Posts Tagged ‘Isaac’

Jack Zipes in his excellent book Why Fairy Tales Stick (Routledge, 2007) has a chapter entitled To Be Or Not To Be Eaten: The Survival of Traditional Storytelling.

In this chapter a subheading, The Problematic Role of the Cultural Transmission of Tradition, tells the tale of a radio talk he heard.

Bruce Feiler was being interviewed about his work on trying to heal the breach of 9/11 by finding a common denominator between Christianity and Islam, and Judaism. This denominator was the figure of Abraham, father of all ‘people’s of the book’.

You remember, it was Abraham was to sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his commitment to God.


An earlier radio interview transcript included that of a caller, Mimi, who had called him out over the use of this figure of Abraham, his attempted violation of his son’s trust. She had not been taken up.

Zipes comments that Mimi’s recourse was to the writings of Alice Miller, her book The Drama of the Gifted Child. Indeed, Zipes opens this chapter with an excerpt from Miller’s The Body Never Lies. The excerpt cites: Naturally we no longer sacrifice our sons and daughters on the altar of God, as in the biblical story…But at birth and throughout their later upbringing, we instill in them the necessity to love, honor, and respect us… in short to give us everything our parents denied us.

Mimi’s response was that, as Miller had pointed, all representations of Abraham sacrificing Isaac has him gazing into the eyes of heaven; she said if he had lowered his gaze to his son’s eyes he would have become aware of the monstrousness of his act.

The killed child, the sacrificed child, murdered child, indeed the eaten child, occurs throughout traditional storytelling: think of Hansel and Gretel, Jack the Giant Killer, even Red Riding Hood. Old ballads tell the same tale; Lorca’s Gitano Romancero/ Gipsy Ballads, also picks up on this: Little Preciosa is almost a violated child; The Ballad of the Moon, the Moon has a young boy threatened by gypsies. In England it was Jews, in the ballad of Little Sir Hugh (of Lincoln). Our daily life still bears this out. The violator is often a family member: to personify him as an outsider… who knows, has this helped perpetuate it?

Throughout Zipes-Miller discussion there is a line drawn very firmly between adult and child. No doubt many mothers will find this perfectly fitting: the mental, emotional and physical adjustments she must undergo in those fraught first few months after birth draw a very distinct line between who/what she was and who/what she must now become. Not every mother is this paragon; postnatal problems cause all kinds of damage, whether temporary, or not.

With the father it is not so sudden or dramatic, but a much slower process. Those few months are the time new awareness becomes accessible; new regions, depths and areas of emotional response develop. Most cultures, being patriarchal by long standing, have served to minimize the male emotional responsiveness, self-awareness. The period of adjustment is more problematic because denied, fought-against, and full of the seeming possibilities of detachment from the situation, predicament.

‘Duty’ and ‘Responsibility’ were the key-words that kept the unit together through the very frought time of a new birth. It is possible to see these ethical constructs as purposely placed to deal with this. Once those are dispensed with, though, for whatever reason (usually a rather feeble, unthought-through one) then the family unit becomes unstable, even dangerous.


I am minded here of part of a poem by Yehuda Amichai; one of his ‘Poems of Jerusalem’, examining the heritage of that much fought-over city. The poem is Tourists, this is the second part, a prose piece:

Once I sat on the steps by the gate at David’s Tower. I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing with their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them: “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

This poem, as seems fitting for a teacher of biblical studies/Hebrew, is very much a take on the Psalms, and their veneration of Jerusalem under the various stages of Jewish dispora and banishment. Not only the Psalms, but the Jewish Haggadah; the Passover Seder always ends with the phrase ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ – that desire/aspiration sent out from every corner of the world down the generations!

I think we are here approaching a secularist, even humanist perspective.


I am a little wary of the Miller-Mimi position – only in that I doubt if the valuing of  life in this way is enough basis for a whole new conception of the hugeness of the whole of humankind’s aspirational nature.

That sounds awful, but I come from a background where I have sought to value life above and beyond all else; and have found people, the basis for the human sphere of that life, extremely exasperating, and even at times downright obnoxious. This had come as a shock, a long delayed shock because I have not been willing to let go of those early notions.

I supposed tiredness and growing enervation has made me less conscientious.

But, also, the position of Abraham was untenable: He was to sacrifice His child, to prove His commitment to God. Abraham’s being, status and potential was to come before everything.

Sounds very familiar. The overbearing egotism of this; Isaac, his mother Sara, the tribal mores, the physical/emotional bond between father and son, the highest moral bonds of trust and nurture – all to be dispensed with.

This is one of the very dodgy areas of religion. In Christianity the believer must be willing to leave behind family, friends and one’s people. Ultimate cultism; the beginning of brainwash techniques.

And the clarion call to sacrifice. In the case of Abraham he was to sacrifice Isaac, who indeed was all those things to him. He would have nothing left but himself and God, after this. He knew that.

Too big a call.

What can be achieved by complete commitment: those magnificent cathedrals and  Mosques; the deep blend of Judaism. What wonders would be lost if we said of these things It’s not important, as in the poem?

And yet we have seen the huge overhaul of everything within 100 or 150 years as technology and science has taken us away from dependence, to a measure of stability (note I avoid the term ‘mastery’). When we consider quality of life, of what still in some parts of the world passes for this, and what is shown to be possible in others parts, (hastily denying any kind of cultural supremacy in this!) we cannot deny what was been done in these past few years must surely have been our biggest achievements so far.

Do we have to learn to let go, to move into the valueless and shallow waters of our present time, in order to move on?