Exploring the Ultimate Sacrifice: God’s Command to Abraham to Sacrifice his Son

Exploring the Ultimate Sacrifice: God’s Command to Abraham to Sacrifice his Son

In his book 'But Where is the Lamb?' historian James Goodman looks at how the Abraham-and-Isaac story has morphed and the multiple meanings attached to it over time

Professor James Goodman walks a fine line at Rutgers-Newark, straddling two disciplines as a member of both the Department of History and MFA Program in Creative Writing. Not surprisingly, his scholarship embraces both traditions. His book, Stories of Scottsboro, a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in history, combines narrative nonfiction techniques with archival research to weave a dense story of racial injustice from multiple points of view.

'The Sacrifice of Isaac'by the Italian master Caravaggio
Goodman’s latest book, But Where is the Lamb?: Imagining the story of Abraham and Isaac, chronicles the 19 lines of Genesis 22 that have vexed theologians, philosophers and others for centuries, spawning questions such as: Why was Abraham so ready to follow God’s command that he kill his son, and why did Isaac agree to be bound on the altar? Goodman examines the varied explanations given by the major monotheistic religions, along with contemporary thinkers, across the sweep of history, looking at how the Abraham and Isaac story has morphed and the multiple contested meanings attached to it over time.

But Where is the Lamb? has garnered wide praise and made it onto several Best of 2013 lists. Goodman recently spoke about his inspiration for writing the book, the Abraham and Isaac story itself and what he’d like readers to take away from his work.

In But Where is the Lamb? you examine the history of thought and commentary on the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Noting that you’re also a professor and writer of narrative nonfiction, is that mainly what informed your approach to the topic: your work as a historian? Or was it both?

Goodman: Both, and more. Most of my work lies on the nonfiction side of the large and fertile borderland between history and narrative nonfiction, though I have occasionally crossed over. Here I approach the story of the near sacrifice as a reader and creative writer, but a creative writer with deep respect for the scholarship in a dozen fields. The book is informed by that scholarship from first page to last. At the same time, it is propelled and shaped by my passion for the story, by my perspective on the story and its interpreters, and perhaps most of all by my voice. That voice is by turns dead serious and reverently playful, like many of the interpreters themselves, past and present.

Can you describe the main viewpoints of the monotheistic religions to the story of Abraham and Isaac?

Goodman: In antiquity, Jews understood the story as one of obedience, Abraham’s obedience, on account of which the Jewish people received God’s special blessing. The early Christians, while hardly gainsaying obedience, folded it into faith: Abraham’s faith that God would keep his promise to make Abraham great through Isaac, even if it meant bringing Isaac back from the dead. In Christian minds, Abraham’s faith prefigured their own, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son prefigured God’s sacrifice of Jesus, and Abraham’s actual sacrifice, the lamb, prefigured Jesus, who became the true heir of God’s blessing and promise. Muslims returned to obedience. Their Abraham was the first to submit to God, the exemplar of the Islamic faith. The great Islamic innovation was to imagine that Ishmael, not Isaac, was the nearly sacrificed son. Not all Muslims accepted that revision, but its virtue should be obvious: Ishmael was the progenitor of the Arab people. Like the Jews and Christians before them, they wanted God’s blessing running their way.

How about contemporary viewpoints?

Goodman: Those were the main lines of interpretation, but there have always been dissenting voices against that kind of sacrifice, against that kind of obedience, against that kind of faith, and in the last several centuries those dissenting voices have multiplied and grown louder. Some arrive at dramatically different ways of understanding the story, arguing (to take but one widespread reinterpretation) that the story's essential moment was not the command to sacrifice but the command to stop. God was telling Abraham that he didn't want Jews to sacrifice children. Others go further, saying that God expected Abraham to protest. It was a test, but a test that Abraham failed. The proof: Abraham lived another 75 years, but God never spoke to him again.

When all else fails, people literally revise the story, adding to and taking away from its famously enigmatic 19 lines. There are versions in which Abraham stalls, giving God time to come to his senses. And there are versions in which he never intends to harm Isaac; rather, he just pretends to obey, thereby testing God to see if he will stop the sacrifice and remain true to his own word and law. There are also versions in which Isaac's mother, Sarah, stops the sacrifice, and versions in which Isaac runs away.

What did you learn by examining the historical sweep of all these explanations and commentary?

The simple answer is everything: I had no training or special expertise in any field relevant to this book. So, I learned ancient and medieval history, biblical interpretation and scholarship, theology, philosophy and more. There are only two or three paragraphs in the entire book – those about writing – that I could have written when I started work on this in 2006.

