Evening Service Address: "Abraham and Isaac"

Let us not omit our questions in the search for truth.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Sunday, 1st March 2020 at 6.15 PM

Britten wrote Abraham and Isaac just after the premiere of his opera, Billy Budd, in December 1951. In that masterpiece, the saintly and scapegoated Budd is destroyed by the ruthless Claggart, Master at Arms, in a mania that is at once personal, knotted in the mire of human jealousy and desire, whilst also institutional – Claggart keeping the (literal) whip hand in case of mutiny, or the development of modern notions of liberty, typified in the opera by the accusation that some have been reading Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. In the novel on which Britten’s opera libretto is based, near the end of that murky saga, once both Budd and Claggart are dead, the narrator’s voice tells us, “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.” Thus it is too, in a slightly different way in Abraham and Isaac. This is a story which uncompromisingly taps into blunt religious questions: How can we know what God wants? Can human beings in any sense ‘manage’ their relationship with the ultimate truth, wisdom and love that we call God? The terrain on which Abraham and Isaac operates is vast, and the questions it raises are not limited to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but reach across other religious cultures and human communities. At its heart, this story is about discerning obedience, but around that question are knotted other dynamics relating to violence, love, and what is holy.

The Genesis account of our story says that God decided to test Abraham. This explicit bit of context is omitted by Britten, using, as he does, a text from the Chester Mystery Cycle, as his libretto. The early twentieth century had seen a huge awakening of interest in medieval drama, and by the 1950s cycles of these plays were again being performed. We know that Britten himself visited York for this purpose in 1954. However, his own rendering of the tale is no less dramatic for not being overly dramatized, as such. For example, the voice of God – the theophany – is always introduced by that delicate, distinctive piano flourish. There are two worlds operating here, which we move seamlessly between. Britten does away with the mediating character of the angel, and instead depicts the direct revelation of God’s voice with both singers, partially in unison, and in a style reminiscent of plainsong. There is authority here, but also a mysterious luminosity, which gradually dissipates as the piano ushers us from the celestial into the temporal and vice versa.

Britten’s characterisation of Abraham is initially heroic and confident. In fact, he removes some lines from the Chester text which show Abraham as initially beset with much doubt. His attitude towards Isaac, however, is tender. The York Mystery Play portrayed Isaac as a young adult; the Chester text, however, preferred by Britten, is clear that Isaac remains a child, thus allowing this piece to be one of many in which youth is centre-stage for Britten. At various points in the cantata, Britten heightens reference to Isaac’s childlike status, and Abraham’s emotional response to his youth, not least with the sort of innocent, sing-song melody with which he initially engages Isaac. Abraham addresses his son as “my deare darling” whilst the voice of God addresses Abraham as “my servant deare” at the moment he prevents the killing. The paternal affection between Abraham and Isaac is mirrored by Abraham’s relationship with God. Perhaps we are supposed to realise that there is an intimacy in fulfilling divine command. And so we get to obedience; not just the obedience of Abraham, but Isaac too, even before things get out of control. Isaac sings “I am all readye” three times before he realises what it all entails. In the touching duet which precedes what would be the moment of sacrifice itself, Isaac’s focussed submission is intertwined with Abraham’s emotional reluctance. Britten responds emotionally to the suffering of both characters, noting the need to accept God’s will, whilst also exploring the pain of enduring it. 


The reception history of this story is rich, and deeply symbolic. As well as its place in the Torah, it also comes to us in the Qu’ran. For all followers of the Abrahamic faiths, Mount Moriah is traditionally the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock. This is a really central moment in the emergence of monotheism and in the settled worship of the Jewish people. Christians see the story as prefiguring the sacrifice of the Cross, right the way down to the emergence of a lamb in the thicket which ultimately takes its place on the sacrificial pyre. The illuminated initial on the front of tonight’s order of service, from our own Litlyngton Missal, is from the very beginning of the Canon of the Mass (the Eucharistic Prayer) making the connection between the obedience of Abraham and the obedience of Jesus. The unbloody sacrifice of faith fed in the unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist. All innocent sacrifice finds its summation in the Cross.

