Part II–Why This American Life On Animal Sacrifice is Great and Good

Sacrifice of Isaac. Caravaggio
Sacrifice of Isaac. Caravaggio

Perhaps, because you love visiting this vanity project, you recall I praised to the skies this episode of This American Life, #480: Animal Sacrifice, from November 30, 2012. (Part I–This American Life On Animal Sacrifice)

At the link above you’ll find a full description of the program and a link to it as well.

Okay, as only one among a vast readership, “patient passenger” (not “resigned”!), praised the show with me (and this is all I’ve heard), I will assume you want me to resume my explication of the show’s brilliance.

I will be brief, promise: the framing device holds the key to what I find an extremely fecund critique of the human craziness concerning “dominion” over animals as normalcy.

So, I will limit my comment to just the Prologue and the closing act (Act III) and leave you to think about what comes between in light of these “framing” thoughts.

PROLOGUE

Ira admits there is a question he’s wanted to know the answer to since he was a kid in Hebrew school: Why is it that Jews don’t sacrifice animals anymore? Especially since the Old Testament is so clear that God wants it? Ira talks to religious studies scholar Jonathan Klawans to find out. Jonathan is the author of a book covering this subject, Purity, Sacrifice and the Temple. (5 minutes)animals • religion
Ira Glass

We start the show with a biblical scholar talking about Hebrew sacrifice of animals. The focus is upon the “value” of the sacrifice in an age when animals were treated as something more than a “farmed” material resource. It was incumbent that the sacrifice was of the best and favored of animals. You had to really care about the sacrifice for the sacrifice to matter.

What isn’t discussed (and I think omission really matters here) are the two primary “sacrifice” scenes from the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. (Three if you want to count the Noah flood story.)

First Sacrifice: Cain and Abel–you know the story. These two apples off the tree of Adam and Eve go to sacrifice to Yahweh each in their own way. Cain offers his best grain (he is a farmer–living, as God intended, off the sweat of his brow, breaking open the land the generate sustenance); Abel offers his best lamb. The rest gets biblical…Yahweh doesn’t like Cain’s offering but does like Abel’s. Cain is pissed and whacks Abel and when Yahweh finds this out (or forces a confession, dum DUM) Cain is banished and set to steppin’ bearing a “mark” of his error/sin/failure. Abel of course, is dead.

So much of this is interestingly interpreted. If sacrifice is meant to be an animal and one which you really would hate to actually kill, then sure, Cain screwed up. But it seems, if the book comes first, then because Cain screwed up a ritual of animal sacrifice was affirmed as a “best practice.” Yahweh loves him some meat; Yahweh loves to takes what you love. Your obeisance consists of abject subjection. But it should be your choice…or else.

Also, interesting might be the contention that Cain sacrifices Abel to Yahweh. But I guess we aren’t supposed to think Cain loved Abel, at least not in that moment.

Now, how about that whole “grain” vs. “meat” thing? What can we imagine as a meaning there? One can’t love a crop of wheat I guess. But one can be proud of it…hmmmm. Maybe it’s pride then that’s the problem. Abel can love his lamb and not need to take any responsibility for its quality as a creature (in fact the lamb is already Yahweh’s right?)–that is, he doesn’t take pride in raising the lamb, he loves it as one of Yahweh’s creations. (Still this is more than a little troubling but I can follow that thinking.) I’m sure there are other ways to look at this–be my guest!

Second Sacrifice: Yahweh asks Abraham to sacrifice his son by Sarah, Isaac. (Abraham already had a son, Ishmael, with his “handmaiden” Hagar.)

I’m not concerned with what Yahweh was up to here–testing Abraham or punishing him for kicking Ishmael to the curb (though if pressed I’d stick with traditional view of divine test)–but simply seeing it as an Animal Sacrifice. In fact, once Abraham does commit to doing the deed, Yahweh lets him off the hook and gives him a large ram. So the ram replaces the gift of the “most loved” being you “own” or have power over. Man, that’s another wrinkle, right? Isaac, according to scholars, would have been in his mid-thirties (but always a mug’s game, bible chronology and human longevity), and so one imagines could have told dad to go fly and gone to hang with Ishmael who must have seemed to have been blessed by getting away from the psycho-pop Abe.

