There are only 19 verses in the story of the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac, which we read in synagogue on Rosh Hashana, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of commentaries on this episode.
They ask: How could a good God command a father to kill his child, and how could a good father possibly obey? What was it like on the three days when Abraham and Isaac journeyed together toward the place where the sacrifice would take place? Did Sarah know? What does it mean when the text says Abraham “returned to his servants”? Above all, in this age of terror and suicide bombers who train their children to be killers and martyrs for the sake of Allah, how can we still read this story, which seems to praise murder in the name of God?
If you are a father, you wonder: Could I do this to my child? If you are a son, you wonder: Could my father do this to me? If you are a human being, you wonder: What kind of a God is this? And whoever you are, you ask yourself: Why do we read this story on Rosh Hashana?
James Goodman’s new book, But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac (Schocken Books, 320 pages, $25), is a fresh and exciting take on the different ways in which the Akeda has been understood through the centuries and on how we should understand it today. He writes as a son and a father, a Jew and a person in search of meaning, and, above all, as a storyteller fascinated by this ancient tale.
It is impossible to determine exactly a story’s origin, but Goodman imagines a writer — whom he calls “G” — who was asked to do a rewrite of this story but who turned it in to the editors before he was completely satisfied with it. G wanted to struggle more with the silences in the story, but the editors took it away from him and published it before he could finish it. Then G learned the lesson every writer must learn — that once you have published a story, it no longer belongs to you. Every reader who picks up your tale has the right to see in it whatever it means to him or her.
For the author of the book of Jubilees, the Binding of Isaac was a precursor to the Passover story, and its purpose was to show the envious angels why Abraham was worthy of being so beloved by God. For Philo, who wrote in the midst of Greek culture, Abraham was a stirring example of stoicism. He understood the patriarch as a wise man who suppresses emotion for the sake of reason. A weaker man might have wavered, or cried, or been struck dumb by Isaac’s question, “Where is the lamb?” But Abraham showed no weakening of soul. He remained steadfast, as befits a true stoic.
For Pseudo-Philo and for the Second Book of Maccabees, Abraham was the prototype for those parents who surrendered their children to martyrdom in the time of the Hellenists.
For the early Christians, the story became a preview of the story of Jesus. In Sarah, they saw Mary. In Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, they saw God’s willingness to sacrifice His. In the three-day journey, they saw a prefiguration of the three days from the crucifixion to the resurrection. In Isaac’s carrying of the wood, they saw Jesus carrying the cross. In God’s promise to provide the lamb, they saw the lamb of God. In the ram caught in the thicket, they saw the crown of thorns. In the whole story, they saw the supremacy of faith, and themselves as the new Israel that replaced the old.
Goodman says when you read this book, you feel like an observer who has been privileged with a seat at a great convention, where scholars and sages of all the generations are exchanging insights into what the ancient tale means to them. You are with people who read the story in Hebrew sitting next to people who read it in Coptic, Aramaic, Greek, or Latin. Over in one corner, you see a newcomer from Islam who says that it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was bound upon the altar, and in another corner, you can eavesdrop on a midrashic sage who believes that Sarah should have been informed of what was going on, and that when the Satan told her, she was so upset she had a heart attack on the spot.
In the center of the room sit the Talmud sages who insist that because of what Abraham and Isaac did that day, God would always care for His people. Near them sit the poets of the Crusades, who say that Isaac died on the altar, but came back to life.
The book lets reader in on the conversations of Soren Kierkegard, Wilfred Owen, Shalom Spiegel, A.B. Yehoshua, Bob Dylan, Yitschak Lamdan, and others. I came away from this book with a sense that the conversation about the Binding of Isaac is not over. Who knows what we may yet find in this fascinating tale that has within it the capacity to surprise us and enable us to see new things each time we read it?