A Closer gets Matthew to tell all: The New Isaac

One of my favorite shows is The Closer. Kyra Sedgwick plays Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson, known by her colleagues to be “a closer” because she specializes in getting suspects to confess, and nothing more definitely closes a case than a confession that makes sense of all of the evidence and lose ends. She is clever, yea verily wily, in getting suspects to confess, but she only brings her wiles to bear on a suspect whom she knows to be guilty. In other words, the first part of the show is about Brenda Lee doing her homework, conducting a thorough investigation, keeping her mind open to whatever suspects or motives the evidence might point. Judging from his university web page, Dr. Leroy Huizenga does not look much like Brenda Lee, but his investigations are thorough and open to new directions, and when he gets the Gospel of Matthew to “confess” its methods and meanings, it sings in a whole new way.

I like to read the book reviews in the RBL. Books reviewed there rarely make the New York Times Book Review, and the RBL reviews are so detailed that you can often get the gist of the book from the review.  I hardly ever read the book itself. A few weeks ago, I read a review of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew, (Brill, 2009) and I decided I wanted to read the book. The New Isaac,  argues that the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Isaac.  Recently, I had written in this blog that I found the character of Isaac to be a non-event. Compared to Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, Isaac just seemed like such an uninteresting character. Why would anyone want to use such a boring character to present the meaning of Jesus? What had I missed about Isaac. I wanted to read the book.

It turns out that I had not missed anything.  Isaac was boring. Abraham, Jacob and Joseph are interesting, complex characters with good doses of “badness” in their personalities. Not Isaac. He was just good: Friendly, forgiving and obedient.

The New Isaac argues that the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Isaac in large part because after the destruction of the Temple, the question was “where is God now?” Remember the Temple curtain being torn after Jesus’ death in Matthew? That was God leaving town. The Gospel of Matthew wants to say that Jesus is “a replacement for the temple.” Jesus is “a new and decisive temple.” (The New Isaac, 278)  Isaac is the perfect vehicle for that message: The story of his near- sacrifice in Gen. 22 (the Akedah or “binding”) was the foundational story with respect to the practice of Temple sacrifice and what those sacrifices meant to God.

Dr. Huizenga’s book was a real pleasure to read. Unlike many published doctoral dissertations, it is quite accessible. Being able to read Hebrew and Greek helps, but I only have a little of those languages left in my memory, and I was able to figure out the significance of most of the untranslated passages.

I read the book in two days and found that  Dr. Huizenga was a biblical Closer. Having completed his  investigation and concluding that there was an Isaac typology present in Matthew, he then got that Gospel to confess and explain itself in a new an unexpected way. In the second half of the book, when he reviews key moments in Matthew’s gospel through the lens of Jesus-as-Isaac, I felt as though I were reading Matthew for the first time, in a way that made so much sense.

Here is some of what I learned from The New Isaac:

(1) In our scripture study, we can spend too much time comparing one gospel to another and not enough time appreciating individual gospels for their own internal “narrative logic.” We need to read each individual gospel as distinctive, individual literary works and assume that their structure and devices will communicate key messages and themes. As Dr. Huizenga writes: “The empirical Saint Matthew (probably) did not pass out copies of Mark and Q to his congregation and insist that they take careful note of his editorial work. Rather, the evangelists composed wholes and intended their Gospels to be read and heard as such.” (New Isaac, 8.)

(2) OT/Tanak themes are not present only when its passages are directly quoted. Themes are conveyed and suggested in allusions and subtle evocations not only of “scripture” (as it existed when Matthew was written) but of themes, stories and characters that would have been present in a 1st century reader/hearer’s “cultural encyclopedia.”  The character of Isaac and the story of the Akedah in the 1st century, lived not only in “scripture” (Gen. 22 of the MT or LXX) but also in the 1st century Jew’s cultural encyclopedia made up of tradition, lore, canonical and non-canonical sources.

(3) Isaac and the Akedah was a strongly present in the 1st century cultural encyclopedia and earlier. Canonical and non-canonical sources evidence a Isaac tradition in which  (1) Isaac actively and willing participates in his near-sacrifice (2) the sacrifice/obedience may have had an atoning or saving effect, (3) an association is made with the time of Passover and  (4) with the place of the Temple Mount.  The Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah did not live “within the ancient Jewish encyclopedia within which the Gospel of Matthew operates…” (The New Isaac, 189). The figure of Moses did, and arguments can been made that the Matthean Jesus is a “new Moses,” but the evidence for a Moses typology is not supported by the internal narrative logic of Matthew.

IOW, in Matthew’s Jesus, we have learned to see Moses, or perhaps the suffering servant of Isaiah, and we have missed the subtle but more powerful signs of Isaac. If we were listening to Matthew through the lens and with the cultural encyclopedia of a 1st century Jew, we  probably would see and hear Isaac.  This argument made so much sense to me. Moses is all about the Law. But the issue a 1st century Jew faced was not the sufficiency or adequacy of the Law. It was the loss of the Temple and the inability to continue the world-maintaining ritual of sacrifice, and Isaac was all about sacrifice.

The first part of Huizenga’s book  — the investigation — was interesting for someone like me who knows next to nothing about semiotics, Umberto Eco (except for The Name of the Rose) and Model Readers. I learned a lot. But when he “closes the case” by explaining the Annunciation & Birth narratives, the Baptism and Temptation, the Transfiguration and the Passion, it is one “aha” and “of course!” after another.

I now have a lot to think about as I reconsider Isaac and the story of his near-sacrifice. Huizenga quotes Judah Goldin’s description of the Akedah as “one of the most terrifying narratives in all Scripture…”  I agree. I don’t think I am alone. Contemporary Christians avoid it whenever they can with the help of an avoidant lectionary and reluctant preachers. I have long thought that it functions as the pink elephant in the room. We pretend it’s not there all the while making sure we don’t bump into it. I think we need to stop ignoring it and confront it, with our terror and revulsion intact. That is all the more true if in fact, Jesus is “the new Isaac.” So now, I have a lot more to think about.

If you’re thinking of reading The New Isaac, get thee to a library. It is expensive to purchase ($159 on Amazon.) Let’s hope Brill, the publisher,  brings out a more affordable version in the near future.

Nota bene!

The New Isaac is a work of serious biblical scholarship. This post reflects my amateur understanding of what I read and may or may not accurately describe Dr. Huizenga’s work. For a more competent, scholarly review and summary of the book, please the recent review written by Russell C.D. Arnold of DePauw University, in RBL 02/2011. You’ll find a link to a pdf of the review on the tab above.