Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence
by jonathan sacks
schocken, 320 pages, $28.95

Love can be a problem. To love is to have a beloved, a favorite, someone treasured above others. So love means not treating everyone the same. It is not justice. In politics, it means favoritism, tribalism, corruption: This is why we look askance at rulers who appoint family members to positions of power.

So how can we speak of a divine love? If God’s love is to play a role in human history, it cannot be impartial, for then it would not be love. A goodness that treats everyone the same is a fine philosophical principle—it is, in fact, Plato’s deity, the supreme Good shining above us all like the sun, equally available to everyone with eyes to see. But that’s a principle, not a person, precisely because it has no favorite, no beloved.

The Bible, by contrast, undertakes to tell a story about a deity who is a person, someone with a particular beloved—a chosen people who are, it says, the apple of his eye. And that raises a serious problem. How do you tell a story that fundamentally distinguishes this person—this very particular and personal God—from the mythological deities who are also particular persons, fighting for their own favorites to prevail over all others? What might such a story look like?

It would look like the Bible we actually have, writes Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of England, in his eloquent and humane new book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Sacks addresses especially those who identify themselves as children of Abraham, God’s beloved friend. This includes Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all of whom are prone to behave like jealous rivals competing for God’s favor, reenacting the first murder in the story of Cain and Abel. Many have gone so far as to think they honor God by practicing a kind of “altruistic evil,” as Sacks calls it, killing their rivals in God’s name. Sacks aims to show us that the Bible contains its own alternative to this murderous religious jealousy.

The core of the book is a rereading of the stories of sibling rivalry in Genesis, with Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel—stories in which the younger keeps supplanting the elder. What makes the book so humane is its focus on the one supplanted. What are we to make of Ishmael, with whom the Arabs of the Qur’an so strongly identify? Or Esau, whom the ancient rabbis identified with Christians, and whom Christians have identified with unbelieving Jews? Or Leah, the mother of Jacob’s elder children who calls herself “hated”? These are identity-forming narratives, and they can easily be mapped onto a social landscape of us versus them, the in-group and the out-group.

With the exquisite literary attentiveness characteristic of the best recent work in theological exegesis, Sacks shows us that each of these narratives harbors a counter-narrative, which teaches us to sympathize with the character who is not God’s elect or chosen one. Both Ishmael and Esau are explicitly blessed; they do not bear the specifically covenantal blessing, but never does Genesis say God rejects them. And precisely because God sees that Leah is the “hated” one, the wife whom her husband does not favor, he opens her womb while Rachel remains barren, so that ­Leah’s children include Levi and ­Judah, the ancestors of Moses, Aaron, and ­David, the anointed prophets, priests, and kings of Israel.

It seems God has favorites, yet he wants us sympathizing with the others, those who are not favored. Sacks shows us how the Bible enlists our feelings on their behalf, highlighting their emotions. For example, in contrast to the terse narrative of Abraham going off to sacrifice his son Isaac, which leaves all human emotion unspoken, there is the previous chapter in Genesis, which is clearly meant as its counterpart, where Hagar goes off with her son Ishmael into the desert, raising her voice and weeping because she cannot bear to watch her son die, and the child, too, crying aloud in his thirst.

Who would not hear such crying? God does, and sends an angel to address Hagar’s emotions with tender words he does not give to Abraham in the next chapter: “Fear not.” The angel adds: “For God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” So who are we, not to hear what God hears? And in fact we do, as Sacks points out, for modern retellings of the story keep insisting that we experience things from Hagar’s point of view. The modern retellings often present themselves as subversive, but they take their cue from the counter-narrative within Genesis itself.

Similarly with Esau: After the famous scene in which Jacob comes disguised as Esau to receive their father’s blessing in Esau’s place, it is Esau who wins our sympathy, speaking with an anguish we never hear from young ­Jacob. He comes in to his father, learns how he has been cheated, and “bursts out with a loud and bitter cry.” He appeals with heartrending words: “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me—me too, my father!” Who would not want to bless such a son? And Isaac does bless him. This is a story of love, but not of love given to one and withheld from another. It presents us with what Sacks calls a “rejection of rejection.”

The rejection of rejection is especially clear in the long concluding narrative of Genesis about Joseph and his brothers. They are all sons of Jacob, none of them excluded from the covenant, but they are a family torn by sibling rivalry nonetheless. The rivalry begins with their mothers, Leah and Rachel. The two sons of ­Rachel, the beloved wife, become their father’s favorites: Benjamin the youngest and Joseph with his dreams of grandeur provoking his half-­brothers to murderous jealousy. Joseph must taste the bitterness of captivity, exile, slavery, and imprisonment before he rises to greatness in Egypt.

