In this issue we have transcribed discussions from two Roundtables. The former was held in London, England, among leading specialists of a mixture of disciplines. The group included biblical scholars, linguistic experts, an eminent archaeologist and a psychologist. The latter brings back old friends who have appeared in these pages before, and who now round out the Abraham cycle of discussions.
Below you will find the transcript of the first discussion only, since that was the one Rabbi Jacobs participated in.
THE LONDON PARTICIPANTS:
Professor James Barr
Professor of Semitic Languages and Literature, Manchester University, England
Dr. George Frankel
Psychotherapist and Lecturer in Psychology and Philosophy
Rabbi Louis Jacobs
Rabbi of New London Synagogue, Lecturer in Talmud and Chairman of the Academic Committee at Leo Baeck College, London, England
Dame Kathleen Kenyon
(Retired) Principal of St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, England
Lecturer and Librarian, Leo Baeck College, London, England
Reverend Robert Murray, S.J.
Teacher at Heythrop College, London and the University of London
THE LONDON CONVERSATION
MODERATOR: In discussing Abraham – specifically the events of Genesis, Chapters 20-22, up to the binding of Isaac – should we approach this material historically, anthropologically or theologically?
BARR: I would like to raise a flag of caution. When we deal with a topic like this, we bring to it a point of view; we endow the same words with different meanings; we apply a specialized set of scholarly techniques. It is possible to raise questions about Abraham from a variety of angles: historical, archaeological, etymological, literary, theological or ethical. In each case the ground rules are different and I think we would have terrible confusion if we mixed all these approaches together without specifying the direction from which we are approaching the subject.
KENYON: You listed archaeology. I’d like to strike that from the list, because I don’t think that Abraham presents an archaeological question at all.
MODERATOR: Why do you say that?
KENYON: Because I’m fairly confident that there is no archaeological evidence concerning Abraham or Isaac. It seems important to me to be aware that we are looking at this story through the eyes and the editing skill of someone who lived as much as a thousand years later. The episodes, like those we are dealing with today, were collected together from the tribal members. Those things could have happened over a very long period of time and been retained by memory and oral retelling until they were made into what appears to be a consecutive story. But I wouldn’t have thought anybody today believes it is actually a consecutive story in terms of our scholarly notion of history. Archaeology may well have something to say about the general conditions of antiquity in that region of the world, but certainly nothing about the person of Abraham.
MODERATOR: This certainly clarifies the archaeological viewpoint. We will try to be careful to specify the direction from which we are approaching the text.
JACOBS: Let me try the ethical approach. Nowadays one can hardly talk about this chapter at all without referring to Kierkegaard’s book, Fear and Trembling. His analysis is that Abraham is the Knight of Faith. He contrasts Abraham to the ordinary ethical person who obeys the ethical norm. Such a person, for example, could not commit murder, even when ordered by the Deity. Abraham is pictured as an ethical person, but also as more than that, because God is able to demand of him an act that others could not bring themselves to perform. That, of course, is the murder of his son. Kierkegaard says that the whole point of the story is the divine suspension of ethics, which makes it possible for Abraham to obey in fear and trembling, thus becoming the Knight of Faith. This is a wedding of ethics and theology. It involves a much wider question than the immediate story of the binding of Isaac. It involves the question of what is the ultimate aim of religion.
MURRAY: I see it as a religious question. In the case of Chapter 22, where the binding of Isaac is recorded, the story is presented as a situation that a man was put into. I think it’s a waste of time to do anything with it other than meditate on it as a tremendous problem for religion. It brings the Book of Job to my mind. In both places the story is told very barely and the immediate thing that stands out to me is the pathos of both stories. We have the themes of obedience to God and of personal suffering. It seems to me that, because this is the literature of a believing community, it cries out for reflection. It has to be reflected on because that community doesn’t believe that its God is a wicked God. That the Israelite God is strange is frequently the judgement made by people from outside faith. But from within faith, one knows that this is the kind of thing that happens in the life of faith. Look at Job. He is a person with high ethics. He is an ideally religious man. But he is smitten, and with God’s permission. In the end, he also turns out to be a Knight of Faith, in Kierkegaardian terminology.
