How has your understanding of the story of Abraham and Isaac changed?
Sheelah, James lost me on this one. You’ll need to help me sort it out. Do I understand this correctly? I’ve enumerated the steps I see James taking, so that you can pinpoint where I go wrong.

[1] James suspects that there are various ways to tell the story of Abraham sacrificing at a mountain in Moriah. Some versions of the story have been lost to history.
[2] Among those lost to us (but known to Biblical authors) is at least one rendition of the story in which Abraham slaughters his son.
[3] For James, inferring the existence of this gruesome version that predated Genesis 22 provides an explanation for the otherwise difficult image of Abraham returning from the sacrificial ordeal without Isaac (22.19).

If [1-3] is an accurate extraction of some of what James is proposing, then some of what James is proposing is contrary to Girard’s assessment of Biblical revelation. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Girard considers mythology to be the accounts of founding murders which mitigate references to murderous behavior. Conversely, the Bible, for Girard, is a collection of stories that move toward an unmitigated presentation of founding murders in gruesome detail. If we surmise that an earlier non-Biblical parallel to Genesis 22 provides a unvarnished depiction of child sacrifice, and that the Biblical version “tones down” the human-against-human violence with the help of a ram-form-nowhere who is sacrificed in the boy’s stead, then we are affirming a trajectory of the Abraham-and-Isaac story in which Genesis 22 is not revelatory (in Girard’s sense of revelatory). In this lecture, I think I heard James suggests that Genesis 22, as we have it now, is further away from a true picture of human sacrifice; I think I heard James suggest that we should reconstruct a mythological precursor to the Biblical narrative that gave a clearer account of human sacrifice than the Bible. This is the opposite of how Girard relates the Bible to mythology.

I understand that James wants to say that, through the eyes of our resurrected Lord, we can read the “Big Bad Book” and embrace the queasiness it makes us feel. Genesis 22.19 is unsettling; it should make us queasy. It is very much about child sacrifice. But why does James suggest that there was some earlier version of Abraham and Isaac at Moriah that was more capable of embracing the queasiness of the story than Genesis?

I would have expected James to do precisely the opposite. If we were are going to speculate on some earlier version of what becomes Genesis 22 and maintain that the Bible reveals more than what precedes it, then we would need to infer the existence of a pre-Biblical story like the following: Abraham is intent on blood sacrifice (perhaps by divine mandate). He is ascending a mountain in Moriah with all the sacrificial accoutrements except for a lamb, when his donkey turns and says, “I see the fire and the wood, but …” [Let this story proceed more or less like the one we know—ram and all.]

Now, you see what I mean? Why didn’t James assume that the precursors to the Biblical version were even more opaque with respect to the child’s demise? Why did he assume Genesis was the version covering up the possibility of child sacrifice?

If my imagined story were the precursor to Genesis 22, then the Bible would be revealing something new to the people who already knew the talking-donkey version. Genesis 22 would be a familiar animal-talking tale with a twist, namely—there ain’t no animals talking in this animal-talking tale. (“Wasn’t it always kind of weird that the donkey started talking in that Abraham-at-Moriah story?” the original Biblical audience would ask each other. “No that you mention it, that was weird!” “Well, the truth is: it was never a donkey; it was his son!!” [for thus who’ve read _Life of Pi_, think of that moment when you realize exactly what Pi means when he says stories are just better with animals] “And we always thought—naively—that Isaac stayed at the foot of the mountain!” “Oh my God!” says one original listener who is finally gets the point of the retelling, “Remember how in the old version, Isaac was like ‘So, what happened to the donkey, Dad?’ and stuff—here Abraham comes back without Isaac … and nobody even asks a single question!”) The take-away, in my imagined context, would be that the Biblical audience’s forefather wasn’t the one who stopped performing a sacrifice as benign as donkey slaughter (as people had once thought)—in actuality, Abraham was the one who stopped sacrificing children!

Of course, this is wild conjecture on my part. I am unaware of any such story in the Ancient Near East. I have no good reason whatsoever to believe anybody ever thought of Abraham as the father of all peoples who stopped slaughtering donkeys or camels or something. It seems highly inadvisable to argue for the existence of some talking-beast-of-burden-about-to-be-sacrificed folktale, simply to salvage my positive assessment of the Bible as revelation. Neither, however, do I support James contention that Genesis was more bashful about Abraham’s complicity in child sacrifice than some pre-Biblical accounts. It may well turn out to be that there existed scriptures more revelatory than the Bible, but I’m not prepared to accept an invitation to simply assume that is the case.