Thursday, March 08, 2007

Genesis 22

Well, I feel wholly inadequate to gloss or even frame this chapter in any satisfactory way (particularly since I've been out of play for the last few weeks, for which I apologize). This is, after all, the very threshhold of abattoir.

But a very few thoughts, merely by way of originating the thread, after which I invite your own observations, related or un-. So I was struck from the very beginning by the phrase with which the Lord and his messengers refer to Isaac: "your son, your only one." Robert Alter reproduces in the notes the Midrashic expansion of the phrase, in which Abraham objects that he has two sons, both of whom he loves, and the Lord, clause by clause, tightens the vice on Isaac. It occurs to me, then, that the chapter narrates a double slaughter, in which the Lord requires Abraham to relinquish both of his sons. Even at the moment of reprieve, in the words of grace, "Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me"----even at this moment of supreme joy, Ishmael's absence (from the covenant) is underscored.

To broach a Mormon reading for a moment, in which Abraham's sacrifice of his "only son" is a type of God's sacrifice of his "only begotten son," the atonement itself, with its triumphant ending ascension of the Son, contains within it the exclusion of some other of God's sons. Mormon doctrines of moral agency and in particular our myth of the council and war in heaven emphasize the loss and risk an grief inherent in the plan centered on a sacrifice of the One for the many.

Sight and hearing are thematized (what an awful word) throughout the chapter, as well, in ways that recall the story of Ishmael in Genesis 16. I invite your thoughts on this recurring synesthetic theme: are seeing and hearing used to represent two different kinds of relationships to God?

Finally, although this does not speak directly to our philosophical purposes in this seminar, a few phrases of poetry in an otherwise starkly economical narrative (with credit to Alter, whose rendering I used): "he split wood for the offering" (v 3); "Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar" (v 4); "And the two of them went together" (v 9); "And Abraham raised his eyes and saw and, look, a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns" (v 13).

9 Comments:

Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

All,

I hope to post some initials comments later today (Rosalynde has made some helpful and interesting comments), but I wanted to point out to everyone that the reading schedule has now been slightly emended to include Robert in the rotation of discussion leaders.

My best,
Adam

7:48 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

I appreciate Rosalynde’s comments and feel, as she does, more than a bit inadequate in addressing the text. This is doubly so in light of our lengthy build-up to the chapter and the extremely ambitious nature of the questions we’ve posed in general. Nonetheless, I’ll venture a few comments below.

1.Rosalynde said:

"It occurs to me, then, that the chapter narrates a double slaughter, in which the Lord requires Abraham to relinquish both of his sons. Even at the moment of reprieve, in the words of grace, "Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me"----even at this moment of supreme joy, Ishmael's absence (from the covenant) is underscored."

I like this emphasis because it centers our reading of the chapter on the human costs involved in the kind of fidelity required of Abraham. Abraham is sacrificing not just Isaac, but Ishmael as well (and, for that matter, he’s likely sacrificing his relationship with Sarah – what other reaction could she possibly have upon discovering what Abraham had gone to do?). Though, as Jim points, Abraham’s story is the story of establishing a community, it is surely the case that Abraham is, in these verses, progressively stripped of his most cherished relationships. And yet he continues: willing to sacrifice these relationships for the very sake of God’s promise concerning these relationships. This, I think, is similar to the irony of being promised a land of inheritance while being simultaneously commanded to leave one’s homeland and family.

What this seems to indicate is that it is not possible to directly, immediately approach these promised blessings. Is it the case that they are only available through a kind of detour?

2.Rosalynde says:

“I invite your thoughts on this recurring synesthetic theme: are seeing and hearing used to represent two different kinds of relationships to God?”

I’d like to respond to this question by collecting together the verses in the chapter that refer to seeing and then those that refer to hearing.

