Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Story of Abraham and Isaac by James Goodman

But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac by James Goodman

The literary critics of the Bible learn from and acknowledge the findings of linguists and philologists and anthropologists and archeologists and historians of the ancient Near East, who identify all the parallels between the stories, covenants, vassal treaties, languages, laws, rituals, social practices, and even the gods of ancient Israel and all the peoples (The Canaanites, Egyptians, Hittites, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Mesopotamians, and Persians) among whom so many ancient Israelites were born, lived, and died.

But their own work is grounded in the conviction that no matter how many people had a hand in it, how long it was in the making, how many earlier forms it took, how much of it was borrowed from neighbors, how many different kinds of imperatives shaped it, how often and dramatically transcription, translation, and exegesis transformed words and meanings, the final product (which happens to be the only version of most of it that for many years now anyone has actually set eyes on) is, in addition to everything else, and perhaps above all else, a work of literature.

Where others see inconsistency and contradiction (and in that contradiction evidence of competing traditions and schools and circles and courts), the literary critics see multiple points of view, artful appropriation and juxtaposition, and every kind of ambiguity. Where others look behind the text in the hope of finding oral tradition, political and theological orientation, and historical facts, the literary critics look right at it and find carefully composed poetry and lyrical prose.

Where others see fractures and fragments, pieces and parts, smudges and crooked seams, J and E and D and H and P and G (hypothesized authors of the Bible), literary critics see the Teachings of Moses and the Holy Scriptures –remarkably coherent works of ancient literature, literature without which it is simply impossible to imagine or understand the literature, to say nothing of the graphic art, music, religion, and politics, of the past two thousand years. All that and, what’s more, they have great taste. To a man, they have nothing but the highest praise for my story:

“The most perfectly formed and polished of all the patriarchal stories”- Gerhard von Rad.
“The profoundest recorded experience in all the history of the patriarchs and the telling of it soars to incomparable literary heights.” E.A. Speiser
“One of the peaks of ancient narrative.” –Everett Fox
“A masterpiece of biblical literature.”- Robert Alter
“A masterpiece of economy, psychology, and artistic subtlety.”-Jack Miles (not only a former Jesuit seminarian but also a biographer of God)

One of the pioneers of the literary approach, a German philologist and critic named Erich Auerbach, set the tone. Living in exile in Istanbul in the early 1940s (after the Nazis forced him out of his posting Marburg), Auerbach went to work on a sweeping study of (nothing less than) the representation of reality in Western literature. In his opening chapter, he uses the story to demonstrate how ancient Hebrew writers harnessed the awesome literary power of the unseen and the unsaid.  .  .

In short, we are told or shown only what we need to know to follow the action. Everything else, Auerbach writes, is “left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and space are undefined .  .  .thoughts and feelings remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speech; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense .  .  . and directed towards a single goal, remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background.’”

Auerbach’s analysis of Genesis 22 comes in a close comparison of the biblical style to ‘the genius of the Homeric style” as it is displayed in chapter 19 of the Odyssey, a chapter in which every element of plot, character, and theme is set in the foreground, every scene is fully illuminated, every connection made explicit, every thought is expressed, and every act takes place in the story’s present, right in front of our eyes, and is fully explained. And while I can imagine some less-enamored critic spinning all of Auerbach’s talk of background as a backhanded compliment (“what is memorable about your writing is what you didn’t write”), he doesn’t mean it that way. He warns us not to mistake the skeletal structure –the withholding of detail, description, and dialogue, especially detail and dialogue that reveals interiors –for evidence of a primitive stage in the evolution of storytelling. Rather, he sees it as evidence as evidence of a sophisticated  sense of memory, thought, emotion and action, all set squarely in the flow of time –so sophisticated that unlike Homer, whose stories can be analyzed but resist interpretation and allegory, biblical literature cries out for interpretation. In fact, Auerbach argues, it must be interpreted or transformed by allegory to be fully understood and explained.

Not every critic accepts all of Auerbach’s premises, Or considers Hebrew scripture so singular. Or shares his estimate and appreciation of its literary value. But many do, and the point is that before Auerbach, most critics would have found the idea that the literature of the ancient Israelites could be spoken of in the same breath as the Iliad and the Odyssey laughable. .  .

Abraham has had  critics forever. The story has been used as evidence that God abhors human sacrifice for nearly as long. And if martyrdom had not been hotly contested, apologists probably would not have gone to such great lengths to turn it into sacred historical precedent. Any honest appraisal of the merits and demerits of our religious traditions would have to take our interpretative traditions, all those questions and answers, all the things that people have done with what they inherited, into account.

