The Sacrifice of Isaac: The Aqedah (Genesis 22) and Its Interpretations

By Ed Noort; Eibert Tigchelaar | Go to book overview

ISAAC THREATENED BY THE KNIFE
OF PSYCHOANALYSIS?

Patrick Vandermeersch

This discussion of psychoanalysis and the Bible begins by differentiating three types of such enterprises with their corresponding difficulties. Before addressing the specific topic of the sacrifice of Isaac, or the Aqedah, I briefly outline these discussions.

The first type, typical of the early period of psychoanalysis, was to point to certain peculiar motives that psychoanalysts were accustomed to observing in the unconscious of their patients, which they happened to also recognize in the Bible. Having experienced, e.g., that fantasies about castration played an important part in many people's minds, they were pleased to find the same topic—somewhat hidden—in Exod 4:24–26, when Sipporah cuts her son's prepuce and with the bleeding skin touches someone's (whose?) 'feet'. This comforted psychoanalysts' conviction that what they found in the mind of people lying on the couch was not just a product of suggestion, but something actually existing, for it was also to be found in the unviolated forests of biblical writers' minds. The problem with this type of interpretation is that it was made mainly for the psychoanalysts themselves. It reassured their own minds, while often one cannot see how it would bring more insight to a scholar (or even just a reader) of biblical texts.

The second type of psychoanalytical interpretation, modelled along the lines of B. Bettelheim's study on the efficacy of fairy tales, limits itself to biblical stories that can be seen as the expression of typical conflicts reflecting the development of the human psyche. In this way, Joseph's dreams can be interpreted in line with the fairy tale of Humpty Dumpty, both typical stories able to capture the mind of a little brother who is unconsciously invited to identify with the hero and to dare to imagine: 'Yes, I'm the little boy, but a day will come that I will oversee my brothers.' In a way, this type of psychoanalytical interpretation comes nearer to the enterprise of exegesis, as it focuses on the question: 'What does this text mean to me?' On the other hand, the interest in biblical text is restricted to

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