The ProsenPeople

Who Wrote the Story of Abraham and Isaac?

Monday, September 16, 2013 | Permalink
Last week, James Goodman wrote about God and child sacrifice and how he came to write about Abraham and the binding of Isaac. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb, is now available from Schocken Books. He has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“I didn’t think he’d do it. I really didn’t think he would.” That’s how I open my book, with a short “midrash” – a short readers and writer’s response to the story in the context of all the Abraham stories that come before.

And then, in the next chapter, I introduce the author of Genesis 22 and the writing of the story. Those pages are pure speculation. No one knows for sure who wrote those nineteen lines of scripture, let alone what he (I explain much later in the book that no one thinks the story was written by a woman) was thinking as he wrote, let alone his interaction with his editors or his wife, or even when the story was written or what parts of the cycle of Abraham stories (of which it is the climax) were written before (in my version it is late to the Abraham cycle) and what parts were written afterward.

Jane Smiley called those pages amusing and shameless, and I would add wholly anachronistic. There is, I believe, plenty of literary and figurative truth in them, starting with the first line of Chapter 2 (“He was a writer”: no one who appreciates the story as a story would deny that) but the historical truth comes later.

And already people are asking why? Why open a non-fiction book with speculation. The answer is pretty simple: The subject is as close to infinite as a subject can get. In a book of 250 pages I have probably not even sampled one percent of one percent of the exegesis that’s been translated into English, and the vast majority of it probably hasn’t been translated into English. My book moves chronologically but it is less a survey than a series of soundings. There is, inevitably, a lot of repetition, and for it not to be tedious (or more tedious than it is) it had to be written from a point of view.

But what point of view? I struggled with that question for years, and in fact I probably have more than half a dozen versions (not drafts, but very different versions) of the opening 30 pages, the pages which I establish the narrator’s point of view and voice. They are still on my hard drive. One is simply from my point of view, James Goodman, writer and professor of history, from soups to nuts. But I was never happy about the way that version sounded, the way I sounded as narrator. It was too serious, too straight, too stiff. One is from the point of view of the author of the story, an author who feels he wrote a pretty straightforward story about obedience to God. He likes the story, which makes it all the more frustrating as he discovers that every Tom, Dick, and Harry (or Jubilees, Philo, and Josephus) feels free to revise it, add characters and dialog and scenes and thereby twist the story and its meaning in every imaginable way, including versions in which Isaac actually dies. Another is from four points of view, Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and God. There are, alas, others.

In the end I settled on the perspective of writer (and reader, since all writers are the first readers of their own work) who thought the author got the story wrong and who wanted to revise it. He is not able to revise it (for reasons you need to read those pages to understand). So he pins his hope on (and takes some consolation from) the idea (provided by his wife) that the story will ultimately be revised by others. “Someone will revise it,” she says. The perspective of a writer who thought he got the story wrong provided the moral center I wanted (grave reservations about the story) as well as the tension I wanted (Was she right? Would the story actually be revised? If so, how, when, and why?). It also provided the forward momentum I thought my narrative needed (as I watched the history or life of the story unfold).

“But where,” my real wife asked recently, when she started reading the book, for the first time, “did your narrator’s voice come from? Who is it? I like it, but it isn’t you.”

“No, I said it isn’t.”

“It never is,” she said. “But this one is more so.”

“I think that’s right, I said.” My narrator is, like all narrators and then some, a character all his own, some amalgam of voices, a writer, a reader, a father, a historian, a skeptic, and a Jew.

James Goodman is a professor at Rutgers University, where he teaches history and creative writing. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb?, is now available. He is also the author of two previous books, including Stories of Scottsboro, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Keep up with him here.

Understanding Genesis 22: God and Child Sacrifice

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, James Goodman wrote about how he came to write about Abraham and the binding of Isaac. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb, is now available from Schocken Books. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Like many people I know, I first heard the story of Abraham and Isaac as a child. I couldn’t have been older than thirteen. I was probably closer to ten. But I learned the story differently from many if not most of the Christian and Muslim and even some Jewish kids my age. The Christian kids learned that the story was about Abraham’s faith in God, who could, if need be, bring Isaac back from the dead. Abraham’s sacrifice was a prefiguration of a greater sacrifice to come. The Muslim and many Jewish kids learned that the story demonstrated the very essence of what it means to be a Muslim or Jew, complete submission or obedience to God.

I learned that the story was God’s way of proclaiming his opposition to human sacrifice.

Our Hebrew-school teacher explained it exactly as our Hebrew-school textbook did: God, he said, had brought Abraham to a new land. A good and fertile land, where it was common for pagan tribes, hoping to keep the crops and flocks coming, to sacrifice first-born sons to God. Then one day, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the beloved son of his old age. Abraham set out to do it, and was about to, when God stopped him. He sacrificed a ram instead. In the end, Abraham had “demonstrated his—and the Jews’—heroic willingness to accept God and His law,” and God had “proclaimed” that “He could not accept human blood, that He rejected all human sacrifices.”

That interpretation goes back at least as far as the thirteenth century. I found it in the writings of Ibn Kaspi, who argues not just that the story’s purpose was to uproot, undermine, and weaken the heathen practice of child sacrifice, but also that Abraham himself (even before he looked up and saw the ram in the thicket and decided, on his own, to offer it) understood that child sacrifice was an abomination to God. But as far as I can tell it didn’t gain traction until after the Enlightenment and it becomes especially prominent in nineteenth century biblical scholarship (see for example the work of Abraham Geiger) and then popularizations of that scholarship in the twentieth century. Today the notion that the story was a polemic against child sacrifice is as widespread as any interpretation save perhaps the Christian idea that the story is a story of faith and a “type” of the passion of Christ. You can still find it in scholarship, and it is everywhere in popular histories of religion, biblical and prayer book commentary, encyclopedias of religion, guides to religious literacy, and more.

