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Grammars of Sacrifice: Futures, Subjunctives, and What Would Have/Could Have Happened on Mount Moriah?


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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.


Abstract

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.


I dwell in Possibility –

a fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors.


The Futures of Man1

Throughout the centuries, but most fervently with the rise of a self-conscious ‘humanism’ when so much depended upon it, the anxious human has worked very, very hard on a very long list of the various capabilities or attributes that will finally separate him from the animal. So, we hope and hypothesise, man alone has reason; technique; laws; cities; speech; writing; cooking; kitchens; altars; gifts; tools; being-towards-death; burial; religion; commerce; or the remarkable hand which can be ‘talon, hoof[s] and horn[s] at will’.2 And man alone has a unique relation to time and tense. From Nietzsche’s concept of man as a promising animal,3 to (more recently) George Steiner’s Grammars of Creation, man begins qua man in the future, with the future, and, in particular, the future tense. ‘Animals would appear to know presentness and, one supposes, a measure of remembrance’, hazards Steiner, venturing boldly into that dis­tinctly human (?) space of the hypothesis or thesis.4 But unique to human ­beings is the ‘future tense’ and the subjunctive or counterfactual modes that are ‘kindred to’ the future tense.5 Man’s uniquely human soul lies in grammar, the ‘nerve structure … of … consciousness’,6 that allows him to project a time beyond his death; or in outer space a million years hence; or alternative parallel worlds spiralling out from ‘if clauses’ such as ‘If Caesar had not gone to the Capitol that day’.7 In Steiner’s potted evolutionary grammar, the future tense is related to those other fundamentals of man: cooking, kitchens, food storage, tools (and sacrifice?). In all probability, he hypothesises, the futures and subjunctives came late to human speech, maybe even as late as the end of the last ice age ‘together with the “futurities” entailed by food storage’ and ‘the making and preservation of tools beyond immediate need’.8 Man became himself in that first unique utterance of words like ‘shall’, ‘will’ and ‘if’, ‘circling around an intricate field of semantic force around a hidden centre or nucleus of potentiality’.9 In his discovery of the future – here at least as momentous as the discovery of fire – man discovered a way of sustaining life after death, and a mode of infinite regeneration and living-on through those ‘supreme fictions empowered by syntax’: hope and fear.10

I like this possibility that man alone dwells in possibility and its infinitely generative implications (all that follows). I am drawn to this ‘what if’. The ‘what if’ pulls you in. If the human occurs in the grammatical space of alternative or future worlds, then, in the present, in the here and now, man is never uniquely himself. Man is always to come. He is to follow, as in Derrida’s punning ‘je suis’.11 The idea that man’s unique being lies in or with the future is one of those most fascinating myths of man’s distinctiveness: the ones – like Prometheus and Epimetheus or Adam and Eve – that locate man’s uniqueness not in his powers, but in the ‘pit of lack’: man’s nakedness, sin, guilt.12 Man alone, Steiner’s origin myth seems to say, has his unique being in ambiguity, and grammatical and literary sleights of hand. To him alone lies the future, the promise (the promise that can always be broken); the subjunctive; and also (because how could this not follow?), the prophetic, the performative; and also irony (simultaneously affirming and denying, saying and not saying); and also, while we are at it, scare quotes, inverted commas, whereby something is simultaneously ‘said’ and not said. To him alone is the special art of lying and also literature, a ‘kind of writing in which you can neither lie, tell the truth, nor make a mistake’.13 ‘Every human use of the future tense of the verb “to be” is a negation, however limited, of mortality’, writes Steiner.14 This 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). These alternative worlds and lives cohabit and haunt one another. In the pedestrian everyday work of the imagination and grammar, what is, what happened, past simple, is haunted and hollowed out by what could be, what might have been, what or who could also (yet) take place.


The self-conscious and highly developed idioms of modern scholarship lead us to denounce tricks of literature and language, while at the same time relying on all the modest modes of modality. As scholars, our work depends on the expansive freedoms of hypothesis, and the carefully qualified status of that which ‘appears’ to be, or that which ‘might’ (in all probability, or at least some probability) be the case. Where would we be – how could we breathe and do our work – without the maybe and the perhaps and the ability to go out on a limb safely in the conditional, ambiguously committed logic of the ‘what if’ or the ‘if … then’? But at the same time, our training as biblical scholars leads us to imagine that we can and must separate the ‘literary’, the ‘philosophical’ and the tendentiously imaginative-speculative, from proper commentary which rests austerely (sacrificially) on the pure historical fact of the text. In an awkward separation of the professional from the confessional, we spin numerous hypotheses, while disavowing acts of writing as acts of hope, risk, decision and faith.


As a consequence, for all mountains of books that have piled up around Mount Moriah, we have repeatedly missed the central point: the fact that this is a giant act of testimony in the subjunctive or conditional tense. Had God wanted him to go through with it, Abraham would have gone through with it and this is the whole point. Abraham would have done this. The text is about a gesture towards an act: a motion on the way to an act – and back. Abraham does not quite go through with it. The knife does not go through the skin. The sacrifice is turned into a ‘sacrifice’, in scare quotes. The act is not completed, but nor is it negated. It hangs eternally in conflicted middle space. Blood turns into ink, but the text retains all the productive power of an actual sacrifice, and the regenerative world-creating power of the futures and conditionals that go with sacrifice. We can read this myth as a myth of grammar: a graphic tableau of Steiner’s vision of the infinitely productive power of the future or conditional tense. ‘Because you have “done” this’ (הַזֶּ֔ה אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר עָשִׂ֙יתָ֙ כִּ֗י יַ֚עַן ) says the angelic messenger,15 (‘done’ being in inverted commas, with what Abraham has ‘done’ shifting, in quick sleight of hand, from a blood sacrifice to a ‘not-witholding’ [אֶת־יְחִידֶֽךָ אֶת־בִּנְךָ֥ חָשַׂ֖כְתָּ וְלֹ֥א]), I will bless you with sons as numerous as stars and grains of sand (Gen. 22. 16). Son sacrifice is so powerful that it can produce a whole future, a whole world, even when its powers are contained (or should that be ‘infinitely unleashed’?) in the conditional perfect tense.


The productive power of the act, combined with the retraction or commuting of the act, feels a little like irony, where something is simultaneously affirmed and negated, said and unsaid. But unlike irony, where the emphasis is on the negation or subversion, here the two sides seem equally weighted. And the equal weighting has ethical implications, in both directions. You can hear the text as saying that this is something that Abraham would have done (and it’s very good that he would have), and at the same time that this is not something that he actually did (and it’s also very good that he did not, though a different kind of good). Excruciatingly, the text is even-handedly ambiguous and ambidextrous. The ‘act’ is suspended between the hand of the angel and the hand of Abraham on the knife. On the one hand; and on the other hand. God commands the sacrifice; aborts the sacrifice; and praises and rewards Abraham for this willingness to sacrifice, which he takes as if it were a real son sacrifice – at the same time substituting a ram. So what happens? What does God want? Where is the will of God, and where is truth, between all these hands?


One can only enter this text if one is able to enter that uniquely human space of futurity, promising, modality, and competing futures and subjunctives, which is also the space of the optative, the cohortative and prayer. The akedah does not just have a long and obsessive history. It has a dense and long history of longing. A material forcefield of longing – built up of the ‘if only’, the ‘what if’, the prayer for an angel, and the invocation of alternative parallel worlds and stories – have gathered around this haunting text. 


Figure 1
Figure 1

Room 5, The Angel. Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway, Gehorsam, Jewish Museum Berlin.


Citation: Biblical Interpretation 25, 4-5 (2017) ; 10.1163/15685152-02545P05

This dense and conflicted space of grammar and futurity was made tangible, in all its material depth and range of possibility, in Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway’s powerful staging of the sacrifice in the Obedience/Gehor­sam exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Room 5, ‘God and the Angel’, was presented as a prayer room, with removed shoes lying at the entrance. It was tempting to take off one’s shoes and feel one’s feet sinking into the deep soft white carpet. The walls were lined with soft white feathers and black and white photographs of clasped, praying hands. A dead or sleeping swan curled into itself on the table. In the ghostly video installation playing on a second white table, an angel wrestled with Abraham in an elaborate dance of wills. From the ceiling was suspended Xooang Chai’s ‘The Wings’ (die Flügel): a fragile mobile of human hands caressing and touching each other, and fanning out in both directions like a pair of angel’s wings.


Modern readers have often felt compelled, for good modern reasons, to practice their own strange soteriology, attempting to save Abraham and the Bible by turning Genesis 22 into a straightforward teach-text. ‘The true God banned child sacrifice’ (completed action, past simple): a reading that relies on the dubious historical assertion that the lesson was needed because the Canaanites had (for inexplicable reasons) been sacrificing (past perfect continuous) their children all the time. This historical assertion in the past simple gets us out of ambiguity and out of the subjunctive, but at the expense of suggesting an ironic reading of the text. The canonical modern reading weights the original double-handed gesture as if it were ironic, as if this text were now all for and only for the negation or subversion of human sacrifice. When God said, ‘Sacrifice your son’, he really meant the opposite. What was commanded should never have happened. God only commanded this so that it would not happen, so that Abraham would learn that it should never happen. The command was like an ironic statement: said but not really meant.


This simple and, in a very narrow sense, ‘critical’, modern reading seems reductive and banal when compared to so-called pre-critical or pre-modern acts of interpretation, which tend to multiply subjunctives and conditionals and use them as safe spaces for exploring scenarios that never actually came to pass. Refusing the traditional roles that moderns assign to them, as caricatures of ‘tradition’, ‘literalism’ or ‘blind belief’ (to be opposed to modern criticism), ancient interpreters actively ask what it could, would or should mean to read this text faithfully or to be true to this story, given that the text itself stops short of the faithful-literal execution of the literal command. Delicately poised acts of writing enable complex ethical judgements. By staying with the subjunctive, pre-modern interpreters are able to articulate the negative incredulous (‘This is dreadful: it is unbelievable that a man would do this’) and the positive incredulous (‘This is unbelievable, amazing’), and to compress both responses in the same sentence, text or performative space. The two modulations of response are very close together and so it all comes down to tone, performance, and the way you say it, or ‘say’ it.


