Queering Genesis: Abraham and Isaac.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the best known of the familiar Bible stories. Like so many familiar stories, we tend to view it reflexively, from one overly familiar perspective – that of Abraham. Queer readings consider other viewpoints – those of Isaac, and of his mother, Sarah.

In his chapter on Genesis for The Queer Bible Commentary, Michael Carden reminds us how often queer children are cast out from their families, often in the name of religion, to experience a figurative death in the families that should be nurturing, places of life. He quotes from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick:

I’ve heard of many people who claim they’d as soon their children were dead as gay. What it took me a long time to believe is that what these people are saying is no more than the truth. They even speak for others too delicate to use the cruel words…. seemingly, this society wants its children to know nothing; wants its queer children to conform or (and this is not a figure of speech) die; and wants not to know that it is getting what it wants.

Sedgwick,  Tendencies, pp2 – 3

So, the (intended) sacrifice of his son by Abraham can stand as a representation of the actual physical and emotional violence meted out by so many people in the name of  religion, on their own sons and daughters, and on the broader queer community. (In this context, the patriarchal language favoured by the Catholic Church suddenly takes on sinister overtones). But I want to focus more closely on Isaac himself. What is his response to his planned murder?

Genesis is clear that Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice himself:

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife.

-(Gen 22:6)

Carden points out that the Jewish Rabbinic tradition, and the account in the Qur’an, are more explicit in describing the son’s active co-operation in his own execution.

Rabbinic tradition has portrayed an Isaac who actively co-operates in all that Abraham does. Isaac is even portrayed as asking Abraham to bind him tightly so that he will not resist when Abraham strikes him with the knife, or even jerk that he might be injured in such a way that he might be injured and thus rendered unfit for sacrifice. This tradition of complicity is canonized in the Qur’an’s account:

He said: ‘O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: now see what is thy view!’ The son said: ‘O my father! Do as thou art commanded: Thou will find me, if God so wills one practicing Patience and Constancy!’ So when they had both submitted their wills (to God), and he laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), We called out to him. (Sura 37.102 -3)

– Carden, The Queer Bible Commentary, “Genesis / Bereshit”, pp 41 – 43

After the key event for which he is remembered, Isaac has a curiously low profile in the rest of the story.

The Isaac of both Genesis and subsequent tradition is a figure haunted by his own death. He lives in his mother’s tent, unable to leave the land. His narrative life in Genesis is brief, and for the greater part of it he is passively subject to the agendas of others. ….Rebecca is responsible for determining which son will inherit from Isaac…. Tradition says that Isac wore Abraham’s face, and, in support of that, the only account that Genesis gives of Isaac in his own right is a pale copy of Abraham in Egypt and Gerar. … The sole reality of Isaac’s life is the dread fact of @his ashes…piled on the altar’.

Invisible, in fact. How often have we, as lesbian, gay or trans, figuratively co-operated in our own attempted murder and that of our community, by actively co-operating with ex-gay movements, by remaining closeted, or simply acquiescence in the double standard which says we are welcome to be out, but not to be visible by “flaunting” our sexuality, while heterosexual relationships and public displays of affection are constantly rubbed in our noses?

Just today, for instance , there is a front page story in the Guardian which tells of how a male couple were evicted from a pub in Soho (of all places) for behaviour which the landlady described as “obscene” – simple kissing. Would an opposite  – sex couple have been evicted for the same behaviour?   And how many of us would have the courage to kiss openly in a public venue which is not designated “gay-friendly”?

If this Biblical tale reads more as a cautionary tale of what we should be avoiding than as  the Good News we hope to find in scripture, where are we to find encouragement, hope and inspiration? No story is complete without its ending. Remember that the conclusion of the story of Abraham and Isaac does not, after all, end in the human sacrifice. The Lord intervenes to prevent the crime. Fathers are not. after all, required to reject their queer offspring, we are not required to co-operate in our silencing and invisibility.

Wilfred Owen was not thinking of gay hate crimes when he wrote his celebrated poetry, but it is important that we as one persecuted community do not lose sight of the wider problems of persecution, hatred and violence. Carden reminds us that we are never far from war-mongering. Within the queer community, we too can be guilty of rejecting those who are minorities within the minority. As we resist efforts to silence us, let us not in turn be guilty of the same crime against others – queer or otherwise.


Parable of the Old Man and the Young


So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.


Wilfred Owen


Bohache, Guest et al: The Queer Bible Commentary, “Genesis / Bereshit”