The biblical account of Abraham and Isaac at Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:1–19) is one of the chief cornerstones of Judaic theology as well as a principal foundation pin of Jewish national birth. This story is known as the akeda (binding), or akedat yitzhak (the binding of Isaac [for sacrifice]). In it, the patriarch Abraham is told directly by God to prepare his precious son—his only son by his wife Sarah—for ritual sacrifice. Unbeknownst to Abraham, this is merely a trial of his faith and of his willingness to obey without questioning.
This Divine command contains no specific instruction actually to accomplish the act of slaughter and sacrifice. However, Abraham apparently assumes that it is implied by the directive to “offer him there.” Even so, the mere suggestion of desired human sacrifice from a Divine authority—which embodies the essence of truth and righteousness—must be understood within its historical context, as must Abraham’s blind acceptance of even the possibility that God would ever sanction, much less desire, such an act. The hideous practice of child sacrifice was prevalent among neighboring peoples and primitive religions throughout much of that part of the ancient world. Among some tribes, sacrifice of the firstborn was considered especially meritorious and pleasing to their gods. Child sacrifice is mentioned specifically in the Torah (“for even their sons and daughters do they burn in fire to their heathen gods,” Deuteronomy 12:31), and heathen enthusiasm for the practice is cited in other biblical passages (e.g., Micah 6:7 and II Kings 3:27). This Divine command to Abraham, therefore, might not necessarily have seemed inconsistent with the normative behavior of the age.
Abraham is instructed to take Isaac to Moriah and to offer him there in sacrifice (lit., to lift him up, i.e., on an altar of sacrifice):
And it happened...that God tested Abraham. And He said to him...“Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering....”
Abraham—who is considered the founder of Western monotheism (his father, Terah, had been an idol worshipper in the pre-monotheistic mold)—neither remonstrates nor hesitates, but proceeds immediately to comply. Without revealing to Isaac the real purpose of their journey, he cuts wood for the burnt offering and takes his son to a designated mount in Moriah (Jewish tradition identifies the locale as the later site of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, II Chronicles 3:1). He builds an altar there, restrains Isaac by binding him, and lays him upon that altar. Isaac does not resist, even when he realizes what is happening. At the last moment, just as Abraham takes the slaughtering knife in his hand and positions himself to complete what he believes to be God’s instruction, God intervenes to prevent it. Through His messenger (angel) comes the following admonition “from the heavens”:
“Abraham, Abraham...Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.”
Abraham notices a ram caught by its horns in a nearby thicket, and he offers it instead as an appropriate sacrifice.
Assured beyond doubt of Abraham’s faith and loyalty through this supreme test, God fixes and reconfirms—in the form of a promise—the proposal that He had set forth earlier (Genesis 17) regarding the perpetual covenant with the patriarch and his descendants:
And the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham once again from the heavens and said, “By My own self I swear, declares the Lord, that because you have done this thing and have not held back your son, your only one, I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea....And all the nations of the earth will be blessed through your seed because you have listened to My voice.” (Genesis 22:15–18)
The akedat yitzhak, which is referenced numerous times throughout Hebrew liturgy, is thus considered one of the central narratives of Judaism—for two reasons. It confirms Abraham’s unswerving belief in God’s singular authority and supreme righteousness—even if Divine motives are not comprehensible to man or open to human understanding—and it thereby confirms Abraham’s worthiness to be the founder of the people that will establish monotheism for the world. The akedat yitzhak is cited in rabbinic literature and commentary as the tenth and greatest of the trials Abraham faced to earn this merit. (By extension, the story is also said to illustrate Isaac’s faith and devotion as the second patriarch.) At the same time, through God’s staying of Abraham’s hand, the entire incident teaches and underscores for all time the Judaic abhorrence and unequivocal prohibition of human sacrifice, a significant departure from surrounding norms. Indeed, the innovation lay in God's intervention to prevent it.
Numerous Christian as well as Jewish commentators and theologians have observed that this story represents a major step forward in the history of human progress. Not only does it contain an implicit proclamation that the prohibition against human sacrifice should apply to all mankind, but it also clarifies that God requires only man’s spiritual surrender to His will.
Throughout the centuries, interpretations and explications of the akedat yitzhak, including those in the Talmud and the Midrash, have stressed that the Divine request was confined to “preparing Isaac for sacrifice.” Hence, the word by which the incident is known—binding—rather than any reference to sacrifice or death. Rav Saadia Gaon (882–942), one of the greatest scholars and authors, and leader of Babylonian Jewry in the Geonic period, explained that God’s intervention does not constitute His abrogation of His own earlier instruction, since no intention of actual sacrifice was ever part of it. And Rav Saadia further amplified on the intervention to give it the meaning “Enough! More than this I did not desire of you” (Emunot v’De’ot, 3:9).
The poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” by the English-Welsh poet Wilfred Owen (1893–1918), which forms the basis for Zaimont’s cantata, however, offers an imaginative new twist to the akedat yitzhak, which becomes a metaphor for the senselessness and barbarism of the First World War. Owen imagines a scenario in which Divine intervention is unsuccessful; in which the angel’s exhortation to sacrifice instead the ram—which represents, as the “ram of pride,” the false and deadly pride of the Great Powers in the war—is ignored; and in which Abraham does indeed sacrifice his son, defiant of God's admonition.
The poet refers to the patriarch by his original name, Abram [Avram], rather than the more familiar name by which he is remembered—Abraham [Avraham]. In the Bible he bears the shorter name only until God bestows on him the similar but new one—with the additional letter and the resulting additional syllable. This is in connection with the covenant whereby Abraham is designated as the father of a “multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4–7), which occurs before the akedat yitzhak incident. Popular etymology and tradition, supported by standard rabbinic commentary, has assigned to the new name the specific meaning of “father of a multitude,” which would have been given to Abraham to mark this watershed event in his life with respect to his new role. Some scholars have proposed that the new name might contain within it an obsolete Hebrew cognate of the Arabic ruham (numerous); other proponents of modern biblical criticism have viewed the name Avraham merely as a dialectic variant of Avram. Still, there is no consensus among scholars, since there appears to be no definitive Hebrew derivation for the name or word Avraham.
In any case, Owen’s rationale for retaining the unaltered form, Abram, is not readily apparent. Yet it cannot have been inadvertent, since his biblical source was undoubtedly the Authorized (King James) Version, in which the three-syllable name Abraham is also established in connection with the Covenant. One possible explanation may lie in the poet’s wish to emphasize that the Abram of his inventive parable shows himself unworthy—by virtue of his refusal to heed the angel’s admonition—to be the father of the multitude of nations that will, through their embrace of monotheism, exemplify and promote God’s moral and ethical teachings.
On one level, Owen appears to be posing a question with which historians frequently toy for academic sport with reference to critical incidents, episodes, and events—ranging from wars to elections to natural occurrences: What if the outcome of a seminal confrontation had been entirely different, even opposite? What would be the implications for history and for all that followed? With regard to the akedat yitzhak, what if human sacrifice had not been forbidden or ended, even among the so-called civilized world? Would anything in history have been different? Would it have been materially different if the akeda had not occurred—had Judaism not established the Divine abhorrence of human sacrifice? And would the history of peoples and their interactions have been different had they heeded this lesson?
Owen’s poem is not so much a deliberation on the akedat yitzhak as an allegory of the carnage that was known once as the Great War. The poet revisited the akedat yitzhak in the context of that blood-drenched conflagration, which took the lives of ten million soldiers and sailors, the limbs and spirits of millions more, and perhaps as many as another ten million civilians, and which turned out to be, for the belligerents on all sides, an unimaginably colossal sacrifice of an entire generation of youth—in many respects for nothing. And yet, like Abram in Owen’s version of the akeda, the Allied and Central Powers alike had been willing enthusiastically to sacrifice the “flower of their youth” on the altar of imperial power, colonial ambition, political arrogance, ultimatums, and national pride. At stake was preserving or restoring perceived balances of power, not (as in only a handful of confrontations throughout history) upholding any ultimate high ideals or deterring any inherent evil. All sides had anticipated a swift victory for imagined noble causes, in which the sacrifices would be minimal compared with the supposed benefits. “The boys will be home by Christmas” was the prediction in England as the British army and navy went off to war in August 1914. But euphoric optimism and a perceived mission of righteousness pervaded the Central Powers as well: “A great flood of enthusiasm arose,” described Eugen Fuchs (1856–1923), cofounder of the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith, “a tremendous wave that swept up everyone in its path. Our hearts thumped and our eyes shone with anticipation....Everyone was filled with the irrepressible hope that we would win—we had to win.”
The Kaiser, whose cousins included the English King George V as well as Czar Nicholas II—his adversaries on the Allied side—had warned that a united Germany had never been defeated. “United we were indeed,” proclaimed Fuchs and his fellow leaders. But by the time Owen wrote this poem from the trenches in France in the spring of 1918 (probably no later than early June), the estimated war dead on battlefields alone was already more than seven million, with no end in sight. Owen was killed in action during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal, only a week before the end of the war. His mother received the telegram on the day the armistice was signed—on November 11, 1918.
In Owen’s poem, the land of Moriah becomes a metaphor for the Western Front in Europe, and “parapets and trenches”—the accompaniments to warfare then—are added to the binding materials in the biblical story. Abram becomes an advocate for war, and for no real purpose—even when he is shown a way out:
But the old man would not do so [offer the ram instead], but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
In the Bible, Abraham’s willingness to obey God’s initial command—to prepare and offer Isaac for sacrifice—is justified because it involves his obedience to Divine authority and his deference to God’s wisdom and incomprehensible righteousness. But once God clarifies His command, forbids the sacrifice, and provides a substitute in the form of the ram, nothing but sheer savagery and evil could have motivated Abraham to go through with the sacrifice in defiance of God’s admonition concerning humane behavior. Similarly, whatever justification for war in terms of legitimate grievances the Great Powers might have had with regard to one another would, in Owen’s perception, have evaporated in the face of alternative paths to resolution and negotiated settlements.
