Call Me, Ishmael (A Current and Proposed Reading List) (Mythology On, and Off, My Bookshelf, Part 2)

Rembrandt, "Abraham and Isaac," 1634

Lately, I find myself in the familiar territory of Genesis 22.  This is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, the beginning point, say theologians, of monotheism.  It’s the story of God “testing” Abraham’s faith by commanding him to make a burnt offering of his beloved son Isaac, and of Abraham obeying. At the last moment, an angel stops Abraham, Isaac is untied, and a ram shows up to be used as an alternative sacrificial victim.

I’ve been obsessed with this story for many years, and for a number of reasons. Most viscerally, it speaks to the small child in me who was sufficiently terrified of her own father’s rage that she feared he would kill her. Intellectually, it makes me burningly curious as to the antecedents of the three major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) whose adherents consider this their foundational narrative. And spiritually, it provides a way of tip-toeing closer to the abhorrent, parallel sacrifice at the heart of Christianity, the one in which the all-powerful Father actually goes through with the sacrifice of his beloved Son.  I suppose that by trying to understand the originating moment of the three Abrahamic faiths, I can gain some understanding of the crucial moment of the particular Abrahamic faith that I camp out in.

In fact, it was these related questions that initially propelled me, starting last year, to begin searching the ancient narratives, and the works of those who study them,  for clues as to…

  • Why God would “test” Abraham by asking him to “make a burnt offering” of Isaac
  • Why Abraham would consent to do so
  • Why Isaac would consent to be killed
  • Why God (or an angel representing Him) would stop Abraham at the last moment
  • Why a sacrificial victim (the ram) was still required to die after Isaac had been unbound
  • Why Scripture records nothing about Abraham or Isaac telling Sarah about this
  • Why Jews (who trace their heritage to Abraham through Isaac) and Muslims (who trace their heritage to Abraham through Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar, Sarah’s servant-woman) dispute which son Abraham actually offered up, competing for the honor of being the first victim sacrificed to The Lord
  • Why any person, ancient or modern, provided with a whole Mediterranean region full of other options, would choose this particular Lord to sacrifice one’s child to
  • Why this Lord must have been considered by some to be an improvement over the other deities already worshiped in the region
  • Why Christian theologians emphasize the many parallels between Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and Jesus’s sacrifice of himself, yet get themselves into astonishing doctrinal contortions attempting to explain why a just, loving God would require such sacrifice in the first place
  • Whether, given His apparently bloodthirsty and volatile nature, I can trust this God character who acts so generously towards me
  • Which of the charges on God’s rap sheet are historically accurate, and which are paranoid projections of human nature, and which are politically motivated alterations to the official record, and how I can tell the difference.

As you can see, I have a lot riding on possible answers to these questions.

As well, I’m eager to write more poetry about this fascinating, disturbing material and my conflicted relationship to it, and I’m looking for a different way in than my usual I-can’t-believe-we-believe-this-stuff approach. I’ve written numerous poems about the story of Abraham and Isaac (and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael) before, enough to make into a chapbook manuscript a couple of years ago.  This time around, I’m trying for a way to de-familiarize this story that I became so immersed in. Finding out more about what came before Yahweh (and the people who chose, momentously, to follow Him)–the gods and goddesses, their worshipers and their religious practices–is giving me a little bit of insight into the religious impulse in general, and into the specific cultures and beliefs (regarding, for example, sacrifice) that the nascent Abrahamic religions emerged from and reacted against.

I took the first steps in this project last winter, finding preliminary tidbits in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, which I wrote about here. Now that the holidays are over and my son is back in school, I’m pulling some more myth theorists off my bookshelf (and the bookshelves of some generous friends–you know who you are, and thanks!) and carrying them along as I circle back around through this thicket of questions.  In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be finishing up the three books I’ve been reading since last fall:  Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, Volume I; Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret; and Leonard Schlein’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess:  The Conflict Between Word and Image. I’ll post summaries about my eureka moments and perplexities as I continue reading each one.

If I can possibly restrain myself long enough to complete those three, the next readings I’d like to dig into are a couple of books by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire:  Reflections on Genesis and The Murmuring Deep:  Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious.  Apparently, Zornberg uses psychoanalytic theories, which warm my geek heart and stir my lit-crit soul, to interpret stories from the Hebrew Bible.

Then, I’ll move on to a couple of books I read long ago, Elaine Pagels’s Adam, Eve, and The Serpent and Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, looking at their explanations about the origins of monotheism. (Eventually, I hope to get to Volumes II and III of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, though it’s possible I may lose patience with his agenda of universalizing every local myth and practice by the time I reach the end of Volume I).

In the meantime, can you recommend any resources to add to my list? I’ll be grateful for suggestions on any books, articles, commentaries, poems, midrash, etc. you can point me toward that offer further interpretations or perspectives–especially very ancient or very current ones–on these many questions.

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5 comments on “Call Me, Ishmael (A Current and Proposed Reading List) (Mythology On, and Off, My Bookshelf, Part 2)

  1. takatobimasu says:

    What a wonderful list of queued-for-clue questions! My particular favorites:
    Why any person, ancient or modern, provided with a whole Mediterranean region full of other options, would choose this particular Lord to sacrifice one’s child to
    Why this Lord must have been considered by some to be an improvement over the other deities already worshiped in the region
    AND MOST DEFINITELY
    Why Scripture records nothing about Abraham or Isaac telling Sarah about this

    Looking forward to the sequel!

  2. Yael says:

    I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog because I am curious about the same things as you are, but from a different perspective.

    I was wondering about the Oedipus Complex and how Freud left Laius and Jocasta out of the equation. I believe it is not the son who goes trough it, but the parents. The son only reacts. Mainly because I find the same story of the father who wants to kill his son but doesn’t go through it in the end. There is Oedipus Rex, but also Abraham, William Tell, Segismundo from Life is a Dream, Guzman el Bueno, and even Snow White with her mother.

    I will try to find the books you mention. Thanks for posting this.

    • Yael, thank you so much for this comment. It certainly does seem that you & I share a curiosity about how these archetypal stories influence psychoanalytic theory! Year before last, in fact, I explored some of the possibilities you mention in a persona poem titled “In the Afterlife, Abraham Sets Sigmund Straight about Some Matters Pertaining to Sons and Fathers,” in which I imagine Abraham lecturing Freud for picking the wrong drama to pattern his theory after: Abraham argues that his (& Sarah’s & Isaac’s) story has even more power than Oedipus’s to demonstrate these complex, violent family relationships. And I agree with you that it’s crucial to attend to the other characters in those dramas who are given fewer lines (Laius, Jocasta, Sarah, Isaac) in attempting to understand these dynamics–both psychological and theological–more fully.

      Thanks, too, for mentioning the parent-child dynamics in these other narratives: fraught and fascinating, all.

  3. […] and Isaac, and this prompt was just the nudge I needed to embark on a new line of thinking about this vexing narrative I’m obsessed with. NaPoWriMo’s imperative to write it TODAY jolted me into coming up with this unusual twist on […]

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