Lost Futures


In good scholarly tradition, I will now demonstrate my hypothesis with examples – examples intended to make the probability of my hypothesis more concrete. For my sources I have deliberately chosen some slightly more familiar ancient Jewish texts and some lost Christian texts in Greek, Syriac, Coptic and Middle English that have not (yet) made into that now rather distinct set of canonised afterlives of Genesis 22. Appropriately, Judah Goldin locates the akedah at the ‘centre of the nervous systems of Christianity and Judaism’.16 The reference to the nervous system is hardly accidental. And Jewish interpretation uses all the resources of grammar, Steiner’s ‘nerve centre … of … consciousness’,17 to unravel the parallel worlds of (im)possibility that spool outwards from this text. In Biblical Antiquities 18.5, Pseudo-Philo’s God says: ‘And he brought him to be placed on the altar, but I gave him back to his father’ and/but ‘his offering was acceptable to me and on account of his blood I chose them’.18 The angel comes – and/but the knife is stained blood red. Isaac is (and here come the inverted commas) ‘slain’. The medieval Midrash Ha-Gadol claims that the ram was also called Isaac.19 On one hand, or one hoof, Isaac lives; on the other hand, or the other hoof, Isaac dies. The suggestion also begs the question of substitution (how can a ram stand in for a man?) and creates the riddle of a ram with a proper name. 


This is not the same inflection of the man-animal that we find in self-consciously modern readings, such as Immanuel Kant’s tortured departure from this text.20 The midrash is not protesting, as Kant does, that by ‘treating the poor boy as a sheep’, Abraham is denying Isaac’s fundamental human dignity or Würde. Nor is this like that strangest of Abraham variations, penned by Søren Kierkegaard, where Abraham feels so profoundly ‘at variance with what it is to be a man’ that he tells God that he may as well have been turned into a centaur, or a horse.21 The focus is not – as it is in modern readings – on the ‘beast’ and the ‘sovereign’, or the claim that Abraham and his God are shading into the bestial (unnatural, or like the natural animal), at the moment when they place themselves outside the law, and specifically the law ‘Thou shalt not kill’. In a very different spirit, pre-modern interpretation stages the interchangeability and permeability of the bodies of the Isaac and the ram. In two fifth-century Syriac Christian homiletic liturgical poems or memra (the second of which uses grammar indicating female authorship), Abraham and Isaac bring a miraculous golden fleece of many colours down from the mountain, and Isaac gets into, or carries, the skin of the lamb/ram, as Jacob (quite literally) gets into the skin of Esau and Joseph puts on his כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים.22 These beautifully syncretistic poems are perhaps confusing the ram’s coat with the exceptional garment that the LXX, Vulgate and Targumim read as Joseph’s multi-coloured coat, but seem to be deliberately invoking the classical legend of the χρυσόμαλλον δέρας, the golden fleece. The fleece commemorates the flying ram sent by the true mother, Nephele, to rescue her children, Phrixus and Helle, from human sacrifice. The parallels with the sacrifice of Isaac seem irresistible, which is why it is so surprising that Sebastian Brock can only concede the ‘remarkable (but no doubt fortuitous) parallel in the legend of the golden fleece’, admitting that it is ‘just conceivable’ that the author had the ‘tale of the Golden Fleece’ at the ‘back of his mind’.23 The strange formulation suggests that the author could have known it, but that he would not – could not? – have allowed it in through the carefully-guarded front gate of his conscious mind. 


As Isaac puts on or carries the ram’s skin and becomes the ram/lamb, so several early Christian sources imagine a poignant, or grotesque, conflation and con-fusion of Sarah and Isaac: bodies that the biblical text struggles to keep apart. In the second Syriac liturgical poem, the mother, who intuits the secret to come, groans with great feeling, and pleads:


Let me go up with you to the burnt offering and let me see my only child being sacrificed;

if you are going to bury him in the ground I will dig the hole with my own hands,

and if you are going to build up stones, I will carry them on my shoulders;

the lock of my white hairs in old age, I will provide for his bonds …24

When Abraham tests her by returning alone with stories of Isaac’s actual death, she bursts into a perfect continuous optative (even as she passes the test-within-the-test):


I was wishing I was an eagle, or had the speed of a turtle dove,

so that I might go and behold that place where my only child, my beloved, was sacrificed,

that I might bring back a little of his blood to be comforted by its smell.

I had some of his hair to place somewhere inside my clothes,

and when grief overcame me I placed it over my eyes.

I had some of his clothes so that I might imagine (him), putting them in front of my eyes,

and when suffering sorrow overcame me I gained relief through gazing upon them.

I wished I could see his pyre and the place where his bones were burnt,

and could bring a little of his ashes and gaze on them always and be comforted …25

With hands outstretched as if in prayer, or on the wing, Sarah wishes that she could fly upwards, backwards in time. She longs to have been able to change time and tense and to have been with her son at the moment of sacrifice. Excluded from that exceptional moment, she wishes that she could have or that she could have had the lingering smell of her son’s blood inside her nostrils; his hair inside her clothes; his hair placed over her eyes, binding her eyes; and his ashes and blood to look at and smell always. It is as if the poet wants to go as far in the demonstration of mother-love as Genesis 22 goes in its affirmation of Abraham’s extreme love for God (even as far as the offering of the only son, the beloved one). The poetry pushes an equally extreme counter-poetics of attachment, that is similarly without limits, and that becomes too intensely necrophiliac for modern tastes.26 Rather than one figure symbolising another and becoming another in the realm of typology, one body gets into the skin of another. As Isaac puts on the ram’s fleece, the mother wants to take Isaac’s body (back) into her insides. 


In an Easter sermon, Pseudo-Chrysostom imagines a Sarah who (had she been consulted) could have, would have and must have assaulted Abraham with a barrage of questions:


Where are you bringing him? Where are you taking him? You didn’t have a vision, did you? For how would God have appeared and asked for your son whom He has given to me against all the odds?


Somewhat hilariously for the modern feminist reader, he then adds: ‘She would have saught to wrap him up in her womb … Women are in such cases very emotionally involved.’27 Isaac, who oscillates between a young boy and a 30-year-old young child – a talya in the Peshitta – now becomes a foetus. Sarah wants to hide Isaac back inside her uterus, for protection, as if in a strange take on Nicomedus’s or Job’s metaphors of being (un)born again, in strange folds of time. Similarly, the Sarah of the second Syriac memra wants to inhale the smell of her son, as Isaac inhales the earthy smell of Esau (Gen. 27.27). She wants to keep his blood and ashes and place his hair over her eyes. In a kontakion28 on the sacrifice of Isaac for the fourth Sunday of Lent, the sixth-century Byzantine poet, Romanos Melodos (490-556), imagines the garrulous stanzas of protest that would have burst out from inside Sarah, had Abraham spoken to her – stanzas that have everything to do with her insides, and her profound umbilical attachment to her son:


The little life which I have left, I want to live it with him. After my death, if you so will, then do with him just as you have said. But don’t take him from me, or grief will kill me; I beg you! We only just (barely) got him, when we no longer hoped that anything could come forth from inside of me. If we have only received him in order to lose him, will you cause me to conceive once more, will I suckle once more, and then, when life is ripe, give the fruit back to him who gave it to me?29

And:


Get away from me, immediately! I’m taking him in my arms, this child who caused so much pain in my belly, because I want to have my fill of him. If the one who called you needs sacrifices, let him have a sheep. Isaac, my child, if I see your blood split on the ground … ah! it will kill me first, and only then kill you. Before you, your mother; after her, her little one.30

And, then, to Isaac:


But it is you who will close my eyes, you who, along with your children, will return me to the bosom of my fathers. It is you who will come to cry for me on the bed where you first saw the light. I will never be your chief mourner, for having heeded the words of the executioner (torturer) that is your father.31

Sarah wants to drink her fill, a lifetime’s worth, of the son who emerged from her so tenuously, so impossibly, so lately. This woman becomes an exemplary case of Steiner’s ‘human’ because she experiences the pain of the loss of her son as the loss of a very specific future: one in which her son will close her eyes and weep over her corpse on the very bed where he first emerged from her body. This Sarah is so fully, poignantly human because she thinks in the future. Her pain comes from her umbilical attachment to Isaac’s body, her desired substitution for his body at the place of sacrifice, and her imagination of the various futures, subjunctives, and alternative worlds at and after her death. In this she is a little bit like the theologians who see the meaning of the test as lying in the apocalyptic jeopardy of all futures. Kierkegaard rightly glosses the biblical text as threatening the universal, the whole world and the whole future concealed in ‘Isaac’s loins’,32 while Calvin writes even more sensationally of the jeopardy of salvation and all the worlds predicated on that salvation, as Abraham almost cuts Isaac and so almost ‘cut[s] in pieces, or cast[s] into the fire, the charter of his salvation’, with ‘nothing left for himself [and the whole world] but death and hell’.33 But unlike them, this Sarah thinks in terms of the microcosm, the minor apocalypse: the one precious body from her body, slipping through the thin membrane that separates his (impossible) life from his (impossible) death.


Abraham, thanks be to God, only ‘kills’ Isaac, but try telling that to Isaac’s mother, or the mother as imagined in Leviticus Rabbah. When Isaac comes back down the mountain, Sarah asks him “Where have you been, my son?’. (Note that pointed phrase, insisting that Isaac is her only, a fact that early Jewish and Christian Sarahs will persist in mentioning.) Isaac tells her everything that has happened and then she asks for confirmation: ‘Woe unto my son! [There’s that phrase again.] Were it not for the angel you would already have been slaughtered?’, to which Isaac answers, ‘Yes’. Sarah is not asking whether Isaac was killed: past perfect. That would be silly. The angel did arrive, thank God, and Sarah knows this because her son is standing there before her. She is only asking for confirmation that this would have happened, and this is what she gets. But yet, weak, fond creature that she is, this alone, in Leviticus Rabbah, is enough to kill her – I mean, really kill her. The midrash ends with her screaming six times corresponding to six blasts on the shofar at Rosh Hashanah and concludes with a nicely qualified, cautious-fictional: ‘They say that she died before finishing the six screams’.34 Sarah’s six screams – falling away just before the end like a lament or qinah – offer an audible counterpoint to the already complex tones of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The shofar, which according to tradition comes from the ram of the akedah, is sounded in one long straight blast (tekiah); three medium wailing sounds (shevarim); and nine quick blasts in short succession (teruah). Sarah’s screams are imagined as amplifying the tones of mourning and existential exposure already present in the shevarim. The akedah is heard, and performed, as a complex musical score: a confident proclamation of zekut, obedience, courage, devotion, safety and salvation in a strong bass masculine and a major key – against soprano or alto mourning in a minor key. The death of Sarah amplifies the notes of the negative incredulous (‘This is awful’) in harmony and disharmony with the positive incredulous (‘This is awesome: the whole world of Jewish redemption is founded and grounded on this’).


