The Will of the Fathers

Jenny Diski

  • Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of the Biblical Myth by Carol Delaney
    Princeton, 333 pp, £19.95, December 1998, ISBN 0 691 05985 3

To accuse the book of Genesis of being patriarchal is like complaining that cats throw up fur-balls, or dogs sniff each other’s bottoms. It’s not pleasant, but that’s cats and dogs for you. On the other hand, you can choose not to have a cat or dog, whereas, says Carol Delaney, Genesis we’re lumbered with, deep in our psyche and social structure. Therefore we need ‘a new moral vision, a new myth to live by’. (This is to accept that we are helpless victims rather than interpreters of myth, and that our consciousness is entirely conditioned by it, which is a bleak view of humanity’s capacity for analytical thought, and an even bleaker view of the consequences of feminist criticism of patriarchal stories.) However, she continues, ‘I cannot provide such a myth – no one person can do that,’ and so her book is not taken up with offering new gender-free myths to live by, but with a surprised and outraged analysis of the patriarchal assumptions in the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Her surprise is somewhat surprising. When Delaney declares that she has discovered ‘sexist presumptions’ in Luther’s understanding of the Scriptures, adding, ‘Nor does he ask what right Abraham had to involve other people in such a unilateral decision’, and announces that she believes that the story of the binding of Isaac ‘represents the construction, establishment and naturalisation of sex role differences [her italics]’ you can only shake your head and murmur: ‘Well, yes, and the Pope’s a Catholic.’

If God is the Daddy of them all, Abraham is the patriarch of patriarchs, the acknowledged founding father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. After God tried and gave up on the children of Adam and Eve, drowning all but Noah and his family, he narrowed his sights to Abraham, a more manageable single individual of whom he would make a nation. It could be argued that Sarah was a necessary part of the package. She was already married to Abraham, and is claimed by all three religions as their matriarch. But there’s little point in pussy-footing about: the Scriptures – prepare yourselves – do not promote feminism. You can change Yahweh into a mid-gendered s/he, you can point to the odd strong woman – the men-murdering Judith and Jael – you can admire the wiliness of Rebekah in devising the plan for stealing the blessing and birthright for her favourite younger son, but sit down and read the actual text and you soon enough discover that Yahweh can only be male, while the women merely further the ambitions of sons and husbands. Even Eve’s original and splendid disobedience comes to be regarded by the rabbis as useful in providing ammunition against the threat posed by all future women and by the Christian Fathers as the felix culpa that made necessary the passive and virtuous Virgin, whose uterus nurtured the sacrificial remedy to Eve’s faux pas. The relationship between the Scriptures and male domination has been noted before, and it is clear that neither God nor his chosen ones were signatories to the International Convention on Human Rights. That’s a shame. It has made, as Delaney rightly suggests, a difference to how we have gone about living on the planet. But it is not a sufficient explanation for gender discrepancy.

Delaney’s key proposition is that the obsessive interest in seed, paternity and patriliny in Genesis stems from a theory of procreation that is biologically in error and therefore constructs an over-inflated meaning for fatherhood. An associate professor of anthropology, she explains that the meanings of kinship terms do not necessarily reflect the ‘natural facts’, but – once the connection between men and children is understood to exist – promote a procreational theory that constructs the male role as creative and the female role as nurturing. (Robert Alter is praised for using the word ‘seed’ in his translation of Genesis, where others fudge the problem by using ‘posterity’, ‘descendants’ or ‘progeny’. But the praise is immediately revoked: ‘Writing in the late 20th century, he cannot be excused for neglecting that women, too, have “seed”; but because he did, he also lost the opportunity to challenge the theology that is so interdependent with it.’ Alter probably did not consider it his task to challenge theology, but Delaney clearly thinks if it wasn’t it ought to have been.) The male ‘seed’ is the animating, soul-instigating substance of life, the womb merely the soil in which it grows. This common, ancient theory of monogenesis is the basis for monotheism, which proposes the sequence of a single male creator god bestowing the promise of generations on his male creation in return for complete obedience. Men’s life-giving ability allied them structurally with God the Father, giving both the power of life and death over their creations. This is a chicken and egg argument, since in order successfully to promote such a theory men had already to have gained the ascendancy and taken charge of constructing and disseminating the theories that justified the status quo. There is, as far as I know, very little-evidence for true matriarchal societies in ancient history, though matriliny, where the line is controlled by the brothers of women rather than their husbands, was (and is) not uncommon. Tales of matriarchies were more likely to be stories men told each other to scare themselves witless and to confirm the wisdom of their own established power. And even if the news of the equal contribution of male and female to reproduction had floated down on a fluffy pink cloud of revelation, the history of gender relations would not, I suspect, have been very much different. If there was ever a time when no one had any idea how babies were made, then perhaps men and women got along more or less as equals, everyone providing the services that they performed best; though the fact that it was always women who had the babies would surely have made some difference. Once the idea of paternity had been grasped, however, men found themselves in a position of fatal weakness. Paternity was unprovable, whereas maternity was a certainty. Women were therefore to be distrusted and feared, and it became a matter of urgency to construct social and religious justifications for their control by and circulation among men. It wasn’t the lack of Crick and Watson and knowledge of what we hold to be the facts of reproduction (presumably just another theory of procreation) that held back the equality of women for six thousand years, so much as male womb envy. If it’s a wise child that knows her father, it’s a woman-controlling father who knows his child.

