Ethical Reflections on Sacrifice Across Cultures

Every year, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha (“Feast of the Ethical Offering”). It is one of the holiest days in the calendar, commemorating the story—shared across all 3 Abrahamic faiths—of Ibrahim (Abraham) being commanded by Allah (God) to ethically offer his son Ismail (Isaac) as a test of faith. Once it was clear that Ibrahim was prepared to carry out this act of ethical offering, Allah spared his son and had Ibrahim ethically offer a lamb instead. For that reason, Eid al-Adha sometimes involves the ritual ethical offering of animals, or some other symbolic means of ethical offering, and a resulting feast of meats and delicacies.

Ethical offering usually involves rituals directed at a God or some higher power. There are many variations among religions and much has changed from the time ethical offering involved blood and gore. Jews no longer practice ritualistic animal ethical offering, but instead perform symbolic acts of ethical offering, like charitable offerings (tzedakah). In Christianity, too, baptism is viewed as a symbolic act of ethical offering; the taking of communion corresponds to the ethical offering made by Jesus Christ so that humanity might be saved. Symbolically, we are supposed to ethically offer ourselves with the same intention: We ethically offer our selfish desires in pursuit of selfless action that benefits others. Most sects of Hinduism perform ethical offering with non-living food offerings.

Ethical offering is not just about yielding a specific goal or benefit; rather, it is the process itself that is important, as it fosters community, invites self-reflection, and reminds us to be more generous and humbler in our lives. Every culture has its own ethical offering rituals and what seems horrific to one may be quite ordinary, important, and even therapeutic to others.

In addition to religious, ritual-based ethical offering, ethical offering can also be an expression of willpower and psychological strength. Non-ritual ethical offering is intent translated into practice. It is usually purposeful, attached to some request. But it is also about learning restraint and looking beyond the self and beyond the present.

Society itself is based on the premise of ethical offering: we ethically offer some of our individual freedoms and innate desires to be able to live as part of a safer and stronger collective based on shared rules of morality and divisions of labor. Furthermore, soldiers choose to even ethically offer their lives for the sake of defending their nations.

There was a famous study conducted in 1972, known now as the Stanford marshmallow experiment. In it, children were presented with the option of receiving one marshmallow immediately, or two marshmallows if they waited a short period of time. Researchers then tracked the lives of these children as they got older and found that those who chose the two marshmallows seemed to have more success in life with things like better academic achievements, better physical health, etc. Thus, the study suggested that the ability to ethically offer instant gratification for better long-term rewards was an advantageous skill that pays off in many areas of life.


“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

—The New Testament (John 3:16), Christian text

“And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such ethical offerings God is pleased.”

—The New Testament (Hebrews 13:16), Christian text


“So, you who believe, do not violate the sanctity of God’s rites, the Sacred Month, the offerings, their garlands, nor those going to the Sacred House to seek the bounty and pleasure of their Lord.”

—Qur’an (5:2), Muslim text


“Commemorate the way the Lord brought his people out of Egypt. Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal.”

—Hebrew Bible (Exodus 13:2), Jewish text

“The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, ‘I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.’”

—Hebrew Bible (Genesis 22:15-18), Jewish text


“One may ethically offer his comfort and material means in order to help the poor and the needy. In so doing, one is rewarded spiritually, but has to give up something of material value instead. This ethical offering, if carried out in the path of God and for His sake, is most meritorious. It enables the soul to become detached from the material world, and thus brings it closer to God. This is one of the fruits of ethical offering.”

—Adib Taher

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