Unlike their modern counterparts, early interpreters are acutely aware of the strange triptych-like structure of Genesis 21-23. Genesis 22 is not alone. It is not the only. The text sequence makes this very clear. At the centre: the act of blood sacrifice as ‘birth done better’,35 from which women are excluded. And/but on the two side panels, as if to beg the question, two stories centred on women at the two ends of life. On one side, the death and mourning of Sarah. One the other side, nursing mothers: the birth and weaning of Isaac. It is as if the famous paintings by Rembrandt had somehow got attached to his numerous sketches of mother and child – and as we will see, Sarah does regularly become that most famous mother-and-child (Fig. 2).


Figure 2
Figure 2

Genesis 21 – Genesis 22 – Genesis 23: Birth and weaning – ‘Sacrifice’ – Death of Sarah (Rembrandt, Mother and Child Seated in an Armchair [n.d.]; Rembrandt, Sacrifice of Isaac [1655]; Marc Chagall, Abraham weeping for Sarah [1931]).


Citation: Biblical Interpretation 25, 4-5 (2017) ; 10.1163/15685152-02545P05

In Genesis 21, we also find Sarah’s discomforting foreign-Egyptian-slave ­double and mimic: Hagar, the resident alien, the one who is sent away because her son, Ishmael, is yizhaq-ing, (meaning ‘playing’, but also ‘threatening-to-become-Isaac’). Ishmael is an alternative Isaac, a future subjunctive possibility of an alternative Israel, another surrogate family of Abraham; a sign of dangerously doubled worlds. Genesis 21 is all about expelling the one who would have inherited had he not been removed, and eliminating at least one subjunctive life, one parallel world. Crucially (and we never say this, though arguably this is the text’s main purpose), the almost-sacrifice makes Isaac, the almost sacrificed son, the true son – while making Ishmael, the almost-son, the one who would have been, who might have been, but in the end was not. But the story of the other son and the other mother’s expulsion is told in such a way as to deliberately beg the question of the surrogate Israel, there before us, sacrificed before us and for us. Alternative worlds and subjunctive worlds are not easily eliminated. Once the word is said, once the son is born, he and his mother are out there. And these ghostly subjunctive worlds remain, not least on the pages of our scriptures, as we narrate, again and again, the story of how they might have been, but were expelled.


The first room of Boddeke and Greenaway’s Obedience exhibition is filled with Sarah. The first (and only) thing the viewer encounters is a gigantic video screen of a very solid Sarah, playing with Isaac, with a ghostly Abraham-god spectre in the background. The wall caption reads: ‘What do I tell Sarah my wife? Tell her you are going to study Torah’ (Figs. 3 and 4).


Figure 3
Figure 3

Room 1, Sarah. Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway, Gehorsam, Jewish Museum Berlin.


Citation: Biblical Interpretation 25, 4-5 (2017) ; 10.1163/15685152-02545P05

Figure 4
Figure 4

Room 1, Sarah. Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway, Gehorsam, Jewish Museum Berlin.


Citation: Biblical Interpretation 25, 4-5 (2017) ; 10.1163/15685152-02545P05

Early Christian and especially Jewish interpretations tend to read the sa­crifice of Isaac in relation to the après-sacrifice, and particularly the shadow cast by Genesis 23, beginning ‘And [or But] Sarah died’, followed by Abraham’s very expensive, excessive, and perhaps very guilty burial of his wife.36 In an ingenious gloss on the endless waws of biblical parataxis, the ‘and’ connecting Genesis 22 and 23 is read as a ‘therefore’, which can easily tip into and out of a ‘but’. The most important thing that Sarah does in her Jewish afterlives is to die. Sarah’s death is read as collateral damage: blood sacrifice with its inverted commas, or gloves, off. According to Bereshit Rabbah and Rashi, the sense is ‘Therefore [But on the other hand] Sarah died from that very pain’.37 The death of Sarah adds force to the restraining hand of the angel and potentially turns it into a chas­tising hand. ‘Don’t do this Abraham. Naughty Abraham. And please don’t try this at home’. Christian readings are less inclined to exploit Sarah’s death as a direct consequence of the akedah, but they do read the sacrifice back through what happens after Abraham gets home. In a fifteenth-century Sacrifice first perform­ed in Northampton in 1460,38 when Abraham returns home, Sarah asks what her Lord has been doing, and Abraham decides to play an ill-judged guessing game. He has been sacrificing. Can she guess what? ‘A living animal?’ (‘some quyk best?’). Oh yes, says Abraham ‘it was certainly a living animal. I may as well tell you lest you hear from someone else, for it will surely come out into the open’.39 When Abraham confesses, in the most graphic language possible – ‘God commanded me to smite off Isaac’s head and burn him … until the angel came’ – Sarah is distinctly unimpressed. She cries out ‘Alas where was your mynde?’ (‘Are you mad?’). Abraham’s reply – ‘My mynde? Vpon the goode Lord on hy!’ – is a comic but insufficient answer. And/but then, amazingly, Abraham himself confesses, ‘Isaac hathe no harme, but in maner I was sory’. Isaac is saved, but guilt and regret remain.


We might have expected this medieval Sarah to have been the cartoonish opposite of true piety, like the silly harpy Mrs. Noah, a stock of medieval mystery cycles, or, at the other extreme, a kind of patient Griselda, another famous medieval type, praised for willingly giving up her children at her husband’s command. Instead, she is more like the Griselda in Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play, Top Girls, in which a fabulous encounter takes place among famous women from history, including Pope Joan and Griselda, in a 1980s restaurant. Like that Griselda, this Sarah ultimately affirms the sovereignty of her husband and her God but adds, ‘I do think – I do wonder – it would have been nicer if Walter hadn’t had to’.40 The things that Griselda wishes her husband ‘hadn’t had to’ include sending an officer to take her baby daughter, then later her baby son, telling her that the children are to be killed, but actually spiriting them way in secret as part of a convoluted test. The original Griselda makes no protest beyond asking that the children receive a proper burial. The modern Griselda starts to regret. In Sarah’s case, the regret and doubt set in early, in 1460. Even more strikingly, her husband catches and echoes this in his ‘sorry’, his regret. Feudal structures do not necessarily promote obedience. There are many tones – including wry resignation and incomprehension – to the inevitable affirmation that, as Sarahs, Abrahams and Isaacs all proclaim in pre-modern performances of the sacrifice: ‘The sovereign must have his way’. 


In the Northampton play, all the characters enact some distance from the plot and the life that they inhabit – but Sarah and especially Isaac are the most distant. In the mountaintop crisis moment, Isaac says:


A, fader, do now what euer ye lyst,

For of my modre, I wot wel, I shal be myst.

Many a tyme haþ she me clipt and kyst,

But farewell nowe, for þat is do.

She was wont to call me hir tresoure and hir store;

But farewel now, she shal no more.

Here I shal be ded and wot neuer wherefore,

Fader, shal my hed of also?

Father do whatever you desire

But I know full well that my mother shall miss me

Many times she has embraced and kissed me

But farewell to all that for that is now over.

She used call me her treasure and her store

But farewell to all that – she shall say this no more

Here I shall be killed, without knowing wheretofore

Except that God’s will must be fulfilled.

?41

Comedy creeps into the tragedy too early as Isaac asks, almost as an afterthought: ‘Will you also be chopping off my head?’ The line, which surely raised a smile, is deliberately out of step and out of time with the technically comic ending (the angel and the ram), which only comes much later in the text and in the play. Isaac’s dangerously comic question is out of sync with the dark tragedy of the sacrificial moment. It is uttered by a very un-Christ-like, poignantly human Isaac, cut off from his own fate and body. He submits, for he has no choice. But he is very clear that the sovereign script that commands him has nothing to do with his will and knowledge. (‘Here I shal be ded and wot neuer wherefore / Saue þat God most haue his wille’.)42 And, as if as a last act on his behalf of his own will, he tries to influence Abraham by summoning the guilty memory of the excluded mother and the agony of her future to at least gesture to other possible worlds and alternative possible futures – even at this late stage.


The Enabling Frame as a Safe Space for Ethopoiia and Hypothetical Speech


Jewish and Christian traditions, which are sometimes hard to separate in some of these works, are differently secure.43 Jewish texts are secured by the covenantal binding. In a number of midrashim, the ‘son binds with all his heart’ and the ‘father binds with all his heart’. However, from within the secure framework of this secure covenantal binding to the text known as the akedah, Isaac says ‘Father, bind my hands and feet, so that I might not curse you, or alternatively kick you’, and worries that ‘a [bad] word/a curse may issue from my mouth because of the violence and my dread of death’.44 Of course, Isaac does not kick his father, and he never says this word: he only ‘says’ it, mentioning the word he fears might rise involuntarily from him, like the verbal equivalent of that reflex ‘kick’. The word that he thinks ‘may’ rise in his mouth never gets further than this ‘may’. But if I tell you now, conditionally, what I would have said, had such and such been asked of me, the words still happen. I’ve said them and they are already out there, hanging in the air. Now that he’s spoken the possibility and fear of them, the kick and curse are out there in that parallel world of what Isaac would have said, screamed and kicked had the sacrifice taken place.


Subversive possibilities and complex polyphonic tones are enabled by the four-cornered structure that holds the text securely, like a frame. These four corners are:


  1. The non-negotiable sovereignty of God. Abraham is not choosing.


  2. The tension between supreme, virtually divine spiritual athleticism on the part of Abraham, and the recoil of ‘natural’ feeling, which offsets the heroism of the trial.


  3. Mystery, typology, and secrets. The potentially tragic test takes place within a fundamentally comic structure – not just because Isaac gets up from the altar, but because he is a type of the resurrection and all resurrected endings. The ultimate solidity of the frame comes from the fact that the wood of the woodpile is also the wood of the cross (and what could be more solid and secure than the wood of the cross?).


