“I didn’t think he’d do it. I really didn’t think he would. I thought he’d say, whoa, hold on, wait a minute. We made a deal, remember, the land, the blessing, the nation, the descendants as numerous as the sands on the shore and the stars in the sky.”
So begins James Goodman’s original and urgent encounter with one of the most compelling and resonant stories ever told—God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.
A mere nineteen lines in the book of Genesis, it rests at the heart of the history, literature, theology, and sacred rituals of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For more than two millennia, people throughout the world have grappled with the troubling questions about sacrifice, authority, obedience, and faith to which the story gives rise. Writing from the vantage of “a reader, a son, a Jew, a father, a skeptic, a historian, a lover of stories, and a writer,” Goodman gives us an enthralling narrative history that moves from its biblical origins to its place in the cultures and faiths of our time. He introduces us to the commentary of Second Temple sages, rabbis and priests of the late antiquity, and early Islamic exegetes (some of whom imagined that Ishmael was the nearly sacrificed son). He examines Syriac hymns (in which Sarah stars), Hebrew chronicles of the First Crusade (in which Isaac often dies), and medieval English mystery plays. He looks at the art of Europe’s golden age, the philosophy of Kant and Kierkegaard, and the panoply of twentieth-century interpretation, sacred and profane, including the work of Bob Dylan, Elie Wiesel, and A. B. Yehoshua. In illuminating how so many others have understood this story, Goodman tells a gripping and provocative story of his own.
I didn’t think he’d do it.
I really didn’t think he would.
I thought he’d say, whoa, hold on, wait a minute. We made a deal, remember, the land, the blessing, the nation, the descendants as numerous as the sands on the shore and the stars in the sky. You said: through Isaac you’d make my name great. I have kept my word. Don’t you go back on yours.
He might not have put it precisely that way. He tended to say what he had to say more succinctly. But you know what I mean.
I didn’t think he’d do it, certainly not without asking when, where, how, or why. Why should I sacrifice my son? I readily concede that he answered God’s initial call without a moment’s hesitation. That was undoubtedly among the reasons that he was so special to him. But I can’t help thinking that he came to regret that he hadn’t taken some time to consider what he was getting himself into. From then on, almost everything he said to God took the form of a question: a question about God’s promise of greatness, a question about offspring and inheritance, a question about land, a question about the likelihood that a child could be born to a hundred-year-old man and his ninety-year-old wife, a question (in the form of a wish) about Ishmael, and most memorable of all a barrage of questions, pointed questions, no matter how humbly couched, about the innocent and the guilty of Sodom and Gomorrah.
So you can imagine my surprise when God asked Abraham to take Isaac to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering, and Abraham didn’t say a word. Not one word. One question after twenty-five years of questions is all it would have taken. He and God could have talked, and God could have explained what he was up to.
And remember: This is the guy God chose to show the world his way. To do what was just and right. Was Abraham always sure what God’s way was? Of course not. Was he always sure that God’s way was the right way? Not likely. Did he make mistakes? He did. For instance: he never should have given his wife, Sarah, to another man. Did he always learn from them? Who does? Several years later, he did it again. Did he have days he wished he could do over? Sure. That’s literature. That’s life. Who doesn’t, including God? Remember when he promised not to destroy the innocent along with the guilty of Sodom, to forgive the city of sin for the sake of the good? Not long after, God’s angels visited Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and the citizenry of Sodom went after them, to a man. God reduced the place to cinder and ash, somehow neglecting to include the city’s women and children in his calculation.
Still, on his worst day, I didn’t think Abraham would do it, not without saying a word. At the very least I thought he’d stall for time, say, hey, wait, wait, give me a few minutes, and I’ll get back to you, I simply need to talk it over with the boy’s mother. Or, I thought, that in the hours between God’s command and bedtime, or bedtime and morning, Sarah would have read God’s command on her husband’s face. Anyone who has followed the travail of the two of them since they left Ur for Canaan would know that that would have been the end of the matter right then and there.