But, like all stories, we shouldn’t imagine them to represent “reality” or actual lives. They exist as texts to be interpreted. No Abe, No Ike…just a Lesson. (If he’d have gone through with it he’d have had to burn him too to let Yahweh smell the crackling flesh–which reminds me, read this poem by Lin Dinh, Eating Fried Chicken.)

But still “loved creature” is favorite son–but also loved creature is under your control. And so we establish a power hierarchy here. Poor Sarah, where is she? Who cares, right…just a woman.

Back to the show:

Act One is a story about dogs sent to fight the good fight for the good ol’ US of A. The War Machine ACTUALLY asked pet owners to give their dogs to Uncle Sam so that he could strap bombs on Fido. Now that’s sacrifice (and love?)–one woman confesses she had no idea what actually happened to her dog (notice of death) but she was PROUD of him and imagined he served bravely. How weird is that? Seriously? Now, you get the patriotic zeal of some folks, and you get the idea of delusion, but just think a minute, man. You sent your dog to DIE. If you love something, kill it!

Act Two is about personal slaughter of your food (i.e., being Abraham!)–in this episode it’s particularly about rabbits. There are classes that teach you about being a proper butcher. The gist–at least it’s an act of agency (more first-hand killing) and not one of industrial practice. So there’s that. And I’d agree that’s a good lesson. But this one left me personally conflicted. I suppose now I’m interested in looking into bug protein as a viable way to clear my conscience of the slaughter of innocents. In Moby Dick Ishmael mentions seeing cannibals on the streets of New Bedford “whom still carry on their bones unholy flesh”; that is, people are their protein.

It is also about our “confused” sense of animal welfare–saving rabbits from slaughter–while raising millions upon millions of pigs and chickens and such just to brutally murder them for food: male baby chicks, useless in the chicken industry, are killed upon hatching (i.e., once found out to be male) by being funneled into something akin to a wood-chipper.

The last act, Act Three:

Human Sacrifice.
This American Life producer Nancy Updike reveals to Ira the staff’s concern about his dog, Piney. (17 minutes)

In this segment we find out that TAL’s creator and host sacrifices his life to care for a psychologically troubled pet dog. We hear that Ira doesn’t have friends over; that he travels miles by car and train to obtain special food for the dog and how he gives the dog loads of daily meds for anxiety. What isn’t made explicit is that Ira sacrifices other animals (as well has his “life”–though this is a choice, right?) in order to feed the allergy-prone Piney–kangaroo for example. Ira is participating in the worst practices of Western animal welfare (you might say) in his “care” for his pet dog. But you also would have to say, he is participating in the progress of a civilized society. Judge as you will. I do, can’t help it.

From God to Dog. Tada! That’s the wonderful frame of the program. Ira, who is interviewed extensively does not make this explicit and he is not the producer of the episode. But, if you’ve listened to enough of TAL shows you know that Ira gives his whole being to the show. Which leads me to believe he is very much aware of this “Dog/God” presentation and very much aware of his own confused practices (though I’m not sure there is a moral in it).

That’s all. I’m sure you’ve had your fill. Enjoy the nation’s largest charred flesh celebration tomorrow!

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1 Comment

  1. Patient Passenger July 3, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    There’s a lot to comment/think on here, but I think the point about Ira’s animal sacrifice to feed his dog about sums up our complicated relationship with animals and sacrifice if we consider the likely horrific treatment of the animals that go into our beloved dogs’ food. Irony, you dirty witch.

    Also, animal sacrifice seems to be very much the product of an androcentric society (male deity included). Female deities would much rather rock the love, fertility, growth.

    Food for thought: we do not have a masculine equiavalent to “old hag,” do we? And of course all our most derogatory words are related to female genitalia.

    Reply

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