In De veritate, sacrifice is appealed to as a universal rite and the ultimate guarantee of immutable truth, beyond reasonable deduction or natural instinct (Book 1, Chapter 7; cf. De satisfactione Christi). But sacrifice also stands as the ultimate example of the abrogation and alteration of law (Book 5, chs. 6–8). As an example of the abrogation of law, sacrifice signifies in both directions. The case of Abraham (Genesis 22) demonstrates God’s sovereign power of dispensatio. Divine right to radical revision is demonstrated in the command to sacrifice. But more generally it is the suspension of the command to sacrifice that stands as the ultimate sign of sovereign right not just to annotate but to radically rewrite the law. In this paper I explore how sacrifice operates as a guarantee of immutability and mutability: the intractability of scripture, and its equally necessary revision and alteration. Sacrifice reaches across all time and space, and stands as a sign of the parochialisation of biblical time and space. This tension relates to the principle of accommodation which, I argue, is already in operation in the Bible. By extrapolating this fundamentally biblical operation, Grotius produces a paradox that will help to sustain the Bible in modernity. The Bible (as emblematised in sacrifice) is localised and parochialised but also persists as a ‘universal’ foundation.
In A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives, published seventeen years ago (unbelievably), I looked forward to what would become a significant turn back towards the biblical texts’ past futures. In this paper, I look at the density of futurity and modality in these past futures. The sacrifice of Isaac reaches beyond itself into the space of the subjunctive, the optative, the cohortative, poetry and prayer. Drawing on Nietzsche’s and Steiner’s intuition that the uniqueness of the human lies with the grammars of the future and the promise, I revive the memory of lost Christian texts in Greek, Syriac, Coptic and Middle English that show, clearly, that the akedah does not just have a long and obsessive history, but a dense and long history of longing. If ‘every human use of the future tense of the verb “to be” is a negation, however limited, of mortality’ (so Steiner), then the fundamental structure of human grammar is sacrificial. In the modest sacrifices of modality, we give up and, in a sense, negate what is in order to make plural possibilities, myriad lives, more and less substantial. As Abraham offers up one son and gets a heavenful of sons, so modality offers up or qualifies or pluralises what is in order to make new possible lives: those that were, that could have been; and those that might yet live or live again.
This article examines three occurrences of the sacrifice of Isaac in relatively recent cultural and political histories: the case of Godden versus Hales (England, 1686); Erich Auerbach's 'Odysseus' Scar' in Mimesis (Istanbul [Marburg], 1943-1945); and the use of the akedah as a political figure for the modern Israeli nation state. In these three very different cases the biblical narrative undergoes a theological-political translation and the God who issues the exceptional command to sacrifice becomes a figure for the sovereign and/or the state. Each political translation also calls forth critical responses in which the core question becomes the relationship of divine monarchy/state authority to freedom, or, to put it another way, of democracy or would-be 'democracy' to 'theocracy' and its various modern political correlates. By analysing these translations and responses, this essay explores how the questions as it were forced on us by Genesis 22 are not just religious, though they can be understood through the idioms of the religious. It concludes by asking whether such theological-political translations could be relevant to 'Biblical Studies Proper' as a more expansive discipline looks outwards to questions of religion, politics and ethics.
This reading is about critical versions of texts and how they survive (or over-live) in the critical imagination. It looks at three readings of the book of Jonah, from 1550, 1781-2 and 1860, the first freezing the moment where Jonah is catapulted from the boat as the narrative's single defining moment, the second abstracting the image of Jonah looking out over Nineveh and snarling over God's change of mind, and the third zooming in on the body of the whale, its species, jawsize and body weight. In each case it is clear that the book of Jonah (and thus the Bible) is not hermetically sealed off from culture nor merely read against a cultural background, but that the "Bible" and "Society," text and context, are held in complex and reciprocal lines of force. The story of Jonah, the whale, God and the Ninevites is a stage where the transformed fears and anxieties of cultures are acted out, and gives back to society a transformed, idealised, picture of itself.
The book of Jonah, which was once read by scholars with an impossibly straight face, is now regularly read as satire. In this article I look at how these satirical readings at once release humour and constrain it, by tailoring humour to a pedagogic purpose and heaping all our laughter upon the prophet's head. Jonah criticism, in Bakhtin's term, has been oppressively monologic, promoting YHWH'S perspective and the religious ideology of the reader, and using Jonah's words merely as evidence of his particularism and selfishness. The prophetic caricature is sinister and the laughter hollow, for Jonah is styled as the clownish Jew, resisting God's universalistic innovations and comically tripping over the truth of Rom. 3:29. Arguing that such readings are guilty of the sectarianism and myopia they criticise, I look for more nuanced ways of reading the text. The models I use are parody, dialogism and carnival, and the sources I look at range from the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer to Herman Melville's Moby Dick. These readings tend to highlight ambiguity and disjuncture at the level of the word (for example the twisting word ) and between the voices of Jonah and God. Read dialogically, I maintain, the book loses its sing-song childish quality and easy morality and becomes a far more interesting, subversive, and genuinely comic text.