The “seeing” verses include the following:

vs. 4, “on the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar”

vs. 8, “And Abraham said, ‘God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.’”

vs. 13, “And Abraham raised his eyes and saw and, look, a ram was caught in the thicket”

vs. 14, “And Abraham called the name of that place YHWH-yireh, as is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord there is sight.’”

vs. 20, “after these things it was told to Abraham, ‘Look, Milcah, too, has born sons to Nahor your brother.’”


The “hearing” verses include the following:

vs. 1-2, God addresses Abraham and Abraham listens and responds

vs. 2, God will “tell” Abraham which mountain he is to ascend

vs. 3, Abraham goes to the place that “God had said to him”

vs. 7-8, Isaac addresses Abraham and Abraham listens and responds

vs. 9, Abraham and Isaac arrive at the place “God had said to him”

vs. 11-13, “the Lord’s messenger called out” to Abraham and Abraham listens and responds

vs. 14, Abraham “called the name of the place YHWH-yireh, as is said to this day”

vs. 15 “the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham once again” and Abraham listens

vs. 18, the angel/YHWH says: “All the nations of the earth will be blessed through your seed because you have listened to my voice.”


Is it possible to detect a difference in pattern between the “seeing” and “hearing” verses? Maybe. It appears to me that that the “hearing” verses consistently cast Abraham in the passive role, while the “seeing” verses consistently cast Abraham in the active role. Others speak and Abraham listens but, upon hearing, Abraham is empowered to see and affirms the Lord’s power to see.

Of the “seeing” verses, the most significant appears to be vs. 14 in which Abraham names the place YHWH-yireh. Robert Alter notes that there is an ambivalence in the pointing of “yireh”: it could either be “the Lord sees” or “the Lord will be seen.” He chooses to translate it as “on the mount of the Lord there is sight” in order to preserve the ambiguity. The ambiguity is nice, though, because it indicates the extent to which Abraham’s sight is tied up with the Lord’s: seeing the Lord is knotted together with what the Lord can see. It is in listening to what the Lord sees, even when he cannot see it yet for himself, that Abraham does himself arrive at the perspective from which he can “raise his eyes and see the ram caught in the thicket.”

3. Perhaps the key word in the chapter is the Hebrew “hineni,” typically translated as “Here I am.” If Abraham is the figure of fidelity, that fidelity might be most succinctly compressed in this single word - a word that simultaneously affirms that he has heard, is listening for more, and is ready to act. As a response, “hineni” is used three times in the story at three crucial junctures:

vs. 1, in which God calls Abraham’s name and Abraham simply responds “hineni”

vs. 7, in which Isaac calls “Father!” and Abraham simply responds “hineni”

vs. 11, in which the angel calls out to Abraham to stop his hand and Abraham simply responds “hineni”


Is this the perfect response of the faithful when called upon by the Other or others?

It also occurs to me that this response could be fruitfully juxtaposed with Abraham’s original encounter with the Lord’s call in 12:1-3 (where Abraham receives the call but makes no response at all, there is no dialogue) and Abraham’s initial dialogical response in 15:1-4 (where Abraham, for the first time, engages in dialogue but does so as an expression of doubt). Has Abraham, in Genesis 22, come full circle from not responding, to responding doubtfully, to responding with perfect fidelity? That may be too neat and tidy (what is not?), but it seems clear that there is a kind of general progression at work.

4.We might also note the similarities and differences between Abraham’s experience in chapter 22 and Hagar’s in chapter 16. Where Hagar names the place of her encounter with God “El-roi” (something like, “God who sees me”), Abraham names the place of his encounter “YHWH-yireh” (see above for the possible translations). Apart from whatever redactions issues may be involved, does the shift in name from the very general “El” to the very specific “YHWH” matter? Does it indicate a difference in the modality of the relationship? Abraham's has a personal specificity that her's does not?

Also, Hagar’s place-name does not appear to manifest the same ambiguity involved in Abraham’s place-name (she is simply seen, without herself seeing). Could this indicate that her experience doesn’t involve the same of kind of dialectical interplay between God’s vision and our vision of his vision?