Joseph then puts his brothers in the position of having to hand over ­Benjamin as a slave in exchange for their own freedom—and finds, to his relief, that they refuse. Instead, in a magnificent speech—the longest in the book of Genesis—Judah speaks on behalf of his brothers and retells their story, emphasizing Jacob’s grief-­stricken love for the children of ­Rachel, and then offers himself in place of his youngest brother. That’s enough to convince Joseph that ­Benjamin is safe. Judah’s self-­offering, provoked by ­Joseph’s test, shows us what a reversal of Cain’s murderous jealousy looks like.

It is a story about reversals—­Joseph putting his brothers in the same place as they had put him: treated with suspicion, facing enslavement, afraid for their lives. He is not playing a cruel joke but “educating them in otherness,” as Sacks puts it, so that “they will understand what evil feels like from the other side, not as perpetrator but as victim.” Once again, tears guide our sympathies. ­Joseph keeps weeping for his brothers at key points in the narrative, just as the Bible invites us earlier to weep for Hagar and Ishmael and Esau. Indeed, you could say that Joseph is putting his brothers in the place that the narrative wants to put its readers: knowing what it feels like to be helpless, grief-stricken, and hated.

So then what is the point of God’s having a chosen people? Sacks points to a dialectic of universality and particularity in the two covenants of Genesis. Universality comes first, in the covenant with Noah that includes the whole human race, followed by the covenant with Abraham who is God’s particular friend. In the narratives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the chosen ones are not natural heroes, stronger or more eminent than others, like the heroes of myth or tragedy. They are outsiders, strangers and sojourners on the earth, as even the nation of Israel is when they come to the promised land, which the Bible insists is God’s property, not theirs.

God’s chosen are those whom others would not choose. Hence they become, in effect, a test of how the nations treat the stranger in their midst, the other who is not like them. Sacks argues that in the history of the West, anti-Semitism is a key symptom of a culture in crisis, looking for a scapegoat on which to blame its troubles. (Here he finds René ­Girard’s analysis of the scapegoat phenomenon useful.) And now the same symptom is easy to see in the violent crises of Islamic culture, which has appropriated many themes of Western anti-Semitism alien to the Qur’an.

Yet anti-Semitism is merely the clearest example of a dynamic of violence that Sacks sees everywhere in humanity, grounded in evolutionary history, where the roots of violence grow close to the roots of morality. Altruism begins with kin, who share genes, so that if I die for my family or clan, my genes survive in their offspring. Evolution clearly favors that kind of self-sacrifice. From there, our group loyalties become the source of much that is most noble and most horrible about us—with religion at the center of both, sacralizing group loyalties and forging larger social bonds beyond the kinship group, but still leaving room for a deep sense of us versus them, a pervasive suspicion of the stranger and the out-group.

This is where the biblical stories of sibling rivalry come in, not just as illustrations of a general dynamic but as identity-forming narratives for the three particular religious communities that trace their history back to Abraham. Muslims identify with Ishmael rather than Isaac. Jews call themselves children of Israel, because that is the name God himself gave to Jacob, from whom they trace their ancestry. And Christians think of themselves as belonging to a new Israel, as sons of Jacob according to the promise of God received by faith. The possibility of jealous rivalry is built into these identifications. But Sacks’s book is an invitation to these rivals to reread their own founding stories and see their brothers differently.

The question in my mind is how Christians and Muslims might take up Sacks’s invitation. Muslims will undoubtedly have to do this differently from Christians because they relate so differently to the Scriptures. Islam honors the Torah of Moses and the Gospel of Jesus as the greatest divine revelations prior to the Qur’an, but it does not locate these revelations in the text of the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament, which Muslim theology regards as corruptions of the original revelations given to Moses and Jesus—precisely because they differ so much from the Qur’an. Hence unlike in Christianity, reading the earlier Scriptures plays no essential role in Muslim piety and thought. A Muslim response to Sacks’s invitation will therefore need to begin with rereading the Qur’anic accounts of Abraham and Ishmael and other biblical figures.

