Okay, well, I’m trying to stop myself, but it appears I can’t.
The notion of substitute sacrifice was established by Frazer, and in my view is one of the most well-grounded and significant findings in mythology.
The basic story is that in the past a crueler sacrifice was required—typically human sacrifice—but that this requirement was dropped by the gods who came to accept a gentler sacrifice. In the case of Abraham it was a goat rather than his son. In the Buddhist texts, it’s usually a vegetarian sacrifice, such as ghee and rice.
Since we read these stories from the wrong end of history, we misjudge what’s going on (often such misjudgments are found in the texts themselves). We get outraged at the idea that God wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son. But that’s not the point; it’s just the normal, bog-ordinary behavior of gods. It’s what they, and their followers, expect.
The point is that god comes to accept a “lesser” sacrifice. In the Abraham story this comes from God’s own choice. In the Buddhist texts it’s typically because the yakkha is converted to Buddhism, or at least harmlessness, by the Buddha, a disciple, or the bodhisattva (if it’s a Jataka).
As is the way of mythology, the story is told a gajillion times, and each telling retains the same essential pattern, while revealing different interpretations due to the details. In Greek mythology, perhaps the best known example is Tantalus, who murdered his son and fed him to the gods. It didn’t turn out well.
Once animal sacrifice becomes seen as repulsive as human sacrifice, a purely symbolic sacrifice becomes possible, as in the Christian host. But this story is not just part of major religions, it’s everywhere, in paganism and folklore around the world. The sacrificial murder ends up as childrens’ games.
Just as we miss the twist in the plot, we miss the moral of the story. Which is, in fact, that the story has a moral. Again, due to our late perspective we cannot disentangle morality and religion. But the two have nothing essentially to do with one another, and in fact are fundamentally opposed.
If God’s will is truly unfettered, how can he be checked by considerations of morality or kindness? He can’t. (Or she can’t; I don’t want to imply that gods are any more vicious and heartless than goddesses. They’re not; the gentle goddess of herbal tea and yoga is a modern paganist fiction.)
A deity is an absolute narcissist. They’re not subject to the rule of law, the rule of morality, or anything else. The world spreads itself out from them as a manifestation of their own ego, which is perfection itself. If the world doesn’t get that, it’s the world’s problem. The only duty a narcissist has is to help free the world from this delusion. All the world has to do is acknowledge that the narcissist is in fact the true and only source of all that is good and sacred, and its problems will be solved. But if the follower refuses to obey an order, even if that order is to murder their only child, their disobedience must be punished.
Warning! The following material may be traumatic for some readers. Seriously, if you thought the photo of the Guy Fawkes with kids was creepy, don't click this.
In my time as abbot of a monastery, I met more than one person who honestly believed this. One student actually told me, after being there a week or so, that if I gave the monastery to her to run, all our problems would be solved within a week.
The story of the substitute sacrifice is ultimately the story of the death of god. The god(dess) becomes subject to human considerations like ethics and compassion, and no longer has absolute power. They’re like a constitutional monarch, on the slow road to democracy. If the god themselves is subject to morality, how can they be the source of morality? This is the beginning of the problem of evil. And much of theology is a working out of a defense of how god and morality can coexist.
Since Buddhism is not a religion in the sense I am discussing here—i.e. it is not a cult of sacrifice to forces greater than ourselves—this problem does not exist. Heck, the Buddha actively seeks out a higher authority than himself to honor, and ends up honoring the Dhamma. This is the philosophical reason why Buddhas appear again and again: the Buddha is a part of the natural order. They are subject to the Dhamma just like you or I.