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Ties That Bind

A scholar and priest traces the roots of religious violence to Abraham

March 24, 2008

The story of Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac—the akedah—is one of the most powerful narratives in the Torah, filled with imagery of a man on the verge of sacrificing his own child for God. Though the threat of violence is diffused, the tale still grips our imaginations, as it has the imaginations of generations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

In his new book, Abraham’s Curse, Bruce Chilton, a religion professor at Bard College, examines how the akedah has been interpreted within the three Abrahamic faiths, sometimes serving as justification for acts of mass violence. Examples date back to the Maccabees, but also include contemporary actors like Yigal Amir, Mohamed Atta, and Timothy McVeigh.

Chilton speaks with Nextbook about how a story describing human sacrifice thwarted became an argument for violence itself, and about how Abraham and Isaac’s encounter with God could better be understood as a call for restraint.

Photo: Detail of a design drawing by J. & R. Lamb Studios for a stained glass window showing events from Old Testament. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Lamb Design Collection.

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Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter @saraivry.

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