Unbinding Isaac: Comedy, Critique, and Conversation between Midrash and Tafsīr

Madeline Wyse, University of California – Berkeley, USA IQSA International Conference 2021 “Giorgio La Pira” Library, Palermo, Italy
Panel 2. Characters, Narratives, and Strategies in the Qur’anic Text

The story of Avraham/Ibrāhīm almost sacrificing his son is a mainstay of Jewish and Islamic ritual and reflection, but this paper will focus on two passages – one from the 5th century rabbinic midrash collection, Genesis Rabbah, and one from Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī – that deploy comedy to challenge mainstream interpretations of the story. Our passage from Genesis Rabbah parodies other passages from the same chapter that advance the doctrine of zekhut avot or “merits of the forefathers”, and instead provocatively proposes that Avraham misunderstood God. Some of these other passages from the midrash (although not the passage we will focus on) have long been identified as sources for our narrative in Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī. I will dig deeper into the tafsīr’s critical engagement with Genesis Rabbah, noting the role of word play, comic juxtaposition, compensation in translation, as well as blatant misquotations of the Qur’an in crafting a narrative that also features a potentially mistaken Ibrāhīm. Despite their overlapping intertexts and similar critical depictions of Avraham/Ibrāhīm, I will demonstrate that the critical aim of the tafsīr passage is significantly different than that of the midrash. I ultimately hope to position both texts as participants in a dynamic, ongoing theological and literary conversation.