God is nearly peripheral to the poet’s consideration. Owen’s condemnation is directed at mankind and its leadership, whom he charges with the crime of human sacrifice. If, through the vehicle of the akedat yitzhak story, God has long ago forbidden human sacrifice and deliberate bloodshed to no purpose—and offered reason instead—then Owen’s implication is clear in this allegory: Even civilized mankind has indeed learned nothing from that lesson, even by the dawn of the 20th century.
Zaimont has interwoven Owen’s poem with another, much older text about the akeda: an anonymous 15th-century English mystery play, Abraham and Isaac, called Brome for the hall in Suffolk where the manuscript appears to have been kept until recent years. At the conclusion of the cantata, even though Abraham has already sacrificed Isaac by then, there is an echo of the opening scene—to the words from that mystery play—recalling the initial command to offer Isaac while he is yet alive. The audience is free to interpret the significance of this recapitulation. Perhaps it suggests that the story is beginning again, or that it can begin again and therefore end differently—that there may yet be a second chance for mankind to revert to the biblical conclusion of the story in terms of its own morality.
The composer has also added the original Aramaic and Hebrew text of the kaddish yatom, the special variant of the Judaic doxology that is recited to honor the memory of parents and siblings—and, optionally, of other close relatives. That memorial kaddish recitation may be for Isaac or for Abraham, for the slaughtered in Europe, or for all mankind in future if it does not heed the lesson of the akedat yitzhak.
The composer has offered the following comments on the musical parameters of Parable:
Musically, the work is dramatic, with considerable text-painting, and it is tightly knit motivically. Musical materials are derived throughout from two sources: a rising and then falling half-step (part of the angel’s command, “Abram, wilt thou rest?”), and a lyrical progression associated with Isaac. Contrasting with the highly forceful, narrative choral sections are lyric solos for Abram and Isaac in accompanied recitative style. Abram is given music that underlines the enormity of his quandary. His mood is mercurial, shifting between the desire to reassure his son and the knowledge that he must be the agent of his son’s death.
There are two versions of Parable: one for voices and organ; and the one recorded here, for voices, five strings, and harpsichord. It was commissioned by Florilegium, an amateur chorus in New York City, through a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts in 1986. Its world premiere occurred at Merkin Hall in June of that year, and it has been performed numerous times throughout the United States, including a performance by the New York Virtuoso Singers in 2004.
Abram, Abram wilt thou rest?
The Lord commandeth thee,
Thy Lord commandeth thee for to take
Isaac, thy young son, that thou lovest best,
And with his blood make sacrifice.
Go! Go thou into the Land of Vision
And offer thy child unto the Lord;
I shall lead thee and show also.
Unto God’s hest, Abram, accord!
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 firstborn spake and said:
Father, my Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Where the quicke beast that ye should kill?
Dread thee not, my child,
Our Lord will send me and show here in this place
Some manere of beast for to take,
Through His sweet sand [messenger].
Yea, father, but my heart shiv’reth
To see thy drawn sword so.
Tell me, father,
Bear ye your sword drawn for me?
Ah, Isaac, sweet son, peace! Peace!
Peace, dear child,
In all thy life thou grieved me never.
Sweet son, my sweetest child in earth,
In all thy life thou grieved me never once;
I love thee best of all.
Isaac, thou hast been to me child full good.
But child, though I mourn ne’er so fast,
Yet must I here
In this place shed all thy blood.
Ah, Isaac, sweet son, peace! Peace!
Peace, dear child, leave off thy moans!
Isaac, thou break’st my heart in three.
Mercy! Ah, mercy father, mourn no more!
Your weeping maketh my heart sore
As mine own death.
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
(The Lord commandeth thee.)
Father, have mercy, turn down my face.
Would I the stroke were done!
When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Lay not thy 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.
Father! Why smite ye nought?
O, would I the stroke were done!
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.
Abram, Abram wilt thou rest?
The Lord commandeth thee to take
Thy son for sacrifice.
Performers: John Aler, Tenor; Michael Brewer, Conductor; Laudibus, Choir; Harold Lester, Harpsichord; Frances Lucey, Soprano; Rabbi Rodney Mariner, Speaker; Ruskin Ensemble; Randall Scarlata, Baritone
Publisher: Hildegard Publishing Co.
Texts adapted from the medieval mystery play Abraham and Isaac; “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” by Wilfred Owen; and the Aramaic and Hebrew prayer Mourners’ Kaddish