A friend recommended this book to me, and I’m very glad I tried it. It’s a broad consideration of how the Binding of Isaac has been interpreted, imagined, and portrayed over the centuries—combined with the author’s personal struggles with the story. It was difficult sometimes as an audiobook (while I appreciated its breadth, it sometimes felt repetitious), but I got a lot out of it.
On a friend’s recommendation, I’m currently reading (well, listening to) James Goodman’s But Where is the Lamb?, an interesting volume taking a look at the story of Abraham and the Binding of Isaac. This passage stood out to me yesterday:
To say that you prefer your church and its stories to another church and its stories is one thing. But to say that your church annuls another church (completes it, voids it, supersedes it) is quite another.
Almost immediately after finishing yesterday’s post, an idea occurred to me that I wanted to chase a little further. I’ve mentioned before my admiration for Thomas Römer, a Germano-Swiss Bible scholar who teaches at the Collège de France and whose lectures are freely available in podcast form. I’ve listened to a lot of those lectures, and I remembered that Römer had made some comments about the rhetorical purposes of the Abraham story that seemed relevant to my wrestling with the story of the Binding of Isaac.
I’ve alluded to the binding of Isaac in previous posts, and I hope that what I’ve written before makes it clear how uncomfortable I am with this story. Nonetheless, it’s one of the readings in this week’s Lectionary scriptures, and there is a part of Robert Alter’s translation of this story that does stick out to me. Here’s how Alter renders Genesis 22:2:
And He said, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the Land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.
Yesterday, I wrote a post on Jephthah, a figure in the book of Judges who makes a commitment that if God helps him out in battle, he’ll sacrifice the first thing that exits the door of his house when he returns home. Robert Alter notes that there’s been a lot of rabbinic and scholarly effort to make sense of this but that in “any case, it is a rash vow.” Indeed, the vow goes wrong, and Jephthah winds up in a situation where’s he believes he’s committed to offer up his daughter in sacrifice.
Some of the most troubling passages in the Christian canon have to do with the sacrifice of children in the name of God. Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is perhaps the most obvious example of this, but there are other examples that (ought to) raise as much concern in the mind of the believer. Perhaps the most interesting (to me) story along these lines is found in Judges 11:31 (I’m using Robert Alter’s fantastic translation throughout this post), where one of the eponymous judges, a man by the name of Jephthah:
Dallin Oaks, the second highest-ranking apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave a speech at Brigham Young University yesterday where he touched on the “two great commandments” identified by Jesus in the Book of Mark. Unsurprisingly for anyone who’s been following recent signals of retrenchment at BYU (or anyone familiar with the apostle for that matter), Oaks put the two commandments in a particular order. Here’s how the Salt Lake Tribune quotes him: