Reading the Promise

                        The Privileged Viewpoints of Abraham and Sarah




            ...But even beauty is never perfect, and by that very reason clings to vanity and makes a self-imposed ideal of what she lacks -- another error, since her secret power lies in the very attractiveness of the incomplete.


                                    --Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers


                        Although the bulk of this paper takes the form of an interpretation of the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, it is intended as an exploration of what I take to be a new nexus of assumptions about the objects and practice of philosophy. This new configuration might be designated the narrative paradigm. Here one treats philosophical statements about the world as speech acts in a context few of whose disparate dimensions -- psychological, political, economic, scientific, aesthetic or moral -- can be mastered with the precision of a logical calculus, but which nevertheless exhibits structures and motifs that may let us make sense of philosophical strategies we can neither evade nor forego. Most philosophers from classical times on have been interested in some version of a complete logos; and whereas this has most often meant the best (most comprehensive or systematic) account, it seems to me that today the most serious way of pursuing this traditional interest is in terms of the model of a whole story. For the rationality of narrative allows, I want to say, for the integration of discourse grounded in different, mutually irreducible yet interdependent contexts -- and such integration is after all one of the main objectives of the classical logos-ideal.

                        My interest in the story of Abraham lies in its exemplification of what I take to be some philosophically relevant principles of coherence and wholeness. In my interpretation of the story I hope to demonstrate a specific explanatory advantage which I think the narrative paradigm has over its philosophical predecessors with regard to the application of these principles. My point is not to sketch a general theory of narrative, but only to show how some structures found in at least some narratives answer to certain needs of traditional and contemporary philosophy.

                        Today the search for a complete logos is in ill repute; and amongst those for whom textuality and writing are the leading concepts, the very possibility of a successful communication may even be in doubt. But to me this skeptical side of the narrative paradigm points ahead to more refined and useful conceptions of coherence and communication. It suggests that the field of shared philosophical understanding might be expanded in principle to include the incommensurable and the incomplete per se; that philosophy might open itself up to both moral/aesthetic disagreement and differences in intellectual competence, as well as swervings of meaning which fall into neither or both of these categories.[ ] Such an expanded sense of communication cannot be reached through a logic of non-contradiction nor of dialectical contradiction but only, I suggest, through something like a logic of narrative. My idea is that as a story has a focused meaning which transcends the viewpoints of the characters and the implied narrator (as I believe stories sometimes do), so may the pluralistic conversation which philosophy always aims at modeling relate unequally privileged voices in a way that still makes sense.


A Statement About Faith and The Whole Story


                        The impetus for what follows did not come from any thematic studies of narrative coherence or wholeness, but rather from the margins of a philosophical disagreement about religious faith. This disagreement, which O.K. Bouwsma expressed with regard to some remarks by G.E.M. Anscombe, both referred to and exemplified the apparent incommensurability of certain viewpoints underlying philosophical and religious meaning. In the midst of reflection on what might be called the untranslatability of faith, Bouwsma nevertheless proposed a way of understanding it: 1) he posited Abraham as the "exemplar of faith", and the reading of his story as a guide to faith (asking "Is there anything which we should regard as understanding the story of Abraham other than appropriating it to one's own need?"[1] ); 2) he relied on the notion of a whole story as a condition for making proper use of the text; and 3) he explained this notion of wholeness by referring to the difference between Abraham and Sarah. He wrote:


It is certainly a mistake to think of faith as what happened on a certain occasion, such as a man's having had this and that thought. It is the whole story of Abraham in terms of which we must understand him as the exemplar of faith. And it is the story not as seen from the outside, as by Sarah, who laughed, and presumably Abraham is the only one who did not laugh, but as seen from the inside, in that silence in which Abraham heard God speak.[2]



This passage was the start of an unexpected journey for me. Initially I was looking only for clarification of the notion of a whole story, and the role of the privileged interior viewpoint; as for the story itself, I thought a brief glance would remind me of all the details I would need to grasp the general point. But when I tried to follow these clues about narrative unity I ran into some rather startling problems in Bouwsma's interpretation of the story.

