Abraham, Isaac, and . . . Victor? The Question of Biblical Parallels in Abraham's Promise

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

By entitling his novel Abraham's Promise, Philip Jeyaretnam raises a whole host of issues ranging from the novel's relation to the Christian tradition to his own competence in handling literary parallel and allusion. First of all, does the title of the novel refer to a promise that Abraham makes, or, as in the Bible, does it refer to a promise God makes to Abraham. Jeyaretnam's protagonist-narrator is a Christian Singeporean who in passing praises Latin for having been a means of spreading the gospel, so the reader can assume that he has at least a basic knowledge of the Bible, and in the scriptures the Lord more than once promises Abraham that his offspring will flourish in great numbers as a reward for his faith and obedience. The biblical passage seems to have little obvious direct relevance to the situation of the Abraham of this book.

One problem here is that whereas the Bible relates that Abraham is the father of Isaac and Isaac the father of Jacob, Jeyaretnam's naming of his protagonist Abraham Isaac complicates and may even reverse the relation of biblical father and son, for Isaac is here the father in the sense that Abraham bears the paternal family name. The name "Abraham Isaac," however, might simply be the author's way of directing our attention to the particularly problematic episode in Old Testament history in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on Mount Moriah; the obedient patriarch follows this horrific command until an Angel saves the child at the last moment.

According to the usual readings of this episode, it was intended to teach several lessons: (1) that a just god tests his believers; (2) that one must obey divine commandments even when they do not seem to make sense from a human perspective, for God knows better than we do; and (3) that by this incident God instructed the Israelites that human sacrifice, supposedly common among surrounding tribes, was an abomination to Him. Because Abraham bids his son take up the wood for the sacrifice, Christian interpreters also took this episode as a type, or divinely intended anticipation, of Christ's bearing the cross. Some recent interpreters have argued that the episode known as the sacrifice of Isaac shows that parents should not sacrifice their children to their own ideologies or desires, and although this reading has parallels with the novel, it is rare enough to be unlikely to provide the source of an allusion.

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