The Son Bore the WoodJuly 29, 2010
Anthony Esolen contrasts the irony Virgil shows us in The Aeneid with the more robust conception we find in the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. There you will find the ironies that will build into the Christian vision of the world and the endless richness of the divine providence of God the Father.
The providence we see in pagan works such as Virgil’s The Aeneid is ambiguous, a flicker of hope perhaps that in the great scheme of history events will work out under some benign plan. But Virgil’s poem does not end with the marriage of Aeneas and Latinus’ daughter Lavinia. It ends with a confused and disappointed man in the grip of wrath. The irony of the Greek victory at Troy is that it seals their own defeat; the irony of the Roman conquest of the Greeks might well have been their consequent abandonment of piety. All paganism seems to end in despair. Even in Virgil we are left with the iron cycles of birth and death, and rise and fall – one state succeeds another and the only design in it all serves to reveal the littleness of man.
Such irony — which shows man, who thinks he knows things, to be a counter in a game played out by fate or impersonal law or design — in a strange fashion presupposes the providence it denies. It is parasitic upon a suppressed belief in One who foresees. For there either is a plan, or there is not. If there is not, then all man’s attempts to divine meaning in his history are vain. One irony of a flat and uninteresting sort pervades all: man thinks he knows, then learns that he knows nothing, if he can even be said to learn that. Yet hidden deep within a belief in a disillusioning fate is a belief that there ought to be a providence: that, despite all we see to the contrary, history ought to be a stage for justice, however dimly perceived and incomplete, and that man is made to know, however straitened that knowledge must he on this side of the grave.
So believers in providence have more, not fewer, opportunities to see irony at play than have the disbelievers. For, granting providence, the artist may illustrate man’s movement from ignorance to knowledge: or from perception of one kind of order to perception of order of a wholly different magnitude, not contradicting but comprehending the former. The artist may attend to knowledge gained in surprising ways that yet are most suitable for the knower, for the thing known, and for the God who grants the knowledge; or he may attend to those who can have no pretensions to knowledge, for instance to children and fools, who yet prove wiser than their betters. And the artist may see these ironies at work not only in the life of one person, but in mankind’s long and meandering history.
Augustine was the first, in his City of God, to outline a Christian theory of history. But the notion that history had a meaning (other than providing object lessons in valor and, more commonly, folly or vice) was implicit in scripture and was a cornerstone of the Jewish tradition at the time of Christ. History was going somewhere: events of old not only prepared the way for events to come hut foreshadowed them, concealing their full meanings until the time for complete revelation should come.
The Jews held, for instance, the mysterious belief that the prophet Elijah would precede the coming of the Messiah — yet the same Jews were deeply divided on the question of the survival of the soul after death. Evidently they expected someone who was not Elijah’s soul reincarnate, but who was Elijah in more than an analogical sense: someone who fulfilled the meaning of Elijah, who was, and had always been meant to be, Elijah come again. Thus the Jews ask Jesus, “Are you Elijah?” they do not mean, “What can you tell us about King Ahab, who lived back in your day?” or “Are you playing the role of Elijah?” but rather “Is Elijah fulfilled in you? Are you Elijah?”
If you do not understand this belief in a history-ordaining God, you cannot understand scripture, Old Testament or New or both together. Nor can you understand the rich ironies of Christian literary works that model their own “history” after the pattern of God’s revelation not only in history but by means of it. Let us return now to the story of father Abraham.
Despite his old age—and his laughter! —Abraham has been granted a son of laughter, Isaac. He has circumcised him by his own hand and has thereby dedicated him to God. Through the loins of Isaac shall come the promise, the descendants as numerous as the stars.
Then one night God delivers a startling command:
And it came to pass alter these things, that God did tempt Abraham: and he said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
And he said, ‘Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of .
It is important to remember the darkness surrounding Abraham. He must have been crushed by God’s command — led so soon from unexpected joy to despair. Nor is there a convenient detour. For, with the Lord’s consent, Abraham has allowed his wife Sarah to banish the concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael, a boy whom Abraham loved dearly. God reconciled Abraham to the banishment by promising care for Ishmael (which he does provide, miraculously and tenderly [Genesis 21:14-21]; but for all Abraham knows, their bones are bleaching in the desert).
And God reasserted his covenant, to be fulfilled through Isaac and his sons: “Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah bath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice, for in Isaac shall thy seed he called” (Genesis 21:12).
