James Goodman, author of the new book, But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac, unpacks “perhaps the most debated 19 lines in the Bible.” How he describes the three great monotheistic faiths’ approach to the story in Genesis of God’s commanding Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, only to offer a reprieve at the last minute:
In antiquity, Jews understood the story as one of obedience, Abraham’s obedience, on account of which the Jewish people received God’s special blessing.
The early Christians, while hardly gainsaying obedience, folded it into faith: Abraham’s faith that God would keep his promise to make Abraham great through Isaac, even if it meant bringing Isaac back from the dead. In Christian minds, Abraham’s faith prefigured their own, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son prefigured God’s sacrifice of Jesus, and Abraham’s actual sacrifice, the lamb, prefigured Jesus, who became the true heir of God’s blessing and promise.
Muslims returned to obedience. Their Abraham was the first to submit to God, the exemplar of the Islamic faith. The great Islamic innovation was to imagine that Ishmael not Isaac was the nearly sacrificed son. Not all Muslims accepted that revision, but its virtue should be obvious: Ishmael was the progenitor of the Arab people. Like the Jews and Christians before them, they wanted God’s blessing running their way.
Why the story continues to fascinate:
One reason is surely that so many Jews, then Christians, and Muslims came to believe that the story recounts an actual event, a foundational event, essential to who they are what they believe. But fascination with the story has not been limited to the believers. That’s because the story is remarkable as a story. In a mere nineteen lines, there is both explicit drama and great mystery. Thoughts, feelings, motives, meanings, even dialog lay between the lines, unexpressed. We know what people do, but not why. We ask questions about the relationship between God and men, parents and children, self and sacrifice, authority and disobedience, fear and love, reason and faith. We answer them with new interpretations and new versions of the story. The story sustains itself by turning readers into writers.
(Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603, via Wikimedia Commons)