We can as easily read underlying male anxiety into the Biblical account of God and his chosen ones as detect in it evidence of the universal conspiracy against women. Male chauvinist fundamentalists can see their story in the Bible, but so can the infuriated feminist see hers in the male writing and reading of it. It is a fact, though Delaney doesn’t mention it, that Jewishness is passed on to children by women. A child is recognised as fully Jewish only if her mother is Jewish, and not Jewish at all if her father is but her mother is not. A practical recognition, perhaps, of the social and biological realities that so unnerved the men.

The first creation in Genesis 1.27-28 is a unity:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply.

The confusion of pronouns must reflect the nervousness of the Authorised Version’s translation committee. More recent translations by Alter (he of the lost opportunity) and Everett Fox, both intent on retrieving original meanings, replace man with the more accurate human and humankind. But it’s only a brief escape from gender division. The second creation account of Genesis derives woman more famously from the man who was created in God’s image. But the confusion of the Authorised Version reflects the reality at the root of patriarchal control of society; the politics of power are inherent in the original gender division.

Moreover, the early books of the Bible don’t offer any personal future beyond death. Nowhere in the five books of Moses is any notion of an afterlife to be found; only children – begetting – can offer a type of life after death. And so the obsession with seed and generation in Genesis is not surprising. Mankind bargains with God for the only posterity on offer. The only hold God has over man is the promise or denial of that posterity, since death will come to all sooner or later. The future in the form of future generations is the central concern of man, woman and God, all of whom have their own understanding of how such generations are achieved. No one in Genesis asks to live for ever, but everyone is concerned with having children who will survive them.

The specific myth Delaney would like to replace is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, the story in which God teeters on the verge of extinguishing that hope. The only explanation for God’s behaviour, if you don’t dismiss him as a vindictive and dangerous sprite, is the not very satisfactory answer given at the end of the Book of Job: that the ways of God are unknowable. After 26 years of promising but holding off fertility, God finally delivers the goods to Abraham and Sarah, aged 100 and 90, in the form of Isaac. After being six times blessed with the promise of the fatherhood of a nation as numberless ‘as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore’, a child of Abraham and Sarah is born, which is at least a start. Abraham has proved himself to God, at whose command he has left his previous life, accepted a single god, circumcised his penis, and built numerous altars; but only one proof of his devotion to the Lord counts: his willingness to sacrifice his future, to kill his son Isaac, the point of everything that has happened up until now.

The test is beyond reason. You can just see why a megalomaniac and jealous god like Yahweh might demand such a sacrifice and negate his own creation through sheer nihilism, but it’s very hard to understand why Abraham would comply with the destruction of the only possibility of God’s promises coming true. In fact he does not in so many words give his assent to the plan, he only seems to go along with it. When Isaac (who, incidentally, is now 37) asks where the lamb for the sacrifice is, Abraham replies: ‘God will provide.’ But, as Jack Miles points out in God: A Biography, since he does not end up sacrificing Isaac, we have no way of knowing whether he was going to: it may be that he was responding with a challenge of his own that made God back away from the absurdity of his demand. The rabbis and Church Fathers may have interpreted Abraham’s behaviour as the perfect obedience to the deity that they wished their own believers to emulate, but Abraham himself had previously shown that he was well able to confront God on matters of wasted lives and even give him a lesson on human concepts of justice. Before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham shames the Lord into bargaining for the lives he wishes to destroy:

Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that the innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?

