“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.
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.” Continue reading
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.
The first Jewish debate never ceases to amaze me. I am of course referring to the great debate between Abraham and God as recorded in Chapter 18 of Genesis. While Abraham’s epic story is remarkable, there is nothing in the prior (or subsequent) biblical narrative to indicate that the patriarch will challenge so boldly the God who commands his life so thoroughly. This is the quintessential man of faith, after all, who unquestioningly sets forth to a new land and submits even to the command to sacrifice his beloved son with nary a word of objection.
So when quite suddenly “Abraham came forward” (18:23) and dares God to morally justify the collective punishment of Sodom-well that is astonishing! “Will You sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” he pointedly asks in the same verse. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” he passionately exclaims two verses later. Abraham holds his ground as the debate goes back and forth concerning the minimum number of innocent people it would take to save the city.
The abrupt and apparently truncated conclusion to the debate (see 18:33) shifts the enigma of Abraham to the enigma of God. Does the Judge of all the earth in fact act justly? Do some innocent perish with the wicked? Were the wicked beyond repentance and mercy? Were the ordinary citizens of Sodom equally evil?
Who, then, won this debate? Certainly Abraham leaves quite a legacy. Abraham could easily have looked the other way. He could have idly stood by. Instead he decides to stand up to God no less, his guide and protector. In the words of Naomi Rosenblatt, this story is about “the power of one man of integrity to be the conscience of the world.” In the words of Elie Wiesel “the Jew opts for Abraham-who questions- and for God-who is questioned…knowing that he may oppose God as long as he does so in defense of His creation.”
The Sages coined an expression for challenging God in the spirit of Abraham, “hutzpah k’lape shmaya- boldness (even nerviness) toward heaven.” This legacy of “holy hutzpah” finds expression throughout Jewish literature, but especially in Eastern European Hasidic tales like Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s “Din Torah mit Got-Lawsuit with God,” and in another tale where he tells a simple tailor who challenged the Almighty in prayer, “Why did you let God off so easily? You might have forced God to save all of Israel!”