  4. The ultimate security of a particular kind of future: a future that is neat, clean, singular, and no longer haunted by multiple possibilities, or dark and dangerous subjunctives. Within a Christian framework, this story has already been made New. The creativity of possibility is now channelled into dreaming in how many miraculous myriad ways this story anticipates that single future – or, to put it more accurately, how many lines can be drawn between the passion and this story, like the lines that a prism sends out a single point of light. (The Old Testament is the New Testament’s shadow, but it is also a prism, creating numerous refraction lines from a single point of light). Crucially, this sure relation to certain singular future tense leaves writers with a freedom to create subversive possibilities around the Old Testament text, in its past and literal sense.


The security of the frame creates a safe space for complex polyphonic tones and subversive possibilities. Far from being ultimately thwarted by typology, as medievalist Allen J. Franzen argues,45 anti-sacrificial elements are frequently heightened and enabled by typology in pre-modern Christian texts. In the Northampton Abraham and Isaac, when Isaac first learns that he is to be the lamb – the very moment when the play is most securely anchored in the mystery – he protests:


Gentil fader, wot my modre of this

That I shal be ded?46

‘Does mum know about this?’. The sense is not simply ‘Has she been told’ but ‘Had she been told, she would surely not have allowed this to take place’. This sense is echoed in Abraham’s truly amazing reply: ‘She? Mary, son, Crist forbade!’ (‘She? Mary’s son, Christ forbid!’). Typology collides with curse and expletive. Medieval mystery plays often ran the risk of accidental comedy in the potential clash between high Christian meaning and its incarnation in all-too-human local characters. There are very amusing stories about the humour that resulted when the virgin was played by a local woman well known for her less than virginal past. But here, the script itself embodies the double tone. The sense is ‘Christ no! Good god, no, I couldn’t possibly tell her. Are you mad?’ (This could only take place over her dead body.) But this expletive is also an expression of perfect typological correctness, for it is addressed to Isaac: the one who, according to the mystery, is Mary’s son, Christ.


As well as amplifying Sarah’s reaction après-‘sacrifice’, early Christian interpretation tends to worry what she would have said pre-sacrifice, had she heard of it. (And how could she not have heard of it? How could Abraham have prevented her hearing of it?) The possibilities are developed to a potentially shocking extent using the Greek rhetorical tradition of ethopoiia, or hypothetical speech. Gregory of Nyssa asks:


What words would she [Sarah] have used? [Open inverted comma] ‘Spare what is of your own nature, man, otherwise your life will become the subject of an unpleasant story. This is my only child, Isaac, the only one born from my womb, the only one in my arms … If you raise your sword against him, render me, unfortunate one, the service of using your sword first against me … Let us be buried together, let the same earth cover our bodies, let the same tombstone tell our disaster. Then Sarah’s eye will not have to see how … Isaac is killed by the hands of his father.47

Her ‘words’. In a homily that survives only in the Coptic, the fourth-century bishop, Amphilocius of Iconium amplifies the counter-voice of Sarah, while safely containing her words within the mind of Abraham:


What shall I do? It is impossible that Sarah should know [it]. For if I inform her she … will rise up against me, weeping as if she were mad [and] saying to me [again, open the floodgate of inverted commas] ‘What has happened to you?’ Or ‘Who has brought this thought into your mind? … Where have you seen such [a thing]?’ Or ‘Who of your forefathers has made a sacrifice of this kind to God? Enoch pleased God, but he did not slay his son. Noah has pleased God but he did nothing like that. O man, refrain from this act. O old man, your mind has been upset, since he, who called you, wants a sheep. He surely does not want a human being, does he?’48

The question ‘He surely does not want a human being, does he?’ is also echoed by the Northampton Isaac who in another attempt to save himself asks: ‘Can’t your king be satisfied by any other kind of beast?’.49 The only thing wrong with this question is that it is out of time, tense and sense with the biblical narrative. In Genesis 22, God will certainly be satisfied by another kind of beast – but only later. To anticipate this moment (in a ‘surely’, one of those subtle words used to convey something affirmed in spite of reasons to believe the opposite) is too proleptic, presumptive, even though, in the future, this is precisely what will be affirmed. Sarah and Isaac often speak or ‘speak’ the truth too early. In a text where timing is everything, their statements also seem subversive: at odds with, or out of time with, the text’s truth.


Sarah’s speech-in-the-mind-of-Abraham fills the vast abyss of silence between Gen. 22.2 and 22.3 where (absolutely unlike the Abraham of Gen. 21.11 who has just found the female/divine50 pressure to expel the other son Ishmael ‘very distressing’), this Abraham says nothing. The ‘voice’ of Sarah is also the voice-of-Abraham, ventriloquised as ‘Sarah’. He invents her. He projects her. She is his phantom. He imagines her protest. Where is agency? Who speaks? Where is the responsibility for this counter-voice, and where is the responsibility for ignoring and repressing it?


Isaac puts on the skin of the ram; Sarah becomes Isaac; and Abraham becomes Sarah – most queerly in Romanos Melodos’s Kontakion for the fourth Sunday in Lent. Amplifying the piercing and pointed command in Genesis 22, where God specifically tells Abraham to take the one he loves, his ἀγαπητὸς, and burn him as a whole offering, Romanos’s God says, ‘Listen: Take the child of your body, the very child that you received as consolation in your old age, and for my honour cut his throat’. And then comes Abraham’s several stanza-long response, a response introduced by the caveat and disclaimer as if in capital letters: PLEASE NOTE THAT ABRAHAM DID NOT EVER SAY ANY OF THE WORDS THAT FOLLOW. Framing Abraham’s words with ‘Why did you not say … ?’, the narrator poet gives voice for four passionate stanzas to a negative monologue, a work of apophasis, that articulates what could be said, but that can only be said under erasure or denial. Under these very curious ‘speaking’ conditions, Abraham protests that God should have called him murderer, for he shall be known not as father but murderer/assassin (σφαγὺς) for all eternity; that those who see him will take him for a madman, a lost spirit (ἐκστάντα); that he who is known for his hospitality to strangers, cannot possibly be so brutally brutal to his own son; that he cannot possibly bind the one whose swaddling clothes he unbound, the one he nourished, or cut off his infant babbling by his father’s hand. Not only does this Abraham seem to have got hold of an advance copy of Fear and Trembling,51 but he appears to be turning into Sarah. There is something rather queer about these stanzas. The typical gender distribution of strength/reason and softness means that as Abraham starts to give voice (or not), to agony, his voice (or ‘voice’) assumes a higher pitch. Abraham turns symbolically female by the same (reverse) gender logic that leads some early female Christian martyrs to turn male. What happens next is even more surprising. We don’t know how it happens (it is a Mystery, after all), but Sarah somehow overhears Abraham’s words: the words that were never spoken, but that are or must have been out there somewhere on some frequency, where Sarah could somehow catch them. (Sarah is particularly good at tuning into words. She overhears the angelic visitors at Mamre who announce the birth of her child, Isaac, to Abraham, when she listens in from outside the tent [Gen. 18.10]). Sarah overhears words not meant for her (a cautionary tale for those who speak in secret, even if they speak apophatically or delete the words as soon as they are spoken). She is the witness to the strange resilience of words: words that exist and persist, even if they are negated, like Isaac’s ‘kick’. Just as Isaac’s ‘sacrifice’ is able to generate a nation and a Bible, even though it never happened, Abraham’s words produce a whole world of words, even though they were never spoken. In the magical logic of sacrifice and the subjunctive, Abraham’s ‘words’ generate intimate, beautiful, defiant and deeply moving counter-assertions of the son’s life:


Get away from me, immediately! I’m taking him in my arms, this child who caused so much pain in my belly …

Leave the child with me, old man, he is mine; when he who has called you wills it, he will let me know. He announced to me by his angel my son’s coming into the world: he will surely let me know if he wants his blood. I don’t entrust/commit the child to you, I don’t give him to you …

You, my light; you, my dawn, the light of my eyes; you, the heavenly star that lights up my pride when I see you; oh my child, you appeared, as the belated fruit from inside the depths of me, a grape from a mature vine. No, your father will not extinguish you, he will not catch you …52

This Sarah’s seemingly subversive words are true, or will become so – but only later, when they are affirmed by the second voice and the angel’s hand. They are not exactly not true, but they are not true insofar as they are proleptic, out of time with the text’s tense and time. Sarah’s voice is slightly off-beat, playing to a different time signature in a syncopated and slightly dissonant relationship to the official score. Her protection of Isaac, her single heavenly star (or, as the first Syriac memra puts it, the ‘light of [her] very self’) seems to stand in opposition to the ‘necessary’ acts of blood sacrifice justified by the dream of creating a starburst of outcomes, nations, securities, salvations, in the future tense. Echoing across the centuries, this sixth-century Syrian-Turkish-Christian-Jewish Sarah, who passed through and passed between an earlier Homs, Beirut, and Istanbul/Constantinople, seems to anticipate those contemporary war- and sacrifice-protestors who re-stage this story as a drama of child protection, and imagine Mama Sarah bringing Isaac back down from Mount Moriah (Fig. 5).


Romanos’s Lenten poem is perhaps the most perfect illustration of the security of the frame. Each stanza, full of protest, concludes with a coda of affirmation of faith and the mystery: either ‘For the saviour of our souls alone is good’ or ‘Praise to you, o merciful one, you who give all good things and save our souls’. The coda of salvation allows for a dissonant and affirmative relationship with the content of each stanza. There is more than a hint of a wry ‘The sovereign must have his way’ – on the human plane – as in the Northampton play. But the coda of salvation means that everything is held in the strong arms of the mystery, which is why so much can be said. 


Figure 5
Figure 5

Sarah bringing Isaac back down from the mountain. Hadassah, Women’s Zionist Organisation of America, front cover.


