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The Binding of Isaac

By W. Dow Edgerton

THE experience is familiar. The preacher sits before a portion of Scripture, the text for the coming Sunday, having recognized long since that one's own small knowledge and experience and wisdom cannot meet the need of the community which will gather. The preacher leans over the text hoping the words will speak, so the preacher, too, will have something to say. The preacher leans over the text wanting nothing more, perhaps, than to say what the lesson says, but wanting really to say what the lesson says: not to repeat an order of words, but to speak the text into life for a particular place and time, to speak the fullness of the text. To say what the text says, however, one must first hear what the text says; to hear what the text says, one must read.

Our problem has never been that the text has too little to say. It is rather that the text says so much and evokes so much that it threatens to overwhelm us. There are echoes and harmonies, resonances and reverberations, relationships, patterns woven into the surface, and color stained deep in the background. It is all filled with meaning, but what meaning? How do you begin to attend to it all? Faced with such extravagance of meaning, the preacher may well grasp for the word closest to hand-a moral, a lesson, a piece of advice, or nothing more than an ancient illustration-and turn away to the simpler task of putting one's own thoughts in order. Surely it has happened to us all. Just as surely, are we all not haunted by what we have left behind: haunted by the voices of the text which whisper just at the edge of our hearing?

"Speak and bear witness," says Rilke. "Read and speak and bear witness," we might respond. The first and most difficult problem of preaching is this problem of reading. Reading is where preaching is born. It is in reading that the text's voices are first summoned or silenced or honored or ignored. It is in reading that our most basic instruction in preaching comes.

Yet this reading can be extraordinarily difficult. Our eyes move automatically; one is scarcely more aware of reading than of breathing. The difficulty is all the greater when the text at hand is familiar. Then the reader has not only read, but has already interpreted. Certain voices have been privileged, certain choices made, and it is the text of those voices and choices which the reader meets. In the familiar text, the voice which speaks most strongly is the reader's own.

The preacher leans over the page to read. It is at once most basic and most difficult. Where can we find help in reading?


Dow Edgerton is Assistant Professor of Ministry at Chicago Theological Seminary. His essay, "Ways of Praise," on Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry appeared in the January 1987 issue of THEOLOGY TODAY.

 

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I

Upon reading two unrelated texts for unrelated reasons, it will happen sometimes that they begin to speak to one another. Perhaps they can speak also to the question at hand.

The first text in this instance is the "Binding of Isaac" in the book of Genesis. As a reader, I have found myself asking why it strikes me so. Why am I drawn to it again and again? Although I know the story, know the beginning and the ending, why do I return to read it? There would seem to be a special experience which the story itself provides, an experience which has everything to do with the particular writing and reading of the story, but what experience is it? What am I hearing? What am I overbearing?

Robert Creely once observed that in a poem "I tend to hear whatever can be called its melody long before I have reached an understanding of all that it might mean."1 Words, it would seem, may be haunted by more than sense. Melody and music are terms which have figured prominently in our appreciation of poetry, of course, but a narrative may have a ,'melody" as well. The words which tell the story do more than simply convey the information of who, what, when, where, why, and how. They relate not only to the events they depict, but to each other. It is these relationships that we could call melody. Vocabulary, style, rhythm, sound, syntax, and other such factors are as much at work melodically in a narrative as in a poem. With Creely, we may well hear such a melody before we fully grasp the sense.

We could shift the musical analogy slightly and think of melody as plot. Are there harmonies being struck above and below the melody line of the story which we do not so much hear as overhear? Are there effects of language, of narration, of technique which stamp a character upon the story? If there are, would they not shape our experience of the story as powerfully as harmony shapes our hearing of melody? The problem is how to approach and discover what lies so close to the threshold of hearing.

This wondering led eventually to a practical interpretive question: How can I attend more fully both to the story at hand and to my own responses? Are there approaches to reading which open up relationships, tensions, connections which otherwise remain below the level of my awareness?

The second partner in this conversation is an essay by the poet and critic Denise Levertov, "On the Function of the Line."2 The discussion in the essay centers upon the way in which line break and stanza shape the interpretation of a poem, emphasizing and de-emphasizing, muting and bringing forward, creating tensions and relationships which the prose line does not. Line and stanza, she argues, shape the unfolding experience and perception of a poem, so that the reader is presented not


1Robert Creely, "Poems Are a Complex," in Donald Hall, Claims for Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1982), p. 76,

2Denise Levertov, "On the Function of the Line," in Hall, op. cit., pp. 265-72.