                        The more I tried to understand Sarah's supposedly marginal or "external" significance for the story, the more central her role appeared to me. Central too was the motif of laughter which Bouwsma stressed in connection with her: laughter turned out to be the "name" of the promise which is believed in faith. When I brought this together with the implicit suggestion that the testing of Abraham is a figure for the reader's appropriation of the text[3], the features of what I had previously[4] come to understand as an "invaginated" semiotic structure began to emerge: the ancient text seemed to require (as much as the modern philosophical texts I was used to studying) that the reader pass back and forth between its privileged or "inside" view and the radically heterogeneous elements which structure it while keeping it unsurveyable. I became convinced that the early Bible's handling of the themes of laughter, naming, deception and failure illuminates this process of passing back and forth between "inside" and "outside", and in just such a way as to focus on the radically contingent character of faith (or by implication, of the projection of a complete discourse). The notion of a whole story with which I emerged was based on the peculiarity of the Biblical promise: a dynamic of promising whose continuity is complicated but not vitiated by breeches of faith or gestures of misrepresentation -- failings which help animate the play of interpretive forces dynamically focusing and structuring our anticipation of meaning. Such a "whole story" would not only avoid the shortcomings of the complete logos as traditionally conceived, it would be energized by the very things which formerly constituted objections. --Or so the text seems to promise. In retelling this journey I took through Genesis I am still pursuing that premonition and promise.



1. Laughing on the inside and outside


                        Having been so longwinded in my introduction, I will take up the quotation from Bouwsma directly, bypassing its context except to say that it had to do with the notion of being addressed by God -- when Bouwsma speaks of having a thought on a certain occasion, he is responding to Anscombe's description of someone who thinks (believes or says he believes) he has been addressed by God. Bouwsma wants to understand this phenomenon in terms which play down or neutralize its epistemic component. Faith is a process, a way of living through certain situations and crises, and so understanding it requires laying out the process in a way that gives sense to the particular moment of being addressed.

                        This way of fitting linguistic, psychological and behavioral elements into a plausible context in such a way as to neutralize epistemological problems is familiar Wittgensteinian practice: one tells a story which makes connections manifest. (This is part of what I have in mind in speaking of an emerging narrative paradigm for philosophical practice.) Bouwsma was perpetually telling such stories; but here he is reflecting on the narrative structure of experience in a more explicit way: he uses the Bible story to illustrate how I might read my own life as a story. The relation of the characters in the story to the story itself becomes a model for my relation to my own story -- or rather to the story, the story of the Whole, which the Bible may be or become for me. Bouwsma expressed this idea in another article from the same year when he said "the Christian himself becomes a character in the as-yet-unwritten continuation of the story."[5] So to understand Abraham is not just to receive a lesson about faith, but is to practice the movement of faith itself; because a) there is a potential correspondence, in terms of narrative structure, between the story and my life, and b) Abraham himself bears a demonstrably reader-like relation to his story.

                        How would this readerly relation appear? Bouwsma says that Abraham sees the story "from the inside". What can this "inside" mean? Well, after all, Abraham is the hero of the story; if the story has a meaning, the meaning might be understood as the mental state of faith, the viewpoint of the hero, which is to be reproduced in the understanding reader. The "inside" would simply be the intentional focus of this viewpoint. --But Bouwsma does not say this. He rather explains "from the inside" as "that silence in which Abraham heard God speak." This could again, on the communication-of-mental-states model, be taken as the silent intuition which constitutes faith phenomenologically; but it is clear that Abraham's silence is not of that sort. Kierkegaard's discussion of this silence must have been in Bouwsma's mind when he invoked it, and that discussion takes silence as the sign of Abraham's social isolation and expulsion from the ethical realm.[6]The silent interior is defined by contrast with the public or "outside" view -- Bouwsma in fact introduces the former (Abraham) by way of the latter (Sarah). Thus it is tempting to surmise that Sarah's laughter is the public sound which gives shape to the private silence; but here I am getting ahead of myself.