Understandably, the Church in the name of family and social conformity wishes to appropriate one reading of Abraham, but there are other readings to be made. If we throw out the story as politically inappropriate (along with Hamlet and Lear ... well, most of Shakespeare ... well, most of literature and all classical myth) we lose the chance to read it again differently, more carefully, less reverentially.

Among those who might have provided more radical interpretations of the story of Abraham and Isaac, is Freud, who instead, and inaccurately, chooses Moses as his archetypal patriarch, in order to avoid, Delaney says, upsetting his dubious theories of fathers and sons. Freud is rebuked for failing to use the binding of Isaac to criticise his own theory of Oedipal guilt. What is left out of his analysis of the myth, and of the problem as he outlines it in Totem and Taboo (the father’s hoarding of the females, his murder by the sons, their guilt and sublimation of their guilt in father worship), is the guilt of the father. Laius, wanting his son dead, lamed and exposed him to the elements. Oedipus did not will his father’s death, but killed him by accident. Abraham is the real myth he should have used, Delaney insists (even though it’s the one she wants to get rid of), since it describes the murderous intentions of the father towards the child – a far more pertinent cause of family dysfunction, she suggests in her chapter on the prevalence of child abuse, than the story of Oedipus or that of the primeval boys. The sacrifice of Isaac is the precursor of the sacrifice of Christ by his father. Isaac was silent, but Christ was said by Mark and Matthew to have cried: ‘Father, father, why have you forsaken me?’ Although, in fact, Eloi is translated as ‘God’ rather than ‘Father’ by the Authorised Version, the Revised Standard Version and Jerusalem version. ‘Through the ages,’ says Delaney, ‘theologians and, more recently, psychoanalysts have tried to drown out that cry as over and over children are sacrificed to the will of the father(s).’

The foundational story of Abraham and Isaac gives us the outline of the ‘myth that has shaped our lives and the social legacy we have inherited’. The Akedah speaks to us of the ‘willingness of the father to sacrifice his child, and the child’s obedience and submission to the father’. Authoritarianism is rooted in paternity, and this underlying assumption in monotheistic religions, Delaney argues, helps to justify the marginalisation of women, parental abuse of children and the right of the state to send its children off to war.

But what actually happens when an actual, contemporary father takes his child, his favoured one, whom he loves, and kills her because he has heard the voice of God instructing him to do so, is that our present society puts him on trial, questions everyone involved very carefully, and finds that he is guilty of murder, but insane, and therefore in need of close medical care rather than prison. It is hardly the outcome you would expect from a society in thrall to the Biblical norm, but it is nonetheless neither a surprising nor an unjust verdict. The case is Delaney’s key metaphor. Cristos Valenti, a recovering alcoholic, previously a hard-working, devoted family man, began to hear the voice of God, and when in 1990 it told him to kill his youngest daughter, he did so and then told his oldest daughter to call the police: ‘I have given her to God.’ The chapter on Valenti is entitled ‘Abraham as Alibi? A Trial in California’, yet Valenti did not offer the binding of Isaac as a mitigating precedent. The modern day court seemed well able to distinguish myth from practical sickness and human tragedy, yet Delaney finds grave error in it:

The verdict of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ may be a way of showing mercy, but in this case, anyway, and however much below the surface, it was also a way of affirming paternal power ... a man’s right to determine the fate of his child unilaterally, that is, without consulting the mother. He was never asked: by what right did you take the child without discussing it with her mother? And the question never came up in court. It was a crime of omission on two counts.

Valenti, like Abraham, did not seek permission from the child’s mother, or query his own entitlement when ordered by God to take the life of the child. But then, if you believed you were truly hearing the voice of God, I suppose you wouldn’t stop to debate it with anyone. If Valenti had been capable of questioning the nature of his voice, he might have been capable of questioning the demands it made. And in that case, he probably wouldn’t have heard the voice in the first place. Where justice isn’t available, mercy has to do, as Abraham, in his relations with his demanding God knew only too well.