However, rich symbolism and fascinating tradition aside, we should not gloss over that there is something deeply disturbing going on in the story of a Father willing to kill his son. The first two-thirds of this narrative is also a horror story. It is quite possible that there was some kind of child sacrifice in some very early Israelite religion. We know from passages in the Old Testament that it was certainly a feature of several near Eastern pagan cults. The first Chief Rabbi of the state of Israel suggested the whole point of this story was to definitively end the ritual of child sacrifice, which could have no place in the worship of a single, loving, just God.

Even if we cast such details aside as ancient history, this story still provokes contemporary questions. There is another side to the tale of obedience and sacrifice, which Britten brings to life with heartfelt poignancy: what or who do we regard as an acceptable victim? Who or what is an acceptable price for our status quo? Around what organising narratives of violence and potential violence do we gather as cultures, communities, churches?

In 1978, the French philosopher Rene Girard published a book later translated into English as Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World. In it, he develops a theory called Mimesis and discusses how religions are steeped in sacrifice. What he calls Mimetic violence is at the centre of how human communities construct themselves. Humans mimic one another consciously or unconsciously. We share desires, which can either emerge in love on the one hand, or in conflict and competition on the other. This invariably leads to a projection onto a victim. Human communities are frequently created around scapegoats. The death of this victim – actual or otherwise – allows the community to seemingly be at peace with itself. And yet the repeating pattern continues.

How might this basic sociological pattern which shows itself in mundane acts of how we treat the “other”, in playground bullying, in limitless competition for its own sake, be undone? Girard makes much use of Jewish and Christian themes himself, but his finest English-language interpreter is the writer James Allison. He develops Girards themes to show that the Gospel itself disarms the powers of sacred violence. The cross of Jesus reveals to us that the nature of this defeat of sacred violence is decidedly not by yet another violent overthrow. The divine solution recognizes that sacred violence cannot be overthrown by more sacred violence. Rather, God’s answer is the power of forgiveness and the love of others in the face of ongoing violence and destruction. Calvary undoes this mechanism of sacrifice by going right to its noisy, violent heart, and bursts it apart from within. Just as God intervenes before Abraham’s knife can touch Isaac, from Calvary Jesus shouts “stop”! The new humanity unveiled by Jesus’s death and resurrection, and communicated in his teaching, does not simply act according to these received cultural patterns.

Yet most of us will be able to recognise those patterns still at work often (tragically) within the life of the church and certainly in other parts of our lives. Who or what is an appropriate victim or scapegoat? What is the acceptable price for that status quo? Britten returns to these questions in his War Requiem via the music of Abraham and Isaac. In the Requiem Offertory, Britten sets one of Wilfred Owen’s poems using the image of the sacrifice of Isaac as a metaphor for the violence of war. He directly quotes the music of God’s voice from Abraham and Isaac. But in a kind of parody, this Abraham disobeys God and slays Isaac as Owen puts it “Half the seed of Europe, one by one.” For Britten, the pacifist and conscientious objector, this offertory was a grim and pointless sacrifice as a generation was wiped out in warfare.

We are left, then, with that series of uncomfortable questions, about scapegoats, and whether our relationship with God can ever be “managed” by anything we do. What about how we construct communities of faith, of work, in our families and amongst our friends? Do we think of sacrifice as an annihilation of the “other”, or in its true etymological sense of “making holy” so that we may grow? Can we learn to live as if Jesus’s sacrifice is the one offering which undoes the mechanism of scapegoating, hidden and present in every human culture, or are we still plodding up the hill of Mount Moriah in a deathly procession looking for someone or something to throw under the bus?

The story of Abraham and Isaac holds up an uncomfortable mirror to the Church and the wider world. We all know the scapegoat mechanism, either because we have been its victims or its perpetrators. Many of us know the difficulty inherent in discerning the will of God, in learning true obedience to the law of love we see revealed in the Cross. This Lent, let us look to the Cross, that scene both humiliating and triumphant which offers an antidote to all the violence of the world, and which stands in judgement upon our all-too-small vision of God.  

We can pray, as the cantata does at the end, for obedience like Abraham’s – but let us not omit our questions in the search for truth. Let us wrestle with them, and realise that discernment usually does not come to us directly, but happens in community, alongside those voices and people we prefer to ignore. As we process this slightly uncomfortable tale and its incredible depths, its symbolic meanings and its potential bloody awfulness, don’t we know that truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges. So ragged, they can only be left not at a wooden pyre, but simply at the foot of a cross.