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With the development of psychoanalysis as a form of literary criticism, there have been many controversial new interpretations of religious texts, including the Bible. One such interpretation is that the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are dominated by the desire for the sons to be subservient to the father figure. This is what Georges Devereux calls a “Laius Complex,” named after the father who tried to kill his son Oedipus because he was afraid he would kill him first (Delaney 211). While there are many instances of the Laius Complex in both the Greek and Hebrew traditions, I will focus primarily on the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, in Genesis 22. This story demonstrates ancient Hebrew culture’s desire to maintain patriarchy at all costs.
In Genesis 22, God says to Abraham “Take your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (v. 2). Abraham does not protest, and leaves the next morning with Isaac in tow. We already know that Abraham was not afraid to argue with God. He pleaded with Him in an attempt to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33). It is especially curious that he does not plead for the life of his beloved son. They travel for three days, and Abraham says nothing to Isaac about what must occur. When Isaac asks where the lamb for sacrifice was, Abraham vaguely replies “God Himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:7-8). Abraham is keeping the sacrifice a secret for some unexplained reason.
When they reach Mount Moriah, an altar is built, and Abraham binds Isaac to it. The text implies that Isaac does not utter a word during these proceedings, even as his father raises the knife to kill him. An angel of the Lord intervenes before Abraham can commit the deed, saying “Do no lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). Abraham instead uses a ram as the sacrifice. God rewards Abraham for his willingness to defy his ethics in order to obey the Lord, saying that he will bless him and all his offspring. He literally becomes the father of the Israelites, just as God is their father symbolically. Oddly enough, the text states that Abraham left the mountain to go to Beer-Sheba, but there is no mention of Isaac leaving with him. Genesis 22 ends with a genealogy based through Abraham’s brother, not through Isaac.
Before analyzing the Akedah, it is important to first look at the origins of the struggle between father and sons. Sigmund Freud theorizes in his book Totem and Taboo about a primal horde that preceded civilization. They were subservient to a primal father who drove them away as they grew up. Eventually, the sons banded together, killed the father, and created their own society. However, they were so guilt stricken over their actions that they created a totem that they worshiped in lieu of the father (183-185). In Genesis, Adam and Eve tried to become more like God by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, so God banished them and made the woman subservient to the man (Ch. 3). The people of the world tried to mimic God by building the Tower of Babel, so He divided them into nations that were unable to work together because of the language barrier (Ch. 11). In Hesiod’s Theogony, the older generation of deities always devours the younger generation in order to remain in power, but they are always overthrown until Zeus swallows Metis (137-187, 456-500, 891-905).
In all of these origin stories, the younger generation wants to be like the older generation. Some think this pattern is representative of natural human psychology.
Identification produces emotional ambivalence, prompting both love for the object of identification and fury toward it because the identification is never wholly successful. For the son to successfully become his father, the father must cease to be, and so desire prompts both identification with the father and the wish to destroy him (Schwartz 108).
The son is going to naturally want to replace the father figure; violently if necessary. Therefore, the son represents a threat to the father. In Hesiod and Freud’s tales, the father is unable to maintain dominance over the son(s). In the Hebrew Bible, the Father always maintains control of the son(s).
Freud’s focus was on the psychological tendency of the son to want to replace the father. He called it the Oedipus complex, because in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus kills his father, Laius. However, he does not take into consideration the fact that Laius tried to kill Oedipus, knowing that he would be a threat to him someday. Delaney believes that this is a major blind spot in his theory. He forgets that the very titles of father and son are defined in relationship to one another, and by abstaining from psychoanalyzing the father as well as the son, he is reinforcing patriarchy (Delaney 189). Georges Devereux believes that the Oedipus complex is triggered by the father at least as much as the son (Delaney 213). Laius stabbed Oedipus in the foot, then left him to die. He desired the death of his son in order that he might survive. Carol Delaney points out that “the first murderous wish in the myth belonged to the father” (191, my emphasis). Devereux believes that this is a common subconscious desire among those in positions of authority. He calls this the Laius complex, and believes it serves to compliment and perpetuate the Oedipal complex (Delaney 212).
