Isaac and Oedipus
The story of an eight year old murdering his father and father's co-worker, whatever the final legal disposition, has evoked a raft of comments. Legal, sociological and psychological experts have added their insights to this profoundly disturbing story. There is a religious dimension that should not be overlooked.
The Bible begins with a parade of dysfunction. The first two siblings, Cain and Abel, form the arc of the first story of murder. Brothers are fraught, to say the least: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau (where the threat of murder is made but not carried out) Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery. In all of these stories the part of the parent is intricately connected to the sibling rivalry.
Freud seized upon the story of Oedipus as a template for family conflict. Children, as in the story here, have violent impulses toward their parents. Painful as that truth was for Freud's contemporaries and for us, it is manifest and powerful.
The Bible complements the analytic picture. As the psychiatrist Eric Wellisch observed, had Freud spent more time with the Bible and less with Greek myth, he might have come upon the Isaac complex. Recall that Abraham brings Isaac up to the mountain to sacrifice him. Wellisch read the story psychodynamically: it is about the hostility that parents have toward their children. The anger does not only go one way.
The Bible is filled with such stories of parents destroying, or seeking to destroy, their children: Not only Abraham and Isaac, but Saul seeking to kill his surrogate son David, Jephta sacrificing his daughter (the books of Samuel and Judges, respectively), and culminating in the Christian tradition in the story of Jesus, whose stark cry on the cross asking why God has forsaken him, is the child's bewildered and pained wail to the powerful, seemingly absent parent.
The theological dimension is the Bible's ambiguous gift to families: from the first they were not easy, frictionless entities. Quite the opposite; when we are told in the creation story of Adam and Eve "Therefore a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife" (gen. 2:24) there is already a hint of the tensions to come. In-laws read that verse and know things will not always be smooth. In fact in the story itself that is what God experiences: Adam and Eve leave him, the Parent, and cling to each other. The result may be exile from Eden, but that does not stop them.
For a parent to be cruel to a child, for a child to turn on a parent, is painful and terrible, but it is hardly new. The Bible's message seems to be that while we assume that moral behavior is a system devised to regulate our life out in the world, the greatest challenge to decency is often within the confines of the home. It is to those we know best that we are often least kind. While a child shooting a parent may be the most extreme and shocking manifestation, it is also the latest in a long line of familial depredations. It goes back as far as the first family.
What then is the essential difference between Isaac and Oedipus? Unlike the Greek myth, the bible story does not end in death. Isaac lives. There is hope for the future, and for the possibility of human beings overcoming anger, resentment and rage. In the moment he raises the knife, God tells Abraham, "NO." In the words that God then speaks may be the essenail message: " Do not do anything to the child" (22:12). In that crucial distinction - that despite the difficulties of family life we are ruled not by fate but by choice -- the hope for humanity endures.
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