Sunlight bounces off a blade on the peak of Mount Moriah as Abraham, with relief in the depths of his soul, hears a voice commanding him to spare his son. Against a cultural backdrop of child sacrifice, the patriarch sees something – a ram, yes, but maybe something more – that rewrites religion and proclaims that no, children should not be sacrificed on the altars of our dogma and our security.
80 children on flight MH17. Three Israeli teenagers found dead in a pit. 39 children killed in air strikes and the invasion of Gaza. Human shields, four kids bombed as they played on a beach, Mohammed Abu Khdeir burned alive. The last few days have been a relentless parade of violence and death, the paradoxes of the 24/7 news cycle connecting us and hardening us to drone strikes and rockets and shattered buildings. And in the midst of all this, as always, are children. Not that we call this child sacrifice any more – that would be obscene. Nowadays we call it “collateral damascene”, as if the euphemism hides the idolatry.
Abraham’s revelation didn’t last forever. We live in a precarious world, at the mercy of the harvest or the weather or the marauders at our gates. We look for ways to appease the gods, to earn their favour, and so, in the valley of Ben Hinnom, kings Ahaz and Manasseh burned their sons as an offering to Baal. Fortunately King Josiah eventually put an end to this, the valley became Jerusalem’s rubbish dump, fire burning trash day and night.
We don’t haggle with fertility gods any more, nor gods of the storm; we’re better at controlling our environment, millennia of technology under our belt. Now we sacrifice to more abstract concepts; security against The Other is one, power another – look at how the British Establishment has been shaken by accusations that it dismissed or concealed or empowered child abuse, leaving traumatised and neglected survivors in its wake. That in itself is a sort of sacrifice.
The shadow of Ben Hinnom lived with people through the ages, a reminder of the sins and idols tries of their forefathers every time they put out their bins. Thanks to the wonders of etymology, the name of the dump shifted and changed, taking on new meanings and associations. We know this because it was a word used by Jesus when he wanted to summon an image of suffering and horror.
Attacks on children are decried, of course, but still they happen. It’s a deeper sacrifice that we leave on the altar, of innocence, of compassion, of our great taboos. And if children are emblematic of the future, what does it mean for society when kids grow up wanting to avenge their murdered playmate, when abused children feel they can’t go to authorities for fear if being disbelieved?
It hurts to say this, but we know it to be true; there are times when religion empowers this; we join in with the blasphemy, and echo, in our own way the idolatry of Ahaz. Until we find a way to confront this, to repent of it and become a safe space and an advocate for the children around us, the sacrifices will continue.
Gehanna’s garbage keeps on burning.