The Binding of Isaac According to the Elohist is a 20-minute solo cantata that brings to life the famous biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.
In this story from the book of Genesis, God tests Abraham by commanding him to take his only son, Isaac, on a journey to Mount Moriah, and to offer him there as a sacrifice. Abraham agrees and sets forth with his son. When they arrive at the mountain, Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and raises his knife. At the last moment, however, God sends an angel to stay Abraham’s hand. God then commends Abraham for having proved his faith.
This story has challenged Jews, Christians, and Muslims for thousands of years. It asks us to confront difficult questions about the meaning of faith, the character of God, and the place of violence in our religious traditions. It also has a bearing upon our understanding of salvation, since many Christians have seen Jesus is a ‘Second Isaac’, whose actual death in the Gospels was prefigured by this ‘near-miss’ in Genesis.
My piece that invites us to explore the connections between Isaac, Jesus, and the notion of salvation by retelling the story in a way intended to highlight certain aspects of the Biblical text. In this case, I have been influenced by the work of the Jewish scholar Tzemah Yoreh, who argues that the biblical story is actually a redaction of an earlier story. In this theorized original version, the angel does not appear at the climactic moment. Instead, the text moves directly from Abraham raising the knife to the angel’s affirmation that Abraham has passed the test. Thus, the implication is that Abraham went through with the sacrifice.
Using this version of the story allows me to take seriously this idea of Jesus as a ‘second Isaac’, and to challenge us to explore what it means for us. We Christians are eager to embrace the idea that God would allow – if not require – the Messiah to die in order to provide us the means of salvation. But if we think about God as a Father and Jesus as a Son, then this theological belief becomes more complicated – and more challenging. By bringing to life a version of the story in which a human father – Abraham – sacrifices his only son – Isaac – I am encouraging us to view this divine story of salvation and atonement through a distinctly human lens.
My musical setting emphasizes the human dimension of this story in a variety of ways. In my setting of Abraham’s words, I have chosen to emphasize the sadness, fear, and guilt that I imagine this human father must have felt during that long journey to the mountain. I have also dramatized this torturous journey by directing the flautist (representing Isaac) and the bass clarinettist (representing Abraham) to literally move around the sanctuary, accompanied by a tragic, out-of-kilter march, each step bringing Abraham closer to the act that God has commanded him to accomplish. Throughout the piece I have also chosen to employ a number of toy instruments in order to provide a constant sonic reminder that this story has its roots in the practice of child sacrifice.
As I demonstrate by emphasizing the human and emotional drama of this biblical story, the questions about faith raised by this story are not just theological. For many Christians, our faith turns on our personal experience of God’s salvation in our daily lives. As ‘Amazing Grace’ says, we once were lost but now are found; we were blind but now we see.
To help us explore these questions in a personal way, I have invited the listeners (or congregation) to participate in this musical experience directly. At the climax of the story, instead of asking the soloist to sing the line ‘And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son’, I instead invite the audience to add their own voices to the musical fabric. On the soloist’s cue, the congregation joins the ensemble to sing the classic hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. This provides a unique opportunity for listeners – especially Christians for whom this song about redemption and salvation has been spiritually meaningful to – meditate upon the connections between their own experience of salvation and the story about atonement and sacrifice that is happening in the music.
After the sacrifice occurs and Abraham returns home (alone), I invite the listeners to again contribute to the performance one more time. On the conductor’s signal, participants are asked to take the set of small bells found underneath their seats, turn toward Isaac (the flautist) and ring them vigorously. This dramatic, ritualistic act is intended commemorate the life of Isaac as well as to mourn along with Abraham. In my mind, the sound of hundreds of tiny bells stands as an affirmation of a life marked by Christ-like commitment to hope and love, following the footsteps of the Prince of Peace and his loving Father.
For more information, see https://www.delvyncase.com/binding
Delvyn Case is a composer, conductor, performer, and educator who is committed to exploring the power of music to impact communities on the local, regional, and national levels.
As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.