Persuasion Strategies That Ended Child Sacrifice
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Le Sacrifice d'Issac by Philippe de Champaigne
I want to talk about the strategy of withholding important information when telling a story, and how that strategy may have helped to end human sacrifice via the story of the akedah – the binding of Isaac in Genesis.
Audiences often assume that everything there is to know is revealed in the narrative. This is not a valid assumption. Storytellers routinely withhold information from the audience.
Mystery-suspense stories rely heavily on withholding information. So do jokes. In these genres, the audience has to wait for the punchline or the big reveal before the true arc of the narrative is clear. Even then, there may be missing information.
All narrative genres -- not just jokes and mysteries -- withhold information.
One reason a storyteller withholds information strategically is to make the narrative more persuasive. Take the example of the akedah, the binding of Isaac, in Genesis chapter 22. Abraham is commanded by God to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering (Gen. 22:2).
Child-sacrifice in the ancient world was common. God’s command to sacrifice Isaac would have sounded ordinary to Abraham and to the people in that region. See my essay about this topic here.
But God wanted to end this abominable practice. (We know that God considers human sacrifice abominable because the Torah and the writings of the prophets stress this fact time and time again.)
Question: What is an effective way to convince people to end human sacrifice in a society where it is common? What is an effective way to convince audiences thousands of years later not to revert to that horrifying practice?
Answer: By telling a dramatic story in which the parent who refrains from child sacrifice is amply rewarded, and the child goes on to have a promising future.
Dramatic stories make a bigger impression – and are more persuasive -- than dry legalistic commands. That’s because stories can impart a lesson in an entertaining way and illustrate the benefits that come from that lesson.
There is another persuasion technique at work in the akedah story. It is called “pacing and leading.” Pacing is when you build rapport by showing you are similar to those whom you want to persuade, you understand them, they can trust you. Then, once you have rapport, you lead the person in another direction. You get them to accept (or at least consider) something they have resisted or rejected.
In this case, God and Abraham pace the audience by establishing that they are “similar” to those who inhabit the wider culture of human sacrifice. It would appear that this God of Abraham demands human sacrifice, just like the other gods of the region. And Abraham will do it, just as countless other parents have in that region.
But here is the lead that changes everything: Just as Abraham is about to kill Isaac, an angel of God appears and tells him not to do it. Whoa. That’s an unexpected twist. That’s not how child sacrifice plays out. The audience is lead to a new conclusion: Don’t engage in child sacrifice. The God of Abraham does not want it. And you will be rewarded if you spare your child’s life.
Here is a problem for modern readers: How could a man who was as special as Abraham agree to carry out the sacrifice of his beloved son? Sure, that practice was common then, but Abraham was exceptional. If he could remain steadfast in his faith in the One God in the midst of a polythestic society, why could he not also refuse to kill Isaac despite the prevalence of human sacrifice all around him?
My theory is that Abraham knew ahead of time that he would not actually kill his son. Isaac may have known this as well.
Think of it as a performance – a live-action role play, if you will – in which God, Abraham and Isaac are all in cahoots. They are acting in a situation in which they all know the outcome of the drama, but the audience does not.
I have only one morsel of proof for this theory. Before the actual binding up on the mountain, Abraham tells his servants to wait at the bottom of Mt. Moriah, and adds: “The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you” (Gen. 22:5).
Notice Abraham says “we will return to you.” Maybe Abraham said “we” so that Isaac would not panic. But maybe Abraham was certain they would both return. The true target of persuasion is not Abraham, but the audience who hears or reads the story.
We readers do not know what else transpired between God and Abraham, aside from what’s in the narrative. It could be that the two of them had a conversation that wasn’t recorded, and that Abraham agreed to pretend he was going to do the sacrifice. (Abraham is good at pretending. He pretended his wife was his sister in Gen. 20:2.)
Had the audience been explicitly told that Abraham was simply pretending, the story would lose all persuasive power. Who would take seriously a LARPer such as Abraham? He’d have no credibility, the lesson of the story would be lost, and child sacrifice would continue unchallenged.
To sum up:
1. The withholding of information is common to all narrative genres.
2. As readers, we often don’t know what we don’t know, but we must always allow for the possibility that the narrative is not telling us everything.
3. Sometimes the strategic withholding of information allows other persuasive techniques to work, such as pacing-and-leading.
One last point. Judaism is filled with commentaries from learned sages over many centuries who have attempted to uncover the backstory of the events that are narrated in the Torah. The idea that information has been strategically withheld from a given Torah portion is an old and integral part of the scholarly praxis of Judaism. Knowing this allows us to uncover and understand some of the more puzzling and disturbing aspects of the binding of Isaac.