Tack­ling the most dis­turb­ing di­vine com­mand

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

THE BIND­ING of Isaac, Abra­ham’s near-sac­ri­fice of his son, is one of the Bi­ble’s most iconic episodes. It is read from the To­rah over the High Holy Days and even in the daily morn­ing liturgy in some prayer books. Tra­di­tion­ally, the Akedah, as it is called in He­brew, stands as an em­blem of heroic devo­tion, of self­less obe­di­ence to the call of God.

But nag­ging doubts re­main. Why would God want to test the pa­tri­arch to the point of ask­ing him to yield up his son? Why did Abra­ham, who boldly chal­lenged God over the de­struc­tion of Sodom and Go­mor­rah, re­main mute in the face of such a mon­strous re­quest?

Into the fer­tile ter­ri­tory be­tween reli­gious ide­al­ism and hu­man mis­giv­ing steps Amer­i­can cre­ative writ­ing pro­fes- sor James Good­man. He delves into the treat­ment of the story down the ages — how it was ex­plained and ref­er­enced in the Tal­mud and apocrypha, by Chris­tian com­men­ta­tors and Mus­lim ex­egetes, in me­dieval mys­tery plays and baroque paint­ings, through to the philoso­pher Soren Kierkegaard, the nov­el­ist A B Ye­hoshua and even Bob Dy­lan. This is no dis­pas­sion­ate aca­demic anal­y­sis. The clue is in the book’s sub-ti­tle: The Story of a Story. It is a per­sonal re­flec­tion by a writer on a story he finds com­pellingandtrou­bling and whose dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions he grap­ples with as he comes upon “fa­mil­iar scenes in fresh ways”.

At mo­ments of great his­tor­i­cal dan­ger, dur­ing the Mac­cabean re­volt or the Cru­sades, Isaac is the pro­to­type for mar­tyr­dom. Chris­tians saw him as fore­shad­ow­ing Christ on the cross. While many Mus­lims be­lieve it was Ish­mael, not Isaac, who nearly went un­der his fa­ther’s knife, some ac­cept that it was the lat­ter (he is not named in the Qu­ran).

Al­though Abra­ham’s test was a one­off, never to be re­peated, even some of the an­cient rab­bis strug­gled to come to terms with it.

One sug­gested that Abra­ham had got the wrong end of the stick and the com­mand to sac­ri­fice had never en­tered his Creator’s mind. The 7th-cen­tury litur­gi­cal poet Jo­hanan Hako­hen was dis­turbed by Abra­ham’s un­ques­tion­ing si­lence. “He should have… begged to spare his only son/And save him from burn­ing coals,” the poet wrote.

As Good­man re­minds us, the orig­i­nal tale is re­counted in just 19 verses of spare bi­b­li­cal prose. Writ­ers and artists have been try­ing to fill in the gaps ever since. This en­gross­ing 260-page book may have been writ­ten by a sec­u­lar author but wrestling with texts is a time­honoured prac­tice in Ju­daism and one which en­sures that the story con­tin­ues.

Si­mon Rocker is the JC’s Ju­daism editor

by 17th-cen­tury artist Filippo Ab­biati

Even some an­cient rab­bis strug­gled to come to terms with it

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Sacri­fi­cio di Isacco ( Bind­ing of Isaac)

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