Book Review: Interpreting Abraham – Journeys to Moriah

interpretingabrahamTitle: Interpreting Abraham: Journeys to Moriah

Editors: Bradley Beach and Matthew Powell

Bibliographic info: 224 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon or at Fortress.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy!

This book consists of a collection of essays on the Aqedah narrative found in Genesis 22:1-19, which is the story where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. This is a pivotal story in Judaism and, of course, is quite significant in the Christian faith as well. The story also features in Islam as it is found in the Qur’an. The Aqedah narrative unlocks a veritable treasure of interpretive possibilities, not just in wordy philosophical arguments concerning the possible moral abomination or admirable faith that the Aqedah represents, but also in some beautiful paintings of the story that present interpretations in a way that words cannot. It is truly a captivating, yet perplexing, story for the person of faith.

After the introductory chapter the book is divided into three parts. The first section is comprised of three studies which look at the interpretations of the Aqedah to be found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Jewish perspective is provided by Rabbi John H. Spitzer, the Christian perspective from Carey Walsh, and the Islamic perspective from Isra Yazicioglu.

Yazicioglu is interested in the “self-perception” of the Qur’anic version of the Aqedah (found in Sura 37), as well as the reception of it by Muslim interpreters. In other words, he refrains from a historical-hierarchical model that looks at the Qur’anic version as being derivative of any Judaeo-Christian traditions of the Aqedah (which I found kind of odd, but I can understand why he desires to do so). Interesting tidbit: the son that Abraham must sacrifice in the Qur’anic version of the Aqedah isn’t named and was debated in the Islamic exegetical tradition. Though despite the fact that some early Islamic traditions identified the son as Isaac, the identification with Ishmael became the predominant view (especially after the tenth century).

The second section explores how the interpretation of the Aqedah has changed in the modern era due to the Enlightenment. The views of three thinkers of the Enlightenment are the focus here: Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. The study on Kant is provided by Ronald Green. For those unaware of Kant’s perspective on the Aqedah, it can be summed up in saying that Kant condemned anyone who would obey an alleged divine command to kill a child. The study on Hegel is from Preston Stovall, and as with everything I have ever read on Hegel, it is a challenging read! And Andrew Tebbutt provides the study on Kierkegaard. In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, he provides an interesting take on the Aqedah that involves the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” In a nutshell, this means that even though God is commanding you to sacrifice your child, something that is generally considered to be abhorrent, your faith enables you to maintain obedience to the divine command and trust that the end result will be ethically agreeable. Tebbutt’s contribution to Kierkegaard involves a look at the relationship between faith and ethics in Fear and Trembling, drawing upon John Davenport’s treatment, “Faith as Eschatological Trust in Fear and Trembling” in Ethics, Love and Faith in Kierkegaard (Indiania Uni Press, 2008).

The third section contains three studies looking at three voices that represent a twentieth-century western emergent post-traditional perspective. They are: Matthew Powell on Kafka, Laurence Bove on Levinas, and Chris Danta on Derrida. Most modern readings of the Aqedah have been impacted by Kierkegaard’s interpretation, which has become a sort of lucid “focal point” for discussion of the Aqedah. Levinas, for instance, rejected Kierkegaard’s notion of a teological suspension of ethical duty. Derrida’s interpretation of the Aqedah also stems from his reading of Kierkegaard.

The book ends with a conclusion from Bradley Beach who attempts to draw conclusions from the chapters to illuminate the meaning of the Aqedah for today.

To sum up, this book is a great volume on key interpretations of the Aqedah throughout history, with the chapters clearly showing the polyvalence of the story, which is to say, how the narrative is full of meaning and can be, and has been, interpreted multiple ways. Regardless of one’s own feelings on the Aqedah, it has been a powerful story for multitudes of people over the centuries. The concluding chapter puts it very succinctly:

It would be better for us if this story never existed or were expunged forever from the sacred traditions of religion. Unfortunately, we do not have this luxury. We are forced to confront the narrative and to make sense of it in light of our understanding of God, faith, and moral duty.

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