Citation: Biblical Interpretation 25, 4-5 (2017) ; 10.1163/15685152-02545P05

Romanos's poem is a game of two halves. In the second half, the first is retracted. Sarah, Abraham and all their words fall in around a new kind of orientation to the future. The passion will overcome any counter-voice, however passionate. Reorganised around this ­call back from the New future, Sarah, and all the recalcitrant words, fall into line. Emotions are now ventriloquised in the words of the New Testament. ­Mutating into Mary, Sarah placidly declares herself ‘blessed’ and presents the fruit of her womb to God (cf. Luke 1.48). The future is no longer haunted by multiple possibilities or dangerous subjunctives. It is neat, clean, grounded in the certainty, which Sarah now affirms, that the ‘creator will not become the destroyer’.53 When Isaac returns, this Sarah greets him with the words of Simeon and the nunc dimittis (Luke 2.29-32), and his safe return is no surprise. In a very docile interpretation of the relationship between Genesis 22 and 23, Sarah proclaims that now she has seen the child return safely, she can die in peace. (This is a far quieter and more quietist reading of the relationship between Genesis 22 and Sarah’s death than Rashi and the midrashim.) But subjunctive words cannot be exorcised, once they have been spoken/written. The first half of the poem, the twelve stanzas of pain and protest, still remain. Someone might repeat them, in a liturgical repetition. (In fact, we are meant to repeat these words, every time we recite these Easter homilies and liturgies.) Someone – as good at overhearing as Sarah – might still hear. Exactly like the biblical figures of Hagar and Ishmael, these old, first words are overcome or ostracised, at least by implication. They are replaced by better words; a second attempt at more polished, appropriate and perfect speech. But the first words are also spoken and retained and recorded, so that we always go on hearing the words, the family, and the disaster, that would have, could have been.


The Secret (Double Sense)


Many of these early Christian texts painfully exploit the at least double sense of the secret. The low (and dubious) sense of keeping secrets is held in ironic tension with the higher secret: רָז; rāzā; μυστήριον, mystērium – words that are used and exploited very explicitly. The full-blooded affirmation of the sacrifice as a mystery allows for a sometimes shocking interrogation of the dubious ethics of keeping secrets, in the lower, more pedestrian sense. Held within the secure frame of the higher secret, Sarah’s and Isaac’s not-knowing and Abraham’s (not to put too fine a point on it) lying can be explored to a terrifying extent. In the Northampton play, Abraham is clear that he must spirit the child away ‘prevely’ (i.e. ‘secretly’), lest Sarah oppose them. In the first Syriac memra (Memra 1) ‘On Abraham and his Types’, Abraham sets off with speed, and/but Sarah (still) sees them, and is ‘seized with terror’:


Sarah saw [them] and terror seized her, and she spoke as follows:

‘Where are you taking my only begotten? Where is the child of my vows off to?

Reveal to me the secret of your intention, and show me the journey on which you are both going’.54

In Memra 2, clearly a close kin of the first homily, Sarah asks:


‘Why are you sharpening your knife? Who do you intend to slaughter with it?

This secret today – why have you hidden it from me?’55

And Abraham replies simply, ‘This secret today women cannot be aware of’. Mount Moriah is no place for girls. The secret is a hard, steely, masculine place. I’m reminded of Søren Kierkegaard’s use of Abraham’s sacrifice as a type for a hard Christianity that is emphatically not for ‘effeminate creatures and eunuchs’56 or for couch potato, emasculated clergy who peruse the story of Abraham from their armchairs while puffing at their pipes and stretching out their legs.57 (For Kierkegaard, Mount Moriah becomes a kind of Everest – one that tries the cerebral and spiritual muscles to the limit, and sets in motion massive ‘reflection possibilities’, a mere tenth of which would be ‘sufficient to disturb a feminine head’.58) But as in Fear and Trembling, gender disequilibrium is not sufficient to dispose with the ethical dilemmas of the secret. Sarah’s protests of her exclusion are justified – and explored at discomforting length. Why is Abraham splitting their oneness, demands the Sarah of the first memra. Before this, in everything – hospitality to ‘supernal beings’ or the hardship of exile – they have been ‘as one person with a single love’.59 Problematically expanding his biblical lies and half-truths, Abraham tells Sarah that he is simply going to slaughter a sheep – as he so often does. Her rejoinder is shocking:


If it is a sheep you are wanting to see to, then be off and see to the sheep and return;

leave the child behind lest something happen, and untimely death meet him,

for I am being unjustly deprived of the single son to whom I have given birth

Let not the eye of his mother be darkened, seeing that after one hundred years light has shone out for me.

You are so drunk with the love of God – who is your God and my God –

and if He so bids you concerning the child, you would kill him without hesitation.60

This Sarah does not believe her Abraham. She seems to fear the intense fervour for which later (modern) times would invent the term ‘fanaticism’. At the moment when the angel intervenes, the poem makes the point that Abraham had to be restrained by the angel because his ‘heart was on fire, burning to slaughter his son’ and praises the fact that ‘the old man is fervent (rtaḥ) for the slaughter’ and his love for God is greatly enflamed (etgawzal)’.61 At least one other Syriac source (a Sogitha by Jacob of Serugh) describes Abraham as being ‘drunk on the wine that flowed abundantly to him from Golgotha’.62 But in this Sarah’s all-too-human words, the patriarch’s drinking seems to slip out of the typological-redemptive into the metaphorical-pejorative. Abraham is as if drunk. He has lost his senses – leading to irresponsibilization, or perhaps in deliberately provocative contemporary language, ‘radicalisation’. He would do anything for God. And there are many tones to the affirmation that ‘Abraham would do anything for God’.


And it seems that he would even lie for God. In the very stripped down skeletal text of Genesis 22, where hardly anything is said, Abraham is twice called on to say too much. He is very deliberately forced to say things to Isaac and to his young men that are not true, but that are not not true. I and the lad will ‘go yonder’; God will supply the ‘ram’. Like dramatic irony, Abraham’s two awkward speeches highlight different levels of knowing and unknowing and imply inverted commas of euphemism, or belief (or both, the text doesn’t say). Abraham’s parting words to Sarah in the first Syriac memra are far more disturbing, even as they are held in the assurance of the secret in the higher sense:


It is a lamb that I wish to slaughter, and give delight to my beloved son;

then I and your beloved shall enjoy another Lamb.

And I shall take with me two young men so that you will not worry over Isaac,

(thinking) that I am handing him over to slaughter and inviting him to be a whole-offering.


Typology and untruth, split, together. (The disjunction is like the strange conflation of typology and blasphemy/swearing in the Northampton Abraham’s pious-expletive, on top of the mountain: ‘She? Mary, son, Crist forbade!’). The statement that the young men are being taken as Isaac’s bodyguards, or Sarah’s insurance, pushes this Abraham out far further on the limb of untruth than the Abraham of Genesis 22. Abraham becomes more like Jacob, or one of the other tricksters in Genesis. Like the old Isaac who will later be deceived by his son Jacob, Sarah is being made blind. She is duped. The memra very explicitly exploits the double sense of the secret. It frequently uses the key word rāzā (‘mystery’), which is used in Syriac for any religious symbol (especially Old Testament ‘types’), for sacramental rites and, in the plural, for the Eucharist.63 But, the poem also makes a point of the fact that Sarah – and Isaac – are being kept out of the secret in the lower case, more pedestrian sense. Developing a point that the Hebrew text hints at when it describes father and son as going :ודָּחְיַ (‘together’), the poet develops the difference and dissonance in this togetherness:


They went and came to the mountain where God rested

and Abraham began to build the pyre that he had in mind,

while Isaac was bringing along wood on his shoulders to Abraham;

he was offering up a burnt offering without being aware of his actions.

The child rejoices in his work, the old man rejoices in his task.

Abraham built up the pyre while Isaac brought along the wood.

The old man (was fervent) for the killing of Isaac, Isaac to the lamb that would come;

old man and child, both readily became workers for God,

though no agreement over what they were doing existed in the heart of each singly,

and though their labours were not equal and their intentions were not in agreement –

for the two of them, without being aware, were entirely different (in their expectations) …64

The split in the secret is equally disturbing when the Sarahs believe what their Abrahams so frequently tell them: that they are taking Isaac to sacrifice a sheep. The hasty exit by father and son is typically surrounded by ironic exhortations from Sarah. Reflecting her chilly north European rather than middle Eastern context, the Northampton Sarah exhorts Abraham to make sure that Isaac doesn’t fall in the mud or catch a chill in the wind:


Than, sithe ye wol haue forthe my childe,

Goode, loke that his horse be not too wilde,

And sirs, wayte on hym, that he be not defilde

With neither cley nor fen.65

Since ‘defilde’ means ‘violated’ or ‘destroyed’, Sarah’s anxiety unknowingly anticipates a fate far worse than falling in a little mud. Writing from the more balmy climate of Iconium or modern-day Konya in Turkey, Amphilochius imagines Sarah exhorting Abraham to look after the ‘young child’ with his ‘delicate limbs’66 – a statement that ironically says much more than is intended, just as Abraham (quite deliberately) says much less. Believing her husband when he tells her that they are going to sacrifice a sheep as an act of worship, this Sarah gives deeply ironic detailed instructions to her son on how to pray:


Listen to me! Remember her who has borne you for God will hear you. May the Lord be for you a helper and a force, when you will go with your father, my son and the light of my eyes! Incline your ear a little to me and listen to my words, so that I may teach you the way to pray to God… . First of all, bend your knees before him, and throw yourself down with your face to the ground. Place your hands behind your back, like someone bound, until the Good God looks down at you from heaven. Then utter a cry, like that of a sheep led to the slaughter, so that the Compassionate One above may hear you and send his mercy back with you, saying to your father, ‘O patriarch, I have thus kept silence over the bloodless offering of your son’. And now, greet your mother and give her a kiss on the mouth. Go with your father and return also with him in peace. For I trust that God will guide you and bring the two of you back again to me. He who gave you to me as a gift in hope, and has now called you in hope, will bring you safe back to me.67

Sarah is kept out of the secret. But, exactly like Old Testament words and stories in general – in fact, as a kind of type of Old Testament words and stories in general – her words say so much more than they know or intend. Sarah’s unknowing words pre-figure the sacrifice that she knows not. Sarah’s instructions become ironically proleptic and prophetic as we (the audience, but emphatically not Sarah) get to see the ‘old man’ binding Isaac hand and foot, bending his trunk backwards, pushing his hands behind him, and grasping the hair of his head – in a literalisation of Sarah’s metaphorical parallel world, her ‘as if’. 