BARR: I can understand Kierkegaard’s preoccupation with the contradiction between ethics and faith. He lived in the 19th Century and he saw a very important clash between an ethical approach to reality and a religious or a faith-oriented approach to reality. But it does not seem to me that this clash is present in Genesis 22, in the story of the binding of Isaac. I do not see the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) being presented as ethical ideals. I do not see Abraham agonizing over the principle that it’s wrong to put somebody to death. There is not the slightest indication of this, not even that it’s wrong to kill your own family. That consideration does not arise. His problem is that he is asked to kill his son Isaac, the one through whom the divine promises are to be fulfilled. The dilemma is that God has made these promises, and now Abraham apparently is being told to perform an act which would make it impossible for those promises to be fulfilled.
JACOBS: That is a theological statement, but does it not depend on the original text and the meaning of the original text? Granted, there are bits from old traditions, but the story, as we now have it, is a literary work, and one of a relatively late period. The redactor or editor uses the ancient chronicles or traditions, but shapes them to meet the needs of his day. He was a religious artist rather than a scientific historian. His writing is theological rather than anthropological.
MACCOBY: There is an element of artistry in this story that can’t simply be reduced to a pile of ancient anecdotes. The oral traditions, which had been passed along from generation to generation, are there, but they have been molded in such a way as to give the story a meaningful and dramatic shape. Genesis 22 is a point of deliberate contrast. The preparing of Isaac as a sacrifice is a boundary between what has been occurring before and what is about to happen. Before, we saw a process by which Abraham had, in a sense, become friendly with God. He was chosen. He received promises. He even argued with God and questioned God’s acts. Suddenly, the situation changes. The dialogue is cut off. The promises don’t matter any more. God becomes remote. He makes demands. And now we get back to Kierkegaard’s situation, for the narrative is telling us that human ethical behavior really doesn’t apply to God. The fact that Abraham does as he is told is a way of saying that God is not really a fellow human being whose motives can be questioned. If God simply says, “I want you to sacrifice your son,” you have to do it. Abraham had no assurance that God would relent and accept a substitute sacrifice.
FRANKEL: As a psychoanalyst, I see the story of the sacrifice carrying another message. It has to do with human history and human philosophy. What I see is a story that tries to show that the Israelite tradition will transcend the ancient rites of blood sacrifice, of human sacrifice, and change them into a type of sacrifice that does not involve killing human beings. As has been noticed, the unique element of this story is not the sacrifice of the boy. That kind of thing was not even questioned. The new element and the extraordinary part of the story is that at the last moment Abraham was asked not to sacrifice Isaac. What I see here is the Covenant between Abraham and God resulting in a transformation from what was really a pagan type of sacrifice to an ethical type of sacrifice in which human lives were no longer offered by the letting of their blood.
BARR: From my point of view as a biblical scholar, I see a different emphasis in the story. Not so much the idea of ethical versus human sacrifice, but the concept of substitutes for sacrifice. The general principle found in the Hebrew Bible is that life is sacred in the sense of belonging to God. The life of the first child is particularly sacred. In principle, one may say that the life of the firstborn is returned to God. The reason for this is that God is the source of life and, therefore, when life is created, there is a certain mystery symbolized by the firstborn. If you have the firstborn sheep, its life goes back to God in sacrifice, but when you have the firstborn of a human being, a substitute sacrifice must be made to God. In the case of Isaac, as far as the text goes, he is not only the firstborn of Abraham and Sarah, but one who is uniquely involved in the promises given to Abraham. For those promises to be kept, it is necessary that Abraham be faithful to the degree shown, and that a substitute sacrifice be made.
JACOBS: There are so many ways one can look at this story, but I want to ask why it has endured all these centuries, and to suggest that the answer is the presence of an emotional layer by which people all over the world can recognize something inside themselves. I don’t think the primary appeal is intellectual or literary, but is essentially unconscious. Like all great works of art, the viewer resonates to the content or the spirit. And this is an unconscious act which he can’t even explain. These stories offer a catharsis of really deep and primal emotional feelings. To a great extent I think this particular story deals with the Oedipus complex. It deals symbolically with a way of resolving the problem of violence against the father, even though on the surface we see only the potential violence of the father against the son.
FRANKEL: Yes, it’s very much like interpreting a dream. Dreams are not meaningless even though in some cases their meaning is of passing significance. The Bible itself has numerous stories in which the interpretation of dreams plays a role. But beyond that, the nature of biblical stories themselves, far from being history in the current, scientific sense, are analogous to dreams. When we find the meaning, we have learned more about the unconscious character of the human being. Yes, it is quite true that many of these stories do represent Oedipal conflicts, but it is also true that religion, as such, is based upon an effort to resolve Oedipal conflicts. The genius of the Israelite tradition is that it shows a way to resolve the conflict of sacrificial relationships to God. And that is illustrated here in Genesis 22.
