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A bleak tale often and freely retold

by
02 October 2015

Anthony Phillips on the story of Isaac’s being spared the fate of a child-sacrifice

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Abraham and his Son: The story of a story
James Goodman
Sandstone Press £16.99
(978-1-910124-15-4)
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT534)

 

JAMES GOODMAN, a secular Jew, sets out to explore the history of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac over three millennia.

After examining Jewish, Christian, and Muslim reflections on the narrative, both what they have in common and their real differences, he traces its influence in philosophy, art, literature, music, and drama. Significantly, he notices that the Abraham of the sacrifice is out of character: Abraham never questions God’s command.

Faced with this bleak and highly economic narrative, in which so much is left unanswered, interpreters throughout history have taken every imaginable liberty with the text as they sought to find meaning and contemporary relevance. While earlier Jewish commentators emphasised Abraham’s obedience, Christians emphasised his faith. For the latter, the story prefigured the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Neither Jewish nor Christian interpreters blanched at altering the plot. So the Syriac church fathers introduced Sarah into the narrative, while some rabbis imagined that Isaac had died. For Islamic scholars, Abraham is the paradigmatic Muslim, “one who submits to God”. Since Crusader times, Jews have particularly associated the story with martyrdom.

Turning to the artists of the middle second millennium, the author notes the difficulty of portraying a narrative that takes place over three days. Most works are highly stylised and utterly unreal. Similarly, the Mystery plays were “mechanical, static and wholly unbelievable”.

Both Kierkegaard and Kant’s attitude to the ethics of the story are discussed, though Goodman notes that neither concerns himself with what might have been the situation when the story was written, and its relation to child sacrifice, which many scholars see as its background.

Yet, while the new science of biblical criticism associated, in particular, with Julius Wellhausen’s documentary theory led biblical scholars to attempt to discover what the words meant to those who wrote them, literary critics continued to see the story as a work of literature. Much later, many would associate the narrative with the Shoah and the part that sacrifice played in the rebirth of the State of Israel.

Of particular interest is Goodman’s discussion of how the story has been explored and elaborated in modern Jewish literature, before concluding with a more personal note on why he wrote this book: “I am showing what people have done with it.” The result is a highly sensitive work, which both entrances and entertains: a compelling read.

None the less, one cannot help wondering whether, during these three millennia, it would have been better if the original story had been left alone by critics, scholars, and commentators to stand as it was written, leaving the reader to have to come to terms with the stark force of its awfulness.

It is, of course, not the only biblical narrative where God appears as the enemy. Like Abraham, Job is specifically “tested”. Jacob has to wrestle with the stranger of the night, the Psalmist continually laments his lot, and Christ dies with an unanswered question on his lips. All experience what I have called elsewhere God’s “shadow side”.

It is this mystery that lies at the core of the narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac, and which is not be evaded but confronted. Abraham does not, in the face of God’s apparent hostility, commit suicide, as Job’s wife advised her husband. He acts in passion, and a ram is caught in the thicket. In the end, God is more complex and mysterious than too much easy religion makes him.

 

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

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