As for the big picture, I learned that from the perspective of history, fundamentalism or literalism is folly, and originalism, while a perfectly legitimate form of interpretation, is an extremely limited one. Meanings, sacred and profane, are up for grabs, contested, in motion – and they always have been. Centuries and centuries of early differences and arguments are preserved the Bible itself. And while there are certainly times when we can discern an original or intended meaning, that meaning is just the beginning. The next step is to figure out how that meaning was understood by others and passed on. Today we think of people who radically reinterpret and revise sacred literature as heretical or at least skeptical. But the history of biblical interpretation is, from the beginning, the story of the most devout, observant, orthodox people alive remaking scripture in their own image, even though they took it to be the word of God.

That’s not a criticism, by the way.  It’s a fact, a fact that my book celebrates.

You’ve said that you turned to Genesis 22 during the second year of the Iraq war, about a decade ago. But what inspired you to go ahead and actually write this book?

Goodman: Right. The war and the debate about the war got me reading and thinking about sacrifice, and the relationship between religion and violence. But I was already on the lookout for a subject or story I could track over a great expanse of time and space. My first book, Stories of Scottsboro, was about a few decades of U.S. history. My second book, Blackout, was about a few weeks of New York City history. I wanted to get away, in place and time. When my reading about sacrifice (almost inevitably) took me to Abraham and Isaac – the ground zero of child-sacrifice stories, a great story with an ever-expanding universe of revision and interpretation, spanning 2,000 years – I knew I had found it.

In a column you wrote for the Huffington Post about your book, you said that many people dislike the Abraham-and-Isaac story, including your own mother, who would ask you to stop emphatically whenever she heard you talking about it. It appears you’ve been wrestling with this since before the Iraq war, perhaps even as a youth. How would you describe your relationship to this story over the course of your lifetime?

I first heard the story as a boy,in Hebrew School. I was no older than 13, probably closer to 10. I still have my textbook, which explained it as my teacher did: as a polemic against child sacrifice. But unlike many people I know, I was not troubled by it. I have no memory of nightmares, or worries that my father would sacrifice me. I probably thought Abraham was cool and God had everything under control. I didn’t return to it for four decades, and by that time a lot had changed. Terror had sparked a war on terror, and not a day went by when the papers didn’t carry a photograph of the bloody aftermath of a suicide bombing or some other form of sectarian violence, mass murder in the name of God. I turned to the story with a great deal of skepticism at a moment when there was a lot of skepticism in the air, particularly in the literary and political circles in which I moved. But when I began digging into the life of the story, I discovered that the past was much more complicated than those who cherry pick distressing bible stories and use them to dismiss, en bloc, religion and Bible and God. And I say that as a non-observant Jewish pantheist as appalled as anyone on earth by right-wing politics masquerading as religion, whether in the costume of imams, rabbis, ministers or priests. But atheists can be fundamentalists, too, and many of our so-called New Atheists are.

You’ve quoted British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins – an avowed atheist – as saying the Abraham-and-Isaac story is, among other things, “the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense.” When the superior is none other than God himself, how does that change the equation for the subordinate? Does the term “Nuremberg defense” still apply, and is the subordinate who is following orders exonerated?\

Dawkins is much more intelligent and much more prolific than me, and I am confident that he could make an important contribution to any field he studied and thought hard about. But he has no more studied or thought hard about Bible or religion or God than his enemies have thought hard about evolution or global warming or any other dimension of science. His throwaway line about Abraham’s apologists as the first to resort to the Nuremberg Defense provides just one example. Few if any of Abraham’s countless apologists have argued that he was just following orders – orders he himself didn’t believe in. Just the opposite: They say he was obeying a God he deeply believed in, or demonstrating his faith in the same.

What would you like readers to come away with after finishing your book?

Whatever they think of the story, or God, or organized religion, I would like them to come away with a sense of the richness of the interpretative tradition, the fluidity of the interpretive tradition, and in our age of sound bytes and instant analysis and shallow, simple-minded dichotomies, and lazy reading and writing, the seriousness and rigor of the interpretative tradition. Even if a reader hates the story as much as my mother did – and I don’t, I am too much the writer and lover of stories – but even if you do, you have to admit that what people have done with it is truly magnificent, and you have to take some consolation from the thought that, from the beginning, there have been people, deeply devout people, dismayed by the idea that their God asked and that their Abraham, without a word of protest or even moment’s hesitation, seemed to obey.

Contact Lawrence Lerner at lawrence.lerner@rutgers.edu, 973-353-1944 973-353-1944