The Complete Book of Genesis

The Silence of Isaac
What's really in the Good Book.
May 18 2006 7:04 AM

The Complete Book of Genesis


Chapter 20
How many times are Abraham and Sarah going to pull that old, "she's my sister" con?  Last time they duped Pharaoh. This time their victim is King Abimelech. He's about to seduce Sarah, but God comes to him in a dream and tells him that Sarah and Abraham are married and Abraham is a prophet. Abimelech begs forgiveness, says he's innocent, and then buys off Abraham and Sarah with land, livestock, and silver. (Not explained—why would Abimelech want to seduce Sarah, who is nearly 90 years old?)

Chapter 21
That Sarah is a nasty piece of work. In an earlier chapter, she pimped the slave-girl Hagar to Abraham, then grew furious and exiled Hagar when she got pregnant. Now, having borne her own son Isaac, Sarah throws another fit about Hagar. She orders Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael (to protect Isaac's inheritance). With God's endorsement, he casts them out into the wilderness with just bread and a little water.  

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.


Chapter 22
The sacrifice of Isaac: It is the most harrowing story so far. Over and over Genesis tells us how Abraham had longed for a son with Sarah, how it had been the only thing he had ever really wanted. Isaac's birth had been a miracle, foretold by angels. Isaac is always described as his "favored" one. God's order that Abraham sacrifice him seems impossibly cruel. The precise, cinematic detail of the story compounds its horror. This bit of dialogue between father and his doomed son as they walk up the mountain is particularly stunning:

Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he answered, "Yes, my son." And he said, "Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?" And Abraham said, "God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son."

As a father, I find this nearly impossible to read. The repetition of "my son" is what's especially devastating. Abraham does not try for a moment to distance himself from Isaac, to separate himself from the child he must kill. Isaac remains "my son," "my son."

My initial reaction to this story was: How cruel and manipulative of God! How jealous He is of human love! But that indignation has faded—slightly. After all, the idea of testing fealty by demanding the most painful sacrifice runs through mythology, other religions, fairy tales, movies. Since God is offering the greatest of rewards to Abraham, why shouldn't He demand that Abraham be completely faithful? And at least the Lord has the goodness to let the innocent boy live.

There is one mysterious absence in this story: Isaac. As soon as he's released, he disappears from the story. He never says a word of thanks—or rebuke—to his father, or to God. What did he think of his near-death, and of his rescue? (Someone should write a novel about this, if it hasn't been done already.)

Chapter 23
This is a forgettable chapter, except for one reason. It begins with the death of Sarah, quickly taken care of in two verses. The remaining 18 verses are devoted to a protracted, confusing description of Abraham haggling to buy a burial site for Sarah in Hebron. Real estate, again! It is the strangely dominant theme of Abraham's life. Practically every chapter about him is crammed with details about land—who owns it, who can buy it, whether God is giving it, whether it's a temporary deal or a permanent one. There's more about real estate than there is about the Lord.

And how little has changed! The very burial site Abraham purchased—called the "Cave of the Patriarchs"—remains the most contentious spot on the West Bank. Jews consider it the second-holiest place on earth, but Hebron is an Arab town. For a generation, Hebron's ultrareligious Jewish settlers and neighboring Palestinians have been engaged in a nasty standoff. Its worst moment occurred in 1994, when a settler named Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Chapter 25
Abraham dies at 175 years old, "a good ripe age, old and contented." Why do people live so long in the Bible? Before the Flood, they routinely live more than 600 years. After the Flood, they still live at least 100 years. Ishmael, for example, passes later in this same chapter at 137 years, which is just about the youngest anyone dies. Is there any good explanation for this? Please don't give me the "it's not true, that's why" answer. I want to know why the authors of the Bible believed it to be true. At the time Genesis was written, thousands of years after Abraham, the Israelites who drafted it were living average life spans: Why did they credit their ancestors with such superhuman health? Was their theory that man got weaker the farther he got from Creation?

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