In fact, I couldn’t imagine a better foil for the fiction at the heart of fundamentalism, in all its varieties, than the fluidity, multiplicity, and variety of revelation over time, the thinking and rethinking, the talk and the argument, the writing and rewriting, the vast array and mélange of meanings, the engagement with troubling texts, and the marriage (at times happy, at times troubled, at times both) of tradition and innovation. Nor could I imagine a better way to display the variety and fluidity than to shine some light on the long and protean life of the nineteen lines of ancient literature in Genesis 22, a story that many (including the vast majority of the people who have taken it into their own hands as if it were a lump of soft clay) believe to be the work of God.

It was then that it first occurred to me to write a brief history of the story, a book about some of the things that people have done with it, Muslims, Christians, and especially Jews, who have returned to it more often and revised it in more different ways.

 No sooner did that thought occur to me than I began to have doubts.  Where would I start? How would I ever get a handle on two thousand years of commentary and two hundred years of scholarship, to say nothing of all the ritual and liturgy and literature and drama and music and art? How would I figure out where to survey and where to take soundings, how to strike a balance between depth and breath, when I would need to know more than I knew about a commentators life and times to understand a particular commentary, when I would need to show or tell more to explain? Who would stick with me? How many at this late date would care? I felt a little like Kafka’s Abraham: He has faith. He wants to do what he has been called to do, in the right spirit, in the right way, but he simply can’t believe that it is he who has been called to do it.

I wasn’t the only one who had doubts. My mother, heretofore the most loyal and indulgent fan of my work, repeatedly asked my wife and siblings why I was writing about “that” story, and she made no effort to hide her distress from me. Isaac’s line alone (“the saddest in all literature,” she once said) was more than her heart could bear. It was visceral. Every time she overheard me talking about it, she would grab her hair, as if she were trying to pull it out, and say “Stop, stop, I hate that story. I can’t listen to another word.”

.   . . ………………………………………

Now I, J.S., will take the unusual liberty (in this Blog) of commenting directly on Mr. Goodman’s book. First I will admit that I had never before heard of the massacre of Rhineland Jews during the first and second Crusades, so I cannot thank the author enough for telling that story. Also the story about  how G.H. Davies’ commentary on Genesis 22 ( which concluded that the sacrifice was Abraham’s idea; God saved Abraham from his own obsession and misunderstanding of God)- commissioned by the Southern Baptist’s education board  was declared inadmissible- that it “clouded a clear divine directive.”- and all the unsold copies of his report destroyed.

I just don’t agree that Bob Dylan’s Abraham ( In Highway 61) expresses a mere ‘so-it-goes cynicism’ and performs in a setting that is ‘less Genesis than the end of days.' It’s more about  taking an honest look at founding myths. It’s  really more a disagreement on  emphasis than substance, one the author surely allows.

"Highway 61 Revisited"

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What ?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done ?"
God says. "Out on Highway 61".

This is about Isaac being sacrificed over and over again, that no angels stayed Abraham’s bloodying hand in the founding  and subsequent life of America – and who is counting the holocaust of infants and children  in the settlements of Virginia, New England, across the breadth of the frontier or even contemporary “mortality rates” (said to be the highest in the industrialized world)?

Then we have a stanza about- despite all the formal hoopla to the contrary- the incorrigible state of ‘Social Contract’, and ‘gun culture’.

Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn't give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there's only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Ol' Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61.

 Then a stanza about  our endless streams of 'broken' commodities and the business model which underlies a large proportion of commerce in this country: “a sucker born every minute.”

Well Mack the finger said to Louie the King
I got forty red white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don't ring
Do you know where I can get ride of these things
And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son
And he said yes I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61.

Nothing  end  times about this, It’s our history from the beginning. Ads for snake oil dominated the pages of America’s earliest newspapers, for example.

Isaac- the rock n’ roll icon- the one who escaped sacrifice as a child- the second mother, of course, being Sarah:

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren't right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light he says hmmm you're right
Let me tell second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61.

As Johnny Rivers hit from 1965 had it:

I can talk these words that will sound so sweet
They will even make your little heart skip a beat
Heal the sick, raise the dead
Make the little girls talk outta their heads

I'm the one, oh I'm the one
I'm the one,
I'm the one
The one they call the seventh son

Finally, the broad horizon of the founding and perpetuation of America as a continental and then global military and military-style enterprise:

Now the rowin' gambler he was very bored
He was tryin' to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61.

I can hardly think of a better foil for the fiction at the heart of Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”. At any rate, the song falls easily into the parameters of the change in perspective on the story when commentators began to identify Isaac as a victim, not ‘the dorky, willing Isaacs of the ancient and late-antique commentary.” ( see Chapter 26).

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