The oscillation between Sarah’s ‘as if’ and Abraham’s very literal sacrifice seems to deliberately evoke the tension between sacrifice and prayer that we find in the Hebrew Bible and the development of Jewish and Christian practise, where literal sacrifice co-exists with the transformation of sacrifice into ethics, liturgy and prayer as bloodless sacrifice, the ‘cows of the lips’ (Hos. 14.2). Kept of the secret, Sarah understands sacrifice as prayer. In Abraham’s literal act, her idea of prayer is reverse-engineered. But Sarah’s misunderstanding anticipates what really happens in Genesis 22, when sacrifice is transmuted into ‘doing this’ and ‘not witholding’, and blood sacrifice is transmuted into a script for a sacrifice. Abraham’s act and Sarah’s unwitting metaphorisation of the act, are both true statements about the truth of sacrifice in this double-handed text.


The double sense of the secret allows for a richly productive paradox. Because this must happen, words of critique and protest (from Sarah, and Abraham, and Sarah-in-the-mind-of-Abraham) cannot be spoken. In fact, Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Chrysostom specifically make the point that, had Sarah spoken, the mystery might not have been fulfilled. But at the same time this statement ascribes extraordinary power to Sarah’s ‘speech’. If they could have potentially aborted the sacrifice, and prevented the fulfilment of the mystery, then what kind of words could these – must these – have been? Sarah’s putative words are put in the extraordinary position of having, by their very force, to extinguish the possibility of their ever really being. Because Sarah’s protest must be forever ‘moot’, it can therefore be anything but mute (m.u.t.e). Because they never are, these hypothetical words can be maximally persuasive. And redemptive.


When Sarah becomes Mary, the typological framework saves the sacrifice, but sometimes in risky and unexpected ways. Mary is the co-redemptrix. She is understood to have consented voluntarily to the crucifixion, and to have fully identified with the son in his sufferings. And/but she is conceived as the most devoted and tender of all mothers, who could not but be out of step and time with her son’s journey to Jerusalem. This leads to beautifully complex syncopated liturgies, and theologies, and deep dramas of pathos, where the mother resists, even as she mirrors, her son’s sacrifice unto death.68 There are all kinds of cadences and tones to the figure of Mary. In Romanos’s Kontakion, Sarah becomes Mary the submissive mother who presents the fruit of her womb in a parallel sacrifice. In Amphilocius’s homily, Sarah becomes the intercessor for Isaac and humanity. At the moment of reprieve, God declares that he is sparing Isaac in honour of Abraham’s obedience and because Sarah ‘has not ceased to beseech me about him’ with intercessory prayer. Similarly, in the first Syriac memra, Sarah becomes the ‘Mother of All Mercies’. The two hands become gendered: on the one hand, compassion or raḥmē (Sarah-Mary); on the other justice, kēnūtā (Abraham). Right hand and left hand. No hand dominates. Both attributes (or תוֺדּמִ), both hands, are weighted as equally divine.69 More extremely, Sarah can become the mater dolorosa, the Sarah of the pieta, with redemptive power lying in her suffering and pain. 


In the first of the two Syriac memre, Sarah is a Clytemestra figure, justly raging at her Agamemnon, and also very specifically, the mater dolorosa. She swoons and almost dies over what her God-drunk husband may have accomplished. And the homily ends: ‘Because of the suffering of his mother, in your compassion, give us what we ask’.70 Here, the text of Genesis 22 is hinged up against the triptych panels of Genesis 21 (the mother-and-child) and Genesis 23 (the death of the mother). The equation between Sarah and the Virgin allows those panels to be developed as a nativity and a pieta. The sacrifice is now surrounded, and in a sense subverted by, the nativity and the pieta. The second voice tells Abraham:


Because you have offered up your son as a whole offering, I too will offer up Mine to the cross;

if you have not spared your child, neither will I spare Mine.

You have performed as a human an action that is too hard for humans;

I, then, as God (will perform) an action even harder than yours.

Anyone who slays his own son is greater than both angels and men.

Since you have loved me to the full, so My love for you is unbounded.71

The binding is affirmed as a superhuman ‘wonder’. It leads typologically and causally to the unleashing of God’s ‘unbounded’ love. And/but the second voice that aborts the sacrifice is described as the voice of Justice, to whom the hosts have made supplication on behalf of Isaac (while Compassion flies to earth on the wings of prayer, making sure that Isaac comes to no harm). And/but Sarah almost dies when Isaac tells her what might have happened. ‘Pangs grip her’, she ‘doubles up in fright’, and she collapses, at death’s very door.72 And/but Sarah declares to Isaac: ‘The fingers which fashioned you in my womb / have now delivered you from the knife’.73 The ‘And/Buts’ mount. And/But the final prayer concentrates salvation not on superhuman sacrifice, but the ‘grievous pain’ of the mother. ‘Because of the suffering of his mother, in your compassion, give us what we ask’.


The original text of Genesis 22 is delicately and precariously balanced between two words and two hands: ‘Offer your son as a burnt offering’ and/but ‘Do not lay your hand upon the lad’. The two forces can be perfectly balanced in acts of interpretation, though this is exquisitely difficult to pull off perfectly in practice. The scales tend to tip in one direction or the other. In the sphere of poetry and liturgy – not doctrine or argument – the ambiguity and empathy can go either way. Sarah can be the force of natural compassion, outweighed and outranked by the robust performance of Abraham. This is arguably how the scales tip in Gregory and Pseudo-Chrystostom, and in Romanos and Amphilochius, although Sarah’s hypothetical speeches are never eradicated. The second Syriac memra arguably tips the other way. Abraham is right – and/but he is also guilty, love-drunk – and it is the force of life, faith, intercession, represented by ‘Sarah’, that ultimately prevails, and that should prevail. There is a temptation, and perhaps not a bad one, to come to rest, and to find peace in Sarah’s embodiment of anguish and mercy and the transmutation of sacrifice into prayer.


Nachleben; Afterlives of Futures


So what happened in the futures of these futures? To cut a very long story short, the world of possibility was contracted and simplified when Genesis 22 became a printed and widely distributed text: the ‘word of God’, to be discussed in pamphlets, manifestos – and footnotes. The question of probability, possibility and truth is first and foremost a media question. There is a world of difference between one almost-lost handwritten manuscript of a fifteenth-century local drama, or Calvin’s Commentaries, or Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Both the Reformation and the Enlightenment took all these subjunctive possibilities and possible worlds, and (in different ways) pared them down to a single decision between worlds.


The pre-modern texts all acknowledge and exploit the fact that Abraham’s test was very, very difficult. It is the ultimate trial for athlete Abraham, who goes out to the extreme edge of possibility, the place where only the supreme heroes can go. The condensed subjunctive of the Reformation introduced a new modality of possibility. The text was no longer simply very, very difficult. It was impossible. The difficult and the impossible only appear to be close.


Ramping up the crisis of the future to fever pitch, Calvin and Luther gathered up all the subjunctive possibilities and pared them down to one sensational drama of what would have, could have happened, had there not been salvation by faith. The text became the equivalent of Hollywood disaster movie: The Command Against the Promise, narrated by Luther and Calvin as if in the sonorous voice-overs of Don Fontaine. The whole drama was focussed on the text qua text, as constructions of grammar that, in this case, do not and could never make earthly sense. Because God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was absolutely opposed to his own promise of the future in Isaac, it was a paradox, an oxymoron, a catachresis, ‘a counter assault of the word’ against itself.74 What was being thrown into the fire was not Isaac (Isaac was now entirely incidental), but the word of God represented metonymically by this highly self-conscious text. As Calvin put it in the strap line for The Command Against the Promise – or Abraham, the Movie – Abraham was being commanded to ‘cut in pieces, or cast into the fire, the charter of his salvation’ leaving ‘nothing’ for himself and the whole world ‘death and hell’.75 What would have and could have happened is nothing less than total apocalypse: the burning up of all worlds, all futures, all life, all afterlives, all resurrection: a loss of all salvation which depended entirely on the Word and the ‘the quasi-sacramental notion of the efficacy of the text’.76 The only thing that saves the Reformation subject from this horror is not the angel (who is just as incidental as Isaac), but the faith of Abraham mirrored in the faith of the reader, who learns to read according to the ‘grammar of the Holy Spirit’.77 The complete disaster that would have happened is avoided through a reading lesson: learning to read in faith.


In the Reformation drama of the impossible, Genesis 22 started on a new and inexorable path to a narrowed down future: a future about decisions and acts of reading as acts of faith. It was only a matter of time before this text became the scriptural battleground for a showdown between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, or deism – better understood as the supreme belief in morality, and the absolute equivalence between morality and the divine. For the ‘deists’, the very command to sacrifice the son turned the God of the text into, in Kant’s words, an ‘illusion’ (Tauschung): an impossibility.78 Genesis 22 became a test case for the deist κρίσις (krisis), and the sacrificial-critical choice ‘between life and death’. Newly confining the course of the probable, the deist Thomas Morgan pronounced in 1737: ‘It may be probable enough, that either Abraham had such a belief or conceit, or that Moses mistook this case; but that God, in this, or any other case, should dissolve the law of nature and make it a man’s duty … to act contrary to all the principles and passions or the human constitution, is absolutely incredible’.79 In footnotes written in the 1790s, Kant was emphatically clear that Abraham ‘should have replied to this supposedly divine voice: “That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, an apparition, are God – of that I am not certain, and never could be, not even if this voice rings down to me from (visible) heaven”’.80 The range of the future, the subjunctive, was now far narrower and also more sensational than it was able to be in Romanos, Amphilochius or the Syriac memre. Many of the ancient texts imagine Abraham worrying about how the neighbours will see him. The Enlightenment readings, in contrast, present authors who shape ‘truth’ with an eye on the dangers of this text for society. These readers are acutely aware of the social persona of the author, the public owner of the written texts, and his relation to truth and plausibility81 (a word that reveals the social scene of truth through its origins in Latin plausibilis [‘acceptable’, ‘deserving applause’]).