 

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only with the completed expression but with the process of coming to expression. They are forms of punctuation which are a-logical, interpretive, supplementary; they embody instruction to the reader within the poem itself. As interpretive scoring, she maintains, they are especially important for the more "open" forms of poetry which must rely upon their own particular logic for achieving form rather than utilizing a so-called "closed" poem form such as a triolet or a sonnet.

The argument of a modern poet, the tale of an ancient story-writer, and the question of a wondering reader began to speak to one another. What if the "Binding of Isaac" were approached with the tools of line and stanza in hand? Could they help a reader open up the experience of reading? Could they help bring to awareness what a reader overhears? Could they help an interpreter explore not only the plot and outcome of the story, but the effect and importance of how that story comes to expression?

II

How do line and stanza function in nonmetrical, "open forms" of poetry? Levertov argues that the open forms present a more exploratory experience of poetry. They are more concerned with revealing the way in which poetry happens, and not only the resulting poem.

Such poetry, more than most poetry of the past, incorporates and reveals the process of thinking/feeling, feeling/thinking, rather than focusing more exclusively on its results; and in so doing it explores (or can explore) human experience in a way that is not wholly new but is (or can be) valuable in its subtle difference of approach: valuable both as human testimony and as aesthetic experience. And the crucial precision tool for creating this exploratory mode is the line-break.3

Line break is a "parallel punctuation," as are the other variables of poetic form. The way lines are clustered or distanced from one another, the relative position on the page, the length and degree of closure a line achieves, endstopping, enjambment-these matters of form all function to interpret the reading of the poem, and they all relate to the line break.

As punctuation, the line break has, first of all, a rhythmic function: it creates a pause. The purpose of the pause is not found in logic or syntax, but in the process of writing itself. It records a moment of question and decision, as one asks "who?", "what?", "how?" The pause is only momentary, however, a glimmer of hesitation, an eye which narrows slightly but doesn't blink. A possibility has been chosen and others rejected; the pause is the instant before the choice is made. There is no other punctuation to record the hesitation. A dash is too abrupt, a comma too long. Call it a half-comma, perhaps, as others have. It creates what she terms an "a-logical counter-rhythm" which combines with the "logical rhythm of syntax" to create "an effect closer to song than to statement, closer to dance than to walking."


3Ibid., p. 266.

 

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The effect, however, is more than some counterpoint or syncopation of rhythm-and this is one of Levertov's principal points-because the pause "allows the reader to share more intimately the experience that is being articulated." The reader is poised before the choice. We know the last word of the line and dwell, however briefly, upon it, because this is the achieved point from which the choice must be made. We anticipate and propose, perhaps we expect, then confront the actual word which begins the next line. The reader may be confirmed or puzzled or surprised-there are many possibilities-but, in any case, there is a tension and resolution which draws the reader more and more into the writing.

This drawing of the reader into the writing is not further pursued by Levertov in the essay, but some implications of her model of reading could be made more explicit, for they fit with certain critical perspectives we shall discuss shortly. In standing before the unspoken "who?" or "what?" or "how?" the reader is drawn both backwards and forwards within the poem. There is, we could say, a crystallization of what the poem has been to that point. To choose or anticipate, the reader must risk an interpretation of what has gone before. That interpretation is not so much of a propositional kind, saying what the poem up to that point means. Rather, it is an interpretation of a participational kind. The reader, we could say, attempts to be conformed to the voice of the writing, to move into the writing itself. The anticipation goes beyond the choice of a word, of course. To propose even the single word requires an interpretation of what the poem will become from that point on. Both interpretations, backwards and forwards, are corrected by the poem itself. The perspective of the reader is thereby drawn increasingly into that of the writer. Perspective, however, is a visual term; better to say the voice of the reader is drawn increasingly into the voice of the writer.

The more important, and less understood, function of the line break for Levertov, has to do with the effect upon the melody of the poem. Rhythm is a monotone drum, melody rises and falls. The slight hesitation, the slight emphasis and deemphasis, the weighing of a word's importance by its position in a line, all alter the pattern of pitch which the reader intones. A repetitive poem by William Carlos Williams,4 which places the same words in the same order, could serve as an example of the effect:


4William Carlos Williams, "Calypsos," Pictures From Brueghel and Other Poems (New York: New Directions, 1962), p. 56. Used by permission.