5.There is an interesting shift in 22:11-12 from the third-person to the first-person where the angel calls out to Abraham and says “I know that you fear God (third person),” and then says that “you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me (first person).” A similar but less dramatic slippage occurs in vs. 15-16. I don’t mean to point this out as a problem - it just struck me as potentially interesting.

6.In both vs. 13 and vs. 16 the angel/the Lord specifically identifies the crucial element of Abraham’s faithfulness as the following: Abraham did not “hold back” his son from the Lord. If the essence of fidelity is “hospitality,” then the essence of fidelity is necessarily linked to one’s ability to not “hold back.” To hold something in reserve, to plan for a rainy day, “just in case,” indicates a lack of confidence in God’s promise. To make room for the promise God wishes to make, we must hold nothing in reserve. Everything needs to be unconditionally emptied out at his feet. Only if we don’t “hold back” will we touch upon the dimension of excess in which we may “see” the Lord.

7. The substitution of the ram for Isaac in vs. 13-14 drew to mind for me all of our earlier discussions of metaphor/substitution, etc. The key moments in the narrative often seem to revolve around the operation of a substitution (precisely) for what is unsubstitutable. God substituted for Abraham’s father (the interruption of the patriarchal line). Nomadic life substituted for a homeland. A ram substituted for Isaac. Jesus substituted for each of us.

I need to think more about the implications of this (we still have next week to address chapter 22 again), but it seems important. What can we say about substitution/metaphor and its importance for the text as a whole? For what it means to being faithful? For the possibility of theology? For the structure of a family?

Could we read the whole creation/separation narrative frame in terms of metaphor/substitution?

8.A final comment. I think that it is also important to note the way that the Lord’s reaffirmation of his promises to Abraham in vs. 15-19 introduces a new wrinkle. Twice in these verses an element of conditioned causation is introduced into the promise:

vs. 16, “by my own Self I swear, declares the Lord, that because you have done this thing . . . I will greatly bless you”

vs. 18, “all the nations of the earth will be blessed through your seed because you have listened to my voice”


What is initially most striking about the Lord’s relationship with and promises to Abraham (as the story unfolds in Genesis) is their unconditionality. They come out of the blue and are (at least at the beginning) without condition. What does it mean that the relationship is described as increasingly “conditional” the farther we get in the story (see also the introduction of a condition in 17:1-2, “walk blameless before me!”)?

My response is rough, but I’m tempted to say that God’s unconditional promise can only appear as conditioned in some way when it is re-interpreted in light of Abraham’s subsequent faithfulness. This is to say, I think that the “conditioned” description of the promise may be a kind of retroactive effect that is only possible in light of Abraham’s accomplished shift in perspective, a shift in perspective from his own point of view to the Lord’s (he sees what he sees because he “hears” the Lord see it).

In more explicitly continental language: the event of God’s promise is unconditional and incalculable from the perspective in which it initially occurs as an event. But once the event has shifted Abraham’s entire horizon to match the Lord’s, once the world has been re-interpreted in light of the event itself, then the event’s occurrence acquires a kind of logical, conditioned necessity. Maybe.

My best,
Adam

6:42 PM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I once did some thinking about the interplay between the Hebrew terms hineh and hoy, which can be read under Isaiah 6 at the wiki. In that chapter at least, it significant that Isaiah, before acquiring the tongue of the angels, shouts hoy, a completely inarticulate word that is without etymology. It is certainly meaningful, but only because it expresses the collapse of language. Even as Isaiah shouts hoy, one of the angels (seraphim) brings a coal to lay on his lips (remember that "lip" can be translated "language" in Hebrew) saying hineh. This word is also without etymology, but it is articulate because it points to something real (something Real?). If the human tongue begins with a word that means only because it is part of the structure of language, the angelic tongue begins with a word that means precisely because it points to something, a kind of pole of reference.

