Saturday, September 12, 2009

Abraham and Isaac

The Old Testament doesn't exactly want for nasty tales of appalling behavior, but the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18) is probably one of the worst. This story alone pretty much eliminates the OT as a source of moral guidance. Reading it again, I'm struck at how matter-of-fact the story is. Unlike Bob Dylan's take on it (God said to Abraham "kill me a son"/Abe said "man you must be puttin' me on"/God say "no", Abe say "what"/God say "you can do what you wanna but/The next time you see me comin' you better run"), Abraham just gets straight to doing what he's ordered - no questions asked. Which of course makes him almost as monstrously evil as God. Granted, we might not expect Genesis's Bronze Age desert-dwelling author to give us deep insight into the subtleties of human character. But still: Abraham never flinched.
So if one were to set this story to music, there is great potential for a sort of horror story, with a threatening deity, a murderous father, and a terrified child. But what Benjamin Britten does in his canticle "Abraham and Isaac" is something different: although there is great drama there, it's ultimately a rather beautiful work, moving for its tenderness rather than its terror. Britten wrote this work for performance by Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier, taking the parts of father and son, respectively; the 2 voices combine to eerie effect for the voice of God. The text comes from the medieval Chester Miracle Play, and so there's much more dialogue than in the biblical original. Of course, this is not the only work of Britten's to feature a potentially fatal relationship between a man and a boy, but that's a whole other story...
The work starts out with God issuing his command, and Abe doesn't say "what" this time either: "My Lord, to Thee is mine intent/Ever to be obedient". To some innocuous-sounding music, Abraham brings Isaac to the place of sacrifice. So far, same deception as in the Bible, but then the story diverges. Isaac notices there's no lamb available to be sacrificed. Genesis has Abraham say "My son, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering", whereas in Chester the reply is "Thereof, son, is none upon this hill". Then the terror sets in, with Isaac saying "Father, I am full sore affeared/To see you bear that drawne sword", to which Abraham replies "Isaac, son, peace, I pray thee/Thou breakest my heart even in three". This is a much more human father; over Isaac's pleas he says "I must thee kill!" and later "God hath commanded me today/Sacrifice, this is no nay/To make of they bodye". In the Bible, Abraham just silently ties up his son and places him on the altar, whereas in this telling, he is making it clear that this is God's will, not his, and Isaac soon accepts his fate. Now the music becomes tender, with the father blessing the son (anachronistically invoking the Trinity!), but it soon becomes almost unbearably moving, with Isaac's lines beginning "Father, do with me as you will...", as they prepare the sacrifice and say "farewell" to each other. We then enter the darkest section, with the deed about to be done, and this is where the Chester/Britten version diverges most from the Biblical one: where Genesis is a cold-blooded "Then he bound his son and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son", the Chester play has Isaac cry out "Ah, mercy, father, why tarry you so?" - yes, the mercy is to kill him quickly - and then as the son sings "Almighty God in majesty! My soul I offer unto Thee!" the father is singing, in aguish, "To do this deed I am sorrye". At this point, of course, God intervenes, and there is a happy ending (except for the sheep, obviously). The work ends with the 2 singers stepping outside their characters and singing "Such obedience grant us, O Lord!"
Which is, for my money, exactly the opposite of the moral lesson of this story. If, in order to be obedient, you must try to murder your only child - or indeed anyone - then this is surely not something to be encouraged. But apparently people think such slavish obedience to God is to be desired. Or claim they do; how many people would actually go through with it like Abraham did? In fact, although the OT account seems devoid of character insight, Genesis 22:12 gives a very clear explanation as to Abraham's motivation, and from the mouth of God himself: "now I know you fear God". Yes: fear, plain and simple. Not love of God, or respect, or awe, or loyalty (and, incidentally, multiple Bible translations all have it as "fear", so it doesn't seem to be one of those ambiguous things like the unicorn/ox/buffalo/rhino in Job). And I think Britten's canticle makes that pretty clear. For a start, all of Abraham's explanations to Isaac make it clear he doesn't actually want to do this - it's simply "God hath commanded me", and Isaac accepts this with phrases like "you muste needs do so". Perhaps you could say Abraham isn't accepting responsibility for his own actions. But perhaps he isn't responsible. Listen to the music of the 2 characters: in many places their music is similar. When Isaac is pleading for his life, Abraham's response is a slower, more resolute version of Isaac's music. And at the climax, their music is essentially the same. This says to me that at this point Isaac and Abraham are in the same boat: one will die, the other will die inside. They are both being sacrificed; both are victims. Abraham simply has to kill Isaac - there isn't another option. Isaac may as well be suffering from a fatal illness, for all that his father can do to save him.
This certainly casts Abraham in a much better light than the straightforward reading of Genesis I began with: instead of a willing accomplice, he's a helpless pawn in the bizarre game God's playing with himself. And it means that God emerges even worse than before. Well... by this stage in the story God's long since killed almost every living thing on Earth, so perhaps his reputation can't get any worse.
End note: I was talking about this with Mrs Nereffid, and noting that Abraham himself was a victim. Ever the practical, non-Bible-reading one, she said "Of course". I said, "Well, the Bible doesn't depict him that way - it can't. When talking about God, it has to assume a certain position". "Yes", she said, "Bend over".

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