 

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The line and stanza breaks create a kind of score which shapes the reading and speaking (or perhaps speaking first, then reading) of the words, in order to create a pattern for the whole. The reader of the poem, with the help of these formal "instructions," attempts to voice the parts so they may be heard in their most expressive relationships. In our example, for instance, the word "love" occurs six times. If you read it aloud, it is likely that none of the six repetitions will sound the same. Why? Because their placement in each instance gives a nuance which is difficult (if not impossible) to explain, but quite possible (if not easy) to pronounce. These nuances are as vital to the experience of the poem as the order of words and the sense they make. One could even argue, in this instance, that the shifting nuance among the repeated words is the central experience of the poem.

Instructions for reading are foundational to interpretation, for interpretation is founded upon a reading. Voicing the words of a text may be the most basic interpretive act. It is the first interpretation, the one which discloses a range of choices to be made and which subsequent interpretation expands or corrects. It is also a final interpretation, based upon all the interpretation which has occurred. We voice a reading in order to interpret, and that interpretation creates our subsequent reading. If every interpretation depends upon a pre-understanding or fore-understanding, voicing is a fundamental presentation of that understanding. The outer voice commits the reader to choices-to relationships, to nuances, to inflections-which the inner voice does not. The outer voice requires a precision of interpretation, and a pressing of interpretation, in the presentation of the text itself.

III

Although Levertov's essay does not explicitly place itself in one or another critical stream, it has clear affinities with what is called "reader-response" criticism. Emphasis on the effect upon the reader, the focus upon the process of reading and writing, a reading-writing model which draws the two activities closely together, the event-full and temporal character of reading-these are all themes which find parallels in reader-response critical literature.5

In the relationship of reading and writing, there is an understanding which is of special importance. "Reading and writing join hands, change places, and finally become distinguishable only as two names for the same activity."6 That is Jane Tompkins's helpful way of putting it, with which Levertov and many reader-response critics could substantially agree. A key difference, perhaps, is that for Levertov the literary author would seem to be the author of our reading experience, while certain reader-response critics would push for a more radically reader-centered


5For a range of essays concerning reader-response criticism, see Jane P. Tompkins, ed., Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1980).

6Ibid., p. x.

 

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understanding of where authorship of the reading experience lies. The horizon, however, is broad enough to include both possibilities.

Wolfgang Iser, for example, has explored the question of reading process and interpretation in ways which speak to the project at hand. Iser's phenomenology of reading has strong similarities to the process Levertov describes, but explores the implications more deeply.

In Iser's model of reading, the reader becomes a co-creator of the work through the process of reading.7 Two phenomena in that process fit closely with Levertov. The first is the movement of what Iser calls retrospection and anticipation. We continually read backwards and forwards from what has been written to what shall be written. Sentences are previews of what will come and interpret what will come. What comes interprets what has gone before and brings it into some particular relationship, and thereby suggests still another range of possibilities for the future. "In whatever way, and under whatever circumstances the reader may link the different phases of the text together, it will always be the process of anticipation and retrospection that ... transforms the text into an experience for the reader."8 The literary work is found, then, neither strictly in the text nor strictly in the reader, but squarely between the two.

The text which unfolds smoothly and obviously, however, gives us nothing to do and we lose interest. There is neither opportunity nor need for our involvement. But where the smooth "flow" of a text is interrupted, where the retrospection and anticipation are suddenly experienced as inadequate to what occurs next in the text, the reader's participation in the text is greatly heightened. Now we must take responsibility; now we enter into "writing" of the text, construing and configuring. Thus breaks or "blockages" become essential to the reading process, because they involve the reader in the process of co-creation.

A similar and related participation is what Iser calls the formation of "gestalts" of the literary text. By this he means the process of grouping together all the different aspects of a text to form the consistency for which the reader always searches. While expectations may be continually modified, and images continually expanded, the reader will still strive, even if unconsciously, to fit everything together in a consistent pattern.9

The reader is the one who groups the different parts of a text. The reader is the one who discerns a pattern and a direction and projects expectations. As new material threatens the gestalt, the material is either suppressed by the reader or the gestalt revised. "In a process of trial and error, we organize and reorganize the various data offered us by the text ... trying to fit them together in a way we think the author


7Wolfgang Iser, "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach," in Tompkins, op. cit., pp. 50-69. The discussion of Iser is based upon this essay.

