Models of martyrdom

The three Abrahamic religions all have versions of self-sacrifice based on the binding of Isaac.

isaac abraham 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
isaac abraham 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Abraham's Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam By Bruce Chilton Doubleday 272 pages; $24.95 Out of the religious resources of three distinct traditions Bruce Chilton forms a single theological system, a theology that makes the same normative statement for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That single truth claim is sustained out of the revealed resources of the three traditions respectively. Bearing the subscript "The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," Abraham's Curse turns narrative historical study into constructive theology, random facts of times past into a system of eternal truth. Specifically, Chilton traces the doctrine of martyrdom in the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and transforms historical facts into probative theological propositions for the three monotheisms severally and jointly. It is not every day that a historian of Christianity undertakes a theological task - and not only for Christianity but for Judaism and Islam as well. Chilton takes as his narrative the accounts of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Abraham is commanded by God to take his son Isaac to Moriah and to offer him as a sacrifice, and Abraham obediently makes the journey, stopping only when a new instruction substitutes a ram for the boy. But Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son and Isaac was ready to be sacrificed. The issue embodied in the narrative is martyrdom, dying for God. Isaac, or for Islam his half-brother Ishmael, represents one prepared to give his life for God, and Christianity follows suit in seeing Jesus as the realization of the sacrifice. He says, "By examining the Aqedah and how it has been developed and deployed within the Abrahamic religions... I hope to lay bare the sacrificial roots of violence and the driving force behind martyrdom." The shank of the book then unfolds in three parts, dealing with Judaism, then Christianity and finally Islam. The parts are historical and scholarly narratives, but as is clear if Chilton does not shape the facts, he also does not propose to surrender to them without standing in judgment on them. Martyrdom is a Jewish invention, deriving from the time of the Maccabees, who "made Abraham's offering a model for all Israelites, presenting a form of child sacrifice as the ideal of faithful devotion." That model proved influential in the time of the Crusades, from 1095, when Jewish families committed suicide rather than give way to the Crusaders' demand that they convert to Christianity. Chilton's account of the Maccabees relies on first-class historical scholarship. But the point he makes transcends the past and speaks to the future: "God's approval for the martyr's death would be signaled supernaturally by physical resurrection." "The blood of the lamb" formed Christianity's reading of the same narrative, now the self-sacrifice of Jesus in the model of Isaac for the salvation of humanity: "Every time they eat the sacrificial meal he taught them, they bring his remembrance before God, even as they prepare themselves to follow his example." The epistle to the Hebrews moreover portrayed Jesus' sacrifice as unlike any other, whether of an animal or a human martyr: "Jesus was God's son, his death a divine offering from God to God and the only perfect sacrifice." This made becoming a martyr central to Christianity - "martyrdom was the very substance of the faith." The first three centuries of the Common Era witnessed the Christians' realization of their faith in martyrdom as self-sacrifice in the flesh. Chilton reviews the literature of martyrdom and the theology that emerged from it. The Islamic Akeda "is a living tradition that pushes past the limitations of any single text to convey a burning vision that glorifies the martyr's sacrifice." "Ibrahim consulted his son. The choice of Ibrahim was sacrifice. That of Ismail was self-sacrifice, martyrdom." "The readiness to submit not to one's own ambition... but to the imperatives of Allah lies at the heart of Islam," and that is the picture that emerges from the Koran's reading of Genesis 22. But Chilton treats the three religions together: "Each Abrahamic religion can arm itself... with the conviction that its innocent victim, Isaac or Christ or Ismail, models God's desire for how his people should sacrifice themselves for him." The contemporary program of the book and its theological message come at the end. Chilton does not mince words: "The teaching of jihad - 'struggle' in the way of Allah - has put Ibrahim's and Ismail's obedience to Allah into practice by means of military confrontations with those who are unfaithful to Allah." Judaism, Christianity and Islam all offer models of martyrdom: "The Crusader sheds his blood to celebrate the redemptive power of Christ's blood at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Jewish children of the Rhineland are new sacrifices of Isaac, which exceed the devotion Genesis attributed to Abraham. The paradigm of Ismail at the time of Ibrahim's offering equates death in the context of struggle to the deepest obedience to Allah." The point of the narrative is clearly stated: "The time is now for the Abrahamic religions to find a safe way down from Mount Moriah." The contemporary theological chapter with which the book closes responds to the contemporary challenges to religion and challenges in the name of religion. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have answers to these challenges: "Human beings are the crown of creation; parents have no right to take the lives of their children, much less other people's children." Yet these "rich corrective traditions are largely ignored." "We have no human future if we insist on remaining on Mount Moriah." That theological proposition is rescued from banality by the morning headlines. The Judaism that motivated the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Christianity that surfaced in the Oklahoma City bombing and the form of Islam that finds its triumph in 9/11 - all situate themselves on Moriah. This work of prodigious learning and compelling argument demonstrates that the three monotheisms do concur on a fundamental proposition of divine service. The writer is distinguished professor of the history and theology of Judaism at Bard College in New York.