Arts and Cultures - Abraham's Sacrifice in Hebrew Bible and Comparison with Ancient Greco-Roman Legend

 Arts and Cultures

Dr Archana Verma

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In the previous post, we had discussed the sacrifice legend of Iphigenia in the Greco-Roman culture, where a deer was substituted for Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon. This legend in Euripides dates to c600 BCE and is based on even older legends existing in ancient Greece.

Running almost identical to this Greco-Roman legend is the legend of sacrifice from the Genesis chapter 22 in the Hebrew Bible, where Abraham goes to sacrifice his son Isaac. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and Abraham follows God's commands. He takes Isaac on the Mount Moriah, which is regarded as the site of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He ties Isaac to the altar and raises his knife to kill him, when an angel appears in the sky, holds him back and offers him a lamb for sacrifice. Abraham sacrifices the lamb instead.

The scholars have dated this legend to c 400-250 BCE, i.e., almost 250 years later than the Euripides narrative of Iphigenia. The older Greek legends were even older according to this dating.

The structure of the legend is identical with the ancient Greco-Roman version and most likely the writers of Genesis borrowed this legend from the legend of Iphigenia. 

There are some differences with the Greco-Roman legend of Iphigenia.

In the Iphigenia legend, the Goddess was displeased with Agamemnon because of his killing a sacred animal and it was the diviner who advised him to sacrifice his daughter to propitiate the Goddess.

This was not a test of Agamemnon's devotion, but a contractual sacrificial offer to propitiate the deity in order to atone for one's wrong doing.

In Abraham's legend, the terms of contract change. 

God himself commands Abraham to sacrifice his son and there's no explicit reason, nor has Abraham committed a wrongdoing. God tests his follower's faith in him and he sets a tough task to test it. Only a person who had extreme faith in God would follow this kind of command.

Hence, although the structure of the legend is the same, the nature of religious principle is different.

The ancient Greco-Roman religion followed the structure of most ancient religions, where people kept the deities propitiated by various offerings in exchange for blessings of prosperity, well being, happiness and so on. 

Ancient Abrahamic religion was the first to overturn this equation of ancient religions. 

It was no longer a matter of pleasing the deity for worldly blessings, but it was more a matter of extreme, unquestioning faith in the divine. God commanded this extreme faith and could go to any length to demand faith from his followers.

This was in fact not even merely a question of monotheism or polytheism, as it has often been highlighted, but rather, the very foundation of the raison d'etre of religion was transformed by the ancient Abrahamic religion.

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