Organised around neologisms such as credibility or plausibility, the probable futures and alternative worlds around Abraham’s sacrifice contracted. It is at precisely this point, in the early eighteenth century, that we find the first appearances of the ironic reading (when God said ‘Sacrifice your son’ he really meant the opposite82), or textual critical solutions designed to ‘render the story reasonable and credible’.83 Under the helpful auspices of ‘the Enlightenment Bible’,84 the biblical scholar could concentrate questions of plausibility into micro-studies of geography, philology and source criticism, and use standard discourses of the more or less probable to ignore the massive elephant in the classroom: the old question of the incredible and outrageous divine command. The subjunctive fell out of fashion in a regime of truth ruled by the indicative: the statement of objective facts. Spurious and tendentious futures were lost – and far from accidentally – in a turn to historical criticism, centred on scholars’ devoted concentration on the past.85 It is far from accidental that biblical scholarship became so far removed from poetry, literature and drama. Henceforth the scholar would use modest nods to the modal (e.g. ‘it could certainly be argued that’) to modify a fairly confident indicative, with his86 whole idiom moving as far as possible away from subjunctives and optatives, and all their connotations of wished-for futures, opinions and desires. Strange and lost futures could now only return in the retrieval of lost premodern texts – always in danger of simply ending up in that sideroom of biblical scholarship, the one reserved for all the whimsies and incidental sideshows of what is now regularly called ‘reception history’. Alternative audacious scenarios of what could have, might have happened – or speculations about ‘What must God have said to Abraham … What could and should he have told him?’87 – were left to those we think of as ‘philosophers’ and ‘writers’, in the realm of literature: figures such as Kierkegaard, Kafka and Derrida.


1 Emily Dickinson, ‘I Dwell in Possibility’, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Ralph W. Franklin; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 466.


2 I am using the term ‘man’ here because philosophical discussions on the unique nature of ‘man’ have not included ‘women’ in any simple sense, and therefore inclusive language would be misleading. In these discourses, woman is far more likely to function as one of the others of ‘man’ than she is to feature as a subset or variety of ‘man’ qua human. 


3 Aristotle, Part. an. 687b.3-4.


4 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (Oxford World’s Classics; trans. Douglas Smith; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 39.


5 George Steiner, Grammars of Creation (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), p. 6.


6 Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 7.


7 Steiner, Grammars of Creation, pp. 6, 293.


8 Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 7.


9 Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 6.


10 Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 7.


11 Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 7.


12 For Derrida’s ‘je suis’, see, for example, the famous essay, ‘L’animal que donc je suis’ translated by David Willis as ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry 28.2 (2002), pp. 369-418.


13 See Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’, p. 389.


14 Terry Eagleton After Theory (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 89.


15 Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 7.


16 Note that the angelic messenger speaks for God in the first person.


17 Judah Goldin, ‘Introduction’, in Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice (ed. and trans. Judah Goldin; Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1993 [original, 1950]), p. xxi.


18 Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 293.


19 See also Gen. R. 55.5.


20Midrash ha-Gadol on Gen. 22.13. See also ‘Midrash Composed Under the Holy Spirit’ in Jacob Mann, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue (Cincinnati: Ktav, 1940), p. 67.


21 For Kant’s revulsion at ‘Abraham butchering and burning his only son like a sheep at God’s command’ see Immanuel Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties (trans. Mary J. Gregor; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), p. 115; see also Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (trans. Theodore Green and Hoyt Hudson; New York: Harper and Row 1970), p. 175. I return to Kant, and his very different understanding of the possible and impossible, at the end of this essay.


22 Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers (ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), vol. 3, p. 714: ‘The whole experience has made me forever at variance with what it is to be human. If it had pleased you, O Lord, to let me be changed into a horse, yet remaining human, I would be no more at variance with what it is to be a man than I have become through what has just happened’.


23 The two poems are translated by Sebastian Brock; see Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, Le Museon 99.1-2 (1986), pp. 61-129. Throughout I shall be following Brock and distinguishing them as Memra 1 and Memra 2. In Memra 1, Sarah describes the fleece as ‘fair, luxurious and glistening … variegated with all sorts of colours’, too bright and luminous to be looked on directly, unless one’s eye is strong (Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 111, ll.153-55). In Memra 2, the fleece ‘does not resemble the fleece of ordinary sheep’, has the appearance of all sorts of colours’, and cannot be examined, except with the ‘eyes of the prophets’ (Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 124, ll.91-93).


24 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 116, Memra 1, my emphasis.


25 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 123, Memra 2, ll.25-29.


26 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 125, Memra 2, ll.113-22.


27 I do not mean to say that the poetry explicitly hints at incest. However, it does at times dare a deep pleasure in the son that seems to contrast with Abraham’s demonstration of love through maximal pain. And it is hard to approach the imagery of one body getting inside another, without evoking birth and sex, even when not explicitly figuring the act of sex.


28 Pseudo-Chyrsostom, ‘In Abraham et Isaac Sermo’, in Various Old Testament Homilies, Contra ludos et theatre, in natalem Christi diem, Other Works (Patrologia graeca [162 vols.; ed. J.-P. Migne; Paris: Imprimerie Catholique,1857-86], pp. 56, col. 539-41.


29 The Greek word κοντάκιον refers to the shaft of a scroll. According to tradition, Romanos swallowed a scroll, like the prophets, and his compositions were divinely inspired.


30 Romanos Melodos, ‘Hymn of the Sacrifice of Abraham, for the fourth Sunday in Lent’, in Romanos le Mélode, Hymnes (ed. José Grosdidier de Matons; Sources Chrétiennes, 99; Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1964), pp. 146-49, stanza 8. Please note that all translations are from my rough working translation of the text. Please do not cite without permission; I am currently working, with colleagues, on a more polished translation of this incredible text.


31 Romanos, ‘Hymn of the Sacrifice of Abraham’, pp. 148-49, stanza 9.


32 Romanos, ‘Hymn of the Sacrifice of Abraham’, pp. 150-51, stanza 11.


33 Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling: Dialectical Lyric by Johannes de Silentio (trans. Alastair Hannay; Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1985), p. 88.


34 John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis (trans. John King; Edinburgh: Edinburgh Printing Company, 1847), vol. 1, p. 553.


35Leviticus Rabbah 20.2.


36 Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion and Paternity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. xxiv.


37 I explore the relationship between Sarah’s death and the guilty narrative of her burial in Sherwood, ‘And Sarah Died’, in Yvonne Sherwood (ed.) Derrida’s Bible: Reading a Page of Scripture with a Little Help from Derrida (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 261-92.


38 See, for example, Genesis Rabbah 58.5.


39 ‘The Northampton Play of Abraham and Isaac’, in Norman Davis (ed.), Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 32-42. All following citations are from this edition. All (rough) translations to modern English are my own.


40 Abraham: Wif, I went for to sacrifye; | but how trowe you, tell me verylye? || Sarah: ­Forsoþe, souereigne, I wot not I, | Parauenture som quyk best || A: Quyk? Ye forsothe, quyk it was! | As well I may tel you al the case | As another that was in the same place, | For I wot well it wol be wist … (‘The Northampton Play of Abraham and Isaac’, p. 41, ll. 325-33).


41 Caryl Churchill, Top Girls (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 27.


42 ‘The Northampton Play of Abraham and Isaac’, p. 38, ll.212-20.


43 ‘The Northampton Play of Abraham and Isaac’, p. 38, ll.218-19.


44 For example, Romanos’s Kontakion is profoundly ‘Judeo-Christian’, with clear borrowings from midrash, and frequent Hebraisms in his koine Greek. Born to a Jewish family in either Emesa (modern-day Homs) or Damascus, and baptised as a young boy, Romanos served as Deacon in the Church of the Resurrection in Beirut and sacristan in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. His kontakion is full of midrashic details, including binding Isaac lest he struggle (Romanos, ‘Hymn of the Sacrifice of Abraham’, pp. 158-59, stanza 19) and Abraham’s protest: ‘Have you found something lacking in my sacrifice, so that you prevented me? Have I neglected something, in word or in deed … ?’ (Romanos, ‘Hymn of the Sacrifice of Abraham’, pp. 160-61, stanza 21).


45 See, for example, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, Midrash Tanhuma, Pesikta Rabbati, the Palestinian Targum and Midrash Bereshit Rabbati on Gen. 22.9.


46 Allen J. Franzen, ‘Tears for Abraham: The Chester Play of Abraham and Sacrifice and Antisacrifice in Works by Wilfred Owen, Benjamin Britten and Derek Jarman’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.3 (2001), pp. 445-76. In contrast, and closer to my own argument, V.A. Kolve describes how these medieval dramas unexpectedly exploit the ‘differences’ as well as the ‘similarities’ between ‘figure and fulfilment’; Clifford Davidson argues that the potential for ‘mental hurt’ is not stifled by typology; while Peter Braeger contends that the plays exploit ‘typology as contrast’. See V.A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), p. 67; Clifford Davidson, ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac in Medieval English Drama’, Papers on Language and Literature 35.1 (1999) pp. 1-18; Peter Braeger, ‘Typology as Contrast in the Middle English Abraham and Isaac Plays’, Essays in Medieval Studies 2 (1985), pp. 131-49.


47 ‘The Northampton Play of Abraham and Isaac’, p. 37, ll.186-87.


48 From Gregory’s paraphrase of an iosyllabic Greek poem wrongly attributed to Ephrem of Syria, strophes 20-95, cited in M.F.G. Parmentier, Isaak gebonden – Jezus gekruisigd: Oudchristelijke teksten over Genesis 22 (Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok, 1996), p. 64. I am grateful to Marije Altorf for her assistance with translation.


49 Amphilochius, ‘Abraham’ (ed. L. van Rampay) in C. Datema (ed.), Amphilochi Iconiensis Opera (Corpus Christianorum; Series Graeca, 3; Turnhout: Leuven University Press, 1978), pp. 278-79. All following citations are from this edition.


50 ‘The Northampton Play of Abraham and Isaac’, p. 176, ll.174-75.


51 ‘Feminine/divine’ because the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar is initiated by Sarah. God and then, later, Abraham (but perhaps never the narrator) eventually follow (somewhat reluctantly) the woman’s will.


52 Kierkegaard famously probes the tension between ethics and faith, murder and sacrifice, and the horror of this act once it appears within the sphere of the social and is seen by the neighbours. In the third problema, Johannes de Silentio asks: ‘Was it ethically defensible for Abraham to conceal his undertaking from Sarah, from Eleazar and from Isaac?’ (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 98). Thus Kierkegaard explicitly raises the question of the secret that is so important to these pre-modern texts.


53 Romanos, ‘Hymn of the Sacrifice of Abraham’, pp. 148-50, stanzas 9, 7, 10.


54 This is different kind of ‘God would not’ to the ‘God would not’ of the distinctive modern reading, which makes the text into a ban on child sacrifice.