How might these ideas be brought to bear on Abraham's three hineni's? Do they suggest that he is communing/communicating? What does it mean to say that he is an absolute pole of reference (in Isaiah 6, the pole of reference is the white stone being given to Isaiah... with its unspeakable name as the absolute pole of reference?)?

I'd like to think about this theme a bit more.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Jim F. said...

Thinking about and responding to the chapter is a huge job. Thinking about and responding to the chapter, plus these comments in even "huger." Let me see what I can do, but I'm feeling completely impotent right now.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Responding to any of this indeed feels like too much of a task to begin--neverthless, here am I.

Having looked at several recent commentaries on this chapter and then looking at Jim's paper again, I have to say I appreciate its originality much more now. One interesting paper I looked at was by R. W. L. Moberly (see here) which looks carefully at the renewed promise in vv. 15-18. What struck me is Moberly's suggestion that these verses present a reinterpretation of the covenant, not a mere repetition of it. In particular, the covenant that was previously unconditional and authored solely by God, now includes Abraham in its authorship. So, it's not so much that the once unconditional covenant is now conditional, but that after Abraham's sacrifice, he now relates to the covenant in a way that is radically different. Rather than being a mere recipient of God's gracious covenant of blessing, Abraham's response to God's request is now sufficiently absolute that it can be taken up in the terms of the covenant. So what at first might look almost like a demotion of the covenant, going from unconditional to conditional, should instead be read more in terms of a promotion on Abraham's part. Moberly goes on to suggest an analogy with intercessory prayer, with Moses esp., how "human response to God is taken up and incorporated within the purposes and activity of God" (p. 321).

I don't really have any original thoughts on any of this (though I am trying to recast Moberly's point in light of Jim's paper), but I think there are implications of particular interest for a Mormon reading. In particular, I think Moberly's reading effectively raises Abraham to God's level in terms of playing a part in the covenant which I think will make God's addressing Abraham as "son" in the Book of Abraham particularly meaningful. I think there are also some possibilities in terms of a distinctively Mormon father-son typological reading. Jim's paper takes place-holding as anti-community, but I don't think he means to rule out typological meaning, and I think typological father-son meanings are particularly prevalent and somewhat distinctive in Mormon scripture. I have priesthood connotations and sealing power particularly in mind here: the new way in which Abraham's obedience becomes a part in the reoffering of the covenant might be taken as analogous to the way in which priesthood power/authority is offered, or a way to think about family sealings....

10:10 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I will be posting today on Gen 22-23, and I will address Robert's question there, which I'm increasingly convinced is the central question in any LDS reading of the scriptures: how are we to think the distance between typology and place-holding?

So everyone knows, the way I'll approach this week's post is to provide a reading of Gen 22 from the point of view of Gen 23: what on earth remains to be said after this shattering narrative? Anyway....

12:05 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Robert says:

"Rather than being a mere recipient of God's gracious covenant of blessing, Abraham's response to God's request is now sufficiently absolute that it can be taken up in the terms of the covenant. So what at first might look almost like a demotion of the covenant, going from unconditional to conditional, should instead be read more in terms of a promotion on Abraham's part."

I agree with this (more or less) and meant to aim at something similar in my comment on the "causality" introduced into the promise in vs. 15-18. I think Robert is right to suggest that what we have here is not rendering of God's part of the covenant conditional, but a rendering of Abraham's relation to God as unconditional; thus the covenant can now be expressed as a kind of joint/mutual-unconditionality that it then "awkwardly" expressed as "causative."

Joe says:

"I will be posting today on Gen 22-23, and I will address Robert's question there, which I'm increasingly convinced is the central question in any LDS reading of the scriptures: how are we to think the distance between typology and place-holding?"

