Between Wisdom & Election: Leo Strauss On The Binding of Isaac

For those who have heard of him, Leo Strauss generally suffers from a negative reputation. To some, he is a political philosopher who rejected modernity in favor of classical antiquity.1 To others, he was the father of the Iraq war.2 To yeshiva students, Strauss is the heretic who disgraced the Mishneh Torah and made eternal The Guide of the Perplexed.3 However, I would like to study Strauss in another light. I would like to study Strauss as a Biblical commentator. Strauss lectured and wrote extensively on Jewish thought and gave two lectures on the Bible. I propose to write about his analysis of the Binding of Isaac in his lecture, Jerusalem and Athens.

Originally given as a lecture in 1967, Strauss published his lecture in a pamphlet in the same year.4 The genre and goal of this lecture is a bit elusive. Strauss referred to it as “some preliminary reflections” but this does not tell us what sort of reflections these are, or what exactly Strauss is reflecting on.5 Strauss has three stated goals in Jerusalem and Athens: (i) to provide a commentary on the beginning of Genesis to determine the Biblical teaching of wisdom; (ii) to provide a commentary on various Greek texts in relation to Genesis, such as Hesiod’s Theogony, to determine the Greek teaching of wisdom; (iii) “reflect” upon the condition of contemporary Westerners, who, in Strauss’ view, have inherited these two conceptions of wisdom. However, Strauss does not achieve the third goal, or at least not in an obvious way. The first part is our first concern: we wish to understand how Strauss understood the Binding of Isaac. Therefore, we should think of this lecture firstly as an exegetical lecture.

But what sort of exegesis? Strauss claims to have his own method, which he termed “post-critical”. By this, Strauss meant that he would not reject the claims of the Bible critics who argued that the Torah was a composite document; however, Strauss would read the Bible as a work of literary integrity, assuming it had coherent teachings and coherent literary structures. Regrettably and surprisingly, little work has been done on Strauss’ methods.6

We can broadly say that Strauss is interested in employing literary methods to ascertain theological teachings. In this broad formulation, he is not altogether different than say, Nahmanides, who also employed literary methods to ascertain theological teachings. But, we can meaningfully distinguish Strauss from other commentators, specifically traditional commentators like Nahmanides, in two respects. The first is that he is clear about his interest in discussing theological issues to the exclusion of other issues. The second is his particular literary sensitivities.

Strauss concerned himself with issues such as the basis on which Abraham enjoyed election by God, which he believes underlies the Binding of Isaac. Strauss had little interest in discussing conjugations or Talmudics. Certainly, the classical commentators address this issue of Abraham’s election. However, they address the other issues as well. Because they address other issues as well, they do not address this issue exclusively. And because they do not address this issue exclusively, we do not know that this issue is the issue. A student of Nahmanides’ commentary on the Bible will be acquainted with Nahmanides’ position on this matter. However, he will also be acquainted with Nahmanides’ studies in conjugations and Talmudics. A casual student of Nahmanides (if he can be considered a student at all) will not readily discern which issues are the issues and which issues are not. Strauss was explicit about what issues were the issues.

Strauss’ literary sensitivities constitute the warp and weft which form his theological interpretation of the Bible. Or, to put it somewhat glibly, Strauss does to the Bible what Cleanth Brooks does to Keats. For Strauss, the Biblical stories do not reduce into a single didactic message or to vulgar common sense. The profundity of the Biblical stories can only be excavated by a careful reader. Because the words of the Biblical stories contain the meaning of the Biblical stories, the words must be understood. But if they are to be understood, they must be read on their own terms.7

