A friend of mine who recently went on a tour of sacred sites in Israel told me that, according to her guides, Abraham’s act was caught up in co-existing regional mythologies. In fact, children were routinely sacrificed in the pagan world, but many verses in the Bible defended against the practice. [Search "Moloch" on Wikipedia for some hair-raising accounts of how this was done.] Similarly, the stories of the Creation and the Flood were first recorded in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, serving as models for the accounts in the Bible.
Along with Julian Jaynes, who also cites Abraham's story, I believe that "divine" voices come from the right hemisphere where the visually and sensorially resonant language of poetry and the symbolic imagery of religion go hand in hand. The right hemisphere processes all of our senses and, whereas the left hemisphere is more responsible for encoding episodic memories, the right is more involved in retrieving them.
I maintain that anything that we have read, seen or heard in the past can be retrieved as fodder for the myth-making mill of the right hemisphere whose over-arching mission is to get the big picture, find solutions to difficult problems and make sense of everything. It seems logical that Abraham, at a stressful time, might have dissociatively adopted a rival's ritual practice, but for the staying hand of an “angel,” an agent of his better self.
The whole notion of mythic stories has long fascinated me. Mythmakers tell fabulous stories. Just like modern fiction, film, and nightly news reports, the ancient mythic stories rampantly portrayed sex and violence. Every culture seems to have needed these stories to explain the origins of the cosmos or of their land, to concretize and humanize their deities, to justify their rituals and to cultivate appropriate moral attitudes in the community. The gods and goddesses of myth are the play actors in eternal dramas, stretching back to the beginning of time and still recurring nightly in our dreams.
However, myths are neither eternal nor universal, only long lasting and widely diffused. Depending on the historical and geographic context, the language of myth can be constructed, reconstructed, or deconstructed to reflect newly emerging political, social and religious agenda. Karen Armstrong's A History of God traces the trajectory from the paleolithic Mother Goddesses, to the Babylonian gods and goddesses to the one God of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each relied on the prior religion's stories, but expanded or revised them to create their distinct vision. Poetry and religion remain inextricably entwined from the beginning of time. Muslim accounts of Muhammad's ascent to heaven, for instance, inspired Dante's Divine Comedy. Dante's Divine Comedy and Yeats's A Vision inspired James Merrill's epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover.
"Divine" commands are still operative in the modern world. It is particularly dangerous when political leaders, who can be both psychologically grandiose and have actual power, suggest as much. Both male and female politicians have made these claims. However, a command to sacrifice a child seems like a masculine construct to me. In Ancient Greece, the man-killing Medusa and the child-killing Medea were most likely male-constructed stories about mythic women. On the other hand, in most cases where voices have instructed individual women to kill their children, like Andrea Yates who drowned her five children in a bathtub, they were experiencing psychotic commands.
The simple fact is that we all adopt myths to guide or justify our actions, when we are actually defending against inner chaos or exploiting our path in the external world. One can only imagine, in a tribute to John Lennon, what a better world it would be if, instead of following the mythic marching orders, we routinely questioned our personal motives, then proceeded to do the right thing, not just for ourselves, our family, our political party, or even our country, but for the larger good beyond self interest. The results could be genuinely cosmic. Imagine!!