8Ibid., p. 56.

9Ibid., p. 58.

 

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meant them to be fitted."10 Thus, the reader "recreates" the work through this dynamic process, a recreation which depends precisely upon interruption, upon the opening and reopening of the possibilities of a text, for the reader to participate.

Interpretation which attends to such a reading process looks through a powerful glass. The succession of words in time becomes the focus, each word, each cluster, line, phrase, sentence becoming the occasion of a renewed interpretive act. "Essentially what the method does is to slow down the reading experience so that 'events' one does not notice in normal time, but which do occur, are brought before our analytical attention," as Stanley Fish writes.11 Criticism seeks to describe that experience.

It is not only the critic, however, who is interested in the experience. The preacher leaning over the page, wanting to hear, needing to read-that reader, too, may be interested.

IV

We return to the question: What if the "Binding of Isaac" were approached with the tools of line and stanza in hand? Could they help a reader open up the experience of reading? Could they help an interpreter explore not only the result of the story, but the effect and importance of how that story comes to expression?

Here is the story as one reader approaches it. The narrative will be presented in episodes. Each episode is judged to have achieved either a certain tension or a certain resolution which makes it into a useful literary unit for our purposes. After each section, there will be a brief commentary discussing selected aspects of lines presented. The reasons for all the choices can't be argued in a reasonable space. It is hoped that the choices will display their reasons on their own.12


10Ibid., p. 62.

11Ibid., p. xvi.

12The text is reconstructed from The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version.

 

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The particular choices aim to bring forward particular dynamics of the opening of the story. The language is supremely bare. Its tension and horror depend in large part upon the starkness of the saying: the call, the three- or four-fold naming of Isaac, the terrible irony of Abraham being shown another land by God (as in the beginning of his story) but with a seemingly terrible purpose now, and the retardation of the command until its full weight may be seen balanced against God's original call and promise and guidance and blessing, mirrored and recalled by the beginning of the dialogue-all are heightened by the starkness. At the very outset, the story is thick with allusion, thick with implication, densely patterned. The story does not stand alone. It begins surrounded by echoes, echoes which sound precisely because of the bare clarity of the telling.

One particular ordering holds open the tension. Rather than placing together, "go to the land of Moriah upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you," it is divided by the text with the command to sacrifice falling in the middle. The effect is to maintain maximum attention upon the agency of God in the horrible deed. God's speech concludes not upon Abraham or Isaac, but upon the emphasis of God's saying.

The inauguration of the story achieves a powerful and important effect, which profoundly shapes the relationship of the reader to what unfolds. The effect is a kind of immobilization and isolation of the reader. "God tested Abraham," the narrator says. The reader knows that what unfolds is a test and that it is, indeed, God who sets all in motion. But the characters in the story know nothing of the sort. Within the action itself, the speaker is unidentified except by the calling of Abraham's name, and Abraham's reply is equally, if not more, terse. No reciprocal naming, only the bare statement. The reader knows who speaks, but how does Abraham know? Could this as well be the voice of Satan as of God? As the incomprehensible command unfolds, the question becomes more acute. How could this be? Who is God who could say this?

The reader knows it is a test. What does such knowledge do? The effect is not to soften the story but to make it more strange and distant. There is something unreal at hand. God speaks, but it is not really the word of God. God commands, but gives a false command. Everything which unfolds is founded upon a fiction; everything which unfolds is a kind of theater. Such a fiction puts the reader in a curiously paralyzed position. One cannot identify with Abraham, because this crucial knowledge which determines everything is not shared. The reader knows, but Abraham does not, and the knowledge that this is a test throws a greater gulf between Abraham and the reader than culture or epoch ever could. One can neither rebel nor obey, because what rebellion

 

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or disobedience are cannot be said. We cannot take Abraham's role and rebel, for it is only a test: God has not truly commanded the sacrifice. We cannot obey and sacrifice Isaac, for it is only a test: God has not truly commanded the sacrifice. Or is that the very point of the test? Is the point of the test to obey by refusing? There is no hint. Yet, of this fundamental tension which so shapes the reader's perception of everything which will be said and done, the human characters of the story are unaware. The reader's entry into the story cannot be through Abraham, for the story which he lives and the story we read are two different stories. We cannot participate. The only possibility is to watch and listen, in a certain horror, as the story unfolds.

