Sacrificing sons — justifying war in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Via the Library of Social Science a fascinating essay by anthropologist Carol Delaney (professor emerita, Stanford University), “Sacrificial Heroics: The Story of Abraham and its Use in the Justification of War” (pdf), which is an extended meditation on the meaning of Abraham’s willingness to kill his son because God asked.

Delaney argues:

The story has been used to justify war, especially when the war is seen as ‘holy’ or against an evil one. All three religious traditions have drawn upon it for this purpose.


For don’t forget: Abraham was willing to go through with it — that is the symbol of his faith.

Delaney then notes that Abrahamic faith is still very much with us:

* Jewish: “Renowned Talmudic scholar, Adin Steinsaltz ‘tells us that if we accept the fatherhood of
God, we must obey His every command. This vision is compelling enough to elicit the consent
of hundreds of millions of men and women of all nations and religions who are able, on faith
alone, to accept as the voice of God a command to sacrifice their sons.'”

* Islamic: “During an earlier phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mrs. [Yasser] Arafat was quoted in the
New York Times as saying: ‘If I had a son, there would be no greater honor than to sacrifice him
for the Palestinian cause.'”

* Christian: “President [George W.] Bush reads every morning from a devotional, inspirational book by a
19th century minister, Oswald Chambers, who praises ‘Abraham for preparing to slay his son at
God’s command without … conferring with flesh and blood.’”

So a hard question even in our semi-secular times: How much of war is driven by religious-virtue signaling — to oneself, to others, or to God — that one is willing to make sacrifices?

Here again is “Sacrificial Heroics: The Story of Abraham and its Use in the Justification of War” (pdf).


My short video discussions of The story of Abraham; Kierkegaard’s lesson: Abraham as model of faith.

Søren Kierkegaard, “A Panegyric Upon Abraham,” from Fear and Trembling (1843).

6 thoughts on “Sacrificing sons — justifying war in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

  • December 17, 2016 at 10:56 am

    Don’t give up your day job

    c -minus

  • December 18, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    What do I mean when I speak of “awaken from the nightmare of history” (see the website link below)? I’m suggesting that sacrificial death lies at the heart of warfare.

    What happens to warfare when we begin to recognize that this institution depends on the sacrifice of young men?

  • December 18, 2016 at 7:30 pm

    Author Lisa Morpurgo, comparing this subject also to the myth of Saturn devouring his son, has speculated in her works that the symbolical sacrifice of young men at war is actually linked (unconsciously) to the need of exorcising the ancestral fear older men have of being overthrown by the younger ones (in patriarchal based societies at least). Therefore war is perceived as a necessary means to eliminate the soon-to-be opponent younger men when they reach the proper age.

  • December 19, 2016 at 3:40 am

    How does this relate to the Greek legend of the sacrifice of Iphigenia? This is presented in similar terms and of course is much more blatant, no symbolism at one level, sacrifice the girl or no war.

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