There are only 19 verses in the story of the Binding of Isaac, which we read in synagogue each Rosh Hashanah, but there are — without exaggeration — hundreds, if not thousands, of commentaries about it.
These commentaries 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 they talk along the way, or just ride together in silence? Did Sarah know? What does it mean when the text says that Abraham “returned to his servants”? Above all, in this age of jihad 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?
The nuances of every word of the Binding of Isaac story — and of the silences in the story — have been weighed and studied in every generation. Yet every year, when we confront this awesome tale on Rosh Hashanah, we wince. 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 Hashanah?
James Goodman’s new book, But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac, is a fresh and exciting take on the different ways in which the Binding of Isaac has been understood down through the centuries, and also covers how we should understand it today. He writes as one who is both a son and a father, both a Jew and a person in search of meaning, and, above all, as a storyteller who is fascinated by this ancient tale. And he also writes as one who lets his imagination run free over what the story means.
It is impossible to determine exactly where a story has its origin, because every story has a story that came before it. 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 some 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 that every writer must learn, which is 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. I once saw a famous novelist listen to someone’s interpretation of one of his stories. He took out a pen and made some notes, and said, “I never realized that this was what my story meant.” Such is the case with the Binding of Isaac.
For the author of the book of Jubilees, the Binding of Isaac was a precursor to the Passover story, in which the Israelites were rescued at the last minute by the sacrifice of a lamb. The purpose of the story 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 Abraham as a noble example of the 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 change of color, no weakening of soul. He remained as steadfast as ever and did not waver, 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 one.
Goodman’s book goes on, chapter after chapter, teaching us what the generations read into and out of the Binding of Isaac tale. As Goodman says, when you read this book, you feel like an observer who has been privileged with a seat at a great convention at which the scholars and sages of all the generations are sitting together and exchanging insights into what the ancient tale means to them. You look around the room and you see people who told the tale with an emphasis on Isaac’s courage, and sitting near them you see people who focused on Sarah and what she would have said if she could have spoken.
You see people who read the story in Hebrew sitting next to people who read it in Coptic, or in Aramaic, Greek, or Latin, all sitting together and comparing notes on what it means. Over in one corner, you see a newcomer from the religion of Islam who carries a book called the Koran with him that says that it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was bound upon the altar. In another corner, you can eavesdrop on a midrashic sage who firmly believes that Sarah should have been informed of what was going on, and that when Satan told her, she was so upset that she had a heart attack on the spot.
In the center of the room sit the sages of the Talmud, who insist that the Binding of Isaac was an achievement that God promised He would always remember, and 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 dare to say that Isaac really died on the altar that day, but then came back to life.
The book goes on and on, letting us in on the conversations of Soren Kierkegard, Wilfred Owen, Shalom Spiegel, A. B. Yehoshua, Bob Dylan, Yitschak Lamdan and others closer to our own time. It is a must-read for all of us who want to prepare for the High Holidays, and I think Goodman’s character “G” would be both surprised and pleased with what readers have discovered in his story.
I came away from this book with a sense that the conversation about the Binding of Isaac is not over yet. In synagogue this Rosh Hashanah, who knows what we may yet find in this fascinating tale that we have read so often, but that has within it the capacity to surprise us and enable us to see new things each time we read it?
Rabbi Jack Riemer writes frequently for journals of Jewish and general thought in America and abroad.