                        Abraham's readerly relation to the story is somehow to be brought out by Sarah's unreaderly relation, which is signaled by her laughter. How so? The laughter is her initial reaction to God's promise of Isaac's birth: "And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: 'After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?'"[7] The reaction presumably is unreaderly because it indicates a lack of faith (and lack of a spiritual perspective in general, as suggested by her focus on the sex act as pleasure); and faith is postulated as the meaning of the story. To understand the story is to pass the test, and only Abraham passes the test in the story.

                        But wait a minute -- if the question was about being addressed by God (and about understanding the story as taking it to be, on the whole, the word of God), then surely Sarah does not provide a simply negative example: after all she laughed precisely because she did hear what God said. Still it is true that His speech is addressed to Abraham. Sarah eavesdrops from inside the tent; and when she laughs God again addresses Abraham rather than her, saying "Why did Sarah laugh?". Abraham of course doesn't hear Sarah's internal laughter; nor does God provide an accurate transcription of her thoughts for Abraham, leaving out the references to pleasure and to Abraham's age. Only when Sarah speaks up, denying her laughter, does God address her: "Nay, but you did." Presumably she hears this rebuke, if she heard what went before; but the episode ends with the rebuke -- her reaction is not mentioned.

                        Where then do we go for illumination of the readerly character of faith? Certain kinds of faith and disbelief both seem to involve an ear for the divine word. Bouwsma's remarks seem to lead either to a dialectical relation between opposing ways of "reading" (if, again, hearing God is a figure for reading the story, and vice versa), or to some even less perspicuous situation involving the reaction to divine rebuke, which remains hidden. Sarah, inside the tent, laughing on the inside, hardly offers a clear contrast which would make Abraham's interior visible (or audible).

                        But the Bible itself provides quite a bit more material about laughter and about the expression (and denial) of skepticism. To begin with, it seems that Bouwsma has, incredibly, forgotten about Abraham's own laughter, right in the preceding chapter. Abraham in fact laughs out loud, although he too keeps the verbalization of his skepticism to himself, or rather tries to. At first it even appears that he succeeds, for God reacts in this case to the laughter itself, turning it into something positive: he decrees that laughter (Isaac=Hebrew yitzhak, "he laughs") shall be the name of the promised one. And to the manifestly skeptical though unspoken plea that Ishmael, the outcast son, receive the blessing, he responds with an indulgent, "Nay, but..." (Ishmael will also be taken care of).

                        Clearly the two cases of laughter are different, but what the difference consists in is not so clear (especially given Bouwsma's strange oversight). Perhaps we need to get clearer about their similarity before we can get clearer about the difference. We must at least take notice of two other related passages. The first is the story of Isaac's birth, where the punning on yitzhak is repeated through Sarah's remarks, "God hath made laughter for me; everyone that heareth will laugh on account of me."[8] The second, rather more obscure, is in the episode where the adult Isaac tries to pass off his wife Rebekah as his sister to the foreign king Abimelech.[9] This episode seems to be the same as the story already told twice, with variations, about Abraham -- even the name of the king is the same as in one of the Abraham versions. But whereas the earlier versions of the curious tale explain the action by the hero's cowardice, here the deception can only be described as affrontery, as Isaac's toying with the king: for right outside the king's window, Isaac begins fondling or playing with[10] Rebekah, so as to give the game away. Here the word for 'fondle', mtzahayk, is another pun on yitzhak.



2. Who Is Isaac?


                        What can we glean from all this punning, trickery and laughter? One is tempted first of all to try to pin down the original source of the laughing and teasing (even though one might well expect it to be a tricky business). The Bible's redundancy suggests an editorial collection and processing of diverse sources, perhaps mostly oral, which in turn might represent refractions of an ancient theme or heroic ideal. Thus it is suggested that the patriarchs in Genesis represent a cultural accretion process in two ways: first, by serving as the names around which a number of legends can coalesce[11], and second, by themselves being knitted together in a genealogical fiction. This presents a sort of chicken-and-egg problem for the attempt to locate the source of the laughter: is laughter present in the reactions of Abraham and Sarah to the promise primarily as a device to artificially establish the propriety of the patriarchal succession; or is laughter (yitzhak) the name (i.e. is the relation between laughing, teasing and naming the theme) of an original mythic figure and thus a key to the meaning of the story as a whole? My answer will be that it is both.

