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Grammars of Sacrifice: Futures, Subjunctives, and What Would Have/Could Have Happened on Mount Moriah?

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image of Biblical Interpretation

In A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives, published seventeen years ago (unbelievably), I looked forward to what would become a significant turn back towards the biblical texts’ past futures. In this paper, I look at the density of futurity and modality in these past futures. The sacrifice of Isaac reaches beyond itself into the space of the subjunctive, the optative, the cohortative, poetry and prayer. Drawing on Nietzsche’s and Steiner’s intuition that the uniqueness of the human lies with the grammars of the future and the promise, I revive the memory of lost Christian texts in Greek, Syriac, Coptic and Middle English that show, clearly, that the akedah does not just have a long and obsessive history, but a dense and long history of longing. If ‘every human use of the future tense of the verb “to be” is a negation, however limited, of mortality’ (so Steiner), then the fundamental structure of human grammar is sacrificial. In the modest sacrifices of modality, we give up and, in a sense, negate what is in order to make plural possibilities, myriad lives, more and less substantial. As Abraham offers up one son and gets a heavenful of sons, so modality offers up or qualifies or pluralises what is in order to make new possible lives: those that were, that could have been; and those that might yet live or live again.

Affiliations: 1: University of Kent, UK


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