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.

James Good­man is a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and head of non­fic­tion writ­ing in the MFA pro­gram at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, Newark. He is the author of two pre­vi­ous books, includ­ing Sto­ries of Scotts­boro, which was a final­ist for the Pulitzer Prize.