Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Genesis 22:1-2

Last Sunday I talked about Abraham and Sarah.

There is a wonderful scene where the “messengers of God” come as strangers to visit them by the oaks of Mamre, and they repeat the promise that Sarah will conceive and bear a son whose descendants will become a great nation. As Abraham talks with the men, Sarah is inside the tent listening, and when she hears them tell Abraham that they will conceive a child now, at the age of ninety, she laughs. The strangers ask her why she laughs at the promises of God and she says she didn’t laugh. One of them repeats the promise and then ends the announcement saying, “But you did laugh.”

I love the image of Sarah, laughing at the promise.

That is one of the high points in the story. When the child is born, they name him Isaac, which means laughter.

But just a few verses later, the narrative turns dark and cold.

God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son. Some readers may be comforted by the notion that it is “a test,” but it is a monstrous test. And more than a few readers are likely to stop right there and give up on the whole biblical enterprise.

If one of the central stories is that immoral, how can the Bible claim any authority in our lives?

One interpretation notes that after this incident God never speaks to Abraham again and suggests that this is because Abraham so totally misunderstood what God was calling him to do. Another ancient commentary rebukes Abraham for his failure to argue with God for his son’s life, as he argued against the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Still others point to the last minute intervention:
‘But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” (Genesis 22:11-13)
A Jewish prayer book instructs the reader to stand and take a few steps backward, as if staggered by the story. It is in so many ways incomprehensible.

As I researched interpretations, I came across a poem by Wilfred Owen, called “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.”

Owen was one of the great poets of the First World War. He was badly injured in battle and sent back to England to recover. The injury was more than enough to keep him at home, but he volunteered to go back to the front. He won honors for his gallantry in battle and was promoted to First Lieutenant. He was killed in action on November 4, 1918, exactly one week before the armistice. He was twenty-five years old. As the church bells were ringing to celebrate the end of the war, his mother received two telegrams, one told of his promotion and the other reported his death.

When I read the story of the Binding of Isaac, I am appalled, and I know that we modern people would never do anything so barbaric. 

But then I am brought up short by the last lines of Owen’s poem:
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 stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, 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.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Of course, we tell ourselves, we would not sacrifice a single child. Yet the reality is that we have sacrificed millions to the god of war.

Over and over, the old men sacrifice the young men to the gods of Nationalism and Pride.


  1. Yes. And Benjamin Britten included Owen's poem in the Offertorium section of his War Requiem, juxtaposed with portions of the Roman Mass that speak of sacrifice and ask God to deliver the departed souls "from death to life as thou didst promise Abraham and his seed." Would that we had learned the futility of such sacrifice to the gods of Nationalism and Pride long ago and had begun withholding the knife and rebuking the old men who called for such sacrifices.

    1. Thank you for reading the blog and for your comment. I have not heard the War Requiem. I have heard that it is very moving.