Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth

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Overview

Abraham on Trial questions the foundations of faith that have made a virtue out of the willingness to sacrifice a child. Through his desire to obey God at all costs, even if it meant sacrificing his son, Abraham became the definitive model of faith for the major world religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this bold look at the legacy of this biblical and qur'anic story, Carol Delaney explores how the sacrifice rather than the protection of children became the focus of faith, to the point where the abuse and betrayal of children has today become widespread and sometimes institutionalized. Her strikingly original analysis also offers a new perspective on what unites and divides the peoples of the sibling religions derived from Abraham and, implicitly, a way to overcome the increasing violence among them.

Delaney critically examines evidence from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpretations, from archaeology and Freudian theory, as well as a recent trial in which a father sacrificed his child in obedience to God's voice, and shows how the meaning of Abraham's story is bound up with a specific notion of fatherhood. The preeminence of the father (which is part of the meaning of the name Abraham) comes from the still operative theory of procreation in which men transmit life by means of their "seed," an image that encapsulates the generative, creative power that symbolically allies men with God. The communities of faith argue interminably about who is the true seed of Abraham, who can claim the patrimony, but until now, no one has asked what is this seed.

Kinship and origin myths, the cultural construction of fatherhood and motherhood, suspicions of actual child sacrifices in ancient times, and a revisiting of Freud's Oedipus complex all contribute to Delaney's remarkably rich discussion. She shows how the story of Abraham legitimates a hierarchical structure of authority, a specific form of family, definitions of gender, and the value of obedience that have become the bedrock of society. The question she leaves us with is whether we should perpetuate this story and the lessons it teaches.

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Editorial Reviews

Bible Review - Cynthia M. Baker
Many scholars would be wary of charging a single biblical myth with aiding and abetting such a vast array of lethal power structures and ideologies as Delaney catalogues throughout the book. Yet she marshals extensive evidence and prosecutes her case with great care and competence.
From the Publisher

Finalist for the 1998 National Jewish Book Award in Jewish Scholarship, Jewish Book Council

"This provocative and thoughtful analysis will resonate with all who are bothered by a father's readiness to sacrifice his son in order to demonstrate his unquestioning devotion to God."--National Jewish Post and Opinion

"A thought-provoking argument."--Library Journal

"Many scholars would be wary of charging a single biblical myth with aiding and abetting such a vast array of lethal power structures and ideologies as Delaney catalogues throughout the book. Yet she marshals extensive evidence and prosecutes her case with great care and competence."--Cynthia M. Baker, Bible Review

National Jewish Post and Opinion
This provocative and thoughtful analysis will resonate with all who are bothered by a father's readiness to sacrifice his son in order to demonstrate his unquestioning devotion to God.
Bible Review
Many scholars would be wary of charging a single biblical myth with aiding and abetting such a vast array of lethal power structures and ideologies as Delaney catalogues throughout the book. Yet she marshals extensive evidence and prosecutes her case with great care and competence.
— Cynthia M. Baker
Library Journal
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is at the heart of the three monotheistic religions that see Abraham as their father in faith: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Writing from a feminist perspective, Delaney (anthropology, Stanford) considers the traditional interpretation, i.e., that Abraham's faith is proved by his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God's command. Delaney then examines the role this story has played in modern ideas of paternal authority, taking as an example the case of a father who killed his daughter and claimed at his trial a few years ago that he did it because God told him to. Delaney examines the role the story plays in the psychological literature as well as in religion and argues against its perpetuation. While not all readers will agree with her interpretations, she certainly offers a thought-provoking argument. For larger collections.--Augustine J. Curley, O.S.B., Newark Abbey, NJ
Choice
A provocative study of the story of Issac in the Book of Genesis...Drawing insights from psychoanalysis, Delaney shows how this story influences our assumptions about obedience, gender, social hierarchy, and patriarchal authority. As such, the Abraham story is not merely and ancient one, but one that continues to have contemporary impacts.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691070506
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 9/11/2000
  • Pages: 334
  • Product dimensions: 6.11 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction 5
Pt. 1 Abraham on Trial 15
Ch. 1 Abraham on Trial: Case for the Prosecution 17
Ch. 2 Abraham as Alibi? A Trial in California 35
Pt. 2 Archaeological and Biblical Evidence 69
Ch. 3 Child Sacrifice: Practice or Symbol? 71
Ch. 4 Child Sacrifice in the Bible 87
Pt. 3 Religious Defenses and Their Silences 105
Religious Defenses: Prolegomenon 107
Ch. 5 Jewish Traditions 111
Ch. 6 Christian Commentary 137
Ch. 7 Muslim Interpretations 162
Pt. 4 The Testimony of Psychoanalysis 187
Ch. 8 Freud's Blind Spot 189
Ch. 9 Sa(l)vaging Freud 211
Pt. 5 The Social Legacy 231
Ch. 10 Sacrificing Our Children 233
Conclusion 251
Notes 255
Select Bibliography 295
Index 317
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