“The Abraham story,” says Delaney, “is more about the father than the son, about the father’s willingness to kill the son” (191). When God orders him to kill Isaac, Abraham does not try to talk him out of it, even though he has succeeded earlier in a similar task. He does not tell his wife or son what is happening. Delaney even suggests that Abraham really did kill Isaac, as he does in some non-biblical versions of the tale, and the biblical version is a repression of the truth (202). It is not far-fetched, considering that Abraham was all too willing to sacrifice Isaac, and that Genesis 22 ends with no trace of Isaac. The vast majority of art depicting the Akedah portrays a stern, untroubled Abraham that will not even look Isaac in the face while he does the deed (Delaney 222). It does not seem a great stretch of the imagination that he was unconsciously looking for an excuse to murder his son, yet in the Genesis account he is restrained from doing so.
The Akedah is a strikingly obvious example of proper filio-parental relationships in Hebrew Scripture. Isaac, the son, submits to Abraham, the father. At the same time, Abraham, the son, submits to God, the father. Bakan believed that, for Jewish men, paternity established a connection with the son that put their lives at risk through the draining of resources and the threat of usurpation. This created an infanticidal impulse, otherwise known as the Laius Complex (Delaney 217-218). In many Biblical stories, the father is able to act out this impulse by punishing the disobedience of the son(s), restricting them in some way from further disobedience. In Genesis 22, Isaac is submissive to his father, and thus Abraham is unable to punish him. In the same manner, Abraham is submissive to God, and he is rewarded for it. This sends the message that the Jews must submit to God, the father-figure, or pay the consequences. Previous stories in Genesis (the fall of man, the Tower of Babel, etc.) suggest that Yahweh has the Laius Complex as well, so he will be quick to punish any sign of disobedience in order to avoid being usurped.
Filial piety is emphasized in the Bible, so that sons will respect fathers, and man will respect God. In the Greek mythology of Hesiod, and in other nonbiblical sources, power is always usurped; forcibly stolen from the father by the son. In the Hebrew scripture, power is usually handed down to the son by the father (Schwartz 113). The idea that the father should be in control is prevalent. Often, in order to maintain that control, the father will create fraternal strife amongst sons (Schwartz 114). God alienates the Garden’s partners in crime: the man, the woman, and the serpent, from each other by making the woman subservient to the man, and the serpent subservient to both. When Ham insults Noah’s authority by viewing him naked, he places a curse on him, which makes him subservient to his brothers. God insured that mankind would never join together again to make something like the Tower of Babel by creating nations, alienating them from one another through different languages.
The unity of brothers poses the greatest challenge to a patriarch who wishes to remain in power, and he must break that unity somehow.
Division, dissension, disparity, and domination: all are paternal resources to a perceived threat to authority, responses, that is, to a desire that is confused with degradation, to a love that is confused with aggression (Schwartz 109).
Luckily for Abraham, Isaac is an only child. He does not have to worry about being overtaken by what Freud would call a brother-band. However, Isaac’s desire to be like his father still poses a threat, so Abraham must perform an act of domination in order to further establish the filio-parental relationship. Isaac submits to the binding, which solidifies Abraham’s position of power. However, Bakan theorizes that Abraham is bound as well. God restraints him from following through on his unconscious desire to destroy a threat to his existence, and Abraham must submit (Delaney 218).
All three Abrahamic religions use the metaphor of father and son in defining their relationship with God. The Akedah is the story that establishes that cultural phenomenon, emphasizing submission to the father. The Jewish and Muslim traditions place emphasis on Abraham’s submission to God the father. The Christian tradition supports Abraham’s faith, but place emphasis on Isaac as a parallel to Jesus, who is the fully completed sacrifice of son by father. Only recently have critics considered in Abraham, and thus in God, a desire to bind the son in order to maintain parental authority. Looking at the tale thusly, we see not only the basis for a submissive, humble faith, but a symbolic represenation of a patriarchal system that Otherizes women, youth, and foreigners in order to avoid a united coup against established authority. Scholars like Delaney hope that someday a new, better myth will emerge, causing a “revolution in values” that will displace the current patriarchal mode of thought (251). However, we live in a different world from the ancient Hebrews, where science probably will not allow such a myth to take root in our cultural consciousness. It is more probable that we will continue to follow this deep-seated system of submission to authority/desire to maintain authority that is emphasized in the Akedah and throughout the Hebrew Bible.
Coogan, Michael D., ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 1-41.
Delaney, Carol. Abraham on Trial. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. New York: Random House, 1946.
Hesiod. Works & Days/Theogony. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.
Schwartz, Regina M. The Curse of Cain. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1997.
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Three Theban Plays. Trans.Peter Meineck, and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003
Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1995.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Viking P, 1986.
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