But he didn’t say a word. Not to God. Not to Sarah. Not to anyone. Instead, he rose up early the next morning, saddled his donkey, called for two servants and Isaac, his son. He split the wood and headed out. God led him on and on, made the journey three days, giving him plenty of time to think about it, to change his mind, to figure a way out. I thought one of his servants might catch on, and perhaps he did too. Abraham stopped—when he saw the place from afar—and said, you two stay here, with the donkeys. We’ll be back after we go up and pray.
That left Isaac. Whether or not he knew it, he asked exactly the right question in exactly the right way. But Abraham reached deep, and somehow found a way to answer. And for all the awe that readers have expressed at his composure, the simple truth is that all Abraham had to do was not fall apart. Isaac was just a boy, thrilled to be on a special errand all alone with his father. He was not about to parse his father’s words for hidden meanings.
Right up to the last moment, I thought, I hoped, I may even have prayed, that Abraham would protest: I can’t do it, I can’t. I obey you as I obeyed my own father, Terah, but Isaac: he is my son.
But he didn’t.
And so God, through a messenger, had to stop him himself: “Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from me.”
I was stunned. It was not at all what I had anticipated. I had no illusions about God, not after Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel. (I have never been persuaded that the citizens of that apparently peaceful place, working together and getting along, had done anything wrong.) Nor confidence that I could predict his behavior or fathom what he was thinking. Still, I harbored a sneaking suspicion that it was not what God had anticipated either. But what could he do? He tried to make the best of a difficult situation, adjust on the fly, cut his losses and Abraham’s too. Look forward. Move on. Try not to let one bad day spoil the rewards of a good long life. Sometimes events take unexpected turns, even when you are thought to have everything under control.
And what could I do? I was just a reader who thought the story had come out wrong. And a son, like Isaac, who had to try to make sense of and peace with a difficult father. And a Jew, like any Jew who gives any thought to Jewish experience, past or present, who had to decide what to make of, and do with, an enormous inheritance, an inheritance that includes nearly three thousand of years of history, literature, ritual, and law. And a father, another difficult father, who had to figure out what part or parts of that inheritance I wanted to try to pass on to my sons. And a skeptic, by nature and nurture resistant to things we believe simply because (it is said) they have always been believed, things we do simply because they’ve always been done. And a historian, uncomfortable with the idea that the way things are is the only way they could possibly be. And, as if that weren’t enough, a lover of stories, driven to show and share the power and beauty of stories, sometimes even terrible stories. And to do that showing and sharing at a most inopportune time, a time (like so many times) when not a day goes by when someone somewhere doesn’t commit some horrible atrocity in the name of the God of Abraham and Isaac, in the name of their scripture or revelation, making it all the more challenging to convey my appreciation for those stories and their history, or even to answer those who see nothing but the dark side, the undeniable dark side, of their long lives.
Happily, I was also a writer, and every writer knows that sometimes a character gets away from you, surprises you, takes on a life of his or her own, even when you think you have a handle on him, even when you appear to be pulling all the strings. Sometimes an entire story gets away from you. It is an occupational hazard, all the more (if you’ll pardon a mixed metaphor and then bear with me for a few pages of speculation) when you are called in, as I imagine the author of the story of the near sacrifice was called in, like a relief pitcher, late in the game, without an outline, or even clear signals from the catcher, to finish someone else’s story.
So you see, I was a reader, a son, a Jew, a father, a skeptic, a historian, a lover of stories, and a writer. I had no choice, or little choice. Tradition virtually compelled me to write the story of Abraham and Isaac.
Excerpted from But Where Is the Lamb? by James Goodman. Copyright © 2013 by James Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
James Goodman is a professor at Rutgers University, where he teaches history and creative writing. He is the author of two previous books, including Stories of Scottsboro, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in New York.