                        Isaac actually gets very little mention in the text. Aside from his appearances as the sacrificial son being deceived by his father, and on his deathbed, being deceived by his own son and wife, the story of the fondling provocation (and attendant events having to do with territory rights and the giving of place-names) is about all that we are told of him. There are two instances when he too is addressed by God, who doesn't say anything very interesting from the point of view of the plot (he sends him into the confrontation over his wife, and tells him to hang in there); and he addresses God only once, asking for his wife to be made fertile (more on this theme later). Otherwise he is always either deceiving or being deceived.

                        This feature would not set him apart from any of the other patriarchs, certainly not the con man who wrestles with God (Jacob[12]) nor the dream-master who deceives and manipulates his brothers (Joseph); nor from many another ancient hero (e.g. the wily Odysseus). Such displays of cleverness are, after all, a source of great narrative interest in these sagas, and are inseparable from the narrator's art. But that is exactly the point I wish to make about the deep meaning of the Isaac motif: it reflects the play of forces at work in our interaction with the text, and with its Author or authors. The means of catching, holding and playing with the reader's interest are inseparable from the content of the understanding or point of view (i.e. faith) which it is trying to inculcate.

                        Thus interpretive acumen, an ear for multiple meanings and a playful nature all must be heroic virtues. Not only is the text a play of masks and contending voices, it is also a vaudeville show -- a strip-tease. The Testing (or as some say, the Tempting) of Abraham is one of the Big Teases portrayed in the Bible, whose Deity is far removed from Descartes' nondeceiver. The text itself tempts and teases us, if we are alert to the ways in which it subtly misdirects our attention, to its ironies and its irreducible multiplicities.[13] Within the story, Sarah's laughing "Shall I have pleasure?" is an indirect teasing of Abraham. (God deflects it in his mistranscription, but we may be sure that the Bible's beauty of beauties, still a knockout at ninety as we are told, found a way.) Without the tease, no Isaac. Without the temptation and deception, no fulfillment of the Promise. And without the laughter, no naming of the Promise -- no narrative consummation or textual authority.

                        There is no need to belabor the significance of naming in the Bible. Naming and the playful transformation of names is not just a game, it is also a reflection of the divine creative power. Abraham and Sarah both reproduce this creative act themselves in renaming Isaac. It will suffice then to recall that the scene of Abraham's laughter, in which the Covenant (Promise) is announced and sealed through the symbol of circumcision, is also the scene of the (re)naming of both Abraham and Sarah (in addition to Isaac); and that this renaming foreshadows the renaming of Jacob to Israel -- "he who contends with God". Jacob steals the name, the blessing, from Isaac (who intends it for Esau); and if laughter figures in the transmission of the name we might then infer that it does so blindly, like the blind Isaac, who recognizes that once the name has been given out it cannot be taken back -- the results of the deception are binding even when deception is uncovered. Israel's heritage is radically contingent and rooted in deception, but nonetheless blessed and destined.

                        But the main point I want to bring out is that the struggle for the name, the usurpation of the birthright, and for that matter the conquest of the land, operate simultaneously on both sides of the text: on the far side the narrative art achieves a syncretistic appropriation of names -- the name of Abraham takes over the local (Hebronite) myth of theophany, as the name of Yahweh incorporates El Shaddai and The Bull of Isaac, -- while on the near side the reader says "God of my fathers", i.e. he claims ownership of the names. If he merely takes this as a historical or legal truth, as a given, he is not involved  in the movement of faith, or in the play of names which animates the text. And if he takes God as a non-deceiving literalist rather than as Teaser and Tempter, then he cannot understand the story of Abraham, who bargained with God for justice as with a merchant in a bazaar.[14] (Mustn't we say that God, after having said to himself "Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing?", went on to seduce him into that bargaining?) The reader must read with a playful verve and a plastic ear in order to appropriate the story as his own. Robert Alter conceives of the original genius of Biblical narrative in this way when he says of it that here


Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process, requiring continual revision -- both in the ordinary sense and in the etymological sense of seeing-again -- continual suspension of judgment, weighing of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided.[15]




3. Laughter and Rereading: Theology of the Second Chance


                        If laughter is a vehicle for the transmission of the Promise, both in terms of narrative device and (in a manner which still needs to be specified) the readerly appropriation, then we have failed to locate the negative or "external" significance of Sarah's laugh. The fact that Abraham also laughs under similar conditions, and the fact that Abraham's silence carries the primary connotation of social alienation (as consistent with his character as the quintessential wanderer, expatriot and xenophobe), both seem to point to a thorough conflation of the "internal" and "external" viewpoints Bouwsma tried to distinguish. But this is not the conclusion I wish to draw; this interpretation would leave Sarah without any independent mythic significance, and my intention is rather to restore that significance. I want to see how the space of the teasing interplay involves an articulated enfolding of "inside" and "outside", an "outside" appearing within the text and an "inside" of the reader's relation to the text.

                        In order to characterize the difference between Abraham and Sarah let me begin again with the notion that Abraham succeeds while Sarah fails; and bring in the main characteristics of Sarah which have not been emphasized up to now: she is the barren princess, who first encourages Abraham to have a child by his Egyptian slave, and then behaves with all the unjust fury of wounded pride. She not only fails (to conceive), she fails without humility or grace. And yet this behavior wins her divine protection from Abraham, who is told to "Let it not be grievous in thy sight ... in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee."[16]

                        What is the point of this privileging of failure and infertility? Is it simply that infertility also comes from God (as the Abimelech story and all ancient religion of the region shows), that it's part of His plan? Perhaps, but I would rather guess the following. The Promise is never a flat guarantee, a mere racial inheritance, but requires a calling. The calling takes place through Sarah and all she represents; she must be heard and heeded -- however much she offends against both justice and paternal love. (God's Test of Abraham offends, as Kierkegaard insisted, infinitely more.) "My wrong be upon thee," she says to Abraham; "the Lord judge between me and thee."[17] Here Abraham yields to the injustice. He does not, as elsewhere, argue the cause of justice. He listens. He accepts the wrong, the arbitrary Judgment. So Bouwsma is correct in implying that Sarah doesn't get it, that she fails where Abraham succeeds. She cannot understand what Abraham understands, or see things as he sees them. But his understanding, although it is exemplary, is incomplete; he must listen to her as part of his testing. And he must know when to allow himself to be tempted.

                        Then can he understand her? Can he hearken unto her laughing voice? Let me answer as follows. First remember that this laughter is not a sign of some empty-headed incomprehension; it is, at least in part, the laughter of bitter and long-suffering old age. If Abraham did not have some understanding of this pain and emptiness, his faith would not be very deep. There is a paradox about faith which you have no doubt noticed: if faith is completely separated from doubt, it loses all tension, all drama, and indeed becomes indistinguishable from insanity. Or it becomes an empty show -- as if Abraham already knows the ending of the story at the time of temptation.

                        But isn't that just what one would expect of a viewpoint which was identified with the whole story? 'The whole story' means the beginning middle and end. Abraham's relation to his life would then be a readerly one not just in the sense that he finds a unifying theme for his experiences as they unfold, but in that he reads as already re-reading, he lives as a reliving of his mythic life. Here again we can speak of a principle operating on both sides of the text. In historical terms, the writer(s) of Genesis must already be understood as a reteller of oral legend; and it must be admitted that there is no "original audience" for whom the outcome of the Test could have been completely surprising, if the boy Isaac was understood from the outset to be the same person as the familiar adult hero Isaac. In terms of our own experience of the text, it may be said that our relation to it is not constituted in the time of reading, but in the narrative temporal whole which is the object of faith.