However, Strauss’ apparent acceptance of the critical theory of the Bible — that is the theory that the Bible is a composite document, composed of earlier man-made documents, redacted at a later date — poses a problem for his theory. Strauss intends to read the Bible as a “book in the strict sense,” i.e. a work which enjoys a single fundamental and authoritative teaching. However, if the Torah is a compilation of works of many men, there exists, then, no coherent teaching.8 Or worse — multiple teachings, some of which contradict the essential or fundamental teaching. Strauss attempts to resolve this problem by claiming that the redactor or the redactors of the Bible were men of great literary sensitivity and great piety. Consequently, according to Strauss, these men were able to preserve many religious texts and narratives and combine them while maintaining a coherent and single teaching. Truthfully, I found this explanation a bit strange. Why was Strauss committed to defending the Bible as a “book in the strict sense”? I have a hunch that Strauss himself harbored doubts about the documentary hypothesis and was unsure about whether in fact God wrote the Torah.9

Strauss’ reflections on the Binding of Isaac must be regarded at once from two perspectives. The first is the perspective of the student of the Bible. Strauss’ comments and theories about the Binding of Isaac are intelligible to any student of the Bible. This is because Strauss reads the Bible on its own terms. Any student of the Bible would confront the issues that Strauss addresses. Any good student of the Bible would have her own thoughts about them. Strauss is in this way a first-rate student of the Bible.

However, we must consider the other perspective of Strauss’ commentary, and indeed, the project of Strauss’ lecture: reflections on the state of the West and the Westerners. In reflecting on this topic, Strauss seeks to understand the Biblical teaching of Wisdom, what he calls “Jerusalem”. Strauss then reads the philosophers to understand the teaching of Athens. Finally, Strauss regards at once these two perspectives after reading them each on their own terms. Strauss believes that these two perspectives have created Western man: “Western man is became what he is and is what he is through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought.”10 Strauss must be read as a Westerner speaking to Westerners about the biblical faith. Strauss is in this way an outsider to the Bible.

We must note that Strauss does not set out to write a commentary on Genesis. Instead, he seeks to reflect on the heritage of Western man. To do so, he must first answer a question: what is Biblical Wisdom? Therefore, when we consider his commentary on Genesis we should consider it as an attempt to answer this question. However, this consideration is a troubled consideration. Strauss never makes explicit what he thinks Biblical Wisdom is.

Evidently, Strauss believed that his commentary on the Bible would provide the answer to the question of Biblical Wisdom. However, Strauss is an elusive writer. Because Strauss is an elusive writer, and because he knew he had the reputation of an elusive writer, Strauss enjoyed the advantage and security that he would be interpreted. Strauss therefore did not need to make explicit of what he thought the Biblical Wisdom is, because he wished his audience to determine it on their own. Strauss, then, in his elusiveness, forces his audience to interpret him. Evidently, Strauss believed that the act of interpretation constituted an important part the Biblical Wisdom. We will return to this later.

Strauss’ commentary begins with the creation of the world and ends with the Binding of Isaac. Strauss believed that these events constitute a cohesive narrative, each previous section affecting the next.11 However, because we are concerned with the Binding of Isaac, I will focus primarily on that part of Strauss’ comments. Ultimately, Strauss believes the Binding of Isaac is about the election of Abraham and the election of the nation of Israel; however, Strauss contends that the question of the election of Abraham and the election of the nation of Israel is inextricably bound up with other questions. Although Strauss himself is not a very organized writer, I will do my best to reconstruct Strauss in what will hopefully be a sensible, or at least intelligible, order.

Strauss argues that the Binding of Isaac is a test which “deepens and therewith modifies” Abraham’s awareness that God will not do anything incompatible with his righteousness.12 This deepened and modified awareness, on Strauss’ view, confirms and affirms the validity and correctness of Abraham’s election. There are several questions we must ask to proceed. The first is: On what basis was Abraham elected?

Strauss believes that God elected Abraham because Abraham showed devotion to His command (Gen. XII):13 14

1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee. 2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. 3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.' 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him . . .

Strauss notes that there is no mention here in Scripture about Abraham’s righteousness. All we know about Abraham is God commanded him to “get thee out of they country . . .” and Abraham obeyed. For Strauss, because this is all that is said, that is all we need to know.

