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The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac: The Akedah crossed with The Legend of Zelda

As I was perusing The Globe and Mail, this game review sort of leapt out at me:

In playing The Binding of Isaac, the latest effort from Super Meat Boy mastermind Edmund McMillen, one can’t help but wonder whether the award-winning game designer wasn’t somehow using his creation to cathartically deal with some serious mommy and religion issues.

This inexpensive downloadable game, which is currently available for $5 for Macs and PCs through Steam, begins with a boy named Isaac and his mother enjoying their lives together in their home. Then the mom, a fan of “Christian broadcasts,” begins hearing the voice of God, who commands her to strip Isaac of his possessions (including his GameBoy and pants), lock him in his room, and, eventually, to kill him. Isaac discovers his mom is coming to murder him and flees through a hatch into the cellar. This is where players take control.

… The Binding of Isaac is a creepy, gory, and challenging play that’s as much an homage to games of years past as it is a distinctly modern experience. It’s also an overt indictment of mindless religious zealotry (see: the story in the Hebrew Bible from which the game takes its name) and the impact it may have on children raised by those who practice it. Indeed, poor little Isaac turns one of the most sympathetic video game characters in recent years.

It is, in short, an essential play for fans of avant-garde interactive entertainment, and perhaps the best downloadable indie game of 2011.

– Chad Sapieha, “Review: Avant-garde indie game The Binding of Isaac inspired by Zelda, the Bible”, Globe and Mail Blog, 14 October 2011

The version of the Akedah (“Binding” of Isaac) in Genesis 22, of course has Isaac’s father Abraham hearing divine voices, whereas Isaac’s mother (Sarah) doesn’t have a very prominent role. The to-be-Israelite god, Yahweh commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, which he obediently proceeds to do, until Yahweh stops him on the grounds it was just a test. Sarah has more of a role in Seder Olam Rabbah, where Satan tells her that Isaac had actually been sacrificed by Abraham, and the news of it kills her. But, Sarah doesn’t take an active part in trying to sacrifice Isaac, as in Edmund McMillen’s game version of the Akedah.

As Francesca Stavrakopoulou explores in her book, King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice: Biblical distortions of historical realities (2004), child sacrifice was once a regular part of the worship of Yahweh in Judah, and is still a “live issue” in the writing of the biblical texts in the Persian period. After all, if your god guarantees you will produce many children, only for the sacrifice of a single firstborn child, then it’s a good deal, right? And yet, child sacrifice gets such a bad rap.