’s your next book?
What I just described, provisionally entitled Jesus: To Restore and Renew the World.