James Goodman's But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac uses a historian's eye to parse what has become over centuries perhaps the most debated 19 lines in the Bible. Here, Goodman gives an overview of the story.

1. What happened?

On the surface, it is pretty simple. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. And not just any son, but Isaac, the longed-for son of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, the son God promised would make their descendants as numerous as the stars. The command came out of nowhere. Yet Abraham set out without hesitation, and three days later he had ditched his servants, bound Isaac, and laid him on the altar. It was only when he reached for his knife that God command him to stop, saying, “Now I know that you fear me.” Abraham looked up, saw a ram caught in a thicket, and sacrificed it instead. God repeated his promises, and Abraham and his servants returned to Beersheba.

2. Why did God ask? What was he thinking?

We don’t know. The narrator calls it a test, and after God stops Abraham, he says, “Now I know you fear me.” But that line made many ancient interpreters uneasy. They believed God was all-knowing. An all-knowing God would have already known Abraham feared him. So they read and wrote between the lines. Some imagined that God had been goaded by Satan, who claimed that Abraham loved Isaac more than he feared God. God showed him, making the incident less a test than a demonstration. Equally creative explanations abound today. One is that after Abraham interrogated God about his plan to destroy Sodom, God wanted to show him who was in charge.

3. How do Jewish, Christian, and Muslim understandings of the story differ?

In antiquity, Jews understood the story as one of obedience, Abraham’s obedience, on account of which the Jewish people received God’s special blessing.

The early Christians, while hardly gainsaying obedience, folded it into faith: Abraham’s faith that God would keep his promise to make Abraham great through Isaac, even if it meant bringing Isaac back from the dead. In Christian minds, Abraham’s faith prefigured their own, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son prefigured God’s sacrifice of Jesus, and Abraham’s actual sacrifice, the lamb, prefigured Jesus, who became the true heir of God’s blessing and promise.

Muslims returned to obedience. Their Abraham was the first to submit to God, the exemplar of the Islamic faith. The great Islamic innovation was to imagine that Ishmael not Isaac was the nearly sacrificed son. Not all Muslims accepted that revision, but its virtue should be obvious: Ishmael was the progenitor of the Arab people. Like the Jews and Christians before them, they wanted God’s blessing running their way.

4. Where was Sarah, Abraham’s wife?

She is missing from Genesis 22. The author may have believed that Isaac belonged to Abraham. His father alone controlled his fate. Or he may simply have sensed that if God or Abraham had confided in Sarah, the story would have ended right then and there: How do you say “over my dead body” in biblical Hebrew?

In subsequent tradition, however, Sarah is everywhere. In one Islamic story, she fears she is being punished for banishing Hagar and Ishmael (in Genesis 21). In another, she blurts out a line that might well be the punch line of a Jewish comedian’s joke: “You would sacrifice my son and not tell me?” Christian hymnists imagined Sarah—whom they considered a type of Mary--calling Abraham “drunk with God” (when she thought the sacrifice was Abraham’s idea) and begging him to allow her to participate (when she realized the idea was God’s). Rabbis introduced her to the story to explain her death in the very next chapter of Genesis. Some said she died of shock when Satan told her where Abraham had gone. Others said that she died of joy when she learned Isaac had been spared.

5. What have modern biblical scholars made of the story?

The range respectable opinion has been remarkably wide. Some have read Genesis 22 as a polemic against child sacrifice (God's way of telling Abraham that he didn't want his chosen people to do what their "heathen" neighbors did in their new land). Some, more subtlety, see it as an explanation (“etiology”) of the permissibility of substitution and the transition from human to animal sacrifice. Some believe something approaching the opposite: That the story is a celebration of the ideal of child sacrifice, the idea that the first child belongs to God (see Exodus 13). God didn't always ask for that child back, but sometimes he did.

And then there are scholars who don’t think that the story was about sacrifice at all. Rather, they say, it was about God promise and providence, perhaps written at a time—in Babylonian exile or immediately afterward--when Israel’s future seem in doubt. Its lesson: Things may look grim. But if you do what God asks, he will provide.

6. Where is Isaac at the end of story?

Missing. And his absence has troubled readers for millennia. In Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, some rabbis imagined the death and resurrection of Isaac. Today, some scholars use his absence as evidence that the story was originally a sacrifice story (lines 1-10 and 15-19) revised into an aborted sacrifice after child sacrifice fell out of favor. Others insist that the narrator’s attention was focused on God and Abraham. Isaac was in his father’s charge.

7. Why are we still talking about this troubling story after so many years?

One reason is surely that so many Jews, then Christians, and Muslims came to believe that the story recounts an actual event, a foundational event, essential to who they are what they believe. But fascination with the story has not been limited to the believers. That’s because the story is remarkable as a story. In a mere nineteen lines, there is both explicit drama and great mystery. Thoughts, feelings, motives, meanings, even dialog lay between the lines, unexpressed. We know what people do, but not why. We ask questions about the relationship between God and men, parents and children, self and sacrifice, authority and disobedience, fear and love, reason and faith. We answer them with new interpretations and new versions of the story. The story sustains itself by turning readers into writers.