Now all has been snatched away. Abraham has left his kin forever; he has banished his son, at the command of this strange God. He has won victory in battle, with this God’s assistance, and has witnessed the destruction of the wicked cities Sodom and Gomorrah, at the hands of this God; and he was allowed to plead for the lives of the few just people living there, namely his nephew Lot and his household. Beyond these things Abraham knows nothing about God, or at least nothing we are told.
So he is crushed, but I think not entirely surprised. He is the victim of a god’s practical joke. That is how gods are. They set you up and knock you down. There is no reason to trust them, except that refusal to trust might end up even worse. Yet on that grim morning, Abraham trusts. It is no myth he follows, but the voice of the living God. He does not know why he trusts; we are granted no revelation regarding his thoughts. If he could reason his way into a proof of Cad’s trustworthiness, that would derogate from his trust, God speaks to him — not a theological proposition, not a mythical father of might, but God in truth — and Abraham responds.
Man and son climb the mountain alone. Abraham has left two young companions at the base, saying, “Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again unto you” (Genesis 22:5). Of course, Abraham is lying, in part. Worship there will be, but as far as he knows, Isaac will never return. Yet we who know the story (and ‘we” includes all the Hebrews, who told and retold with reverence this foundational story of their race) know that Abraham speaks the truth unwittingly. He thinks he has been fooled by God, and does not suspect that he is being fooled by God. He thinks he knows that God is capricious, like all the gods; he will find that God is faithful, like none of those shams.
The innocence of the boy makes the climb all the more terrible. Abraham carries the knife and, carefully, in both hands, a pot of glowing coals for the fire. Isaac bears the wood strapped to his back — for Mount Moriah is bleak and bare, with no decent firewood to be found. Isaac unsuspectingly asks the obvious question: “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is a lamb for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7).
With what hardly controlled agony the father replies! “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:8). He dissembles; he believes that God has already provided the lamb, the son Isaac born by God’s miraculous intervention. Perhaps Abraham hopes against hope that another lamb will be provided — if so, it is surely a great example of his faith. Yet such a “perhaps” must be gray and flickering. Abraham hears the steps of his young and harmless boy beside him, knows what Isaac does not know, and must imagine the black loneliness of returning down the accursed mountain without him.
Again, however, Abraham has spoken the truth he did not see. For as he raises his knife to slay Isaac, bound upon the same stone altar his own young hands have helped his father build, Abraham is stopped by a herald of the Lord: “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Genesis 22:12). Such is the language God uses to present truth to the finite mind of man. God has known Abraham all along; it is rather Abraham here who learns. He learns about his own faith, and he learns, should he ever doubt it, that God will not break his word. He is not a god like the other gods.
As for those other gods — fertility gods especially, the Baals of the Canaanites and Moloch (Melkor) of the Phoenicians — they demanded human sacrifice as the filthily ironic price of good harvests and large families. Abraham knew as much, as did the Hebrews who told the story. The gods, in malevolent control of everything, require that you slay your child (which seems, to the ignorant, a counterproductive thing to do), so as to secure more children (as everyone as sophisticated as the Phoenicians knows will happen, for that is the cruel yet necessary bargain). But it is not so.
Or it is so, in a way the surrounding peoples do not understand. Their sacrifices form part of an iron economy, a rigid rule for the universe. They give up, to gain. They kill, but they do not yield; they allow the wailing infant to pass through the fire to Moloch, on condition that Moloch uphold his end of the deal. Abraham must have thought that God was requiring something similar from him. It is remarkable that God has, however, given Abraham no hint of a recompense, and yet Abraham obeys anyway.
The message, then, is that God does not want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in that way. God is no rewarder of mercenaries, nor does a mercenary really offer a sacrifice. Abraham has slain the choice of his heart, and for making that sacrifice God rewards him with the return of Isaac, and a ram for the offering:
“And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen”
What has providence to do with this episode, beyond fashioning a narrow escape for the heroic Abraham? Consider the ram tangled in the thicket. It is slain in place of Abraham’s first-born son. God has provided is now the name of the fateful spot; Abraham names it, recalling his words to Isaac as they climbed the mountain. The lesson would not be lost on the Hebrews, who owed their survival as a free people to another such sacrificial lamb: the Pasch, the Passover lamb, whose blood besprinkled upon the lintel and the doorposts would cause the Destroying Angel to pass by their homes on that dread night when God smote the first-born of Egypt and of all her bleating gods.
