- explore how composers and songwriters have wrestled with one of the most difficult and unsettling stories in the Bible, that in which Abraham attempts to sacrifice his son
- consider how music has given voice to those whose perspectives we are not given the chance to hear as fully as we might wish in the story in Genesis, including Sarah (the mother of Isaac and wife of Abraham), Hagar, and one other character who is not actually mentioned in the story at all
The Binding of Isaac
There are several disturbing, troubling, and distressing parts of the Bible. Many of them have rarely been explored through music. Some have been explored surprisingly often, at times with interesting adaptations to cope with the most difficult parts of the text in question (see, for instance, the discussion of Psalm 137 in chapter 8 on the Psalms). Few passages, however, connect with readers at as quite a visceral level as the story of the binding of Isaac (often referred to in Jewish tradition simply as the Akedah, the Hebrew word for “binding”). Child sacrifice is difficult for most modern English speakers to fathom. Life in a world in which children who survived into adulthood were the exception rather than the rule is unimaginable to us. To people in that kind of context, offering one’s firstborn child in the hope that capricious divine forces would show favor to the rest of one’s offspring might have made a tragic sort of sense. Many Bible readers also take comfort in the fact that the Jewish Scriptures reflect a trajectory away from the practice of child sacrifice. Its influence in that regard is one that can presumably be appreciated and viewed positively by just about anyone today.
Yet the logic of the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 presupposes that a divine voice might ask one to sacrifice one’s child and that the appropriate response would be to do so. Musical treatments of the story, however few they might be, provide real insights into the challenges for modern readers (as well as for many others all throughout history) of knowing what to do with the story and how to best understand it. Composer Samuel Adler inserts the figure of Satan into the story (as do some midrashic retellings of the story) and imagines the conversations that might have transpired not only between father and son but also between them and this additional malevolent character. Ofer Ben-Amots, on the other hand, sets aside words entirely in his musical treatment of the story, which echoes music used in Jewish liturgy for mourning and is in some traditions specifically associated with the Shoah (also known as the Holocaust—i.e., the murder of some six million Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War). Here is a performance of Ben-Amots’s “Akëda” by Laura Farré Rozada, shared on her YouTube channel.
More than one interpreter has wondered whether the solution might not be to place the blame for things on another figure, whether the devil or Abraham’s own mind. The latter may be assumed in the lyrics of Joan Baez’s song “Isaac and Abraham.” Interestingly, Baez also attributes the sparing of Isaac to Abraham as well. There may be voices in his mind, but we are never told that any come from a source outside.
Unless one reads the lyrics, it would be easy to miss that Bob Dylan’s song “Highway 61 Revisited” is about this story. The well-known modern songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen has also offered his treatment of it.
English composer Benjamin Britten set two very different versions of the story to music. His “Canticle II” (with text taken from the Chester Miracle Plays) ends with Abraham sparing Isaac. This performance features countertenor Leandro Marziotte and tenor Raphael Höhn accompanied by Carolien Drewes on piano.
When he revisits the story in the context of his War Requiem, however, he sets Wilfred Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” which ends the story with the following lines:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Closely connected to this is a recent composition by Delvyn Case that sets the Elohist version of the story to music—that is, one of the sources that scholars have detected behind the version we now have in Genesis in its present form. Have a listen to the world premiere performance, which has been shared by the composer on his YouTube channel, and read more about the work and the sources of inspiration behind it on the composer’s website.
Others have explored the story in music, and the music (or the cessation thereof) is an important part of the interpretation offered. Igor Stravinsky depicts a steady flow of words and music until the command to sacrifice Isaac is given, after which there is an abrupt silence that conveys a reaction of astonishment and shock more effectively than any combination of notes or words could. Also needing a mention here are the works (including several based on a libretto by Pietro Metastasio) that understand Isaac and his near sacrifice as a type of the sacrifice of Jesus, reflecting a long history of Christian interpretation of the story.
The words of Benjamin Britten’s “Canticle II” at one point depict Isaac wishing his mother were there. Readers of the Bible may or may not have noticed how Abraham’s wife Sarah is impacted by Abraham attempting to sacrifice Isaac. Immediately following this story, we are told that Sarah dies. Did Abraham’s action cause her death? Some have considered that as a possible interpretation, including Alicia Jo Rabins in her song “River So Wide.”
Sarah’s story is also included in Andrea Clearfield’s suite Women of Valor, which tells a number of biblical women’s stories from their own point of view. We are not told whether Abraham and Isaac ever spoke again after the attempt to sacrifice him. Noticing such details opens many possible avenues of interpretation, which composers and songwriters have explored in a variety of ways. What they have produced can assist those wrestling with a text that continues to haunt its readers.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael is often given less attention than that of Sarah and Isaac, although Hagar’s story is part of the readings for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Hagar’s traumatic experience, courage, and powerful emotion have unsurprisingly led more than one composer to gravitate to the text. Sometimes what the text emphasizes sparks a creative response, while at others the voices that are not heard or are downplayed may invite exploration, expanding on and extending what is said in the text. Andrea Clearfield has explored Hagar’s perspective (just as she has done with Sarah’s perspective and that of other female characters in the Bible in her Women of Valor suite mentioned above), and Sally Beamish’s opera Hagar in the Wilderness does so as well. If you have an opportunity to hear the latter work, additional information is online in an interview of Beamish by Kate Molleson as well as a video interview with both Beamish and librettist Clara Glynn. When he was just fourteen years old, Franz Schubert set a poem about Hagar to music in his song “Hagars Klage” (“Hagar’s Lament”). Kathie Lee Gifford and Nicole C. Mullen have explored the perspective of Hagar together with that of Ruth and others in their oratorio The God Who Sees. In his score to the 1966 movie The Bible: In the Beginning, Toshiro Mayuzumi provides an instrumental exploration of “Hagar the Egyptian.”
Finally, even some of the biggest fans of the Hunger Games movies may have missed that Arcade Fire’s song “Abraham’s Daughter” on the soundtrack to the movie depicts this character not mentioned in the Bible playing a heroic role in the story not unlike that which Katniss plays in the movies (and the novels on which they were based).
Albright, Daniel.. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021.
Dowling Long, Siobhán.. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.
Payne, Anthony. “Stravinsky’s ‘Abraham and Isaac’ and ‘Elegy for J. F. K.’”73 (1965): 12–15.
Roncace, Mark, and Dan W. Clanton Jr. “Popular Music.” In, edited by Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray, 15–51. Atlanta: SBL, 2007.
Stratton, Jon. “Jews, Judaism and Popular Music.” In, edited by Christopher Partridge and Marcus Moberg, 121–30. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
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- The recording of a live performance embedded here has been shared on YouTube by George Minister, who also has a recording of Baez singing a calypso version of the Lord’s Prayer on his channel. ↵
- Official audio recording from Leonard Cohen’s YouTube channel. Licensed by SME on behalf of Columbia. ↵
- Shared by Leandro Marziotte on his own YouTube channel. ↵
- A connection between Jesus and Isaac must have been made before some of our earliest Christian writings were composed, since already in Paul’s letters the language of God as one who “did not spare his only Son” (Romans 8:32) seems to already be traditional. ↵
- Shared by singer-songwriter Alicia Jo Rabins on her own YouTube channel. ↵
- Additional information may be found in chapter 34 about Clearfield as well as on the composer’s website. Judith Lang Zaimont has composed “Parable: A Tale of Abram and Isaac.” She has also composed a work with the title “A Woman of Valor,” the singular focusing on the phrase from Proverbs 31. More details about both works may be found in the liner notes provided on the Milken Archive website. ↵