The man who killed our former Secretary of Health, dr. Borst (see my last blog), will be institutionalized with mandatory psychiatric treatment, for a period as long as is deemed necessary by the experts, till they deem him no longer a threat to society. The judges opined that he was completely unaccountable, living in a totally parallel world. He had set out to kill his sister, and then ‘God told him’ on the spot to kill dr. Borst; he killed his sister later. The prosecution had demanded 8 years in prison first and then institutionalization, and considers to appeal the verdict. Anyway, in our day and age the ‘call of Abraham’ is judged as insanity, so let us return to the Genesis story, for a third angle on what I consider one of the most dangerous tales in the Script.
In my first blog I treated the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac more or less in the way that the Bible presents it, as a test. I argued that the Scriptures may laud Abraham for his obedience (and not just in Genesis), yet on the other hand offer more than enough arguments for the opposite verdict: that Abraham in fact failed the test; viz. Abraham should have used all he knew about God to fight the command to sacrifice. The Book of Abraham does just the same: while hailing his obedience Joseph added reasons why God’s demand for Isaac’s sacrifice was a completely impossible one; someone who follows it is surely obedient, but who fights it might well be the better person. Obedience can be trumped by agency.
The second blog explored another angle: who is telling the story? We saw that the three relevant sources of Genesis, E, J and P, each has a different story on the legendary figure, Abraham. The sacrifice tale is E’s, and though the overt message of the sacrifice may have been obedience, the hidden message of the story is assessment of paternity. J’s tale is about nation building and P is concerned with covenant making, all tales centring on Abraham, the legend.
Now for the third – and I promise for the moment last – angle: where did the story of the sacrifice come from? My take is that the Aqedah story belongs to a specific category of folk tales dubbed ‘dilemma tales’, a type well-known in anthropology and folklore. These tales are known from all over the world, but best from African and Middle-Eastern folklore. It is a special kind of story in which the protagonist at the end is faced with a question which is not resolved, and which the audience has to debate on the spot. In principle the story involves a dilemma for the main figure leading into an audience discussion on what they would do in his place, a kind of direct involvement that fits well into an oral culture. So the whole purpose of the tale is to make the audience reflect the contradicting claims on the main figures, and debate the options and possibly come to a consensus. The tales are not riddles or puzzles, but are designed to lead into debate. Often they use quite impossible situations to start with, like Abraham.
Many of these tales are mainly for amusement: of three suitors to a beautiful maiden, who has the most to offer? Of four women helping a man who will make the best wife? (In African tales he marries them all, and after his death their respective sons claim to inherit his title or wealth: the son of which wife has the strongest claim?) In these tales all have special magical talents, but whose is the most valuable? It works also in reverse, of three stupid protagonists, who is the dumbest? Of the various parts of the body, which one is the most important? Who is the bravest, the strongest, the smartest or the most guilty among the protagonists? But gradually these amusing choices morph into stories with genuine moral questions: what is more valuable money or love (a very old theme indeed); power or justice; gratitude or loyalty; kinsmen or in-laws; friendship or kinship?
A popular theme concerns the relation between father and son. A father neglects and insults his son, who then leaves and is adopted by a man of another tribe. Much later the son has to choose between killing his biological father or his loving and caring adoptive parent. Whom does he choose? Is ‘blood thicker than water’?
One more complex example from West Africa, is even closer to Abraham: Two long-time friends, Abu and Kamo set out on a journey. Abu is told by a diviner that if he would leave the house where they stay at night, he would surely die, or never return. At night Kamo goes out and is attacked by a giant snake; he yells for help, putting Abu for a dilemma: should he save his friend and die himself, or let his friend die and to save himself? Abu decides to go out, kills the snake and saves his friend. A gush of snake-blood, however, blinds his eyes. Kamo, the saved one, then learns from a diviner that to cure his friend’s eyesight, he has to sacrifice his own son, wash Abu’s eyes in the blood of the child, then his friend will see again. The question then to the audience is the second dilemma: What should Kamo do?
