Tackling the most disturbing divine command
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
Sacrificio di Isacco ( Binding of Isaac)