“But Where Is the Lamb?”: Several Millennia of Reflections on the Binding of Isaac

“But Where Is the Lamb?”: Several Millennia of Reflections on the Binding of Isaac April 6, 2020

When my nephew was bar mitzvah, he chose (!) as his Torah portion the Akedah, or Binding of Isaac, Gen 22:1-19. We were talking at the reception afterward and his dad recommended James Goodman’s But Where Is the Lamb?: Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac, which the dad and I think also my nephew had read in preparation for the ceremony. I finally got around to reading it and now I can recommend it to you! Some very scattered notes:

# Goodman takes a sort of expected persona: ironic, concerned about his own attraction to this story and its interpretations, self-possessed. I warmed up to him over the course of the book even though self is not Who I like people to be possessed by. At first, when I finished the book, I wished he’d talked more about the experience of being changed by the story, being interpreted by the Bible, rather than staying himself while interpreting it. And I do think he falls too far on the postmodern “all texts are nothing but mirrors” side of things. But really if he’d talked too much about how this passage changed him the book might have had (more than it does already) the character of a treatise, a mere attempt to persuade us to his interpretation, rather than feeling more like something between tour and contemplation.

# This is an inherently harrowing thing to write a book about but the most difficult chapter, for me, was the one on 11th-century Jewish responses to the Crusader massacres. (He cites Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France as one of his sources, which I read in 2015.) I admit I was grateful, with some of these chapters, that each chapter is fairly brief and he follows some of the most painful ones with a radical shift in tone.

# Various unexplored aspects–there’s literally nothing from the post-Schism Christian East, I think, even though he does look at a lot of Christian and Muslim sources. No book could really be as comprehensive as every reader would like. The aspect which I esp. wished he’d explored more is the character of God here. Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, all get explored, but the focus is primarily on the test of Abraham and not on the revelation about Who God is.

In my own reductive and simplistic interpretation this revelation of God’s nature is preeminent. You guys maybe know that I’m working on a sequel to Gay and Catholic. The working title is Tenderness: Experiencing God’s Love as a Gay Christian, and the entire structuring idea of the book is that gay people grow up learning falsehoods about who God is, which cut us off from Him. Scripture reveals a God very different from our ideas about God–wilder, more liberatory, more consoling, unconcerned with our common cultural ideas of love or respectability. So of course from this perspective it’s incredibly important that God tells Abraham not to kill his son! God stops it! God didn’t want him to do it! Any interpretation–and there have been many–which glosses over, changes!, or skips past this fact seems to me to be drastically misunderstanding what happens here.

But of course Abraham’s trust in God is also presented, by Scripture and God’s own speech therein, as admirable and worthy of emulation. It’s a story of Abraham trusting God, and thereby finding that God was different (lol better) than he had imagined; but the trust which occurred before that discovery still has a sublime unintelligible power. It is this trust which allows Abraham’s (and our? I don’t know how far I want to push this…) relationship with God to be personal, rather than simply a matter of considering all the possible gods from a preexisting ethical standpoint and picking the one that fits your beliefs best. This personal relationship grounds our understanding of what love and righteousness are. Goodman presents a contrast between Abraham’s “obedience,” praised in Jewish interpretations, and his “faith,” praised in Christian ones and often implying that Abraham knew God wouldn’t really make him go through with it. I’m using “trust” here to convey the personal relationship–you can obey a command but you can’t trust it, we give our trust to people–but also the darkness in which Abraham and Isaac had to walk together. Walk by faith; tell no one what you’ve seen….

Knife via Wikimedia Commons.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!