And there the tale ends, with the question! It does not offer an answer, as it aims to trigger a debate: what is more important, the supreme kinship loyalty to one’s son, or the combination of friendship and deep gratitude? In these tales the supernatural information is never specified, some unnamed diviner or a special animal, and the place and time of that revelation is kept vague. As in Abraham’s story. Many more examples could be given, of choices between saving one’s wife or one’s mother for instance. Or, for that matter between one’s wife, mother or mother-in-law (in this case the people often decide, I am afraid, that the last option is silly!). For instance, a man, his wife, mother and mother in law are all blind. He finds seven eyes, takes two himself, two for his wife, one to both others: now for whom is the seventh eye, for his mother or his mother-in-law?
These tales are found everywhere, also in Egypt and the Middle East. Story motifs are very stable over time and space, so my – admittedly hypothetical – notion is that the story of the Isaac sacrifice is such a dilemma story that found its way into the oral tradition of Israel. Thus it became part of the Abraham lore and as part of that oral tradition was canonized. Such a dilemma works well in an oral setting with a participating audience, but when written down it tends to be solved, meaning the dilemma will get one answer, obliterating the other options, and that is not the intention of this type of tale. Egyptian folk tales show the same tendency, as they tend to state the solution, thus reducing the dilemma to a puzzle. Codification of a dilemma story almost inevitably leads to one single solution, for two reasons. One is that there is no audience to participate, and second is that the writing down of the stories serves a purpose. That is what we saw in the last blog. In the hands of the particular author of Genesis, E – and as edited by P half a millennium later – the solution of the Abraham dilemma story served several purposes: to underscore the sovereignty of God, to stress obedience and – like I said – to highlight paternity and the patriline. What was lost with canonization, however, was the debate itself, the dilemma in its existential form, and with that much of our involvement in and projection into the story. And thus it became an impossible obedience to an inexplicable command, and as such a highly contradictory reflection on the nature of God.
Are there other dilemma stories in the Bible? Of course, Genesis starts with one: Adam’s quandary, to eat or not to eat? Eating the fruit meant expulsion and death but also progeny, not eating implied obedience and eternal solitude. It is not my intention to delve into the alternatives of this particular dilemma tale, but for this one the two theologically viable solutions are both realized in opposing interpretations. In the mainstream Christian ‘solution’ Adam and Eve should not have eaten and the Fall was a major catastrophe while the Mormon Christian interpretation sees the Fall as intended and laudable: Thank God they ate.
The choice of Adam is the one we as human beings have already made – towards knowledge and a self-conscious mortality –, but Abraham’s dilemma will never be ours, as God will not ask us to kill our offspring, never. But we do meet our own quandaries. Life is beset with dilemma’s, choices between competing options that are not simple and not just good versus evil. Dilemma’s are the gist of life, they form the core of the great tragedies (think of Sophocles Antigone). Literature is full of them, sometimes diabolical like Sophie’s choice, most less dramatic; some are constructed (the one of the railway man who can save a train by having it pass along a track his child is playing at, a classic one), some all too real, like throwing people out of an overcrowded lifeboat. Our the human condition is to be right on the horns of a dilemma, our very own. But most are much more gentle, and most choices are between more reasonable alternatives. But choices they are.
So, in the end, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice is neither a simple test which he passed or failed – as both options remain open –, nor just a story about a mythical ancestor, it is a dilemma, an almost diabolical one, the epitome of the kind of choices we all face in our lives. The tale is not to be solved at all – I insist on removing the effects of canonization here – but it is to be discussed, to see all sides of this impossible choice; its aim is not set an example but to generate a debate. If we ‘solve’ such a dilemma, we are in trouble – as we are now with Abraham in a world of religious extremism –, but the dilemma tales were never intended to be solved. The power of their open-endedness is shown in the fact that this particular ‘impossible tale’ of the Aqedah is still discussed; even after its putative solution it can be debated to stimulate our thinking. The story still works provided we do not acquiesce with the ‘solution’, meaning we have to resist the official interpretation (obedience!) as the only option, and never end the discussion. That, in the end, was my intention, to open up a dilemma tale for its true and proper function: to debate, to think, and to recognize.