Using the biblical narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac for purposes other than elucidating biblical truth is not a new phenomenon. Wilfred Owen, like Leonard Cohen, made up his own version of it, too, in a poem, which Benjamin Britten subsequently used in his famous ”War Requiem”, composed to celebrate the re-inauguration of the cathedral of Coventry, which had been destroyed by the Germans during World War II. Owen had died in World War I. In Owen’s poem Abraham is used figuratively, representing the fathers, which put their sons at stake by sending them into war. Owen depicts a crotchety old man, who deliberately, arbitrarily and stubbornly resists the angelic interference, which would have spared Isaac’s life, just as it did in the original story. This smacks very much of the “anti-father-revolution” which Bonhoeffer described in his analysis of the anti-Christian currents which were to become a vital element in Hitler’s ascendancy to power. Anyway here is Owen’s version of the story:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son,
When lo! and angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not they hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son, -
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
(taken from Naxos’ CD publication of Britten’s War Requiem, Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd., 1961)
A Biblical perspective concerning the Sacrifice of Isaac
Leonard Cohen’s use of the biblical account demands a clarification of the real content and purpose of the biblical narrative of the Sacrifice of Isaac. Its theological significance is obviously ignored, by Cohen, by Owen as well as by those wanting to use it in order to discredit Judaism and Christianity. With the prevailing biblical illiteracy that is quite a simple task. Anybody not knowing the biblical context will feel that this story “stinks”. With many national education systems cultivating subtle or open hostility towards parents as well as towards biblical standards and Christian truth, it is no wonder that many teachers become prone to despise this story and will therefore not bother to try to understand it from a theological perspective, on the hermeneutical terms of the Bible itself. Consequently they loose out on the factual meaning of the passage.
A theological investigation of the narrative, taking into consideration the context of the passage, reveals the following:
Concerning Isaac: He wasn’t just any kind of son of any kind of father. Abraham had been told by God before that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky – yet many years went by with Abraham’s wife Sarah reaching an age where childbirth was normally impossible. Eventually, however, God fulfilled his promise and Sarah gave birth to Isaac. He wasn’t just ”fucked up”, to use Philip Larkin’s terminology, from his ”poem” ”This be the Verse”. Isaac was not mere matter created my earlier matter at random, according to an evolutionary, materialistic worldview. Just as God had a special plan for the world with Adam and Even, he wanted to start something peculiar for and within humanity with Abraham and Isaac.
Abraham was first of all called out of his native country Ur. A risky emmigration followed without any kind of politically based security for Abraham. He had to live as an immigrant in a strange country. Then the humiliating years of waiting for God’s promise to come true. Doubts, fears, anxiety. Kierkegaard described this well. And now finally this completely contradictory and alienating command, to sacrifice Isaac. Drawing a parallel between modern parents abusing their children at home and Abraham setting out to sacrifice his son is therefore completely absurd. Abraham did not have some arbitrary, sadistic, egotistical motive. As a matter of fact, Abraham’s deed should rather be seen as a fatal blow to child sacrifice, as noted by Marcus Dods in ”The Expositor’s Bible”, Vol. 1 (edited by W. Robertson Nicoll), Marcus Dods writes on page 54:
”[Abraham] may have seen Canaanite fathers offering their children to gods, [which] he knew to be utterly unworthy of any sacrifice; and this may have rankled in his mind until he felt shut up to offer his all to God in the person of his son, his only son, Isaac. ... it became his conviction that God desired him to offer his son; this was a sacrifice which was in no respect forbidden by his own conscience. But although not wrong in Abraham’s judgment, this sacrifice was wrong in the eye of God; how then can we justify God’s Command, that he should make it? We justify it precisely on that ground which lies patent on the face of the narrative – God meant Abraham to make the sacrifice in spirit, not in the outward act. He meant to write deeply on the Jewish mind the fundamental lesson regarding sacrifice, that it is in the spirit and will all true sacrifice is made. God intended what actually happened, that Abraham’s sacrifice should be complete and that human sacrifice should receive a fatal blow. So far from introducing into Abraham’s mind erroneous ideas about sacrifice, this incident finally dispelled from his mind such ideas and permanently fixed in his mind the conviction that the sacrifice God seeks is the devotion of the living soul, not the consumption of a dead body. God met him on the platform of knowledge and of morality to which he had attained, and by requiring him to sacrifice his son taught him and all his descendants in what sense alone such sacrifice can be acceptable. God meant Abraham to sacrifice his son, but not in the coarse material sense. God meant him to yield the lad truly to Him; to arrive at the consciousness that Isaac more truly belonged to God than to him, his father. It was needful that Abraham and Isaac should be in perfect harmony with the Divine will. Only by being really and absolutely in God’s hand could they, or can any one, reach the whole and full good designed for them by God”
What is more, in Christian theology in particular the sacrifice of Isaac is interpreted allegorically. Abraham becomes a ”type”, a shadow, symbol or spiritual prototype, of God Father Himself, in His giving up His own son, Jesus Christ, for humanity. In this view Abraham does not lie, when he tells Isaac that God will choose a lamb of sacrifice of His own, but he is in fact prophesying concerning the substitutional death of Christ. Isaac then becomes a type or symbol for Christ’s resurrection (preshadowed by the fact that he survives his submission to God) and even stronger than that, of the true Christian’s submission to God, of the Christians being dead and yet living in Christ and thereby receiving the promise of the resurrection just as Isaac receives a renewed covenantal promise of the old Abrahamic covenant (all nations becoming blessed through him).