                        In other words it is not simply or primarily in the suspenseful parts of the story that the reader undergoes testing ‑‑ as when, perhaps, on reading Abraham's statement to Isaac, "God will provide himself the lamb", you think of it as a lie; or as when Abraham's hand stretches out for the knife and you say "Don't do it!" under your breath. No, it is only when you re-read the story ‑‑ hearing the ambivalence of the statement as it is spoken, seeing the outstretched hand as itself a prelude to the advent of the saving angel ‑‑ that you know its meaning well enough to be confronted with acceptance of its world.

                        And yet you still may fail -- or rather, you already have. Moses, Saul and David all failed in the end. Israel failed, in moral weakness and his preference for the prettier wife. (And if I may say so, Israel continues to fail at this hour.) The kingdom has been sundered, the Temple destroyed, false gods have been embraced again and again; the years have flown by and you have yet to give birth to what was promised, to what you promised yourself. Confronted today with the desire for unity you repeat "the center cannot hold."

                        So when I say that our relation to the meaning of the text is constituted in a "narrative temporal whole" I do not mean we take up an external God's-eye view, a view sub specie aeternitatis. That is certainly not Abraham's position. And if my concern is with failure as an element in the whole, it is not to provide a theodicy where the whole simply redeems the part. My interpretation is that Abraham does not understand Sarah, as much as he sympathizes with her and loves her, as much as they are of one flesh (being both siblings and spouses). Her point of view must be essentially closed off to his because of the way it is closed to itself. After the promise is kept, Sarah behaves just as badly as before -- she insists a second time that Ishmael be cast out, for the crime of making fun of (mtzahayk) the feast of Isaac's weaning.[18] She still hasn't caught on to the irresistable destiny of Isaac, to the Promise. She can tease but will not tolerate being teased.

                        Whether she acts as part of God's plan for the nations or is rather the irrational principle constraining God to make the separation (of Isaac and Ishmael), I am not sure. The implication I want to draw from this fundamental nonunderstanding is that the wholeness of narrative temporality is not a perfect presence amenable to the formula "essence is what has been", but is rather an integration of faithful rereading and suspenseful ("initial") reading: each supports and informs the other, but not in a dialectical reciprocity. The failure is real, the first reading (Abraham also laughed at first) has missed the point -- thus the necessity of rereading, of the second chance. No matter how successful this second effort, it will remain determined by its original failure and by its character as repetition. This in itself constitutes an irremediable defect according to all classical reasoning concerning the perfection of original truth; but for the Bible a defect, like Israel's limp, may be remembered as a sign of the face-to-face meeting (with God and with one's brother).[19]

                        Success and failure with regard to the appropriation of a central meaning (or the central meaning, the one thing needful) do not just exist successively (first I fail, then I succeed), nor side by side in external indifference. The central meaning is itself a tease, producing movement across the distance of misunderstanding and linguistic incommensurability. The anticipation which drives the reading (which is drawn on by that which withdraws, as Heidegger says) does not have the meaning already in its grasp in a simple positive sense; for it is the fate of narrative anticipation that it undergoes peripeteia, the dramatic turnaround or reversal of fortune[20], which is precisely a frustration of central expectations. And yet this dramatic transition produces a unique continuity transcending the viewpoints which may be fixed before and after it: the unexpected is itself "expected" in the course of reading; the transitional movement has already informed the whole with its rhythm -- the rhythm of testing and teasing necessary for the fulfillment of the promise.

                        Abraham submits to the voice of Sarah even as he does to the voice of God. Neither is transparent to him; both keep him in motion, both seduce and reward him. Sarah laughs within, Abraham laughs out loud; the laughter echoes across the distance between skepticism and faith. For laughter can best be defined, it seems to me, as a sign of the mutual presence of incommensurables, and of the serendipity thus generated. Laughter at the promise becomes the promise -- it generates the name and the struggle for the name. But an inheritor of the name does not take possession of a self-evident meaning -- he does not grasp or own the story as a whole. For the "silence" in which he hears the divine involves his distance from family and custom, in order to assert his privileged position; and this distance is internal to the story, that is, the story is a story of wandering and conquest. Our involvement with names and property, like our involvement with laughter, thrusts us away in order to prove our boldness, our subtlety and our interpretive depth -- that is, our faith.