It is not hard to understand the appeal of that interpretation. It puts God and Abraham on the side of the angels, civilization, and progress, in the battle against the scourge of child sacrifice waged by some of the greatest Jewish prophets in the sixth and seventh centuries B.C.E.

But among the first things I discovered when I began doing the research for my book is that the idea that Genesis 22 was a polemic against child sacrifice drives some biblical scholars to distraction. They see it is a kind of wishful thinking or anachronistic apology that can’t survive a close, critical, and clear-eyed reading of the text in the context of the Hebrew Bible and numerous other ancient Near Eastern sources, sources which suggest that child sacrifice was sometimes practiced and for centuries celebrated, by the ancient Israelites as well as by their neighbors: “You shall give Me the first-born among your sons,” God declares in Exodus 13 and again in Exodus 22. God didn’t always demand what was his, but sometimes he did.

Have a look for yourself, not just at Exodus 13 and 22, two places where God lays claim to the first born, but also at the much more familiar Genesis 22, where God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then rewards him for (links his blessing to) Abraham’s willingness. Nowhere does God tell Abraham that he never wants him to sacrifice children. Nor does God command the substitution. What’s more, the scholars say, the story lacks the kind of phrase we might expect if its purpose were to explain the origins of substitution: (“and Abraham offered up the ram as a burnt offering instead of his son, as is done to this day”). And later tradition does not refer back to the incident as the reason for the redemption of the firstborn—as (say) the story of the Pascal lamb in the Passover story does. Might the story have signaled the permissibility of substitution? Perhaps, but (the biblical scholars argue) only modern distance from and enlightened distaste for the ideal of sacrifice could make it possible for readers to imagine that a story in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then rewards him for his willingness to do it was intended to reveal God’s unequivocal opposition to human sacrifice.

Others scholars disagree, and even those who agree that the story was probably not meant to demonstrate God’s opposition to child sacrifice (or even to explain the transition from human to animal sacrifice) don’t agree on what the story originally meant. But regardless of who is correct about the history, it is important to remember that the history is just that, history—an argument about what that story meant back then, not what it has meant at various times since then or what it means to people today. The Christian idea (first expressed in the Letter to the Hebrews) that the story was about Abraham’s faith that God would come through (as opposed to his obedience, willingness to do whatever god asked) was also a reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Taking the story into their hands as if it were a chunk of soft clay and remaking it in their own image is what readers have been doing with the story for thousands of years.

Today an extraordinary number of Jews and Christians believe that the story was a polemic against child sacrifice or an explanation for its abandonment. Since I myself prefer not sacrificing children to sacrificing them (in all the forms that the sacrifice of children takes), I don’t see anything wrong with that. Many people believe that the Bible contains practical lessons, teaches how we should behave. I would much prefer that those people believe that God thinks we shouldn’t sacrifice children than he thinks that we should.

James Goodman is a professor at Rutgers University, where he teaches history and creative writing. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb?, is now available. He is also the author of two previous books, including Stories of Scottsboro, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Keep up with him here.

The Ultimate Sacrifice: James Goodman on Abraham and the Binding of Isaac

Monday, September 09, 2013 | Permalink
James Goodman is a professor at Rutgers University, where he teaches history and creative writing. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb?, is now available. He is also the author of two previous books, including Stories of Scottsboro, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

Many people ask me, “What’s a nice guy like you doing in a field like this?” By which they mean: What’s a modern U.S. historian doing writing a book about the history of a Bible story. They know I have always been interested in stories, how and why people tell the stories they do. My first two books are both narrative histories of events written from multiple points of view. But it is a long way from the Scottsboro Case and the NYC blackout of July 1977 to Abraham and Isaac, more than two thousand years and about a dozen academic fields in which I had absolutely no prior experience.

The truth is that I had been looking for a story to track and retell over a longer span of time. Scottsboro focused on a few decades of the twentieth century. Blackout focused on a few days. I was wondering what it would be like to track and tell a story over centuries. But what story? Events far beyond my study ultimately shaped my choice, as they so often do.

It was 2004. Dark days. Terror attacks had sparked a global war on terror and there was no end to either war or terror in sight. Wherever I turned, I heard the word “sacrifice.” Eulogists praised soldiers for making the ultimate sacrifice. Proponents of staying the course in Iraq in the face of a fierce insurgency and the threat of civil war argued that if we withdrew, our dead would have sacrificed their lives in vain. Opponents called for the repeal of recently enacted tax cuts, and perhaps even a reinstatement of the military draft, to ensure that the sacrifice exacted in two surreally distant conflicts was not borne entirely by a few. Americans accused the parents of Afghani, Pakistani, and Iraqi suicide bombers of sacrificing their children. Afghanis, Pakistanis, and Iraqis accused coalition commanders of doing the same. One American antiwar activist stalked pro-war congressmen and prominent political commentators, video camera in hand, asking them if they would sacrifice one of their children to retake Faluja, a city they had not heard of before 2004.

I started doing what scholars and creative writers do: reading about sacrifice, and then child sacrifice, in history and literature, sacred and profane. I wanted to know who had sacrificed children and when and why. I found a slew of accusations (one group of people accusing another of sacrificing children) and a lively scholarly debate (truly heroic efforts to tease experience out of scant evidence) about which of those accusations were true. I also found the story of Abraham and Isaac, the ground zero of Western child sacrifice stories. Before long I had turned from books and essays about the story to the story itself, and then to all the Abraham stories in Genesis, then to commentary on those stories, starting in antiquity.

In short, I fell into the bottomless well of biblical literature. I figured that the only hope for me was to write a book about the story. I now have, but I am still not sure there is any way out.

Keep up with James Goodman here.