The narrative of Abraham setting out to sacrifice Isaac is also a type of the scandal of the cross. The cross of Christ has now become a ritualistic symbol, which does not convey the horrific, humiliating, frightening and scandalous meaning it had in the first century after Christ. In the ancient world the mere notion of a God letting Himself become executed was beyond any decent person’s natural capacity of comprehension and nobody would naturally sympathize with it. Yet the story of Abraham is theologically seen the same thing, in many respects. And since it has not been ritualized and merchandized (you cannot wear a mount Morija round your neck) it has pertained the original effect of it being conceived of as ridiculous and dangerous. Everybody reading this story and not understanding it from the perspective of the message of the cross of the New Testament, will automatically feel compelled to promote, endorse and agree with state legislations leading to immediate seizure of children growing up in homes where this story is read with reverence and awe, just as any decent Roman citizen in the first century AD found it the most logical, civilized, pedagogically responsible and lawful action to persecute Christians holding to this scandalous doctrine of an exclusive and particular God, that would not share His place with other gods or goddesses (including the emperor), and who exhibited that revulsive epitome of lack of taste by actually becoming executed on behalf of his followers!
Ebbe Kløvedal Reich wrote in his book about Grundtvig’s life that according to Grundtvig the Jewish way of thinking promoted fatherliness. A Jewish rabbi first had to become a family father in order to be able to teach authoritatively. The Hellenistic mindset, however, contains elements of an anti-father revolution. Here we have the Oedipus-principle that reigns. Oedipus kills his father in order to get his father’s wife, who happens to be Oedipus’ mother. Christianity became more Hellenistic, unfortunately, and the Romish Church demanded celibacy of its priests. Fatherhood was to be replaced by brotherhood. In the story of Abraham and Isaac we see son and father united in their devotion and submission to God. ”They went together”. Isaac is not submitting primarily to Abraham, he is first of all submitting to God, because he knows that Abraham is submitted to God. Mutual submission to God heals all family problems and tensions that might have existed between a father and his child. This theme occurs several times in the Bible, see for example in Malachi 4:6 (Modern King James Version): ”And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the sons, and the heart of the sons to their fathers, that I not come and strike the earth with utter destruction”. This is the kind of father-son relationship, which most people hate, because they cannot grasp the essence of it.
The real message which lies under the surface of this text, which at first glance sounds terribly rugged, old-fashioned, sectarian, obnoxiously religious and perverted could be summarized as follows: Whoever trusts God fully, will give up the best that he or she has even if it does not make sense on the outside. Such submission, if shared, will lead to true unity in Spirit, not a fake-unity based upon some compulsive and manipulative consensus. God will reward such an attitude with a genuine blessing, not some bloated and inflated phoney self-esteem. The person who submits to God in this way, will receive everything he or she has given up back ”a hundredfold” as Jesus says. The real Christian is one who is ”in Christ” because he or she is dead in Christ and therefore overcomes that other kind of death, which, according to the New Testament, every human being has, namely the death which comes through sin. Because of this, that Christian is also seated together with Christ in heaven, all the while he or she is still walking on earth. Whoever earnestly believes this doctrine will surely become crucified in one way or another as well, just as Christ had been! God himself died on the altar instead of Isaac or any other human being having to die there. But in order to partake of the blessings which come from this fact one has to be ready to take Isaac’s place, just as the apostle Paul actually states in Romans 12, 1: ”... present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, which is your reasonable service.” (Modern King James Version). This is really the essence of the story.