Thus, for Strauss, the defining characteristic of the Covenant between God and Abraham, and therefore, between God and the nation of Israel, is obedience to the Will of God. Strauss also points to a second dimension of Abraham’s character: his faith in God. Abraham, given the shorter life-span of post-dillevuean men,15 could not reasonably hope to see God’s promise fulfilled. Consequently, Abraham had to trust in God’s Righteousness, that is, Abraham had to trust that God would fulfill his promise. Strauss has thus isolated the two features which account for the election of Abraham: (i) Abraham’s obedience to God; (ii) Abraham’s trust that God will act righteously, i.e., fulfill his promise.

Strauss contrasts these features of Abraham’s election to God’s relationship with Noah (Gen. VI):

5 And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it repented the LORD that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart. 7 And the LORD said: 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repenteth Me that I have made them.' 8 But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. {P} 9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noah walked with God.

Now according to Strauss, Noah was saved on account of Noah’s righteousness. Consequently, Noah lacked the trust in God that Abraham had: whereas Abraham had to trust that God would fulfill a promise he could not live to see, Noah required no such trust. Strauss contends that this difference in trust accounts for a difference in awareness, which in turn, accounts for a difference in action.

Noah, of course, did not plead for the lives of his fellow men when God informed him of the Flood. Abraham did in fact plead for the lives of his fellow men when God informed him of His intent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Strauss contends that Abraham pleaded with God because of his deepened awareness of God’s righteousness — an awareness borne out of Abraham’s own faith in God. Noah, having had no such experience, did not enjoy the same sort of faith of Abraham. Consequently, Noah remained silent.16 Strauss highlights the contrast between Abraham and Noah to highlight Abraham’s heightened awareness of God’s righteousness, an awareness that will be “deepened and therewith modified” come the Binding of Isaac.

When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham’s previous convictions were challenged. Abraham had a dual faith: a faith in God’s righteousness and a faith in that God would fulfill His promise. Both of these faiths were now challenged by God Himself: God’s command was no longer righteous; Abraham could no longer have faith that he would be made into a great nation through Isaac. As other commentators have pointed out, that Abraham remains silent here stands in puzzling contrast to his behavior at Sodom: why does Abraham not protest?

Strauss’ answer here is puzzling. First, Strauss distinguishes between God expressing his intention (as was the case at Sodom) and God issuing a command (as was the case at the Binding of Isaac). Then Strauss writes (Strauss, 392),

Abraham did not argue with God for the preservation of Isaac because he loved God, and not himself or his most cherished hope with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might. The same concern with God’s righteousness, that had induced him to plead with God for the preservation of Sodom if ten just men should be found in that city, induced him not to plead for the preservation of Isaac, for God rightfully demands that He alone be loved unqualifiedly (emphasis added).

What does Strauss mean by this? Strauss evidently thinks that there is no dissonance between Abraham’s behavior at Sodom and at the Binding of Isaac, but, in fact, a deep, if elusive, consonance. But what consonance? Unlike similar writers, such as Umberto Cassuto17 and Leon Kass18, who have both a fine literary sensitivity and a good ear for the theological, Strauss apparently reveled in his obscurity and elusiveness. A cynical reader of Strauss might argue that Strauss wrote so obscurely and elusively because he himself had not resolved all of these issues. I believe there is a kernel of truth to this. Strauss’ powers of observation far surpassed his powers of concretization. But, nonetheless, I do think Strauss in this instance did have something particular in mind. But what exactly?