                        So in the end I cannot agree that the whole story can be identified with Abraham's viewpoint, even though I agree that his viewpoint is the privileged or "successful" one. I understand the "whole story" of faith as a unity which stands outside any point of view, any reading, but which nevertheless reveals a beautiful coherence of movement, and a coherence of form and content. The text is not there as a meaning to be made present, but as a possibility of entering into a movement, a game. The game is as serious as birth and death, but it also leaves room for mistakes, for failures of creativity, for anger and pleasure, for fear and denial. It leaves room for these things because it retains its character as a promise through offering a chance for rereading. Abraham is the hero whom we must follow in that he reads as already rereading; and yet he is rereading precisely because he has already gotten caught in the folds of the story, whose outside interrupts its inside -- whose lapses and failures (themselves giving rise to playful artifice) are the substance of its narrative drive.

                        The story always needs to be "completed" in a new (personal) reading. But the coherence of the narrative movement is not vitiated by the lack of any certainty regarding the success of a reading: if the Bible were our model we would take it for granted that we have failed before and will fail again. All we can do is play the game faithfully, and in good faith. The mistake must be pointed out, the failure rectified, but the beauty of the error must also be appreciated, for it contributes to the movement of the whole, even if only to provoke the divine rebuke, "Nay, but thou didst laugh." Can't we hear a loving chuckle being suppressed behind this very rebuke? To hear that chuckle would be to get a sense of inclusion in a whole which transcends any self-consistent point of view or proper meaning -- but whose promise may yet be named.





[1] Bouwsma, O.K. "Miss Anscombe on Faith" in Without Proof or Evidence, University of Nebraska 1984 p. 43


[2] Bouwsma op.cit. p.


[3] An important influence on my understanding of some of the possibilities of this mechanism is Ross Chambers' Story and Situation:Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1984


[4] cf. my article in Dialogue and Deconstruction:The Gadamer-Derrida Debate, ed. Richard Palmer and Diane Michelfelder, SUNY Press 1989.


[5] "Faith, Evidence and Proof", in Bouwsma op.cit. p.7.

I am appropriating Bouwsma's story to my own need when I abstract from the specifically Christian character of the interpretation (nor do I mean simply to replace it with a Jewish one), taking 'faith' in a broader and, if you will, existential sense, as the correlate of any project of comprehensive self-understanding.


[6] cf. Kierkegaard, Soren Fear and Trembling


[7]Genesis 18:12


[8]Genesis 21:6


[9]Genesis 26:1-12


[10] King James says "sporting with"; Revised Standard says "fondling". "Having fun with" might be more literal. There is also another use of the word at 21:9 which presumably has no sexual connotation (if it does it would certainly change the reading!), and will be discussed below. Whatever Isaac is doing with Rebekah, it leaves no doubt in Abimelech's mind as to their relationship.


[11] For example the story of the Three Visitors, to which Bouwsma referred, is thought by some to be a relic of the ancient cult of the shrine at Hebron, quite outside the sphere of the Abrahamic stories of travel and warfare.


[12] Jacob=Hebrew yaqov can be read as "he will deceive", according to Alter, Robert The Art of Biblical Narrative Basic Books, N.Y. 1981, p. 43.


[13]I have learned a great deal about this duplicitous Biblical art from Sternberg, Meir The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading, Indiana University Press 1985


[14] Genesis 18:16-33 -- the Sodom and Gomorrah prelude which has been joined to our promise story as halves of a chapter.


[15]Alter op.cit. p.12


[16]Genesis 21:12


[17]Genesis 16:5


[18]Genesis 21:9


[19]Genesis 32:23-33


[20] cf. Ricoeur's discussion of the anticipation of the turnaround, and the inadequacy of an atemporal account, in Ricoeur, Paul Time and Narrative, vol.2, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1988