Review of James Goodman's "But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac"

tags: historiography, James Goodman, Abraham & Isaac

Jim Cullen, a Book Review editor at HNN, chairs the History Department at the Fieldston School in New York. He is the author of Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions and the forthcoming A Brief History of the Modern Media. He blogs at American History Now.

It's possible to describe this book in a fairly straightforward way, so I'll begin by doing that. But Where Is the Lamb? is an exegesis of nineteen verses from the Book of Genesis, a foundational piece of scripture for Jews, Christians and Muslims. James Goodman chronicles an array of interpretations these faith communities have generated with a slab of prose that's reproduced in its entirety on the cover of the book.

More specifically, Lamb (as I'll call it) is a reading of one of the most famous and perplexing stories in the canon of great world religions: God's commandment that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, Abraham's preparations to act on this instruction, and the last-minute reprieve that gets delivered before Isaac is to be killed. Just what was God doing when he issued this injunction? Why did Abraham act on, if not execute, the order? Did Isaac understand what was happening? (The title of the book refers to the question he asks as his father prepares his sacrifice.) These are some of the questions Goodman plumbs in about 260 compact pages.

That said, the narrative arc of his study is vast, and, notwithstanding its brevity, surprisingly detailed. One can describe the first thousand or so years of interpretation as an intra-Jewish dialogue conducted against a backdrop of the rise and fall of Israel, the spread of Hellenism, and the expansion of the Roman Empire. So it is that we're introduced to the book of Jubilees, which argues that God always knew that Abraham would obey and was demonstrating this to Satan, much in the way he did with Job. The Hellenic-minded Philo, by contrast, emphasized Abraham's fidelity in a context of Greek religion, where the sacrifice of one's children was relatively common. (There's an intriguing anthropological subtext in the Lamb regarding the role of child sacrifice in the ancient world that might have been strengthened with a nod to places like pre-Columbian America -- it seems to have been remarkably widespread.) The Roman-era Flavius Josephus makes the tale of Abraham and Isaac one of fidelity by father and son, while Pseudo-Philo emphasizes the latter's conscious sacrifice, a model for Jewish martyrdom around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

The arrival of Christianity shifted the terms of the conversation about Abraham and Isaac. As was done with the Old Testament generally, the story became -- as far as Goodman is concerned, it was reduced to -- a set of typologies. Abraham's would-be sacrifice of his son prefigures God's actual sacrifice of his own son, Jesus. Abraham's wife/Isaac's mother Sarah, who was certainly a figure of some scrutiny earlier, gets foregrounded as a Mary figure. Such readings of the story prompted responses, some critical, others accommodating, within mainstream Judaism, though of course isolating the strands of Jewish tradition was a complicated matter in the early centuries of the Christian era.

The Muslim tradition introduced another wrinkle into the story by substituting Ishmael -- Abraham's illegitimate son by Hagar -- as the son to be sacrificed, though this was not a feature of all Islamic readings. Perhaps the simplest way of distinguishing the core differences in the three Abrahamic traditions would be to say that for Jews the story has been one of obedience; for Christians one of faith, and for Muslims one of submission. There is of course a considerable amount of overlap in these concepts, but Goodman teases out their nuances well enough to make clear that their implications really do cut in different directions.

That said, it was not really philosophical nuances that drove the rise of anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages -- in the case of the Crusades, it was a matter of Christians finding an indispensable enemy closer to home than the Levant. Centuries of pogroms gave the Abraham/Isaac story new significance for many Jews, some of whom drew analogies between Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son and their own willingness, literal as well as figurative, to sacrifice their children rather than to submit to Christianity by the sword.  This threat of systematic destruction never disappeared, but with the arrival of the Enlightenment new interpretive directions emerged, among them a quest to trace the historical record more accurately, a literary sensibility that expanded the story's meaning beyond religious indoctrination, and more psychological readings (the analysis of Kierkegaard in particular is quite compelling). Goodman continues his interpretative tour through the Holocaust and beyond, weaving landmark figures like Elie Wiesel into it. Along the way he also incorporates non-textual renderings of the Abraham/Isaac story from Rembrandt to Bob Dylan.

Considered solely on these terms, But Where is the Lamb? is an impressive book. (It must be a source of satisfaction to Goodman that Lamb is published by Schocken Books, the imprint of great Jewish writers from Franz Kafka to Primo Levi.) As he makes clear, Goodman is not a biblical scholar by training, though he has a journalist's suppleness in his ability to distill and sequence complicated ideas. I will confess that by the end I started to feel that the book had a one-damn-thing-after-another quality: it becomes increasingly clear as one reads that the Abraham/Isaac story, like so many others in scripture, can and has been bent in any number of different and even contradictory directions. (Abraham and Isaac as a parable of feminist empowerment? Sarah, re-enter stage left -- talking.) This sense of sprawl gets intensified because Goodman does not provide a compact argument as to how he understands the story, though his (conventionally modern) opinions are reasonably clear. Yet impatience of the kind I'm describing is at least partially misplaced. Though Lamb functions as a work of popular history, that's not the only, or even primary, reason to read it.