I believe Strauss thought that Abraham’s commitment, or newfound commitment, was not a commitment to God’s righteousness per se. It was a commitment, rather, to God Himself. God had previously revealed Himself to Abraham in a manner which emphasized His righteousness: God had expected Abraham to trust in Him. This trust in God entailed a belief that God was in fact a righteous God. However, as Strauss is quick to point out, this righteousness is a bit paradoxical. God, All Powerful, is not subject to restrictions of any sort. That God is restricted to righteousness is, in Strauss’ word, “wondrous,” i.e. beyond the grasp of the mind of man.19 God, in His wondrousness, “set firm boundaries, set to Him, by his Righteousness, by Him.”20

Up until the Binding of Isaac, Abraham had been devoted to God’s righteousness, because God had chosen to reveal to Abraham His righteousness. The Binding of Isaac, according to Strauss, was a “deepening and therewith modifying” of Abraham’s awareness of God’s righteousness. Abraham, through God’s command, realized that God’s commitment to righteousness was indeed wondrous, and, therefore, subject to God’s will. Just as God could wondrously set firm boundaries of righteousness, creating a standard by which God’s actions could be anticipated, so too God could remove these boundaries. God could act contrary to His righteousness.

The deepening of Abraham’s awareness was that Abraham was now made aware that God’s righteousness was lower than God Himself. This modified his awareness, because it made Abraham aware that his allegiance was to God Himself, and not to His righteousness. At Sodom, Abraham was aware of his allegiance to God through his allegiance to God’s righteousness. Therefore, when God expressed His intention to act contrary to His righteousness, Abraham, who knew His righteousness intimately — certainly more intimately than did Noah — pleaded with God to act in accord with His righteousness.

At the Binding of Isaac, however, Abraham realized his allegiance to God was not an allegiance to God through His righteousness, but an allegiance to God Himself. Thus, to plead with God would betray a lack of allegiance, or betray a misplaced allegiance. Abraham, in passing the test, not only obeyed, but did not plead. Abraham passed the test because of the correctness of his devotion to God Himself.

Strauss highlights another aspect of the Binding of Isaac: Isaac’s birth and life after the Binding. Isaac’s life was doubly wondrous. It was wondrous for, “Sarai Abram's wife bore him no children” (Gen. XVI, 1). Indeed, when God had initially promised Abraham a child through Sarai, “Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart: 'Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?'” (Gen XVII, 17). Evidently, Abraham had not yet appreciated the wondrousness of God. Moreover, in Abraham’s mind, Isaac should not have lived once God had commanded that he die. According to the mind of man, if God intends that a man die, that man will die. Yet, God is wondrous, and so is not bound to the dictates of the mind of man. To the contrary, God rises above the dictates of the mind of man.

Abraham, following his own mind, a mind of man, could not believe that Isaac would be born. Abraham, following his own mind, a mind of man, could likewise not believe that Isaac would survive the Binding. And yet, God is wondrous, and, in Binding his son, Abraham understood this.

Thus, the Binding of Isaac impressed upon Abraham the wondrousness of God. Now, having appreciated the wondrousness of God, Abraham’s election was complete. According to Strauss, the election of Abraham and, consequently, the election of the nation of Israel needed its beginnings in wondrousness. That is, it needed to begin with subjugation of the mind of man to the mind of God. This, as we have seen, is in two senses: (i) God’s righteousness is itself paradoxical; (ii) God’s ways are incapable of being understood. Because of these two features, allegiance to God entails a degree of forsaking of the mind of man. The mind of man is incapable of grasping God, neither His ways, nor his choices, nor his righteousness. This, for Strauss, is the teaching of the Bible; this is the Biblical Wisdom; this is the teaching of Jerusalem.

Strauss opens his discussion of the Bible with a quotation from Proverbs: “the beginning of Wisdom is fear of the Lord.” Strauss thus associates or equates “fear of the Lord” with the wondrousness of the Lord. Fear, in essence, is the appreciation of otherness. Typically, the peak of otherness is the exclusivity with the self. The rabid dog is other, and therefore fearsome, because the rabid dog’s existence threatens the existence of the self: the rabid dog seeks to destroy me. Therefore, I fear it.