I agree that, in many ways, this is the central question. How do we think about substitution as something other than place-holding? How do we think singularity as the product of metaphor and typology rather than what is erased by it? How do we think the wandering induced by divine interuption as the gift of a new home?

I'll look forward to your post.

Adam

1:17 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Robert says:

"Rather than being a mere recipient of God's gracious covenant of blessing, Abraham's response to God's request is now sufficiently absolute that it can be taken up in the terms of the covenant. So what at first might look almost like a demotion of the covenant, going from unconditional to conditional, should instead be read more in terms of a promotion on Abraham's part."

I agree with this (more or less) and meant to aim at something similar in my comment on the "causality" introduced into the promise in vs. 15-18. I think Robert is right to suggest that what we have here is not a rendering of God's part of the covenant conditional, but a rendering of Abraham's relation to God as unconditional; thus the covenant can now be expressed as a kind of joint or mutual-unconditionality that is then "awkwardly" expressed as "causative."

Joe says:

"I will be posting today on Gen 22-23, and I will address Robert's question there, which I'm increasingly convinced is the central question in any LDS reading of the scriptures: how are we to think the distance between typology and place-holding?"

I agree that, in many ways, this is the central question. How do we think about substitution as something other than place-holding? How do we think singularity as the product of metaphor and typology rather than what is erased by it? How do we think the wandering induced by divine interuption as the gift of a new home?

I'll look forward to your post.

Adam

1:19 PM  
Blogger Jim F. said...

I don't think my reading of the Abraham story is mutually exclusive of other readings, nor do I think it is complete and uncriticizable. I'm not sure that I won't throw it off some time as an interesting but failed attempt. Struggling with chapter 22 for the last ten days or so has made that all the more clear. But besides the paper I think I've already sent to everyone (if you don't have it, let me know and I'll send a copy), I have a few notes to add here.

Two sons: As perhaps all of you know already, I read the story of the two sons as the story of two ways of seeking for community. One way, the way that produces Ishmael, is to try to make community an act of will. Abraham is "progressively stripped of his most cherished relationships" because he takes them to be his creations, his achievements, perhaps his rewards. The other way, the way of Isaac, is not a way at all. It is the giving up of the will to community, and it means also the recognition of the other person as "like me" rather than a tool for achieving my ends. The loss of Ishmael is failure; the loss of Isaac is success.

heneni: Notice that this is the response of other prophets when called by God, though not Adam when he is in hiding: Moses 4:1; Abraham 3:27; Genesis 31:11, 46:2; Exodus 3:4; 1 Samuel 3:4; Isaiah 6:8. They are willing to stand face-to-face with God, to say "Look at me!"

Sight: The name which Abraham gives the place reminds us that Abraham can only see the Lord when the Lord sees him. The relation is, to use Adam's phrase, "mutual unconditionality." The Other makes it possible to see what goes beyond oneself, what is transcendent. Abraham has discovered this in his relation to Isaac. Only when Isaac has become other to Abraham, when Abraham can see Isaac in a mutually unconditioned relation rather than as property, can Abraham see the Lord.

Holding back and unconditionality: What does it mean not to hold back from God? It can mean "nothing" more than to no longer assert ownership or mastery over things. In the case of Isaac, it means no longer to see him as the fulfilment of God's promise—or the tool for that fulfilment—but as another person. What does it mean for God's promises to be unconditional? I'm not sure how to make sense of this, but the unconditioned character of God's promises seems to be the flip side of Abraham's refusal to withhold.

Moberly: I can't link to JSTORE from home, so I didn't read the piece, though I plan to. However, I think it makes sense to see the covenant as reinterpreted through the Moriah experience.

Typological meaning: No, I certainly don't rule out typological meaning. I think it is the central way in which meaning occurs in scripture. Place-holding isn't the same as typology. To say, "any son could have been born to us and fulfilled the promise" is in fact—I think—anti-typological, for the type is no more replaceable than its original.

7:38 PM  

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