Christian theology, on the other hand, begins with Jews like Jesus and Paul and the Gospel-writers reading the same Scriptures Sacks urges us to reread, drawing on the same typologies. The Gospels present Jesus the Messiah as the descendant of David the king, who is the descendant of ­Judah—who is the royal son of Jacob, Genesis suggests, precisely because he is the one who offers himself in place of his brother. What better ancestor could Jesus have than this son of ­Israel whose self-offering reverses not only the sibling rivalry in his own family but the primal, murderous jealousy of Cain?

To take up Sacks’s invitation does require Christians to engage in some rereading of their own, however. Above all, it requires them to renounce a crucial element of their own sibling jealousy, which theologians have come to call “supersessionism”: the notion that Christians have now superseded and replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people—as if only Christians were the true Israel, the proper heirs of Jacob, because the Jews have sold their birthright like Esau. Renouncing supersessionism is something most Christian theologians since the Holocaust have been glad to do, supported now by the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate. This means that it is still true today, as Jesus taught the Samaritan woman, that “salvation is from the Jews.”

What Christians need to practice, I would suggest, is rejoicing in this good news. For it means being glad that God loves someone other than us. The underlying point, as theologian Kendall Soulen puts it, is that everyone benefits from an economy of mutual blessing, in which each sibling-community is blessed through the blessing given to the other. To love the other is thus to love the one God loves, who is not us, but through whom he loves and blesses us also.

On one side of this mutual blessing is the fundamental biblical teaching that Gentiles are blessed through the Jews, who are chosen and beloved by God for precisely this purpose. ­Genesis repeatedly tells us that in the children of Abraham, Isaac, and ­Jacob, “all nations shall be blessed.” If we who are Gentile Christians really believed this good news, we would rejoice that the Jews are God’s chosen people. This is a way of unlearning the murderous jealousy of Cain: to be glad that blessing for us comes from them. When Christian teaching makes this kind of rejoicing its own, then Jews will at last be safe from Christian anti-Semitism.

The opposite side of the coin is that in Christ, Gentiles are meant to be a blessing for the Jews. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says he provokes his Jewish brothers to jealousy only in order to save them. He wants all Israel to be saved, and he tells his Gentile readers that his hope is that “by the mercy shown to you, they also may receive mercy.” How exactly this is to happen remains a mystery to this day—or maybe an ongoing task. Perhaps Paul’s hope is that things will turn out as they do at the end of the book of Genesis, when Joseph presents himself as a blessing for his jealous brothers in the famous words: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are this day.”

The problem, of course, is that over the centuries Christians have behaved toward Jews more like Cain toward Abel than like Joseph toward his brothers. But we can begin imagining a different future if we look to a story of sibling rivalry from Jesus himself. In the parable of the prodigal son, we meet an older brother who is like us, as jealous as Cain, resentful that his brother has a loving father and regretting that he is alive, not dead. Jesus tells the story in words designed to remind us of the story of Jacob and Esau. In both Jesus’s parable and the Genesis narrative, the younger brother returns from a far country and is greeted by one who runs to him, falls on his neck, and kisses him, glad to see him alive. In Jesus’s parable it is the father—who is clearly an image of God—greeting his son. In Genesis it is Esau greeting his brother Jacob.

Only in these two places in the Christian Bible do we find this sequence of verbs: he runs, falls on his neck, and kisses him. (Unfortunately, the phrase “falls on his neck,” which is the real giveaway, is often translated in vague terms such as “embrace”). The parallel is no accident. Jesus means to teach us that if we want to be like our Father in heaven, we must learn to be like Esau, who is overjoyed to see his brother alive, not dead. The message is so unexpected that I myself would have dismissed it as a modern misreading (how could anyone in the Bible possibly want us to be like Esau?) had not Jesus himself also told a story about a compassionate Samaritan and said: “Go and do likewise.” To be invited to behave like Esau is like being told to behave like a Samaritan.

The power in both stories lies in how unacceptable the comparison is. There are all sorts of ways we should not want to be like the Samaritans, who as Jesus himself explains to the Samaritan woman, really do have the wrong religion. (Christians should drop the anti-Semitic trope that Jews just don’t like Samaritans.) Still, the parable instructs us, when one of them—one of them, not us—has mercy on us, then we should go and do likewise, recognizing that this other who has the wrong religion is truly our neighbor. So also, there are all sorts of ways we should not want to be like Esau, the thoughtless brother who sold his birthright. But that is no excuse not to go and do likewise, when it is Esau who runs to his brother, falls on his neck, and kisses him, glad to see that this blessed one, God’s beloved Israel, is alive and well.

Phillip Cary is Scholar-in-Residence at the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University.