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  • Writer's pictureNoah Cain

Cormac McCarthy's The Road and The Binding of Isaac

The Bible is one of the most influential texts ever compiled. Even those who have not grown up reading the Bible are likely influenced in some ways by its stories, poems, and laws. Writers from the southern United States have a reputation for being particularly influenced by Biblical stories and ideas. Noted southern writer Flannery O’Connor has famously discussed the bible’s influence over the southern writer:

Approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn't convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. (O’Connor)

Cormac McCarthy, also from the American south certainly fits O’Connor’s description of a “Christ-haunted” southern writer. He has often been described as a biblical writer. Scholars and critics have discussed how his works echo the bible in their old-testament depictions of violence, bloodshed, and war. Furthermore, they echo the biblical writing style, by adapting the “words, idioms, syntax, and cadences” of the canonical English bible (Alter 55).

The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s most successful novel, is deeply informed by the Bible in its style and content. Scholars have discussed connections between The Road and the book of Revelation as well as the book of Job. They have also mentioned in passing the connection between the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain and the journey of the father and the son in The Road. This connection however deserves more than just a passing notice. The Road is deeply informed and influenced by The Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), which tells the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, before providing a ram to replace Isaac on the altar just before the boy is killed. While not an allegory of the binding of Isaac, there are many compelling parallels that illustrate the deep connection between the two stories. Both feature a father and a son on a religious journey; both feature a father who comes close to violently killing his son; both are stories of seemingly miraculous provision; and both are concerned with drawing a distinction between their protagonists and the perverse culture they live alongside.

The first and most obvious connection between The Road and the binding of Isaac is that they both feature a father and a son on a difficult religious journey. In the binding of Isaac, Abraham and Isaac are journeying to make a sacrifice to God: “Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, and go into the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of” (New International Version, Genesis 22:2). In The Road, the religiosity of their journey, while less obvious than in the binding of Isaac, is still present. In the books opening paragraph, the father and son are compared to “pilgrims in a fable” (McCarthy 3). Like Abraham, the father’s reason for travelling is wrapped up in hearing God’s voice (albeit less directly). His reason for travelling is his son and his son is the voice of God: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke” (McCarthy 5). Both Abraham and Isaac and the father and the son are on fraught religious journeys. On both these journeys, each father will come scarily close to killing his only son.

Perhaps the most striking parallel between these two stories is that they are both haunted by the terrifying image of a father at the precipice of killing his only son. In Genesis, Abraham is described, knife in his hand, suspended above his son, ready to kill: “Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to kills his son” (Genesis 22:10). In The Road, the father considers killing the son on multiple occasions. There is a bullet saved in the revolver for him. After a particularly horrifying experience, the father holds him and the gun and considers killing him to save him from the terrible things that would happen to him if he were captured: “Can you do it? When the time comes? […] What if [the gun] doesn’t fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing?” (McCarthy 114). This parallel is striking. Both fathers have deep love for their only son and both come to the edge of killing that person. In both cases, the murder is put off. In Genesis, an angel tells Abraham to stop. In The Road, compelled by an unnamed conviction, the father “began to believe they had a chance.” Beyond the parallels between the characters of the father and the son with Abraham and Isaac, The Road also parallels the binding of Isaac thematically.

Both the binding of Isaac and The Road are stories of provision. In the binding of Isaac, God provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice, replacing Isaac. This prompts Abraham to name the mountain “The Lord will provide” (Genesis 22:14). The Christian tradition further connects this story to God’s providing nature as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice provided by Jesus. The Road is also a story of provision. The father and son are continually provided to when they are on the brink of destruction, starvation, etc. For example, after a terrifying experience where they come across a cellar filled with people who are kept alive for food, they find an emergency bunker filled with supplies and luxuries that gives them a chance to hide out and recover from the trauma. Another example of this is at the end of the book. The father dies and the boy is provided with another family to take care of him as he travels the road. The father, before he dies discusses his faith that the boy will continue to have his needs met: “You need to keep going. You don’t know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see” (McCarthy 278). The father’s conviction that his son will find what he needs on the road mirrors Abraham’s belief that God will provide and meet all his needs.

Both the binding of Isaac and The Road feature protagonists who are held in moral contrast to the culture that surrounds them. In the Jewish tradition, the binding of Isaac has been read as a warning against child sacrifice which was a common practice among the contemporaries of the early Israelites. James Goodman relates hearing this common interpretation as a child in Hebrew school, but states it is traced as far back as the 13th century:

God, [my teacher] said, had brought Abraham to a new land. A good and fertile land, where it was common for pagan tribes, hoping to keep the crops and flocks coming, to sacrifice first-born sons to God. Then one day, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the beloved son of his old age. Abraham set out to do it, and was about to, when God stopped him. He sacrificed a ram instead. In the end, Abraham had demonstrated his—and the Jews’—heroic willingness to accept God and His law, and God had proclaimed that He could not accept human blood, that He rejected all human sacrifices. (Goodman)

The early Israelites were concerned with what made them different from the religious and cultural groups that surrounded them. The binding of Isaac communicates that, unlike their neighbours, the Israelites are not to perform child sacrifice. In The Road, the father and the son are also concerned with what makes them different from the other people who have survived. They mark this distinction, calling themselves “the good guys” and by repeating how they are “carrying the fire” (a phrase that is pulled from Genesis 22:6). What separates the father and son in The Road from their contemporaries, the forbidden act that they don’t commit, is cannibalism. The father and son discuss this difference directly:

[The Boy:] We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?

[The Man:] No. Of course not. […]

[The Boy:] Because we're the good guys.

[The Man:] Yes.

[The Boy:] And we're carrying the fire.

[The Man:] And we're carrying the fire. Yes.

[The Boy:] Okay. (McCarthy 99)

The man and the boy, like the early Israelites, are focused on what makes them morally and religiously distinct from their contemporaries. While the Israelites mark this difference through their refusal to sacrifice child, the boy and man mark their separateness through their refusal to consume human flesh.

The Road is deeply informed by Genesis 22. In both The Road and the binding of Isaac, a father and son embark on a religious journey that eventually leads to the father almost killing the son. In both stories, the father’s faith that their needs will be met is realized. And both stories demonstrate a preoccupation with the protagonists drawing distinctions between themselves and who they consider to be their immoral, ungodly contemporaries. More than that, both stories are deeply upsetting and engaging because they bring the reader to the edge of what is imaginable: a parent killing a child. In both cases there is solace, a strange hope, in the fact that the act does not occur. But still, the reader is left haunted by questions. Who is this God and why would he bring his followers to the edge of evil? What is the state of the world when this is the choice a father must make? Both stories end with a type of hope, but that hope is fragile, almost delicate, and the reader is unsure whether it is more powerful than the force that got the characters to the edge in the first place.


Works Cited

Alter, Robert. Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Goodman, James. “Understanding Genesis 22: God and Child Sacrifice.” My Jewish Learning, 7 Apr. 2015, www.myjewishlearning.com/members-of-the-scribe/understanding-genesis-22-god-and-child-sacrifice/.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage Books, 2006.

O’Connor, Flannery, et al. Mystery and Manners. Faber and Faber, 2014.

The Bible. New International Version, Bible Gateway, 2018.

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