“I’ve had a vision, And you know I’m strong and holy, I must do what I’ve been told.”
The Story of Isaac, Leonard Cohen


Sometime in my teens, I dropped out of the Christian faith. Not that there was a lot to drop out of — the only time my family went to church was when my “Chapel” Welsh granddad visited, at which time my sister and I were instructed to pretend that this was a regular part of our lives. And this being the UK, we were taught “divinity” as a weekly class at my school in southeast England, the country being officially Anglican. (If it was good enough for the country, it was good enough for our grammar school.)

The first crack in my belief, as I recall, was regarding the Virgin Birth. According to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mary was unknowingly impregnated by God. I wasn’t a feminist, of course — this was in the 1950s — but I knew enough about sexual politics to think of it as, essentially, rape. If the Immaculate Conception was promoted as something sweet and wonderful and cause for celebration, I wanted no part of it.

The second crack, and probably the point of no return for me, was when I learned the story of Isaac: God tells Abraham to offer his only son Isaac (Abraham’s wife Sarah originally having had trouble conceiving) as an offering. Isaac is bound — the episode is known as the Aquedah, or binding — and Abraham is about to cut his son’s throat when an angel appears, telling him, lol!, it’s just a test. Miraculously, a ram appears out of nowhere, to be sacrificed in lieu of Isaac. If that doesn’t turn anyone off the God of the Old Testament and the Torah, they have a stronger stomach than mine.

Years later, I read German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) on the topic. (Kant, by the way, may have been the first to propose that the Milky Way was one of many “island universes,” a point of view only confirmed two centuries later.) That’s when I realized why I felt so strongly about the Aquedah story. I had been upset at a putative God who put one of his chosen ones to the test, persuading Abraham to sacrifice his son to prove his faith. Kant, however, pointed out that getting pissed at God was the wrong approach. WTF was Abraham doing anyway, believing some strange voice from the heavens? Kant writes, “Abraham should have said to this supposed divine voice: that I am not to kill my beloved son is quite certain; that you who appear to me as God, I am not certain, nor can I ever be, even if the voice thunders from the sky.” (From The Disputes between the Philosophical and Theological Faculties.)

The Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1603, by Italian master Caravaggio (1571–1610). (Public domain)

Amen to that, so to speak. It’s probably the oldest defense ever used in a court of law, “God told me to do it.” (For a few examples, check out this.) Murder’s murder, whatever the motive, and Abraham’s near miss was as premeditated and cold-blooded as you can come up with. And no one’s buying the “God defense,” as far as my limited research shows. (I spoke too soon — here’s a crazy pastor with half a million followers who tells his flock, Murder’s OK if God told you to do it. Weird stuff going around this days.)

Lennie Cohen still speaks to me from beyond the grave. Bless his big and kindly heart, whose voice began as polished sand in his first record (1967, Songs of Leonard Cohen) and ended as broken-glass with his last (posthumous) album Thanks for the Dance. In 1968, he recorded an anti-war protest song The Story of Isaac. The lyrics follow the story in Genesis Chapter 22 from the point of view of nine-year-old Isaac: …So he started up the mountain/I was running, he was walking/And his axe was made of gold…

Fifty-five years later, Cohen’s words to the war-makers of today, You, who build these altars now/To sacrifice these children?/You must not do it anymore… seem rather naive and idealistic. Or am I missing something important?