In contrast to the beginning of the story, this segment is pure narration. The perspective is external to the characters. We see through no one's eyes but the narrator's, and the narrator's eyes are fixed upon Abraham. He is the subject of all the verbs.

Since the initial response to God, Abraham has not spoken. What he thinks or feels cannot be read, and can scarcely be read in. The verbs are neutral and the actions closed. With so little to go on, the temptation is strong to project emotion into the small gap (or is it a gap?) which seems to appear with "Abraham lifted up his eyes." A three day journey with lowered eyes? That must tell us something about this character so strongly walled off from us! But nothing is there. He lifts his eyes, but they do not open onto him. We look for his eyes, but can only follow where they gaze: the place, afar off.

In this portion, too, the reader's immobility and externality are reinforced. We see the picture, but cannot hear the sound which might

 

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interpret for us or bring us inside. No one speaks to include us. Having spoken, God is silent; having heard, Abraham is silent. Witnessing, the reader is silent.

The retardation of the naming of Isaac appears here, as in the initial sequence. The effect is double. On the one hand, it expresses reluctance and pathos, building the sense of both the unthinkable and the inevitable. Must Abraham? Will Abraham? The second effect is to express a distancing of Abraham from Isaac, which stands in grim contrast to the relational insistence of the narrator, "his son, Isaac." This wrenching irony will grow and deepen frighteningly in the events to come. Abraham is subject, Isaac is object; Abraham takes, Isaac is taken. Between father and son, all those verbs, those acts, and what those acts intend intervene.

An ironic foreshadowing has begun, and with it a pattern of double irony which marks so strongly the story as a whole. Abraham cuts the wood; later he will take the knife to cut his son. He cuts the wood for the offering. It is, indeed, the wood for the burnt offering, but not the one Abraham has been commanded. The end is present in the middle, both the anticipated end and the unanticipated. Abraham lifts up his eyes to see the terrible hill, as he will again lift up his eyes from Isaac upon the altar to look upon the miraculous ram. These are only preparatory ironies for ironies much more strong and cruel and, perhaps, even comic.

The positioning at the close of this portion reconfirms the multiple distancing in the story and its effect of tension. As we are distanced from the characters, as Abraham is distanced from God, as father is distanced from son (and as the apparent future is distanced from the blessing of the past), so also is Abraham at this moment of crisis distanced from the place which God had told him. He is here, the place of God's command is there. Obedience is the distance between.

 

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So they went
Both of them
Together.

At last Abraham speaks; from Isaac there is still no word. The ironies are vivid on the page, the dramatic ironies at least. They will indeed come again, although to Abraham that can only be a lie (in the end, it is true, only Abraham is named as returning, although Isaac lives; the force of that seems unclear). The wood is laid upon Isaac as Isaac will soon be laid upon the wood. The father takes in hand, not the son, but the fire and knife. Now they go together. Before, Isaac was the object, to be taken by his father. Here they are subjects together. The victim trusts his executioner, the sacrifice carries his pyre, the son obeys the father as the father obeys God. The dramatic ironies are vivid enough upon the page.

But is Abraham being ironic, intentionally ironic, when he says that be and Isaac will go and "worship and come again"? Why "worship" instead of "sacrifice"? The word seems so cruel in its choice. To obey is one thing. To obey through clenched teeth is one thing. To sacrifice your son is one thing. But worship, that is another thing. The word becomes horrible in a way "sacrifice" does not. Worship itself takes on a possible danger and obscenity which calls worship itself into question.

If he is being ironic then at least we learn something of Abraham; we learn of rebellion, perhaps, or anger or resentment, but something, at least, through his own speech. If he is not being ironic (intentionally), the mask remains. Who is being ironic: the narrator or Abraham? The story gives no further clue which possibility is true.

Son and father address one another. The effect, the pathos could scarcely be greater. The lamb asks about a lamb, the father lies but tells the truth.

 

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The Rabbis noted the famous ambiguity of "a burnt offering, my son," and the several ironies that different punctuation creates.13 The ironies reach back to the beginning and forward to the end. They reach even beyond the beginning of the story to the miraculous conception of Isaac at the hand of God. The possible meanings don't so much invite the reader to unravel all the strands, but rather to see the possible meanings as an intricate constellation of ironies, viewed simultaneously.

