Professor Morna D. Hooker
Remembrance Day, Michaelmas 2012
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.
With the last two lines of that poem, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Wilfred Owen completely subverts the well-known biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Up to that point in the narrative, those of you who are familiar with that story may well have thought that I was reading from the book of Genesis itself. Oh yes, we think, we know this one! Abraham sets out to sacrifice his only son Isaac, but at the eleventh hour an angel intervenes and orders him to sacrifice a ram instead. Only an occasional phrase hints that this is not the story as we normally hear it – ‘fire and iron’, ‘belts and straps’, ‘parapets and trenches’ – and so begins to make us uneasy. And then, suddenly, the story goes horribly wrong. Instead of the happy ending to the story that we expect (happy, that is, for everyone except the ram!), we find ourselves not only bewildered by Abraham’s pointless sacrifice of Isaac, but overwhelmed by the mindless slaughter of the first World War. Owen’s attention is no longer focused on Abraham and Isaac, centuries ago, but on the conflict in which he himself is a participant. And yet he keeps up the pretence that this is the true biblical account to the end, for the phrase ‘half the seed of Europe’ in the very last line echoes the term used in the Bible for Isaac, the seed of Abraham.
In the original version of this story, in Genesis, Abraham learns a vital lesson about the nature of his God. Like all his contemporaries, he had assumed that God demanded costly sacrifice – and what more costly sacrifice could he offer than the life of his only son, Isaac? What he learns is that God is not that sort of God – that he is not, that is, a God who demands the slaughter of the innocent. Instead, Abraham begins to grasp the great biblical truth that God’s nature is love. But because Abraham had faithfully done – or nearly done – what he honestly believed God to be asking of him, he came to be regarded in Jewish tradition – and later, in Christian and Muslim tradition also – as the supremely obedient one, who trusted in God’s promises to him even when it must have seemed to him that God had forgotten them. In contrast to Adam, who disobeyed God and brought ruin and death upon the whole world as a result, Abraham had obeyed God’s commands and trusted his word.
No wonder, then, that Owen’s portrayal of Abraham shocks us, for it turns this traditional interpretation on its head. Wilfully disobeying the angel’s instruction, Abraham refuses to sacrifice the Ram of Pride, provided by God himself as a substitute offering, and sticks instead to his plan to sacrifice his son. He sacrifices Isaac, not in obedience to God, but because he mistakenly believes that this is the way to win favour with God and so prosper. The parallel with the Generals and politicians of Owen’s day could not be clearer. Was it not foolish pride that made them stick to their plans about how to conduct the war, and send wave after wave of young men to their death? They obstinately refused to sacrifice ‘the Ram of Pride’, and instead sacrificed ‘half the seed of Europe one by one’. That final line of the poem brings home to us not only the scale of the disaster but the cost to individuals. In Owen’s rewriting of the story, Abraham is not merely a foolish old man, but has become the one who has unleashed destruction and sorrow on mankind. It is Abraham, not Adam, who, because of his disobedience and pride, was apparently the originator of humanity’s woes.
In Jewish tradition, the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son – a story known as ‘The Binding of Isaac’ – held an important place. Abraham was revered for his obedience, and his merit in obeying God was thought to redeem Israel. Isaac, too, was seen as one whose merit brought salvation to his people. Jewish tradition tells us that he asked Abraham to bind him tightly on the altar, lest he flinch from the knife. In other words, Isaac himself was seen as a willing participant in the sacrifice, offering himself up to God voluntarily. Indeed, since tradition also regarded Isaac as a young man, strong enough to carry the wood for the sacrifice, rather than as the child depicted in so many Bible illustrations, he must have been a willing victim, for how else would Abraham, by now an old man, have been able to bind him to the altar? In giving his poem the title of ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, Wilfred Owen seems to pick up this idea. The young men slaughtered in the First World War had, at first, set out willingly and enthusiastically to the Front, sent to their deaths by old men. Unlike the biblical Abraham, however, those old men were too blind to realize that they had made a mistake, too proud to change their minds.
But Owen’s reinterpretation of the story as a parable of contemporary events was by no means the first. Nearly twenty centuries earlier, Christians had seized on the obvious parallels between the Binding of Isaac and the Death of Christ. Once again, a sacrifice had taken place, and the animal for this sacrifice – the Lamb of God – had been provided by God himself. Like Abraham, God himself had been willing to give up his beloved only Son to death, and that Son had willingly accepted the need to be sacrificed. In what may well be allusions to this story, Paul writes both that God gave up his beloved Son for our sake, and that Christ gave himself up. Isaac was seen as a type of one who was to come, since he had been willing to die, but Jesus actually died, and so completed what had been foreshadowed by Isaac. Isaac had carried the wood for the sacrifice, and Jesus carried the wooden beam of his cross. Isaac was as it were received back from the dead, but what had been simply a metaphor became a reality when Christ was raised from the dead. Whereas Isaac’s willingness to die was understood to have brought redemption for Israel, Christ’s death was interpreted as having brought redemption for men and women of all races. From his death and resurrection came reconciliation with God for the world.
Today, we remember those who have died or been injured in war. How should we remember them? What purpose is there to our remembrance? Since I was brought up in the 1930’s, I can confidently say that my memory stretches back further than anyone else’s here tonight. In those so-called inter-war years, the mindless slaughter of the First World War described by Owen was all too raw a memory. The anger and sorrow for those whose lives had been thrown away led to the slogan ‘Never Again!’ If those lives were to have any meaning, then one must ensure that this was the war to end all wars.
But the seeds of the next war had already been sown. Owen himself died just one week before the Armistice. If his spirit was lurking still in that railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne in November 1918, he would surely have urged the Allied generals once again to sacrifice ‘the Ram of Pride’, but instead they insisted on humiliating their enemies and demanding total surrender.
Inevitably, then, the peace bred further hatred and conflict and led to another war. This time, at least, one could say that the cause was just and the battle necessary, for the fight was against tyranny and genocide. On either side, the reasons that motivated men and women to fight might be good or bad, but the racial arrogance –‘the Ram of Pride’ once again – that led the Nazis to murder millions had to be checked. This time one could at least believe that the combatants who died had died for a purpose: they had died that we might live.
And so, in May 1945, the government announced the end of conflict. Except that the conflict continued, and has continued somewhere in the world ever since.
In remembering the past we bring it into the present. Why? It must surely be because we want to change the future. Owen’s rewriting of history demonstrates what happens when men fail to learn from the lessons of the past. His poem brings home to his readers the folly of war, and the guilt of those who pursue it out of personal and national pride. But as we, today, remember the conflicts of the past, it is surely not enough to feel anger at the stupidity that led to carnage, or gratitude for the self-sacrifice of those who withstood evil. True remembrance means a willingness to learn from the past; it means vowing that we will work for a better world, battle against greed and pride, and do our best to bring love and justice to those in need, the homeless and hungry, the persecuted and the exploited, victims of a world where millions are still sacrificed because others do not care.
Abraham was prepared to do the unthinkable, and to sacrifice his son.
In Owen’s retelling of the story, he does the unthinkable, and carries out the sacrifice. In the Christian version of the story, which we remember in this eucharist this evening, God, too, does the unthinkable, and sacrifices his son, but in doing so reveals his love for humankind. And in this supremely paradoxical version of the story, we discover that God can use even death to bring life to others. Let us pray that our remembrance of those who lost their lives in war may help to bring life to others.