Minding the gaps in the ‘binding of Isaac’
During anti-war protests in 1994, James Goodman heard the term “child sacrifice” bandied about by opponents of the Iraq conflict.
For Goodman, a history professor and head of non-fiction writing in the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Rutgers-Newark, the first thing that came to mind was the biblical tale of Abraham’s binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac.
The second thing was that he should write a book about the many interpretations of the Genesis tale. That book, But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac (Schocken), is due out later this month.
The book is a highly personal, first-person essay on the various meanings of the “akeda,” which Goodman explains he wrote as “a reader, a son, a Jew, a father, a skeptic, a historian, a lover of stories, and a writer.”
“This is a story people have been wrestling with for 2,000 years and it was a natural for me,” said Goodman, whose previous books recount the 1977 New York City blackout and the history of the Scottsboro Boys.
“What do you do when God asks you to do something your community thinks is wrong?” asked Goodman, who grew up in Cranford as a member of Temple Beth-El, now Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim. “What makes murder into a holy act and are we celebrating murder or a holy act? We all make sacrifices every day for our children, our parents. We send soldiers off to war who are someone else’s children and how do we decide what justifies that sacrifice; is it the fight for democracy, war against terror, a war for morality? These questions are always with us.”
That question is again being confronted as the United States and other Western powers react to the probable use of poison gas by the Syrian government.
Goodman said these types of questions may have confronted Abraham when he was asked to take his son, his “only son,” and offer him as a burnt offering.
“Abraham may have thought God had a good reason,” said Goodman in a phone interview with NJJN from his home in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. “He may have thought well, he had a deal with God, a commitment to walk in my ways and I’ll take care of you.”
The story is intrinsic to three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but it is interpreted differently by all and has changed over time.
“There are so many issues and reasons why the story is so absolutely pivotal and foundational to each of the faiths,” said Goodman. “Each believes the story is central to who they are and how they came to be and why they have found God’s blessing.”
Jews look to Abraham’s obedience as the reason they earned a special blessing, and that through them “the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”
“We believe on account of Abraham’s merit we are all blessed and that’s one of the reasons we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana,” said Goodman. “It is to remind God that maybe we haven’t had such a great year, but have mercy on us because of Abraham. We get a little rewrite into the Book of Life as we approach Yom Kippur.”
Christians, meanwhile, believe the episode foreshadows the Jesus story.
“The sacrifice of Isaac actually sets the stage for God’s actual sacrifice of his own son,” said Goodman. “The Christians came along and said their family tree passes through Abraham to the true Jerusalem, which are the believers in Jesus Christ.”
The Muslims “also wanted a piece of God’s blessing,” he said, but needed to shape the story for their needs.
“They think Abraham is the first true Muslim and that Jews and Christians corrupted Islam,” said Goodman. “They need a piece of Abraham’s legacy and their connection is not through Isaac, but Ishmael. Many Muslims today say it was Ishmael on the altar.” In Islam, Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother, is believed to be an ancestor of Mohammed.
“Muslims, like Jews and Christians, wanted to believed that God’s blessing ran toward them,” said Goodman.
Goodman said other religious interpretations can be traced back to the story’s many “gaps and silences.”
“We have no idea what the central characters were thinking,” he said. “We don’t know why God asks Abraham to murder his son. What was Abraham thinking? Did he try and stop God? Where was Sarah? Did she know and what was she thinking? The story has these huge silences and then readers have come in and tried to fill them in.”