Actually, one can better another sense of what Goodman is really up to by considering this book in the context of his others: his Pulitzer-Prize nominated 1994 study Stories of Scottsboro, and Blackout, his 2005 book on the infamous 1977 electricity outage in New York City. In these works Goodman established himself as a leading practitioner of subgenre of cultural history known as memory, a distinctively postmodern historiographic school that explores the plurality of meanings that surround a given event or text. In some ways, the study of memory is now among the most vibrant of the intellectual currents to follow in the wake of the egalitarian currents of the 1960s. While others, like the New Social History, had similarly democratic impulses, they never managed to fully resolve the contradiction between its insular, even elitist methodology, and its purported egalitarianism. Such problems continue to afflict theoretically-minded approaches to the humanities on the ideological left.

Goodman doesn't have this problem: his prose is marvelous in its clarity. Lamb is written in an informal, first-person style marked by invented dialogue, speculative fancy, and phraseology -- like "Don't let me give you the wrong impression," "Believe me when I tell you" and "Believe me when I say" -- that most professional historians abjure. He even violates what might be considered a cardinal sin of expressing self-doubt, the subject of entire chapter in a book that is executed as a series of short, concatenated essays. "You have no training or special expertise in any relevant area," he quotes his editor as saying. "You don't even have the languages you would need." Goodman's reply: "'It's worse than that,' I said to him (and ever afterward to anyone who would listen). The real problem is not that I am not qualified. It is that I know how much I don't know.'"

There's something almost showy about this confession, because Goodman clearly had enough confidence to execute the book and expect that his reader would get to this point (which comes toward the end). He gets away with it as a matter of scholarship because this is in fact a deeply researched and well-documented book. Experts in the field are likely to argue with his assertions, but I suspect it will be hard for them to avoid taking him seriously.

But I don't think establishing his bona fides as a religious commentator is where Goodman's heart is in any case. I'm going to guess that he fretted more about matters of voice and structure than he did evidence and argument. In an important sense this is less the work of a historian than it is a fictively-inflected non-fiction writer. Here I should note that Goodman holds an unusual joint appointment at Rutgers in History and Creative Writing. And that he is the editor of the journal Rethinking History, which seeks to stretch the expressive boundaries of professional scholarship.

All of which strikes me as the logical outcome of his disciplinary obsessions -- which, you might say, have resulted in a crisis of faith.  When you make pluralism a (dare I say) sacred value -- a tendency that has dominated not just cultural history, but American intellectual life generally in the last half-century -- you're virtually begging for challenges to authority that are as likely to result in free market deregulation as they they are multiculturalism. If it's impossible to know what's true, you're thrown back on yourself. (Theologian G.H. Davies wrote in 1969 that the voice telling Abraham to kill Isaac came not from God but inside his own head, prompting angry fellow Baptists to withdraw the book they had commissioned from circulation.) If meanings are endlessly plastic, why should anybody pay attention to yours?

Goodman in effect goes about trying answer this question in two ways. The first is by avowedly embracing, as a lifelong Jew, the faith of his fathers (and mothers). When intellectual precepts are nothing more than a series of shifting currents, and the scientific method rests on a foundation of endless revision ("We now know ..."), the weight of tradition, religious and otherwise, becomes more appealing. As Goodman notes, ancient scripture seems vexing to us moderns because we're fixated by conflicts in the record, a fixation that can be loosely dated with the birth of modern Europe (i.e. that place and time when religious pluralism became common sense). But the writers who emended or supplemented the Torah all those centuries ago never understood themselves to be doing anything but elaborating on received truth: their confidence in the law mattered more than their quibbles or their doubts. Facts, chronology, translation: these were all beside the point. Which they remain for millions, even billions, of people, which is something that scares the hell out the secular imagination, even though it makes a kind of sense.

Clearly, such an answer can't be wholly sufficient to Goodman, either. Perhaps he believes, like the Puritans, that faith is an irresistible gift, not a choice. In any case, he's too much a creature of his own culture, and still too invested in the rituals of academic life, to surrender the longings for grace in that faith, which among other things involves the transcendence of a book that just might reach that mythic General Audience we all covet. But he has apparently concluded that the best way to get there is by not simply theorizing, but acting, on the truism that history is an art, not a (social) science. Which is the second half of his answer as to why we should listen to him, whether or not we're believers: even more than persuading us, he wants to beguile us with the alchemy of the written word. In this regard, Lamb is an imaginative experiment in history as literature. Believe this goyim when I when I tell you: this is the general direction in which the future of history lies -- and comes to life.

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