Last week, James Good­man wrote about God and child sac­ri­fice and how he came to write about Abra­ham and the bind­ing of Isaac. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb, is now avail­able from Schock­en Books. He has been blog­ging here for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I didn’t think he’d do it. I real­ly didn’t think he would.” That’s how I open my book, with a short midrash” – a short read­ers and writer’s response to the sto­ry in the con­text of all the Abra­ham sto­ries that come before. 

And then, in the next chap­ter, I intro­duce the author of Gen­e­sis 22 and the writ­ing of the sto­ry. Those pages are pure spec­u­la­tion. No one knows for sure who wrote those nine­teen lines of scrip­ture, let alone what he (I explain much lat­er in the book that no one thinks the sto­ry was writ­ten by a woman) was think­ing as he wrote, let alone his inter­ac­tion with his edi­tors or his wife, or even when the sto­ry was writ­ten or what parts of the cycle of Abra­ham sto­ries (of which it is the cli­max) were writ­ten before (in my ver­sion it is late to the Abra­ham cycle) and what parts were writ­ten afterward. 

Jane Smi­ley called those pages amus­ing and shame­less, and I would add whol­ly anachro­nis­tic. There is, I believe, plen­ty of lit­er­ary and fig­u­ra­tive truth in them, start­ing with the first line of Chap­ter 2 (“He was a writer”: no one who appre­ci­ates the sto­ry as a sto­ry would deny that) but the his­tor­i­cal truth comes later.

And already peo­ple are ask­ing why? Why open a non-fic­tion book with spec­u­la­tion. The answer is pret­ty sim­ple: The sub­ject is as close to infi­nite as a sub­ject can get. In a book of 250 pages I have prob­a­bly not even sam­pled one per­cent of one per­cent of the exe­ge­sis that’s been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, and the vast major­i­ty of it prob­a­bly hasn’t been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish. My book moves chrono­log­i­cal­ly but it is less a sur­vey than a series of sound­ings. There is, inevitably, a lot of rep­e­ti­tion, and for it not to be tedious (or more tedious than it is) it had to be writ­ten from a point of view.

But what point of view? I strug­gled with that ques­tion for years, and in fact I prob­a­bly have more than half a dozen ver­sions (not drafts, but very dif­fer­ent ver­sions) of the open­ing 30 pages, the pages which I estab­lish the narrator’s point of view and voice. They are still on my hard dri­ve. One is sim­ply from my point of view, James Good­man, writer and pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry, from soups to nuts. But I was nev­er hap­py about the way that ver­sion sound­ed, the way I sound­ed as nar­ra­tor. It was too seri­ous, too straight, too stiff. One is from the point of view of the author of the sto­ry, an author who feels he wrote a pret­ty straight­for­ward sto­ry about obe­di­ence to God. He likes the sto­ry, which makes it all the more frus­trat­ing as he dis­cov­ers that every Tom, Dick, and Har­ry (or Jubilees, Phi­lo, and Jose­phus) feels free to revise it, add char­ac­ters and dia­log and scenes and there­by twist the sto­ry and its mean­ing in every imag­in­able way, includ­ing ver­sions in which Isaac actu­al­ly dies. Anoth­er is from four points of view, Abra­ham, Isaac, Sarah, and God. There are, alas, others.

In the end I set­tled on the per­spec­tive of writer (and read­er, since all writ­ers are the first read­ers of their own work) who thought the author got the sto­ry wrong and who want­ed to revise it. He is not able to revise it (for rea­sons you need to read those pages to under­stand). So he pins his hope on (and takes some con­so­la­tion from) the idea (pro­vid­ed by his wife) that the sto­ry will ulti­mate­ly be revised by oth­ers. Some­one will revise it,” she says. The per­spec­tive of a writer who thought he got the sto­ry wrong pro­vid­ed the moral cen­ter I want­ed (grave reser­va­tions about the sto­ry) as well as the ten­sion I want­ed (Was she right? Would the sto­ry actu­al­ly be revised? If so, how, when, and why?). It also pro­vid­ed the for­ward momen­tum I thought my nar­ra­tive need­ed (as I watched the his­to­ry or life of the sto­ry unfold). 

But where,” my real wife asked recent­ly, when she start­ed read­ing the book, for the first time, did your narrator’s voice come from? Who is it? I like it, but it isn’t you.” 

No, I said it isn’t.”

It nev­er is,” she said. But this one is more so.”

I think that’s right, I said.” My nar­ra­tor is, like all nar­ra­tors and then some, a char­ac­ter all his own, some amal­gam of voic­es, a writer, a read­er, a father, a his­to­ri­an, a skep­tic, and a Jew. 

James Good­man is a pro­fes­sor at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, where he teach­es his­to­ry and cre­ative writ­ing. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb?, is now avail­able. He is also the author of two pre­vi­ous books, includ­ing Sto­ries of Scotts­boro, which was a final­ist for the Pulitzer Prize. Keep up with him here.

James Good­man is a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and head of non­fic­tion writ­ing in the MFA pro­gram at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, Newark. He is the author of two pre­vi­ous books, includ­ing Sto­ries of Scotts­boro, which was a final­ist for the Pulitzer Prize.