55 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 108, Memra 1, ll.14-16.


56 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 123, Memra 2, ll.15-16.


57 Kierkegaard, Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology (trans. Walter Lowrie; New York: Harper, 1964) p. 102.


58 Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 58.


59 Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way (ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 270.


60 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 108, Memra 1, l.22. Sarah elaborates further on their oneness, thus: ‘You went off and fetched a calf, while I kneaded unleavened bread / we were as one person with a single love when we received (those) supernal beings / when they rested and gave us rest – and the child came as the result of their blessings’ (p. 108, ll.21-23).


61 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, pp. 108-109, Memra 1, ll.33-38 (my emphasis). The second memra repeats the lines – ‘You are so drunk with the love of God – who is your God and my God – and if He so bids you concerning the child, you would kill him without hesitation’ – but suggests that Sarah is now giving them a more positive inflection. This second Sarah intuits the sacrifice to come, and wants to participate.


62 See Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 112, note to Memra 1, line 6.


63 See Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 112, note to Memra 1, line 6.


64 Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p. 21.


65 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verses on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 109, Memra 1, ll.76-82.


66 ‘The Northampton Play of Abraham and Isaac’, p. 35. ll.120-24.


67 Amphilochius, ‘Abraham’, p. 278, ll.79-80.


68 Amphilochius, ‘Abraham’, p. 280, ll.90-107.


69 For Mary’s poetic non-compliance in medieval literature, see Rosemary Woolf, Art and Doctrine: Essays on Medieval Literature (ed. Heather O’Donoghue; London: Hambledon, 2006), p. 71.


70 As Brock notes, there is a clear relation to the Jewish concepts of the divinity balanced between the two תוֺדּמִ of mercy and justice. See Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 114.


71 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 112, Memra 1, l.184.


72 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 110, Memra 1, ll.117-22.


73 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p.111, Memra 1, ll.172-73.


74 Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 111, Memra 1, l.175.


75 Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, vol. 1. pp. 561-62.


76 Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, vol. 1, p. 553.


77 J. Samuel Preus, ‘Secularizing Divination: Spiritual Biography and the Invention of the Novel’, JAAR 59.3 (1991), pp. 441-66 (446).


78 See Dennis Bielfeldt, ‘Luther, Metaphor and Theological Language’, Modern Theology 6.2 (1990), pp. 121-35. Bielfeldt argues that the grammar of heaven is articulated through the clash of earthly categories. The grammar of the Holy Spirit does not obey the normative rules of grammar, which is why it can break through the grammar of life which dictates that we are born and, at the end of the paragraph or sentence, die.


79 See Immanuel Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties, p. 115; and Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, p. 174.


80 Thomas Morgan, The Moral Philosopher in a Dialogue between Philalethes, a Christian Deist, and Theophanes, a Christian Jew (London: Printed for the Author, 1740), vol. 3, pp. 133-34.


81 See Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties,p. 115; and Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, p. 174.


82 ‘Plausible’ in the sense of ‘having the appearance of truth’ first appeared in English in the 1560s, derived from the Latin, plausibilis. ‘Implausible’ first appears in the 1690s. The terms ‘credible’ and ‘incredible’ were first used in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.


83 ‘God gave the command, not with an intent that it should be obeyed, but that he might take an occasion from it, to shew to Abraham, and to all his posterity, the unfitness of all human sacrifices’ (Thomas Chubb ‘Treatise XVIII: A Supplement to the Previous Question’, in A Collection of Tracts on Various Subjects [London: T. Cox, 1730], p. 228).


84 Thomas Morgan, The Moral Philosopher, vol. 2, p. 128.


85 See Jonathan Sheehan, The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).


86 In previous work I have argued that we could and shouldrisk the hypothesis that ancient interpreters were freer to carry out riskier and more adventurous readings because they were free from those large acts of representation by which moderns identify as believers or non-believer (or carefully calibrated gradations of these categories) and publicly sign and take responsibility for printed readings published in their name. See further Sherwood, ‘Binding-Unbinding: Pre-critical “Critique” in Pre-modern Jewish, Christian and Islamic Responses to the “Sacrifice” of Abraham/Ibrahim’s Son’, Biblical Blaspheming: Trials of the Sacred for a Secular Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 333-74, esp. pp. 366-34.


87 See my earlier comments on ‘man’. I don’t think I would be helping the cause of objective history as an accurate representation of the facts if I were to pretend that the representatives of traditional university biblical scholarship (understood as objective history) have been equally male and female. Of course, I could insert a ‘s/he’ as a wished for, optative future – and a nod to the recent pluralisation of voices – but I think that would obfuscate the historical point.


88 Jacques Derrida, ‘Above All No Journalists!’, in Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber (eds.), Religion and Media (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 56.

  • 1

     Emily Dickinson, ‘I Dwell in Possibility’, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Ralph W. Franklin; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 466.

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  • 4

     Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (Oxford World’s Classics; trans. Douglas Smith; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 39.

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  • 5

     George Steiner, Grammars of Creation (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), p. 6.

  • 6

     Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 7.

  • 7

     Steiner, Grammars of Creation, pp. 6, 293.

  • 8

     Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 7.

  • 9

     Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 6.

  • 10

     Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 7.

  • 11

     Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 7.

  • 13

     See Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’, p. 389.

  • 15

     Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 7.

  • 18

     Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 293.

  • 22

     Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers (ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), vol. 3, p. 714: ‘The whole experience has made me forever at variance with what it is to be human. If it had pleased you, O Lord, to let me be changed into a horse, yet remaining human, I would be no more at variance with what it is to be a man than I have become through what has just happened’.

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  • 24

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 116, Memra 1, my emphasis.

  • 25

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 123, Memra 2, ll.25-29.

  • 26

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 125, Memra 2, ll.113-22.

  • 28

     Pseudo-Chyrsostom, ‘In Abraham et Isaac Sermo’, in Various Old Testament Homilies, Contra ludos et theatre, in natalem Christi diem, Other Works (Patrologia graeca [162 vols.; ed. J.-P. Migne; Paris: Imprimerie Catholique,1857-86], pp.56, col. 539-41.

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  • 31

     Romanos, ‘Hymn of the Sacrifice of Abraham’, pp. 148-49, stanza 9.

  • 32

     Romanos, ‘Hymn of the Sacrifice of Abraham’, pp. 150-51, stanza 11.

  • 33

     Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling: Dialectical Lyric by Johannes de Silentio (trans. Alastair Hannay; Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1985), p. 88.

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  • 34

     John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis (trans. John King; Edinburgh: Edinburgh Printing Company, 1847), vol. 1, p. 553.

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  • 36

     Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion and Paternity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. xxiv.

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  • 38

     See, for example, Genesis Rabbah 58.5.

  • 41

     Caryl Churchill, Top Girls (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 27.

  • 46

     Allen J. Franzen, ‘Tears for Abraham: The Chester Play of Abraham and Sacrifice and Antisacrifice in Works by Wilfred Owen, Benjamin Britten and Derek Jarman’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.3 (2001), pp. 445-76. In contrast, and closer to my own argument, V.A. Kolve describes how these medieval dramas unexpectedly exploit the ‘differences’ as well as the ‘similarities’ between ‘figure and fulfilment’; Clifford Davidson argues that the potential for ‘mental hurt’ is not stifled by typology; while Peter Braeger contends that the plays exploit ‘typology as contrast’. See V.A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), p. 67; Clifford Davidson, ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac in Medieval English Drama’, Papers on Language and Literature 35.1 (1999) pp. 1-18; Peter Braeger, ‘Typology as Contrast in the Middle English Abraham and Isaac Plays’, Essays in Medieval Studies 2 (1985), pp. 131-49.

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  • 53

     Romanos, ‘Hymn of the Sacrifice of Abraham’, pp. 148-50, stanzas 9, 7, 10.

  • 55

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 108, Memra 1, ll.14-16.

  • 56

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 123, Memra 2, ll.15-16.

  • 57

     Kierkegaard, Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology (trans. Walter Lowrie; New York: Harper, 1964) p. 102.

  • 58

     Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 58.

  • 59

     Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way (ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 270.

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  • 60

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 108, Memra 1, l.22. Sarah elaborates further on their oneness, thus: ‘You went off and fetched a calf, while I kneaded unleavened bread / we were as one person with a single love when we received (those) supernal beings / when they rested and gave us rest – and the child came as the result of their blessings’ (p. 108, ll.21-23).

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  • 61

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, pp. 108-109, Memra 1, ll.33-38 (my emphasis). The second memra repeats the lines – ‘You are so drunk with the love of God – who is your God and my God – and if He so bids you concerning the child, you would kill him without hesitation’ – but suggests that Sarah is now giving them a more positive inflection. This second Sarah intuits the sacrifice to come, and wants to participate.

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  • 62

     See Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 112, note to Memra 1, line 6.

  • 63

     See Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 112, note to Memra 1, line 6.

  • 65

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verses on the Binding of Isaac’, p. 109, Memra 1, ll.76-82.

  • 67

     Amphilochius, ‘Abraham’, p. 278, ll.79-80.

  • 68

     Amphilochius, ‘Abraham’, p. 280, ll.90-107.

  • 71

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 112, Memra 1, l.184.

  • 72

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 110, Memra 1, ll.117-22.

  • 73

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p.111, Memra 1, ll.172-73.

  • 74

     Brock, ‘Two Syriac Verse Homilies’, p. 111, Memra 1, l.175.

  • 77

     J. Samuel Preus, ‘Secularizing Divination: Spiritual Biography and the Invention of the Novel’, JAAR 59.3 (1991), pp. 441-66 (446).

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  • 78

     See Dennis Bielfeldt, ‘Luther, Metaphor and Theological Language’, Modern Theology 6.2 (1990), pp. 121-35. Bielfeldt argues that the grammar of heaven is articulated through the clash of earthly categories. The grammar of the Holy Spirit does not obey the normative rules of grammar, which is why it can break through the grammar of life which dictates that we are born and, at the end of the paragraph or sentence, die.

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  • 79

     See Immanuel Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties, p. 115; and Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, p. 174.

  • 80

     Thomas Morgan, The Moral Philosopher in a Dialogue between Philalethes, a Christian Deist, and Theophanes, a Christian Jew (London: Printed for the Author, 1740), vol. 3, pp. 133-34.

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  • 85

     See Jonathan Sheehan, The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

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