MODERATOR: There is another relationship we need to examine. In Chapter 20 there is an episode when Abraham, as he did with the Pharaoh, in Egypt, tells Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, that Sarah is his sister.
JACOBS: Clearly, in the story he is calling his wife his sister in order that Avimelekh will not kill him.
MURRAY: This type of story comes three times. It’s simply incredible that the same thing happens in chapter 12, verse 13, in Egypt, and chapter 20, verse 12, in Gerar to Abraham, and then to Isaac and Rebekah in chapter 26, verse 7, and that both father and son have a similar experience with King Avimelekh. So I believe what we have are three versions of the same story. And the 10th-century editor or compiler of these traditions keeps all three versions because they add up to an important statement about Sarah. It is a way of drawing special attention to her as the mother of the whole tribe. Other people tried to lay their hands on her, but didn’t get away with it. Then, finally she was given a son. And, if by miraculous means, so much the better.
MODERATOR: What are we to think of Abraham in these episodes? They seem to express a dark side to his character.
JACOBS: These questions have often been raised by such Jewish commentators as Maimonides. What was the intention of the narrative? Was it to uphold Abraham as being admirable in this, or was it, in fact, to condemn him? It certainly could be read as disapproval of Abraham and as making a hero of Avimelekh, who rightly puts the blame on Abraham’s deceit. Eliezer rejoices at the birth of Isaac.
MODERATOR: Isn’t God supporting or protecting Abraham by bringing plagues on Pharaoh’s house and infertility on Avimelekh’s household?
JACOBS: It is not to punish them. It’s to put a stop to Sarah’s living with them. Once that is accomplished, Pharaoh or Avimelekh seem to be the aggrieved parties. They ask Abraham why he did such a deceitful thing. They reward Abraham. They come away as heroes. I think the message here is that the narrator is establishing human weaknesses in Abraham. The Patriarchs are not paragons of virtue.
MACCOBY: What seems to me to emerge in the narrative is that Abraham still lacks confidence in God. Although God has appeared to him, Abraham still doesn’t realize how far God is going to intervene in his affairs by protecting him from the great people of the earth. So Abraham uses petty, sordid, human devices in order to protect himself. Then he discovers that they really would have been unnecessary. This point may be the reason the author, the person to whom scholars refer to as a “redactor,” includes all three versions of one story. Repetition represents the gradual process of the growth of faith in Abraham, as he came to realize that God was on his side and that he could rely on God’s protection.
FRANKEL: There is another purpose which I see in these stories. There is an intimation that Sarah does not conceive from Abraham. In addition, she is represented as being his sister or half-sister. This leads to the miraculous fulfillment of the promise. Even in the text, Isaac is not, in fact, Abraham’s son. Isaac is God’s son. Abraham says he is 100 years old and that Sarah is beyond menopause. And God says, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” How God managed it, I don’t pretend to know.
JACOBS: Well, the implications of that idea bother me. It would intrude an element of myth, by which I mean something that is technically a divine biography. And the intrusion of myth tends to make this passage a kind of literature which it does not pretend to be. It distorts the literary pattern and seems to me to be completely at variance with the meaning of the text.
MURRAY: There are many stories of this kind in the Bible. Think of the birth of Samson, the story of Hannah, mother of Samuel. I don’t think those claims are meant to be taken literally. Their purpose is always to give great prominence to the births which actually take place.
KENYON: My analysis bypasses this argument. The stories of Abraham and Isaac were different strands or traditions which came into the hands of the 10th Century redactor or author. There is some reason to believe that the Isaac strand is actually more ancient than the Abraham strand. Therefore, I would think there cannot be an argument that Abraham was Isaac’s father. And there is no reason to introduce an element of myth by claiming that God was his father. It doesn’t seem to me worth arguing about an event that never took place. The whole thing is a statement of a religious point of view, which was structured in the 10th Century.
MODERATOR: This seems to bring us back to the caution raised at the beginning that there are so many ways to approach the subject. We appreciate your efforts to sort them out, and thank you for a most stimulating discussion.