Sacrifice in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

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David L. Weddle
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , September
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


We occupy a strange moment in the field of comparative religion. The frameworks of yesteryear that classified and analyzed and charted “the world religions” through stultifying (and, often, de facto Protestant) categories have been thoroughly critiqued. New possibilities for comparison that illuminate interesting points of similarity, while being vigilantly sensitive to the profound differences among religious traditions, are still being constructed. Within that context, David L. Weddle’s Sacrifice in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam presents a welcome, if not altogether satiating, model for perceptive and thematic comparison. Focusing on the three major Abrahamic faiths, Weddle traces his chosen theme of sacrifice through the scriptural, historical, and interpretive strands that make up the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

Sacrifice is a fundamental, if not constitutive, element in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought and practice, and Weddle’s analysis of it is pointed and critically highlights the great harm that has been done in the name of “righteous” sacrifice. Beginning with the story of the Akedah, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac—or, potentially, Ishmael in the Islamic tradition—Weddle finds here the central problematic and paradigmatic pattern of sacrifice in all Abrahamic religion: that the seemingly righteous desire to please God, prove one’s faith, and reap intangible, spiritual rewards can override human ethical sensibilities. Or, in Weddle’s language, the “moral danger” of sacrifice is that it “requires forfeiting concrete human goods for abstract (that is, imagined) transcendent benefit” (207). This is the destructive capacity for idealizations of sacrifice that runs as an analytical undercurrent throughout the book. From suicide bombings to the Crusades, from nationalist militarism to theologies of a vengeful God, Weddle sees sacrifice as the ground conception and vocabulary for much, if not most, of the Abrahamic religions’ violence and abuse.

This is not to say that all sacrifice is simplistically evil or destructive in Weddle’s view; he finds in each tradition countervailing perspectives and trajectories of interpretation that challenge the standard valorization of sacrifice in the name of theological, ideological, or abstract goods. By examining movements and figures from post-Holocaust Jewish thought, Martin Luther King Jr., and medieval Sufis such as Rabiʿa al-ʿAdawīyya, Weddle calls attention to notions or renunciations of sacrifice in each tradition that turn the focus away from appeasing God or proving one’s own fidelity, and towards altruistic self-denial in service of concrete human beings rather than abstract ideals. This is, in Weddle’s view, the hopeful, horizontal transformation that sacrifice must undergo in each tradition to defang its more perilous potentialities.

After two introductory chapters that outline “Common Features of Sacrifice” and “Theories of Sacrifice,” the three core chapters of the book proceed chronologically and somewhat systematically through each of the three Abrahamic traditions, observing common tropes, trajectories of the hermeneutics of sacrifice, “sacred” violence committed in the name of sacrificial duty, and potentially subversive, anti-sacrificial voices. Given that each of these chapters focuses singularly on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, respectively, the comparative analysis and connective tissue is supplied by Weddle’s commentary, observations, and his highlighting of recurrent topoi among the different faiths.

Without delving deeply into comparative methodological concerns––questions of similarity and difference among the Abrahamic faiths are dispatched within the first paragraph of the book—Weddle is more interested in the content of the comparison via the shared motif and ambivalence of sacrifice. Given the format of the book, and the ambition of offering sweeping, fifty-page overviews of core elements of each tradition all interlaced with Weddle’s own analysis and thesis, each of these chapters has the feel of an extended literature review: briefly profiling key thinkers and movements in the tradition, highlighting distinct interpretations or utilizations of sacrificial imagery, and surveying important contemporary scholars who have dealt with these topics. 

Weddle’s book exhibits the prospect and challenge of comparative religion today. He is obviously well-read in each of these traditions, and his bibliography is littered with both relevant primary sources and seasoned scholars. By linking together the three Abrahamic traditions on the theme of sacrifice, the book foregrounds real similarities and shared imaginations among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There are, undoubtedly, deep linkages and commonalities among these traditions in the Abrahamic/Akedah model of sacrifice, and Weddle’s comprehensive reading of each draws this out. But the reader is left longing for further analysis of the discrepancies that such comprehensiveness leaves out. Are jihadist suicide bombers really participating in, and symptomatic of, the same worrisome tendencies as Christian substitutionary theologies of atonement? Are the sacrificial rhetoric of nationalist Zionism and idealistic Islamism actually traceable back to the Akedah narrative? Perhaps, but aren’t they also shaped and bounded by unique elements within the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpretive traditions? What historical, social, theological, and hermeneutical forces drive the different conceptions of sacrifice among the Abrahamic faiths?

At the end of the day, Weddle’s analysis and approach leaves the query trenchantly posed by Jonathan Z. Smith regarding comparative religion open: “[t]here is nothing easier than the making of patterns ... But the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ and, above all, the ‘so what’ remain most refractory” (Imagining Religion, chapter 2). Weddle offers a compelling “so what” through his thesis and argument about the dangerous history of sacrifice, but the “how” and the “why,” and the textured, divergent, multifarious, and unsystematizable aspects of sacrifice in each of these traditions could not easily fit within a 250-page book

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew D. Taylor is the Protestant Scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, MD.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David L. Weddle is professor emeritus of religion at Colorado College, where he taught courses in philosophy of religion, ethics, comparative religious studies, and American religions. He is the author of Miracles: Wonder and Meaning in World Religions (NYU Press, 2010) and holds lifetime honorary membership in the American Academy of Religion.



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