The fear of the Lord rests on a higher peak of otherness: the fear of the Lord is the otherness par excellence. The otherness of the Lord does not recourse to exclusivity — it is an otherness of existence. Strauss rights that “Ekyeh Asher Ekyeh” which Strauss translates as “I shall be What I shall be.” The very being of God is a being other than man’s being.

God’s actions cannot be predicted, unless He Himself has predicted them, i.e., promised them. But as is shown precisely by the account of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, the way in which He fulfills His promises cannot be known in advance. The biblical God is a mysterious God: He comes in a thick cloud (Ex. 19:4); He cannot be seen; His presence can be sensed but not always and everywhere; what is known of Him is only what He chose to communicate by His word through His chosen servants.21

But even these communications are not wholly revealing. God is wholly other because He is inscrutable to the mind of man. That is, God is wondrous. In His wonder, God is wholly other. This otherness, which is sometimes called His Exaltedness, is the source of the Fear of the Lord. This is the Biblical wisdom.

Strauss’ reading of the Binding of Isaac, and indeed of the Hebrew Bible more broadly, yields that Biblical Wisdom is the denigration of the independent mind of man. Because God is inscrutable to the mind of man, man cannot know God independently. Instead, man must rely on his interpretations of God’s commands, promises, and revelations. But because God is inscrutable to the mind of man, even man’s interpretations are liable to become misinterpretations. The Wisdom of Jerusalem is the rejection of the independent mind of man. Jerusalem dictates that the attainment of Wisdom is only possible if man recognizes God’s Otherness, that is, God’s Wondrousness, and in doing so, fear Him. The Biblical Wisdom is the the rejection of man’s independent search for Wisdom and the affirmation that only man in interpreting the word of God can succeed.

The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.

  1. This reputation probably has its origin in Natural Right and History, which concludes with an account of the “crisis of modern natural right.” A parallel crisis of classical natural right is noticeably absent from its pages. ↩︎

  2. This conspiracy has the requisite conspiratorial evidence. Paul Wolfowitz is a student of Strauss, and the neoconservative movement is comprised of Strauss’ students and his students’ students. In fact, every 4th of July, there is a “Strauss picnic” in Washington D.C., which is attended by many of the leading figures in the neoconservative movement. ↩︎

  3. See Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing Chapter III: The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed. ↩︎

  4. Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections. The First Frank Cohen Public Lecture in Judaic Affairs, The City College Papers, Number 6 (New York: City College, 1967). 28 pp. Pamphlet. I will be using the edition reprinted in Strauss, L. Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, ed. Green, KH, (Albany: State University of New York Press), 1997. ↩︎

  5. Interestingly, Strauss will often title or refer to his works as reflections or thoughts or notes on something, e.g. “Thoughts on Machiavelli” or “Notes on Lucretius”. ↩︎

  6. See Green’s intro. note 4., p. xiv ↩︎

  7. Thus one sense of the “post” in Strauss post-critical reading. Strauss had no interest in the historical context of the Bible. He cared only about the Bible itself. ↩︎

  8. Ibid. 394 ↩︎

  9. Strauss is generally taken to be a secular Jew in that he was not only non-practicing, but non-believing: he denied the divinity of the Torah and (perhaps) the existence of God. I have some skepticism if “deep down” Strauss really endorsed these views. ↩︎

  10. Strauss, 337 ↩︎

  11. Strauss, 390 ↩︎

  12. Strauss, 391 ↩︎

  13. Translation taken from the JPS Hebrew Bible, 1917. Accessed at ↩︎

  14. Strauss, ibid ↩︎

  15. Cf. Strauss, 387-391 ↩︎

  16. Strauss, ibid ↩︎

  17. See Cassuto, Commentary to Genesis ↩︎

  18. See Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom ↩︎

  19. Strauss, 391 ↩︎

  20. Strauss, ibid ↩︎

  21. Strauss, 393 ↩︎

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