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!”