It is pointless for the critic, and blasphemous for the Christian, to say that the similarity is accidental. Pointless., because what matters is how the Christian faith, and that includes Christian habits of reading scripture, helped determine the ironies build into the Christian vision of the world as given color and form in Christian literature. Blasphemous, because it denies the providence of God, implying that the Creator of the universe could never have willed from all eternity the foreshadowing of the Passover in the sacrifice of Mount Moriah.
But the providential wisdom does not end there. Examine the celebrated icon of the Holy Trinity by the fifteenth-century Russian artist, Andrey Rublev (see figure below). The genius of the icon lies in a profound theological insight. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, distinct yet as one, are the three angelic visitors to Abraham, sitting at table, while Sarah prepares the lamb. But the outlines of their robes form, in a kind of absent presence, the negative of a chalice: the cup of wine consecrated to become the blood of Christ, given for all. They are the ones invited to a feast, as Abraham thinks; but the truth is that they are inviting to their feast Abraham and all his descendants in faith. And since they are announcing the conception and birth of Isaac, the artist has implied a long arc of providential meaning, extending from this moment under the terebinth trees of Mamre, to the birth of Isaac, to the “sacrifice,” to the true Passover lamb, the Christ. God gives himself wholly to man, that man may rise to enjoy the life of God.
The ram provided by God to spare the life of Isaac, the firstlings of the Passover feast to spare the lives of the Hebrews in bondage what were they, say the ancient Christians, but shadows of Christ? He it is who gives his body not merely in place of ours, to stuffer death, but to redeem us from sin and the death that is sin’s wages. Isaac lived another day, to sin and die and await his Redeemer. So did the Hebrews who followed Moses across the Red Sea. But the true Lamb that the Lord provides is no substitute simply, but his own Son, his only beloved Son, that is to say his very self, that all who believe may be cleansed of sin and may live forever. They will enjoy the wedding feast of the Lamb, himself, his own life, given as food to those he loves (Revelations 19:9).
A world governed by so playful — I can find no better word — a providence abounds in meaning, a cascade of it, from every least word or action. If God is no miser of his blessings, neither is he a miser of meanings: they burst from every tree and leaf. It follows that we cannot know the full significance of what we say and do, but that God does know and can choose to reveal that significance to others, especially by means of events that reenact the past and reveal it to have been far more, or far other, than what the actors themselves supposed.
A charming instance of this cascade is given unwillingly by the inspired author of the Abraham and Isaac episode. Abraham, he says, carried the knife and the fire-pot. Isaac carried the wood. A deft Anglo-Saxon poetic rendering of the scene, in the so-called Genesis A text, makes the connection swiftly and explicitly: Wudu baer sunu (2887B). “The son bore the wood,” the poet says, calling attention to his line by the rhyme, most unusual in Anglo-Saxon composition. Or, since wudu and sunu possess identical forms in the nominative and the accusative cases, “The wood bore the son.” Without dropping any other hint, the poet recalls to his audience a new field of significance, one unknown to Abraham and Isaac. The lad — from whom we hear not one word of protest against his father — foreshadows Christ, who carried the wood up another hill for a sacrifice, his own. Christ was Isaac, was the ram; Christ bore the wood to the altar, and the wood bore him. God spared the son of Abraham, but did not spare himself, so great was his love for the world.
To believe in a world governed by the all-wise and loving Father, who demands justice but whose very act of creation was a condescension, an act of mercy, is to know that divine providence is endlessly rich, embodied in the exploding galaxy and in the grain of sand on the shore. It is a world brimming with consequence: allusions shooting like weeds, wonderful and lush; paradoxes hidden like thrush’s eggs in the tree-crotched nest; etymological parallels winking one to the other like the glaze of dewdrops on the first day. And as long as there are creatures like us, once naked in the garden, wise and innocent — now wise in our own minds, therefore foolish and half-blind and huddled up in disguises — the play of irony will thrive. We now experience irony mainly as that cold splash that wakes us, when we thought we knew what we did not; a child would experience it rather as that warm and sweet moment of wonder, when something whose meaning he did not know suddenly assumes its surprising and self-displaying place in the garden of knowledge and love and time, the created garden of God.