Now Isaac is as incomprehensible as Abraham. Rabbinic commentaries introduce imaginary dialogues and internal monologues for this very reason as the story reaches its climax. How could he? Why does he? Why doesn't he? But of Isaac, we can plumb no more than of Abraham. His words hide rather than reveal. This story is in some way without seams or gaps, yet it gapes. It remains incomprehensible at its core, and there is no way in. And now, with the repetition of the solemn and ominous "So they went both of them together," yet another point of return is left behind. The way out is the way through.

Pure narration again, with pure pitiless verbs. The action unfolds in a kind of slow dream suddenly focused upon Abraham's hand. The building of the altar, the laying of the wood, the binding of Isaac and placing him upon the altar, each of these steps to the critical moment are indicated by their single and uncompromising verbs. But then the turn to the deadly detail: the hand of Abraham stretching forth to take the knife. The effect in English is chilling. The climax approaches on marching iambic feet.


13For a commentary upon Rabbinic interpretations of the "Akeda," see Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976), pp. 83-116.

 

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<TAG> 707-0671

Of Abraham, we still know nothing. Of Isaac, we still know nothing. The angel says what the angel knows, but the angel apparently had only one question. The reader has many. The end of the story for God is not the end for Abraham or Isaac or the reader. Where the story ends, the questions begin.

In this climactic moment of the story, the narrator seems to turn for a moment to acknowledge the reader or hearer in direct address. It is a small turn, accomplished in a single word. "Behold," says the narrator.

The isolation and immobilization of the reader, first established in the

 

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paralyzing beginning of the story, are confirmed. We have indeed been outside looking in; we have been positioned, not to participate, but to witness. We have been positioned, not where we may understand, but where we may see. The story gives, not its meaning, but itself.

Look, says the narrator. Look! Look at the moment opening up now, but remember it is a story, after all, told by a story-teller, to you. You have been brought all this way to see this. The story has been told for you to see this moment. Behold!

As Abraham turns to sacrifice the ram, a gauze veil descends upon the events. They begin to retreat into the distance. They all begin to retreat through the narrator's small word: Abraham, Isaac, the angel, the pyre, the ram, the knife, the fire, the hand. "As it is said to this day" (the narrator has turned fully now), even as far as this day (so distant, not only now, but always-every reader of it is placed far away), "On the mount of the Lord it shall be ... (What shall be? what will happen upon the mount of the Lord? this? again?) ... it shall be provided."

Have we been brought so far for this? For the narrator to turn to us with this word? Perhaps so. The word which ends the story does not still the story. It only lets the reader and speaker rest-for a while. Neither the teller nor the hearer would pretend the matter is settled. The closure is a fiction for both our sakes. But for now, it will do: until the time comes to tell the story again.

The story ends, but for the reader the rings begin to spread in every direction. Farther and farther they reach-spreading through the Bible, spreading through ourselves and what we know of the world, spreading through what we think and know (and think we know) of God. The rings grow larger and larger until they cannot be seen all at once, but only in small sections of an arc. We consider this question, formulate that problem, ponder one implication, probe another explanation-small sections of quickly retreating rings-until the distances grow too great, the connections too faint. Only in the story itself does it all hold. The story holds together what we cannot. When the threads break, we turn, therefore, and, once again, begin to read.

V

A poet's essay, an ancient story-teller's tale, a wondering reader's question: do they help one another? In this instance, the reply must be subjective.

There are many ways to approach the Scriptures. The paths for any of us are shaped through an intricate constellation of convictions, experiences, doctrines, habits, knowledge, tastes, location, and more. We are each so uniquely configured it would be truest to say that there are as many methods of interpretation as there are interpreters. Which methods are more adequate is a discussion for another time.

A central conviction which has shaped me, however, is that the relationship between interpreter and text is intimate. It is an intimacy much like any other intimate relationship: mutual, dialogical, intense;

 

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assertive in some ways, self-sacrificing in some ways, demanding some, giving some; half-wrestle, half-dance. The Word is to be found neither in the text nor the reader, but in the relationship where the two meet. In this relationship, the living Word is conceived.

How does such a conviction actually shape a reader's approach to a text? The answer to that question is neither obvious nor single. For the Talmud, it shapes the approach one way; for Augustine, another; for a medieval allegorist, yet another; for Luther, another; for Barth, another. All of them, and surely all of us, share a search.

However we finally name what this search is all about, there is a place where all our searches must meet. It is that common but essential moment in the life of the Word, a moment which is as mysterious as any I know: the moment when the preacher leans forward, full of hope, full of prayer, full of the faces and voices of the people, to search the page of Scripture.